The battle of de =?UNKNOWN?Q?Berni=E8res=27?= nether parts

The Scotsman, UK
June 27 2004

The battle of de Bernières’ nether parts


LOUIS de Bernières arrives at the Sydney Writers Festival clutching a
copy of the erotic thriller In the Cut for his forthcoming session on
erotica with the New York author of the book, Susanna Moore. “The
main problem with writing erotic scenes is that the vocabulary is so
limited and corny,” he begins. “One of my favourite ever sentences I
found in one of those black-covered Mills and Boon books. It was
something like, `he thrust his proud manhood into her rich
generosity’.” He breaks into peels of laughter, so hard it makes his
belly quiver. In his camel-coloured slacks, a pressed shirt and
elegant pearl cuff-links, Louis de Bernières, 49, embodies the witty,
learned and idiosyncratic tenor of his books.

Hinting at writer’s block, de Bernières famously once likened the
pressure of trying to write a second bestseller to “standing in
Trafalgar Square and being told to get an erection in the rush hour”.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin not only cast him as a publishing
phenomenon, but at the height of Corellimania, tourism to the Greek
island of Cephallonia, where the novel is set, rose by 20%. Since
then more than three million copies have been sold worldwide. So has
he succeeded with his latest novel, Birds Without Wings? “What, get
an erection?” He chuckles. “Yes, to begin with I had a ghastly sense
of fatalism that everybody was going to say it wasn’t as good as
Corelli… Now I think it’s probably better, although it may not be
as cuddly or loveable.”

Birds Without Wings, 10 years in the writing, is a tour de force
about the inhabitants of a town in south-west Turkey, Eskibahce
(pronounced Eskibaatchi), which was a virtual Eden at the turn of the
20th century. Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Greeks co-existed
harmoniously (mostly), bound by history, inter-marriage and
friendship, even religion, until the First World War heralded the
collapse of the Ottoman empire and the end of communal peace. It
bears de Bernières’ literary hallmarks – vast emotional breadth,
dazzling characterisation, rich historical detail (and gruesome
battle scenes), swerving between languid sensuality and horror,
humour and choking despair.

For the research de Bernières trawled the Ottoman archives and walked
the Gallipoli battlefields which he says, “made me feel very sad.
Bones are coming to the surface everywhere. That makes you understand
the fatuousness of nationalism because you can’t tell the nationality
of a bone.” While Birds was not written as a modern fable, “it
necessarily is a parable” expressing his hatred of “certainties,
absolutism” and religious dogma. “There used to be this cliché that
we are half beast and half angel. That’s what I believe – there’s
innate goodness alongside our innate evil.” He pauses, reflecting.
“The reason we create social order is to keep that evil under control
and war is all about the collapse of social order and that’s what
brings out the evil.”

De Bernières grew up in a genteel village in Surrey, “in a generation
where war was always talked about”. His father, Piers, a poet, was in
the army until around 1960 and his mother, Jean, served in the navy
during the Second World War. His maternal grandfather fought in
Gallipoli, and was shot three times in one day. Some 40 years later,
still suffering from war wounds, he shot himself. “A late casualty of
the war,” says the author. As a child, de Bernières was obstinate and
wilful, traits he still holds dear today. He read voraciously.

I had a ghastly sense of fatalism that everybody was going to say it
wasn’t as good

Aged 18 he briefly served in the British army himself but quit
because he didn’t want to be told what to do, and was much happier
strumming Bob Dylan ballads on his guitar and writing poetry. He then
travelled to Colombia, working as a teacher and part-time cowboy.
Ever since, de Bernières has been obsessed by how crazy megalomaniacs
– he had seen plenty in Colombia – affect the small lives of ordinary

Aged 35, while still teaching in London, he wrote his debut, The War
of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, inspired by the literary genre of
Magical Realism. Two more Latin American novels followed and in 1993
he was named as one of Granta’s best young novelists of the year. He
was awarded the Commonwealth writer’s prize in 1995 for Captain
Corelli’s Mandolin. But with success came controversy. Captain
Corelli upset Greek communists who accused de Bernières of
misrepresenting them.

“It was cooked up by The Guardian”, he sighs, a touch exasperated.
“They created a problem and then people on the far left started to
get annoyed… and it’s true the far left in Greece don’t like me,
but I don’t like them either,” he shrugs. He has returned to
Cephallonia since, without incident. The bickering continued during
the making of the film of Captain Corelli, directed by John Madden,
which de Bernières was rumoured to dislike. Today he says he would
have preferred “a European art house film rather than a Hollywood
blockbuster”. Later, he elaborates: “The reason for the film’s sex
scene was because the director wanted to see the tits of Penelope
Cruz [who played Pelagia]. A legitimate aspiration, but I felt the
sex scene destroyed the poignancy of the film.”

Louis is prepared for the fact that Birds Without Wings may invite
criticism. “I’m trying to offend everybody with perfect fairness, so
it should be offensive to Turks, Greeks and Armenians.”

But why so long to complete Birds? “I needed time for my style to
evolve. There’s no point in writing Captain Corelli twice.” For the
new book he invented words. “Shakespeare did so I don’t see why the
rest of us can’t.” And in between furious bursts of writing (he has
several books on the go) he would garden, potter and, a consummate
musical polymath, practise his mandolin, lute, flute or clarinet. He
also leisurely re-decorated his Georgian rectory in Norfolk where he
had moved to avoid journalists doorstepping him in London.

The success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was slow and steady. The
millions earned from it has given him the freedom to choose what to
write and when – he had no contract for this latest book until it was
finished. He describes himself as a “hedonist” and writing as “a
pleasure and a useful form of obsessive madness”. When he is deeply
immersed in the completion of a book he feels a sense of bereavement,
always showing the final manuscript first to his 32-year-old partner,
actress and director, Cathy Gill, who remains `unimpressed’ by how
famous he may be.

De Bernières, whose heritage is French Protestant Huguenot, says he
wants to be remembered for taking the British novel out of north
London and on to a world stage. “I’m quite conscious that I have
readers in Brazil and in Denmark. I put little bits in Birds Without
Wings which only the Turks or Greeks will be interested in.” His fans
often have a misguided impression of him: “People do think they know
me because they think I am like Captain Corelli. After my first novel
everyone thought I was Don Emmanuel.”

Hopefully, I venture, they don’t think he is like the canine hero of
his last semi-fictionalised novella Red Dog, with its colossal
flatulence, to which De Bernières gives his hallmark and delightful,
high-pitched chortle.

Birds Without Wings, Vintage, £17.99