telepathic experience. ‘There was a friend I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. I was in the garden when suddenly thought “I must call Colin”. I have witnesses for this. I ran indoors and ran to the telephone. I rang him up and his wife said “You have to come now, because he’s dying”. He had Motor Neurone Disease. I was able to tell him everything I wanted to tell him and he died the next morning.’ When he finally published a book based in Britain, his home country, he brought a fresh eye. The collection of short stories Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village, published in 2010, is based on characters that he remembers from his 1950s and 1960s boyhood. The tales feature, as he describes in the Afterword, ‘the belligerent spinsters, the naked generals, the fudgemakers, the people who talked to spiders’. It includes the story of a woman who lives with the ghost of her husband, whose death had been foretold by the spirit of his grandmother – which sounds pure García Márquez, especially if read in a Castilian accent. The book beautifully undermines the notion of a cool, rational people. ‘People have forgotten that spiritualism was hugely popular in Britain at the time of the First World War,’ he says. ‘People wanted to get in touch with their lost boys. In the 1920s and 1930s it was rife. Sir Oliver Lodge [an accomplished scientist and pioneer of radio technology] wrote about talking to his dead son in the book Raymond. People who got interested said it could be done scientifically. They investigated; the Psychical Research Society’s standards were stringent. All of this springs from the ineradicable hope that something could be salvaged from the dreadful condition of being human.’ Few writers are instant successes; most build their reputation gradually, Corelli was the fourth of his novels to be published. And even then, sales figures did not peak immediately, but grew slowly ‘for three to four years’, he notes, before taking off, largely through word-of-mouth recommendations. Part of the slowness of recognition may have come from the epic and meticulous nature of the work. There are multiple narrators, and we do not meet the Captain until about one third of the way in. De Bernières is unapologetic: ‘I’m really not interested in readers who can’t concentrate. Get lost. There are plenty of people who are prepared for a serious read.’ Did the success of Captain Corelli take him by surprise? ‘I did have delusions of grandeur right at the beginning [of my career as an author]. Every writer does. There was a publicity woman who said it [the first novel, the War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts] would win the Booker, and it didn’t get anywhere near … It did cause a lot of difficulty [Captain Corelli’s success]. Everyone wanted my attention; it was time-consuming,
and it made it hard to write the next book. The more successful you are, the less time you have for writing. It is part of the job – doing interviews, festivals, and I love doing that, and often you get ideas for stories [from the people you meet]. When I started out, I thought I was the only one like me, but then I met other writers and discovered that there are a large number of people as mad as I was.’ He doesn’t just write fiction and poetry, of course. Not everyone is aware that he actually can play the mandolin, as well as other stringed instruments and the flute. He is an accomplished songwriter, and has recently begun to compose songs again, resuming an interest from his early adulthood. He is being strict with himself: ‘No American accents, no “babys”, no “yeah-yeahs”.’ He is influenced by the French chanson tradition, as well as the more obvious Anglophone singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. ‘One of the wonderful things about music is that it’s international. A Russian can listen to a drummer from Senegal in the same spirit that I can. Schopenhauer pointed this out in the 19th Century, and it does have a physical effect. I am convinced that we don’t [each] hear sound in exactly the same way. And it does change as you get older. You can start off liking Black Sabbath and when you’re 70 you like Tchaikovsky.’ There persists in de Bernières a sense of wonder at the power, beauty and richness of all the arts; the mystery of how a symphony, a song, a story, a poem resonates in the human soul, and our commonality yet uniqueness as people. ‘You’re living in fairy-land [as an artist], you’re trying to make something amazing out of nothing. I still don’t understand why the human race [is so drawn to] poetry, stories; why do we like music?’ Perhaps, if one were to inquire too methodically into the question, some of the magic would fade, and our brief existence might lose some of its lustre. Better to cherish those moments of aesthetic or spiritual joy, especially if they are brief and few, than subject them to death with over-analysis. Life can contain magic; all the more so if you have read de Bernières’ books. * Louis de Bernières’ latest book, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, was published April 2016 by Vintage.
By Philip Whiteley HEditionMag