Interview with Louis de Bernière
Best known as the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, writer LOUIS DE BERNIÈRES talks to Anna McKittrick about his French roots and the inspiration he finds on visits across the Channel
What are the origins of your French name? My family was Huguenot. I had an ancestor called Jean-Antoine de Pierre who was in the army of Louis XIV. When the king started persecuting Protestants, he took his documents of inheritance and went to Holland to join the army of William of Orange. He came to Britain with William [who was crowned William III] and fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The monarch gave his French Protestant soldiers land in Ireland, so [my ancestor] settled there and married another local French Protestant. In an odd way my family has remained French ever since. I have relatives in Paris with whom we’re still in touch.
Do you think your family history made you more interested in learning French?
With a name like mine you feel an idiot if you can’t speak French. My mother used to speak French very well but with an awful English accent and my father had rather a good accent but terrible grammar. They used to speak French when they didn’t want us to understand, which is something I do with my children.
What is your earliest memory of France?
I went there two years running on exchanges and stayed with a lovely family who lived not far from Saumur in the Loire Valley. I fell in love with my friend’s little sister, Isabelle, and we would go out on those little Solex motorbikes, which had the engine above the front wheel, and go fishing and look around all the big châteaux.
Did your childhood trips to France encourage you to visit as an adult?
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In my 20s and 30s I went every year and drove around France in my Morris Minor Traveller, going from one municipal camping site to another. One of life’s great pleasures is driving from town to town on the national roads in France. I don’t go on the péage; I would rather spend two days driving along those beautiful avenues.
Which is your favourite part of France?
It would be between Ariège in the Pyrénées and Normandy, although I’m not sure which. Possibly Ariège, as you can’t beat a medieval French town such as Foix, although I also love Toulouse, which is a lovely city.
Do you enjoy French food and wine?
Most of my cooking at home is Mediterranean, if not entirely French. I particularly like that heavy cooking from southern France, where you have lumps of lardons in everything. I have a wonderful French cookbook called Les Bonnes Recettes du Soleil, which has recipes such as paupiettes de veau.
As a writer, do you find inspiration in France?
There are two poems in my latest book, Imagining Alexandria, that are set in France: one is set in Albi at the time of the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century and the other is a strange poem that is the result of a dream. It’s called I Saw You In France and spans a period from just before World War II up to more or less the present. I’ve also written other poems about France. I read French novels to polish up my language; I can’t handle Émile Zola but easily manage Françoise Sagan or Albert Camus.
Do you enjoy maintaining your French?
I’m never sure that I am keeping it up. I’m constantly discovering things that I should have learnt 40 years ago. I only realised recently that ‘as soon as possible’ is dès que possible and I learnt that from the satnav, which is set in French because I want my children, who are five and eight, to learn the language. Children seem to respond better if you order them around in French rather than English. If you say “ça suffit” it’s much effective than “that’s enough”.
Is there a big difference in style between French and English literature?
The difference is bigger than it used to be. The French seem to have a rather snobbish attitude towards good storytelling and are far more in love with style than narrative. With the British it’s the other way round. Ideally, literature would have the best of both.
Would you think about setting a novel in France?
There is a novel that I’ve been thinking about for 20 years which I intend to set in France. I had a girlfriend who was Irish, but she lived in France for a long time and had fallen in love with somebody who was very charismatic and wanted his disciples to go back to nature and live in the woods. It was a horrendous failure and her account is something that I’ve always wanted to turn into a novel.
Imagining Alexandria by Louis de Bernières is published by Harvill Secker, priced £12.99.