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No Place Like Home… Louis de Bernières

| 03 Dec 2015

Celebrated for his sprawling European epics of love and war, novelist Louis de Bernières tells Compass editor Jennifer Cox why he’s in unfamiliar territory in his latest book.

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Granta magazine knew what it was talking about in 1993 when it named Louis de Bernières one of Britain’s ‘20 Best Young Novelists’. The following year he published Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a tender yet brutal story set in Nazi-occupied Cephalonia, which would go on to become an international bestseller and Hollywood film. De Bernières has since written nine novels, including Birds Without Wings, widely hailed as Turkey’s War and Peace. In his latest, The Dust That Falls from Dreams, de Bernières chronicles the changing fortunes of a comfortable Home Counties community as the empire fades and the first world war looms.

Jennifer Cox: Why did you choose the first world war as the backdrop for your new novel?

Louis de Bernières: My grandmother lost her fiancé in 1915 and never really got over it. It altered the course of her life and that of the family’s. That’s why the book is dedicated to her fiancé – if he hadn’t been killed, I wouldn’t have existed. It’s true of a great many of us, doubly so for me: my parents met in Germany after the second world war. My father was in the British army at the Rhine. I wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for two German megalomaniacs.

How did you research the novel?

I had a lot of useful resource material, including my grandmother’s diaries in which she wrote all the nicest bits from her fiancé’s letters. I’ve also got the book of autographs, cartoons and poems that wounded soldiers gave her when she was a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] in a military hospital in Netley. Most of the nurses had these autograph books: it was a nice way to keep the wounded soldiers busy. And it’s clear from these books that quite a few of them fell in love with my grandmother – “Pals forever”, that kind of thing. That side of the research was quite easy: it was all in a black trunk in my Dad’s house.

Do you think the British class system was one of the victims of the first world war?

I did get very interested in how it changed during the war. Before the first world war my family had a great many servants: back then, if you wanted servants, you had servants. If you really want to know how people like Dickens managed to write so many books, it’s because they all had bloody servants. I can’t write as many books as Dickens; I have to cook for my kids. When the first world war came along, people went to war and took their chauffeurs, valets and gardeners with them.

The real revolution was for middle class women. Working class women have always worked – there’s never been any choice for them. They found they got better pay and much more independence if they worked in factories. A lot of them simply didn’t return to working as servants after the war. But middle class women suddenly realised they had more important things to do than sit around playing the piano. Of the four middle class sisters in The Dust That Falls from Dreams, two become VADs, one becomes a staffdriver in France and the other – Christabel – joins the ‘Snapshot League’. She’s traipsing all over the country without a chaperone, taking photographs of people to send to their relatives at the Front. When the war’s over, Christabel wants to become a professional photographer, and becomes one!

Were you always going to be a writer?

My father writes poetry. It’s good too. He’s the kind of Dad who recites Shakespeare at the dinner table – the stirring stuff. My mother was very literary but in a quiet way. After she died I discovered she’d written a romantic novella set in Ceylon during the war. That’s where she was – a signals officer controlling submarines in the Indian Ocean. When Germaine Greer came along in the early ’70s, my mother was totally scornful. She said: “What does that woman ever think she’s done?”

I knew for certain I’d be a writer by the time I was 12, but thought I’d be a poet. When I was teaching in west London in the 1980s, I showed some of my poetry to a friend who was the exwife of a literary agent. She put me in touch with a publishing friend, who wrote back: “I don’t like poetry, there’s no money in it. If you ever write prose, send me that.” And that’s how I became a novelist.

It’s been said you’ve mastered the genre of “densely plotted novels set in warm countries, with compelling characters usually engaged in war”. Is that a fair summary?

I’ve always said that history consists of the anecdotes of the little people caught up in it. That’s a lot to do with growing up listening to the stories of my parents, grandparents and their friends. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Thomas Hardy, a writer I always go back to. He also writes about ordinary people caught up in difficult situations, whether it’s being unsuitably in love or having aspirations above your station. Another thing I love about Thomas Hardy is that he sets his novels out in the countryside. I grew up in the country and that’s where I feel the heart of Britain really is. I’ve never managed to be a metropolitan writer: I’ve never lived in north London and written novels about adultery.

Was your collection of short stories, Not Withstanding [2009], your gateway to writing about England and ordinary English people?

Yes. I had never managed to write stories set in my own country: it seemed so normal, I didn’t see anything interesting in it. Then I went to the south of France for a Salon du Livre; a wonderful institution, thousands of pretentious drunk French intellectuals all talking rubbish. Here I met a wonderful artist who said he loved England because it was so exotic.
“Really?” I said, “How?”
“It’s like a huge lunatic asylum,” he told me, and I thought: “By God, you’re right!”

I grew up in a village where everybody was mad, but it didn’t matter as in British villages you can be as mad as you like. So I set about writing short stories based on characters I remembered from the Surrey village where I grew up. Recently I thought of another that’s going into future editions. Not Withstanding has the potential to expand as the years go by, as I increasingly understand how mad we are.

The dedication in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is extremely poignant: “To my mother and father who … fought against the Fascists and the Nazis, lost many of their closest friends and were never thanked.” Are your novels a way of bearing witness?

I think I am to some extent. My father didn’t want to talk about the war. He’d only talk about the things that were entertaining, because a lot of funny things did happen. But my mother told me his stories. My father was in a reconnaissance squadron on the Gothic Line in Italy, a place called Montecchio. He lost all his friends in one battle: his best friend burned to death in a tank. He can’t really talk about it, but I can on his behalf.

Throughout Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Dr Iannis is writing the history of Cephalonia, a task taken over by his daughter, Pelagia, when he dies. Were you making a point about the importance of history?

It’s very important for people to find out their family history. It explains why everybody in your family is the way they are. I also think it makes you feel more at home in the world: you know your place, how you fit in.

How did you make the aircraft fighting sequences in The Dust That Falls from Dreams so vivid?

When I was a little boy I was obsessed with first world war aviation. Both my granddads were aviators: one in the Royal Naval Air Services, one in the Royal Flying Corps. My mother’s father I found particularly glamorous. He crashed a Sopwith Camel and wasn’t expected to live, let alone walk. But he was an extraordinary man and taught himself to walk again by playing golf on crutches. Getting back into all that was like revisiting my boyhood. I went to the Aviation Museum at Tangmere, West Sussex and sat in the cockpit of an SE5; a man showed me how all the controls worked.

Your books have a deep affection for people and places. Where do you feel most at home?

My favourite place in the whole world is a tiny little bit of wood in Reviers, Normandy, where I used to go camping with my Morris Minor. There’s a little spring with freshwater shrimp in, and a circle of stones you can roast chickens on. That’s my little private paradise. France is possibly my favourite country, and I have a very deep affection for Turkey and the Turks.

Which comes first: the location, the people or the story?

I’m normally drawn to stories: that’s what gets me interested in the places and the people. What fired me up to write Birds Without Wings [2004] was discovering an empty ossuary. Christians used to dig up their dead and wash the bones in red wine. Then the bones would be wrapped in linen, the name of the dead person written on their skull, then they’d be stacked in an ossuary. In a ruined town called Kayaköy in south-west Turkey, I discovered two empty ossuaries and thought: “Where are the bones?” Because Muslims don’t disturb the dead. Then I realised that when the Christians had been kicked out of Turkey into Greece, rather than pots and pans and sensible things like that, they’d taken their dead. It was such a fantastically powerful image. I wrote the whole book just to get it in.

Your novels are full of passion and love, albeit in the most brutal of settings. Do you see yourself as a romantic?

I don’t see the point of music or literature that doesn’t move you; I’m not impressed by cleverness. I like something when it touches my heart. And if I write something that touches me, it’s an act of faith that it will also touch the reader.

I don’t think I’m a typically British writer, and I think that’s because when all my contemporaries were reading Martin Amis, I was reading the literature of Latin Americans, who can’t write without passion. I had a year in Colombia when I was 18 and it was just extraordinary: the men dressed like peacocks, with purple trousers, yellow shirts and red hats. And they were very joyful about their bodily functions. In Britain if you see animals mating in a field, a mother will hide their children’s eyes; over there they stop and cheer them on. When I came back to Britain, I went to university in Manchester, the most depressing place on Earth. And I fell in love with a French lesbian; it couldn’t really have got any worse. So I stayed in South America in my mind and spent my 20s and early 30s reading Latin Americans. It kept me sane.

How much of the story do you know when you start writing?

You do have to start with an idea. And your mind dwells, you dream about it. Stories or characters then turn up and they niggle at you, until the only way to get rid of them is to start writing. For example, volume two of Dust That Falls from Dreams, I’ve got an idea about someone contemplating suicide on Beachy Head, and it’s been annoying me for months, so I’ve got to write it next week. When you get writing, the characters very quickly develop their own personality and they become obstreperous. They say and do all sorts of things you may disapprove of, but you just have to run with it.

Is it true you said of the Captain Corelli’s Mandolin film adaption: “It would be impossible for a parent to be happy about its baby’s ears being put on backwards?”

Actually, I’m not as negative about it as people thought. Though there is a totally pointless sex scene where Captain Corelli and Pelagia have sex in an olive grove; it’s completely gratuitous. The only explanation I could think of was that director John Madden wanted to see Penelope Cruz with her clothes off. I felt he should have asked her in his spare time. But the bit where the young Italian soldiers are massacred was filmed in exactly the place where it happened and in the manner that it happened. It was worth it just for that; it’s heartbreaking.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was so extraordinarily successful. Did it feel like a hard act to follow?

It was a blessing in that I now own a house. It was a curse in that more and more of my time was spent touring. Being famous is incredibly time consuming. It’s one reason why Birds Without Wings took such a long time. Another was realising that people wanted something the same, but different, which is impossible. And I was getting older and wanted time for my style to change. It’s like that old Bob Dylan line: “He who is not busy being born, is busy dying”. It was quite a long process, but I sincerely think that Birds Without Wings is my best novel, by far. I don’t begrudge Captain Corelli’s Mandolin its temporary fame, but it’s not the one I came to this Earth to do. •

The Dust that Falls from Dreams is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99)

Feature image ©  Ivon Bartholemew


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