I have some inexplicable form of amnesia when it comes to Manchester’s Portico Library and Gallery.
Despite the fact that my office is across the road, I have terrible trouble recalling what it looks like inside. I can only remember a feeling. It’s the same sensation I had as a greedy kid standing in front of the pick ‘n’ mix at Woolworths. I am always amazed by the Portico’s walls of books and intricately patterned, high dome ceiling. If you’re a library fanatic like me, you’ll know that it’s an amazing space.
I have come to see the internationally best-selling author and poet, Louis de Bernières, in conversation with library trustee Libby Tempest as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.
Billed as a ‘master storyteller’ by The Washington Post, de Bernières is an intimidatingly accomplished man. Not only did he achieve international fame and best sellerdom with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (which went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Novel and was made into a hugely popular film), he boasts an impressive accolade of works including novels, short stories and collections of poetry. He also plays the flute, clarinet and guitar.
De Bernières has come to discuss his new novel, The Dust That Falls From Dreams. It’s an epic narrative of love set against a background of war and, as de Bernières’ ninth work of fiction, it’s the first of a planned trilogy of novels inspired by a tiny slice of his own family history – the story of how his grandmother’s first fiancé died of wounds received in battle during the First World War.
With the audience settled, the author begins with an explanation of the title. He’d been to see friend and composer Ralph McTell in concert, and listened to him play a song called Walk Out in the Morning where one line ends with ‘the dust that falls from dreams’.
“I asked him if I could have the title and he said yes. So basically I got this title in return for a pint.”
For the reading, he selects a sex scene, explaining that he despises such passages in fiction for being “anatomical and worn out”. De Bernières’ depiction of two characters on their wedding night is written with tenderness and humour. The crowd explodes into laughter when the book’s heroine, Rosie McCosh, recalls her mother’s advice regarding her wedding night.
“Mother asked me if I know what was going to happen tonight. I said we’re going to go to Dover. And she said what will happen will be completely unpleasant, humiliating and degrading but you must do your duty.”
Meanwhile, Tempest suggests that the novel’s skilful structure is guaranteed to sustain the interest and attention of the reader because different characters narrate their own chapters.
De Bernières replies: “Multiple narrators is a post-modernist technique and I am actually a very old fashioned writer. And I don’t want to come off all Californian, but it feels like being a medium with all these voices coming through. It’s a bit like paranoid schizophrenia.”
Does he ever have difficulty bringing these narrative strands together, or perhaps he finds himself becoming too engrossed in one voice?
For de Bernières, the family saga is a “difficult genre”. While the characters were never pushy or commanding he felt like he was not giving them the attention they deserved. “Each character deserves their own novel.”
To write such an epic tale, spanning such a huge timeframe, must have required a huge amount of research?
“I used to research in great volumes which was a hideous mistake,” he admits. De Bernières now believes that authors should research as they go along. And, with research in mind, how important was the literature and poetry of the first and second world wars to the novel?
“I am passionately interested in the poetry of the First World War but I do not share the perception that it was pointless and futile.” Instead, he believes that poetry has “warped our perception” of events. Nevertheless, he does have a “literary attraction” to the war because it created “stories that would not have been told during peace time.”
An accomplished poet, de Bernières reveals that his poetry often begins as prose “and then I tinker with it until it becomes poetry”.
Pulling a notebook from his jacket pocket, de Bernières teases the audience with the hint of something very recently written. “A lot of my poetry happens on trains,” he says, scanning the page before him.
Someone calls out from the audience, suggesting he should read it aloud. He smiles and begins to talk about the rhythm of the train lending cadence to the writing of poetry. He jokes that someone should have a word with Richard Branson as the journey from London to Manchester via Virgin Trains was far too smooth to inspire anything of note.
The crowd are eager to hear this new poem and he is still brandishing his notebook.
“No,” he says, taking one last glance at the page. “I can’t read the last line.” Instead he opts for a beautiful poem entitled Your Brighton Dress.
The event over, I head for the exit feeling like I am sleep-walking, lulled into this state by de Bernières’ voice. He is a man who likes to talk and tell stories. As I leave, I attempt to catch his attention but his fans are swarming around him, all brandishing copies of the new book. I can’t help but think of the critics who have suggested that the author is overshadowed by the success of Captain Corelli – and how they could not be more wrong.