DAY 4: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and other stories; Louis de Bernières – Dalkey Book Fest

The weather is the gift that keeps on giving as we happily settle into the Seafront Marquee. Martina Devlin is interviewing Louis de Bernières, author and poet.

She welcomes him to Dalkey and tells the audience that he has worked as “a gardener, a mechanic, a soldier and a teacher – but he is best known as a writer.” Louis most well known work is of course, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but he has written extensively.

Martina begins by saying his name is rather exotic sounding for an Englishman. “I thought, French, Italian” and Louis replies “Tall, handsome” chuckling. A fan from the audience yells “You are!” and there’s a roar of laughter from him.

He replies “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – get it out with Optrex!” It’s a great energy to kick off the discussion.

Louis says that “Culturally if not politically” he has always thought of himself as European. A teacher once told him that in order to get the most out of literature, you had to read literature from all over the world. This is something that Louis has not only done, but he’s brought it into his own writing. 

Given the day that’s in it, Martina decides to ask Louis about his children.

“Today is fathers day… and it’s something, you take it very seriously” she says.

Louis agrees. “I had my son when I was 50 and he was my first child. I was extremely glad I waited. When I was younger I would’ve been too selfish to do it properly.”

He goes on to say that “I think of my children as my best editions, I think of them as the best thing I’ve ever done. There was a family disaster [divorcing from the mother of his children] a long horrible battle in which lawyers took our money and we didn’t get anywhere… my daughter doesn’t like it very much but it worked out well for her mum and me.”

Martina inquires as to why his daughter doesn’t like the fact they’re divorced. “She wants to be with me [living full time]. But children are quite capricious and she could change her mind next week!”

He’s quite philosophical about the flow of events which isn’t surprising given that he studied philosophy. It’s a passion he seems to have passed along to his son.

“My son is particularly interested in the theory of knowledge so we talk a lot about it when we’re fishing.” Louis’s son is 12 years old. 

Louis’s own father “didn’t actually know how to be a father”. His father – Louis’s Grandfather – wasn’t in his life.  “He had to learn the hard way” Louis says. “He was  a British army officer so he treated us like soldiers. He’s now become very mellow and spends the summer without any socks on.”

“The older he’s got the better he has become as a father.” His father’s age hasn’t affected his outlook on life. “For him, death has no fear because he has a strong religious faith. I have no religious faith at all, i rather wish i had.”

Louise lost his faith “when I saw a horrible railway accident when I was about 19. I think I get my religion from being in a forest on my own or seeing a sunset.” Martina calls it spiritualism but Louis thinks it’s more like a type of paganism. 

His own lack of personal religious convictions hasn’t dissuaded him from including characters of faith in his novels. “I do like to have religious characters in my novels. I don’t want them [characters] all to be versions of of me. I want them to be little individuals.”

Louis’s father’s occupation as an army officer had a huge effect on his early life; he attended Sandhust and enrolled in the army.

He said it was “throughly alarming when we had to do riot control exercise” during the height of the troubles in Belfast. “This is dirty war I thought” Louis says. He quit the army after four months.

“We divorced quite amicably” he says.

His father, on the other hand, was very disappointed. “He said I would be a failure all my life!” Louis reveals.

His decision to leave the army sent his 20s “completely off course”, but in a good way. He went to South America and the experience inspired him to write a trilogy of books – his first novels.

Naturally, Martina asks him how Captain Corelli’s Mandolin came to be.

“The idea for it was quite romantic in a way” he says.  

“I have to say I wrote that book at the happiest time of my life which is why I think it has this luminous quality.”

His girlfriend at the time begged him to allow them to go on holiday to somewhere other than France “driving around from camp site to camp site which was my idea of fun.”

She arranged for them to go to this Greek island where the book is set. “I listened to the woman on the tour bus and she said ‘After earthquake in 1953…’ and I thought what earthquake? Novels need big events” Louis says and he hadn’t written about an earthquake yet.

The Latin American novels were doing quite well and he had earned enough to be able to quit teaching. He had been teaching at a truancy centre in London which he says was “a really stupid idea because obviously kids aren’t going to come!”

His girlfriend couldn’t stand the heat, he says she sat in a cave with a wet towel on her head – so he explored the island on a motorbike.

“When I came home I wrote to a historian and they sent me a massive reading list. I did a massive amount of research [for the book].”

Louis also says he had massive stokes of luck, including running into someone who had been in the earthquake he was researching.

Martina comments that “some stories find us” and Louis then inquires how her book – The House Where It Happened – came to be.

“It was a great book” he tells her, much to her delight.

“Were you with the witches or the crier?” she inquires.

“Oh, the witches” Louis replies.

“That’s your Lisbon blood coming out!” she tells him, as the audience laughs.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was a global success. Martina asks Louis what that was like for him.

“It did make life quite difficult. Luckily it took off very slowly by word of mouth. By the time the press noticed it was too late” he says.

“For what?” she asks.

“What it means is I didn’t become successful and well known quickly. There is nothing more disorientating and horrifying that that. It suddenly means people want to know you for the wrong reasons, they think they’re attracted to you when they’re not… it’s not a natural kind of life.”

“Suddenly I felt I had the whole world over my shoulder. I had previously been writing for my little sister, she was my reader. Now I had millions of readers who wanted me to write the same book again only differently. That’s why birds [Birds Without Wings] book took 10 years to come out. It’s actually a prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin… they have one character in common.”

On the subject of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Martina reads out its most famous quote:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

She tells Louis that she’s head registrars encourage people to quote this at their civil marriage ceremonies. 

Louis replies “Someone said recently ‘What does it feel like to have rewritten a wedding service?'”

Captain Corellei’s Mandolin is one of the greatest modern love stories. So it was only natural that it was adapted into a big Hollywood film. A film, that according to rumours, Louis hated.

“There was a story going around that I the loathed film but it’s not true.”

“I said at the time that no writer likes to see his baby have his ears put on backwards. I wasn’t talking about the film, I was talking generally.” But nevertheless, the rumour has persisted that Louis hated the film.

The only criticism he makes of it is that he “thought the part [male lead] should’ve been given to an Italian… But Nicholas Cage really put the work in.”

Louis reveals that he really did learn how to play mandolin.

As for Penelope Cruz? “It was very worth [doing the film] to meet her.”

Louis has a great deal of respect for Nicholas Cage who was dealing was going though a divorce at the time.

“He used to fly home to us every week to the US in order to put in time to be eligible to have his own children [because of a custody battle]. It can’t have been easy to make the film under those conditions, he must’ve been under considerable stress.” 

Louis then reveals that when was working earlier this morning

“I came into town and had an hour to two to spare and I went to the long barn and had an idea…” he says. In a very special moment, he agrees to read the poem he just wrote this morning. 

You can hear it in the video here.

After, he says that new locations have a great affect on him creatively. “I find poems generally come up when I’m travelling…  I never would’ve come up with the poem if I were sitting in my office in norfolk.”

On the comparison of poetry and lyrics, Louis believe “They’re amazing [lyrics] when you hear them sung but they don’t make good poetry. With a lyric, you can contract to fit with the melody and create different kinds of stresses. You have much more liberty.”

But he does believe that “the skills are basically the same. If you’re a songwriter you can’t get away with writing free verse. You must have the same melody in each verse, and the same amount of lines, and a proper rhyming scheme.” 

Louis would know; he is a musician.

“I was on the road for about 10 years and then I stopped when my son was three or four… I couldn’t be an itinerant singer and be a father.”

While he does plan on returning to the road, he will be doing it differently.

“I won’t be doing concert tours, I’ll play festivals. That stage in your life in your 20s when you want to be a rock star; its all about narcissistic isn’t it?” he says.

“I’m trying not to be a narcissist anymore. I’m trying to let songs speak for themselves… I’ve got no plans to be Robbie Williams!”

As Martina and Louis discuss poetry, he asks if he may read one of his favourites. Martina of course says yes.

“It’s called ‘For Sylvie’.

The poem is about a woman who came to one of Louis’ philosophy classes “looking for the meaning of life”, but he was thinking philosophy about skepticism. She went to California and there was nothing “that she did not believe in [in California].” She died quite suddenly and after, her son came to see Louis. “He’s become an honourary son because he could’ve been mine – he isn’t”, because Louis seemed to have had a romantic relationship with the woman.

A hush descends over the marquee as he reads. You can hear the birds above and lapping sea nearby as he reads.

So I’ve outlived and you’ve gone on, your body cold and cloaked in earth… to wait perhaps your second birth. 

It has been an hour of laughter, insight, philosophy and beautiful moments. Much like Louis’ books.