Lessons in humility
Who these people were, and what their names,
Not even God knows.
Other lives, million upon million,
Breeding and culling, thriving and waning;
On and on it goes.
– From Imagining Alexandria –
Amidst its grand settings and sweeping narratives, Louis de Bernières’ work is, above all, about those ‘Other lives, million upon million,’ people whose ordinariness is the inverse of the suffering they endure from forces far beyond their small worlds. The wrecking ball of history can be felt in de Bernières’ acclaimed and best-selling novels and in his new book, Imagining Alexandria, a collection of poems written in memory of the early 20th century Greek poet Cavafy. The book is de Bernières’ first foray into poetry. Like most of his fans, I know him as a prose writer. Unlike most of his followers, I also know him as a prose teacher.
In 2002 I began a three-year BA in American Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. Nearby, in Suffolk, there lived a man who had published four novels, the most recent of which was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Published in 1994, this magnificent book had been given a mighty second wind a year before my arrival at UEA thanks to a film adaptation starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. I read it the summer before my degree began, partly to see if there was substance to its surrounding buzz (there was), but mostly because I knew that in my first trimester I was to be taught prose by the book’s author, Louis de Bernières.
I was not the first and will likely not be the last person to have trouble matching the scope and drama of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the soft voice and unassuming demeanour of the man who entered our classroom that first morning. Over the next 12 weeks he led us on an exploration of every facet of prose writing. The topics and writers varied, but there were some common themes: the number of ways one can tell a story is almost infinite; don’t be afraid to veer from your own experiences – “Throw in a murder”; doing research for a novel is easy — “Just go to the place you’re writing about and ask people.” When the two hours were up we would hand in an assignment on a given topic and hope that in the following lesson it was among the two or three that our teacher chose to highlight.
Though the course was a joy, the two moments I remember most vividly occurred before and after the lesson began. In the first, our normally relaxed teacher arrived a touch flustered and explained that he had just helped a homeless man near the campus car park. The man was in great physical discomfort, de Bernières explained, while next to him was a woman, “doing f**k all about it.” I remembered this reaction years later when I read about the vagabond named The Dog in the novel de Bernières describes as his “masterpiece,” Birds Without Wings (and also remarked that in both his speech and his writing de Bernières was sparing enough with curse words to give them a lasting effect). The second instant was more amiable. I can’t remember if it was by chance or my own volition, but I found myself after one lesson accompanying my teacher to his car. I asked him where he was headed, and he asked me where I was from. I then inquired about his take on the film version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. With typical and admirable restraint he gave a modestly unfavourable review.
A year after leaving university I contacted de Bernières via his publisher in the hope that he might a) remember me and b) agree to an interview that I thought would impress a prospective employer. He said yes to both. Once again it was the unscripted moments that stood out. Greeting me in the café in Norwich: “You’ll have to buy me a coffee because I’ve just come back from Nepal and only have dollars.” In the middle of the interview, apropos of nothing: “I’m fascinated by goths. They’re so sweet. What do they love? What do they dream about?” Saying goodbye: “I’m going for a kebab. You can’t get them in my village.” Of course, it wasn’t all light-hearted frivolity. On serious topics, what lingers is his take on the question of whether the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Armenian population during the Great War (a topic that was in the news at the time and features in Birds Without Wings). “I just think the argument is in bad taste,” he said. “You’re arguing over the meaning of a word. Certainly they knew many would die, and didn’t care, but it wasn’t mechanised slaughter.”
From that interview in 2006 I also remember de Bernières talking about his attempts at poetry. He said that he had many more “abortions” than finished articles, and that most of the latter were about sunsets or meadows, not love and suffering. Nothing portentous there, I thought.
Well, seven years later we have Imagining Alexandria. There’s plenty of love and suffering, as well as humour and humanness, absurdity and botany, eroticism and stoicism, mythology and philosophy. The book’s subtitle is Poems in Memory of Constantinos Cavafis. Fittingly enough for a writer who has made his name through novels, de Bernières’ inspiration, as he writes in his introduction, straddled the border between poetry and prose. More commonly known as Cavafy, this Greek journalist and poet was born in Alexandria in 1863 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. His poetry, “has been my spiritual food for many years now,” de Bernières writes. After breezing through the book in one evening I contacted de Bernières to first congratulate him and then ask a few pertinent questions.
First Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, then Birds Without Wings, and now a book of poetry inspired by Cavafy – how and when did you first become inspired by the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in particular?
By accident. My girlfriend was sick of going camping in France in my Morris Minor Traveller, so we went to Cephallonia instead [the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin]. I had been to Corfu twice in the past, and I suppose it was the second trip that started me off. I was on my own, and made friends with a waiter who explained the music and poetry to me.
You told me once that you can only write poetry by hand. Was this the case for Imagining Alexandria? If so, in a special notebook or on scraps of paper? Does the transfer from paper to computer screen ever lead to alterations?
Poetry mainly happens in notebooks whilst travelling, which is why it is always worth going on a long journey. Scraps of paper always get mislaid, but they usually turn up again a few months later. Computers are fine for final adjustments, but useless for composing.
In the introduction to Imagining Alexandria you write, ‘[W]ith the economic crisis, they [Greeks] have discovered all over again what it is like to become victims of circumstances far beyond anyone’s personal control.’ This kind of experience is a theme in your novels. Apart from Greece, are there any other modern examples of this trend that move you?
The Arab crisis, obviously, and to a much lesser extent the Turkish one.
One of the most memorable characters of Birds Without Wings is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. What do you think he would have made of the recent trouble in Istanbul?
Atatürk would have been on the side of the protestors, because he was a secularist, and he would be appalled to see the direction that Turkey has been taking ideologically, even whilst being pleased with its economic progress. He did not tolerate disorder, however, and if the protestors had been Islamic or Kurdish he would have cracked down on them very hard.
What five books have most influenced you?
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Collected Poems of Constantine P Cavafy, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
(After listing the above books De Bernières added, “plus several hundred more.”)