Louis de Bernières is one of those writers who lets his work do the talking. Included on the Granta List of twenty best young authors at thirty-nine, and commended both critically and commercially for his three epic novels, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Birds Without Wings, shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread Award, and A Partisan’s Daughter, shortlisted for the 2008 Costal Novel Award, he can afford to let his reputation speak for itself. As for biography, a couple of minutes on Google could provide the basic outline. His speech at the Oxford Union consisted of reading a couple of short stories, cracking a few jokes, answering questions and leaving. There was the sense that he believed that only his writing could speak. The absence of self-indulgent soliloquy, replaced by self-deprecation and the quick descent of any high-minded phrase into a carefully contrived joke, was there to show that he really didn’t take himself seriously.
‘People are always trying to place you,’ he comments later. ‘With the middle-classes, it’s what school you went to.’ He recognises that identity is something to be played with, occasionally superimposing onto his own the well-worn clichés of French culture, like ordering snails for dinner. All the while, he speaks with his characteristic semi-serious tone. His ancestors were Huguenot refugees in the eighteenth century, so he feels qualified to claim ‘every time I’m vexed about asylum seekers I have to remind myself I am one.’ Well, sort of. It’s as if he is attempting to undermine the stereotype, to show that he’s not just another middle-aged writer from Surrey. Nevertheless, the idea of nationality is clearly something that absorbs him, both in his life and his fiction. Throughout his later novels, characters are continually attempting to break down the classifications that limit who they are: in Captain Corelli, the Italian captain and Pelagia the Greek defy the segregation of different nationalities during wartime; in Birds Without Wings, Philothei and Ibrahim bridge religious differences; in A Partisan’s Daughter, the relationship between Roza and Chris dismantles the idea of two distinct Eastern European and Western European cultures. It is the respect for this theme, he reasons, that marks the difference between the film version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and the adaptation of Birds Without Wings, produced by a Turkish company. ‘Writing a script for the Turks is quite different from writing a script for Hollywood. They’re interested in presenting the making of the Turkish nation, not just getting ratings. It’s a case of a higher level of thinking.’
This is where the comedian’s mask cracks: he is forced to concede that he does actually consider himself to be ‘quite a serious writer’. When discussing influences, he doesn’t flinch. In addition to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he cites other, ‘unfortunately unrecognised’ Latin American authors, although he does add, ‘probably because no-one else was reading them: there was a certain amount of intellectual snobbery there.’ Again, just as in his novels, he refuses to see himself or anybody as significant. It was his travels in Columbia, he claims, that engendered in him the belief in the ordinariness and pettiness of the world, and the way that it can nevertheless berendered magical and exotic. ‘There is a need in writing to look outwards.’
I ask him whether, after landscape gardening, letter delivering and car fixing, full-time writing was just another job he fell into. ‘Well, fall is a good word actually. I fell off a motorbike.’ As with everything he says, the slapstick humour is a precursor for the serious: ‘I dug out my old short stories, the ones I wrote when I was eighteen. They were just fragments then. A good story can’t be one thing after another. There has to be some sort of crisis that needs to be resolved.’ Perhaps for this reason, aside from Notwithstanding, a series of short stories set in Guildford, he has yet to write a long novel based in the here and now. ‘Authors writing about modernity lack perspective. It’s like writing about filo-faxes. A couple of decades ago, when people were still using them, they could have epitomised the eighties.’ Yet they didn’t. Such images, the icons that define generations, gain significance over time: it is impossible to predict what the next decade will be remembered for. Even those who, like de Bernières, disregard the present and ‘try to be as true to history as possible…do sometimes get it wrong.’
As commercial success has diminished, so has the pressure. Whilst he used to obsess about the next book that he would write, his plans for the future now appear more toned down, more ‘measured’: ‘one huge novel and two short novels.’ He asserts, not without some pride, that his ‘poetic instinct’s come back.’ ‘My main aim now is to amuse myself and let the readers make up their own minds.’ When I refer to Martin Amis’ belief that the writer outlives his talent, he replies ‘I’m sure he’s right. It doesn’t so much die as gradually taper away. One loses confidence.’ This pressure was particularly prominent after the global success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. ‘It did cause me problems. I felt I had the whole world looking over my shoulders. It was like being stood naked in the middle of Trafalgar Square in the rush hour and being told to get a hard-on.’ He stresses that this constraint was derived from a need for personal development, not from the desire to please his fan base. The ten years that followed were an attempt to distance himself from the novel that made his name.
His attitude to the fluctuating nature of success is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, perhaps due to the consciousness that popularity is an impermanent state. His last books, although critical successes, failed to inspire the commercial markets as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin did, and throughout the interview he seems aware of the vacuous nature of public acclaim. The focus is now on the ‘smaller things’, the two children for whom he makes ‘toboggans and huge Brazilian samba drums,’ and regrets. ‘I should have asked the right woman to marry me when I had the chance. Then maybe I wouldn’t have ended up such a lonely old bugger.’ Asked in the past whether he worried that he would never match up to the great authors whom he admired, he claims that he ‘found it all rather funny…We have this mentality which you can trace back. We need people on Mount Olympus to enact enormous dramas on our behalf. Our mentality isn’t really that different from the Ancient Greeks. They had Aphrodite, we have…Katie Price.’ God help us.