Durham Book Festival: Louis De Bernières

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The Fellini of literature, Louis de Bernières, the author of the widely popular Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, is a master at his craft.  I was fortunate enough to watch him introduce his latest collection of short stories, Labels and Other Stories, at Durham Book Festival. The event felt as though you were talking to an old friend as the writer spent the hour reminiscing, placing his audience in the peculiarities of his past travels.

De Bernières’ charming tableau of eccentricity was largely informed by his travels abroad. From the outset of the event, the audience was immediately transported to Turkey as De Bernières fondly recalled a fat-cook’s disappointment over his English rather than French heritage, as well as the hustle and bustle of locals entering rooms with hands full of old photo albums and diaries as they exchanged kind gestures and commonalities. It is perhaps unsurprising that this sense of kinship and human bonds in De Bernières’ work is palpable.

This sense of kinship and human bonds in De Bernières’ work is palpable

When discussing his story, The Turks Are So Wonderful With Children, De Bernières shared how Turkish people ‘are kinder than they need to be’ with children, as opposed to the English, informing us of an overlooked cultural chasm. De Bernières shortly undercut this Turkish pleasantry by the realities he faced in England when he was working with ‘totally evil children’ as he so wryly put it. After which he asked the question, ‘What would happen if you sent one of these children to rural Turkey and abandoned it?’ A question which he answered in this short story. De Bernières’ tendency towards farce seemed almost inherent as he himself said that he is a ‘victim of [his] personality’.

There was an insightful argument encouraged by Professor Simon James on how it is easier to write negative emotions as opposed to positive. De Bernières himself said that he was ‘cynical about unduly happy endings’, rejecting this tendency of magical realism and its unsatisfying deus-ex-machina effects.

The event glittered with light-hearted humour as De Bernières shared anecdote after anecdote. Much of De Bernières’ work seems to be governed by chance as he stumbled upon situations that so happened to inform his writing. One anecdote he shared told of how he was mugged in Rio de Janeiro. Yet, this seemingly shocking event had a whimsical twist, inspiring one of his stories. Stupid Gringo tells of the mugger who kept his banknotes in his sock and swiftly departed by cycling away on a ten-year-old’s bicycle. It felt as though many of the moments he shared with us easily could have been fever dreams, all occurring in countries very different to ours. 

One of the more memorable anecdotes De Bernières shared was his fascination with the elaborate labels of gourmet French cat-food, that he encountered whilst shopping for a camping trip in a French supermarket. He bought so much of it for his cat that it was ‘purring in French’. It was this experience that inspired the titular story, where the main character pedantically hoards labels and how this habit affects his personal relationships. 

De Bernières also commented on how he was akin to Thomas Hardy as he also truly believed that ‘big stories can be about little people’. Such a sentiment was expressed in his discussion of The Deposit which has a drug-addicted-violinist as the protagonist, as well as all of the characters having names deriving from The Mayor of Casterbridge. There is something nostalgic about this story as De Bernières reinvigorates a similar charm expressed in his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

There is a warmth to his work … with the significance of personal experience in storytelling being one of its main tenets

De Bernières’ telescopic talk allowed me to transport myself to multiple places in the space of one hour. There is a warmth to his work that was emphasised in this event held by Durham Book Festival, with the significance of personal experience in storytelling being one of its main tenets.

Photo by Anna on Unsplash

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