Louis de Bernières

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Theatre
25th August 2016

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As I sat in the Baillie Gifford Theatre for this event, I filled more pages of my notebook and tweeted more tweets than during any of the events I have attended so far – and we’re almost at the end of the festival. The reason for this is simple. Louis de Bernières seems to produce more quotable quotes per minute than anyone else, and I’m talking about conversationally, never mind when reading his poems.

Poetry is de Bernières’s favourite and chosen medium. During the afternoon passing reference was made to the fact that in 1993 he was known as a promising young novelist, and again passing mention was made of a novel set on a Greek island in World War 2, but the prime purpose of his visit was to talk about Of Love and Desire, his new collection of poetry. Of Love and Desire is his second collection of poetry, and contains poems about, well, love and desire that he has written from the age of seventeen to the present. Viv Groskop, chairing the event, asked if the book was ‘a biography of [his] loves’; “Yes,” admitted de Bernières, “with lies and transformations,” and went on to say that generally when a poet celebrates a large number of loves it begins to sound like boasting.

We didn’t get to hear much of his poetry, it has to be said, as the majority of the time was spent in conversation. What we did hear perhaps couldn’t be called great poetry, but it was fluid, full of imagery, and tended, ‘like Middle-Eastern poetry’, to jump from subject to subject within the space of a line. De Bernières is an incredibly prolific writer of poetry, inspiration coming to him in bed, or whilst driving his car (in which case he has to memorise it), in an almost constant stream which he can’t imagine drying up. “It would be horrendous,” he said, “knowing I was on my deathbed and another poem was coming,” but he could see that happening! “I don’t have self-discipline, I have obsession,” he went on, recalling his younger days when his writing was fired by cigarettes and coffee. “Now that I’m fuelled on red wine I’ve started to slow down a bit [..] I have a demon that drives me on – I’m very grateful to it.”

His editor had told him that there was too much about wine in the first draft of Of Love and Desire, but de Bernières subscribes to the Middle-Eastern tradition of using intoxication by wine as a metaphor for both profane and divine love – again that marked M-E influence.

He treated us to a reading of his newest poem, composed the night before as he strolled along Princes Street and happened to see a street-beggar. This ‘Dreamer on Princes Street’ had ‘slipped through the bars of life.’

“Poetry ought to be speech made musical,” he said. When asked for his poetical influences he admitted to being “terribly influenced by anything I read”, citing Sappho, and Constantine Cavafy. He used to love Pablo Neruda – as do so many young people – but he is no longer young and said “I stopped believing what he was saying.” In pursuit of this musicality, he loves assonance and iambic meter – “T S Eliot has written some wonderful iambic lines, even though we think of him as a modernist poet.”

His greatest achievement? In his opinion, his novel Birds Without Wings, which is actually used in modern Turkey to teach Ottoman history. On a visit to that country he was surprised to see large pictures of himself on advertisements. His guilty pleasures? His collection of guitars. That prompted a member of the audience to ask if he would sing one of the many songs he has written, but that he declined to do unaccompanied. What is the greatest love in the world between two people? Between parent and child. “I have never been loved by anyone as much as I have by my daughter.” Having children is like having research material to hand all the time. His driving demon? He speaks of seeming to hear voices, and wonders if his talent is a constructive form of paranoid schizophrenia.

From all this you’ll realise how fruitful and how easy on the ear the event was. I think it was more relaxed than any event I’ve been to during this long-fortnight. Good listening, good value, enough said.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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