As handy with a sharp knife as he is with a pen, LOUIS DE BERNIÉRES is gearing up for a tilt at all manner of literary genres, writes STEPHEN MCCARTY
LOOKING BACK, the portents were all lined up. Black rainstorm. Black skies. Electrical storms, trees felled, roads closed and traffic backed up to last Christmas. Making the appointed telephone call from Hong Kong to Louis de Bernières, thousands of miles away in Norfolk, England, tardy in the extreme.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” says de Bernières, “I’d forgotten you were calling. I was gutting a chicken.”
Some strain of British voodoo?
“I had my hands in my only surviving cockerel. But he was crowing at four o’clock in the morning and annoying the neighbours. It’s difficult to kill animals you’ve been looking after; so the neighbours kill mine and I kill theirs. You still have to lie to the children, though. You have to tell them a fox got it or it disappeared. They’re still at a sensitive age. You don’t want them to call you a murderer.”
No dark arts in that part of deepest Arcadia then, though voodoo would probably be a stretch for this sturdy English yeoman (notwithstanding the fact that his distant relatives landed in the company of William the Conqueror on his 1066 joyride from France; and his name, which is a bit of a giveaway). Novelist de Bernières, 59, is the sort of literary stylist who makes practising the art of fiction look as deceptively easy as fire-eating or sawing one’s glamorous assistant in two. He has pulled off the trick time and again – with Birds Without Wings (a sort of Turkish War and Peace – “the book I want to be remembered for”, he has said); A Partisan’s Daughter; The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts; The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman; Notwithstanding, his volume of short stories about the glories of eccentric English village life; and more.
And – oh yes – there was that other book, the one whose very title became so familiar that the breeding of contempt towards it seemed inevitable. In 1994 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was everywhere, the word-of-mouth success of the decade that made de Bernières’ fortune and propelled him from rented London flat to Norfolk and his home ever since, a Georgian former rectory. And in 2001 Corelli fever struck again, though with considerably less author approbation. The movie, starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz, appalled de Bernières to the extent that at one literary festival at least he commented, “Movie directors are like dogs: they don’t think anything is theirs until they’ve pissed all over it.”
Recently, he’s been plucking a different string on his creative bow, that of poetry, his first literary mistress. With the success of his debut collection, Imagining Alexandria: Poems in Memory of CP Cavafy, which appeared last year, has come unanticipated demand on de Bernières’ metrical talents. “Now my publishers want a collection every two years,” he says, “but that’s easy really, I have two ready. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 20; later, you can go back and nick the good bits, or think of a good way of rewriting some.”
Ordinarily, de Bernières will have “three or four” works in progress at any time. Joining the poetry are “a children’s book and a dystopia, which is borderline science fiction. I’ve always wanted to write one, it’s part of a noble tradition and it’s the function of the novelist to warn people that if the machine does stop we’re all fucked.” The reference to EM Forster’s prophetic short story The Machine Stops, published in 1909 as a retort to the optimistic futurism of authors including HG Wells, has, remarkably, irresistible resonance today for anyone using the Internet. “We’ve come to rely on the Internet so much that no one knows how to do anything,” says de Bernières. “It’s because it’s so quick and easy. But it’s bound to happen that one day someone will find out how to sabotage it.
“And there’s just such a deluge of stuff,” he says, taking an entertaining detour. “If you’re a collector, of stamps, books, golf clubs, fishing rods, machetes, whatever, the Internet takes away the pleasure of searching for hours or days for what you want. I’ve got too many fishing rods because of the Internet, about 50 – but there must be people more loony than me who’ve got hundreds.
“Collecting can be expensive; it’s like gambling. I collect books about philosophy, but when it’s out of control and going a bit mad I can stop. I have about a thousand philosophy books – I’ll never read them all before I die – making a complete history of how philosophy developed. Philosophy was my subject at university and I’m interested in the history of ideas. I particularly like Bertrand Russell – he’s clear and intelligent; Kant, though he’s not always very clear; and Arthur Schopenhauer, partly because he’s so bad tempered.”
Next year, those philosophy tomes will be joined in de Bernières’ new library he’s had installed at home (“we’re rebuilding the bits pulled down in the ’50s”) by the biggest project on the books, his forthcoming generational saga about a soldier and a pilot in World War I, and what happens to their respective families. “It’s the first volume of a trilogy, I hope,” reveals de Bernières, “but I’ve only got as far as the 1920s. The war was inexhaustible. I wouldn’t recommend taking that on to anyone.
“It’s based loosely on the life of one of my grandfathers. He was a soldier, then an airman – an observer, a photographer, with the machine-gun, sitting behind the pilot. It’s not Downton Abbey – they’re upper class. My people are middle class; they live in a big house, with servants, but there’s a shortage of duchesses in this story.”
The novel awaits the verdict of history, but for now, despite his wishes, de Bernières may well remain famous for his most talkedabout creation, even if, in this age of the ubiquitous literary festival, the niceties of things like titles may not always translate accurately. As de Bernières relates, he was once approached at such a festival by a Chinese enthusiast, who confided in him, “I love your Captain Gorilla’s Mandarin.”