Handful of dust

Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, tells Nicola Mostyn about his new novel

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“It was a tragedy in my own family followed by a mystery,” says Louis de Bernières.

He’s explaining the catalyst for his latest book The Dust That Falls From Dreams, which is partly drawn from events in his family history.

He continues: “My grandmother lost her fiancé in 1915, and it affected the course of her whole life. The idea was also sparked off by my grandfather, her husband, disappearing. One day somebody turned up at our house to tell us that my grandfather had died at the age of 96 in the Rocky Mountains in Canada. We’d thought he must have died decades before.

“So I went out to Canada and I came back with his side of the story. I haven’t actually stuck to what did happen, and I’ve got no intention of doing it, because I’m interested in writing fiction, which is about good lies. It’s not about family history.”

“It’s odd to think you owe your existence to two German megalomaniacs.”

Instead, it’s the way great historical events derail imagined destinies and carve out new ones that has formed the seed of this latest book. “If my grandmother’s fiancé hadn’t been killed, clearly I would not have been born,” de Bernières says. “And furthermore, my parents met in Germany after the war. And so, if it wasn’t for Hitler, I wouldn’t have been born either. It’s very odd to think that you owe your existence to two German megalomaniacs.”

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a saga of love and war, a bittersweet tale steeped in reality and in romance, told from multiple perspectives. We meet eccentric Mrs McCosh, more obsessed with the propriety of her three daughters than in aiding the war effort; Mr McCosh, who turns his penchant for financial speculation to the benefit of both himself and the troops; their daughter, Rosie, pledged to a fiancé who is fighting on the frontline; and the boy-next-door turned flying ace Daniel Pitt, who finds life in conflict easier than the uncertainties of peacetime.

Through these viewpoints and more, the reader becomes steeped in the tragedies wreaked by the First World War and also the small joys achieved amidst the horror.

This is his first novel in seven years, but de Bernières is on familiar territory writing about conflict. His 1994 bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was located on the Greek island of Cephallonia during the Italian and German occupation of the Second World War, while 2004’s A Bird Without Wings was set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

Focusing in this book on a time of great social change, particularly for women, de Bernières uncovers much engaging detail in his 500 pages, such as how a snapshot league was created to send photographs of relatives to soldiers on the frontline. Or how Indian soldiers were housed in Brighton Pavilion out of a perhaps rather misguided kindness.

“The Indian soldiers were put there because it was thought that the orientalism of it would make them feel at home,” the author explains. “But of course they were the kind of people that lived in huts. So going to live in a Maharaja’s Palace in Brighton must have been really, really peculiar for them.”

One of the major themes explored in the novel is faith. Some, like Rosie, see their faith strengthen as the tragedies amass, while others find their devotion to God comes less easily.

“I’m an agnostic,” says de Bernières. “And I strongly disagree with religion. But my mother once said to me that if it wasn’t for her faith she would die of loneliness. And I was thinking about Rosie – she needs her faith, otherwise she would buckle under.”

Others, such as Reverend Captain Fairhead, whose letters once comforted Rosie through her grief, later find themselves having serious doubts.

“He thinks he has got a vocation to be a clergyman whether he wants to be one or not. I often think that religious faith is like that. It attaches itself to people and then they can’t shake it off, even if they want to.”

Is this idea something de Bernières could apply to his own calling? “Writing as a vocation?” he asks. There’s a pause. “No, you’re absolutely right actually. I would rather be a musician. If there is reincarnation, perhaps I’m saving musicianship up for the next one.

“I knew I was going to be a writer but the day just never seemed to arrive.”

“I knew I was going to be a writer from about the age of 12. I had no doubt about it at all. And in my twenties I failed to write very much, and tried to become a rock star, and was obviously totally unsuited to it in every way. I had absolutely no interest in drugs, for example.

“It’s like that prayer of Saint Augustin’s – ‘Lord give me chastity, but not yet.’ I felt a bit like that about writing. I knew I was going to do it but the day just never seemed to arrive. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I realised I did have a vocation and it was about time I bloody well got on with it.”

Just as huge historical tragedies affected so many lives, it was a small, personal event, aligned with circumstance, that nudged de Bernières on to his path.

“I was both unlucky and lucky in a sense. I had a motorcycle crash and smashed my right leg up and I couldn’t go out. At the same time my landlady was having a dreadful, rather scary crisis, so it was even scarier to leave my room. And my Irish girlfriend didn’t want to look after me so she went back to Ireland. So I was on my own, in a room, really in solitary confinement, with a broken leg. I learned to play the banjo, which I very quickly regretted, and then I dug out my old short stories. I found one and I thought: ‘Why don’t I write what happens next?’ And that became my first three novels.”

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is only the first in a trio of intended works.

“I want to write three books which are a trilogy, but which can be read separately. It’s the first time I’ve tried to write a saga, and in some ways I regret it because it is massively difficult having so many characters, each of whom deserves their own novel. I can see that I will end up with a huge a chart on the wall,” he laughs. “And, as it goes from Queen Victoria’s death to about 1980, obviously most of the characters are going to die off. It could just be a catalogue of deaths. Some characters might just have to disappear and I hope the reader doesn’t notice.”

Which might be tricky. As The Dust That Falls From Dreams reminds us, against such potentially dwarfing historical events, de Bernières is adept at drawing out the heartfelt human stories of characters who once met, and they are not so easily forgotten.

About Louis de Berniéres

Louis de Bernières studied philosophy at Manchester University. Before he dedicated himself to writing, he had many jobs, including landscape gardener, mechanic, officer cadet at Sandhurst and schoolteacher in Colombia. His latter experiences formed the basis of his first three novels.

De Bernières won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for his first novel, 1990’s The War Of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, and also for his second, Señor Vivo And The Coca Lord. In 1993 he was selected by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists in 1993 and in 1994 proved them right by producing his fourth, the smash hit Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, later made into a film starring Nicolas Cage.

The author’s sixth novel, Birds Without Wings, was published in 2004 and his next, A Partisan’s Daughter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. Works since then have included notwithstanding: English Village Stories and de Bernières’s first collection of poetry in 2013.

The title of his latest book is borrowed from the song Walk Into The Morning by Ralph McTell. “I went to see him play in Great Yarmouth. He sang that line, and I had been looking for a title for this novel and I thought: ‘Yes.’ There are two kinds of dust that falls from dreams. There’s the sudden grey dust of disappointed dreams, and then there’s the sort of golden dust of the dreams that come true. Anyway, I went to the pub with Ralph afterwards, and basically I think I got that line in return for a pint.”

Louis de Bernières is at the Buxton Festival (www.buxtonfestival.co.uk) on 14 July. The Dust That Falls From Dreams is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). Photo of Louise de Bernières: Ivon Bartholomew

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