Good Reading : August 2001
authorprofile CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MAN Caro Llewelyn talks to Louis de Bernières about how Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has changed his life – for better and for worse – and about the father who inspired him. I 12 ’ll come right out and say it: I think Louis de Bernières is a beautiful writer. Perfectly crafted sentences, huge in their sweep, swing around with crazy asides about whores and magic, then hone in on minute detail with a razor sharp perception, taking the reader on the most fantastic journey through the lives of his characters. And it’s not just me who’s hooked on de Bernières’ work. His first book, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts won him a place, alongside Jeanette Winterson, on Granta’s 1993 list of Twenty Best Young Authors. He’s won three Commonwealth Writers Prizes and his last book, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1995), has sold more than two million copies in the English-speaking world alone (not including the U.S.), and has been made into a film, starring Nicholas Cage, Penelope Cruz and John Hurt. Writing changed Louis de Bernières’ life forever. He’d been a teacher, a landscape gardener, a motorcycle messenger, and a mechanic. Suddenly, at thirty-five, people started comparing him to Dickens. Like his earlier books – the aforementioned Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman – the narrative of Captain Corelli is played out on a large canvas; spanning intimate relationships, the horror of war, and the nature of power. One cares deeply about his characters. I howled in public, laughed out loud until my stomach hurt, and cancelled appointments to be on the island of Cephallonia with my beloved Greek friends from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. De Bernières’ love of language is evident on every page. He studied Latin at school and says proudly that he can do restaurants and love in most European tongues. I read him with a dictionary at my side, not because he uses words in an overblown, look-at-me way, but with love and playfulness. Most of all, though, what captivates and has you awake until all hours, is his amazing storytelling gift. At a time when many books seem focused more on form than content, de Bernières’ richly woven stories are a welcome relief. He comes from a family of great raconteurs and remembers his father quoting Shakespeare at lunch and his mother reading to him each night. ‘I learned to read by following her finger along the lines, and I can’t ever remember not being able to read,’ he says from his home in Norfolk, England. His father wrote poetry, and de Bernières believes that if it hadn’t been for World War ll, he would have become a professional writer. Even during that time, de Bernières senior was a member of a book club that sent him a new volume each month to wherever he was posted. The books arrived in Jordan and Libya, were read and eventually found their way home for young Louis to discover. Writing changed Louis de Bernières’ life forever. He’d been a teacher, a landscape gardener, a motorcycle messenger, and a mechanic. Suddenly, at thirty-five, people started comparing him to Dickens ‘Any books with a little bit of sex in had a brown paper wrap put on them so we children knew exactly which ones to go for,’ he remembers, laughing his most wicked laugh down the line. De Bernières, who once said he didn’t think anyone has anything worth saying until they’re in their thirties, believes there is a tendency to think good stories can’t be highbrow. He’s happy to read other people’s beautiful writing with no story but explains that for him at least, the writing must be at the service of the narrative.