Imagining Alexandria by Louis de Bernières


In town for the annual Book Fair, Captain Corelli's Mandolin author Louis de Bernières tells Anna Cummins he's written poetry in Hong Kong - and he'd secretly love to pen something vile...

Despite his clearly Gallic name, Louis de Bernières is as British as they come. “I didn’t actually have that many interviews,” the bestselling author wryly confesses, as he chats with Time Out in between appearances at the recent Hong Kong Book Fair. “The French interviewer cancelled. I think they realised I wasn’t actually French.” 

De Bernières takes his name from a French father, but grew up in Surrey, England. The 58-year-old has long been highly regarded for his 1994 Greek wartime epic Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but it is 2004’s Birds Without Wings, a powerful novel dealing with the end of the Ottoman Empire, of which he says he is most proud and hopes to be remembered for. In fact, the author’s jovial disposition and easygoing manner belies the content of his books – many of which use a backdrop of war and conflict to focus on the plight of its protagonists.  

And on that note, de Bernières reveals that he has just completed his latest novel. “I just finished it last week,” he says. “It’s set almost entirely in Britain. Some of it is in France because it’s in the First World War and the last three chapters are set in Sri Lanka. The provisional title is The Dust that Falls from Dreams, a line from a song by a friend of mine. The next volume, if I write it, will be set just after the Second World War, and the last one will be from then until 1980. I’ve been thinking about it for 20 years!”

De Bernières visited our city on the invitation of the British Council, as part of the mammoth Book Fair that took place in mid-July. During his two-day Hong Kong stay, he astutely notes that so many people at the fair are young. “In literature events in Britain,” he says, “it’s almost all people who are retired… here it’s exactly the opposite.” Indeed, an estimated one million people enjoyed this year’s fair.

The event, though, was not without its share of amusing episodes. The rise of the pseudo-model, who strips off in order to sell a photo book, has prompted outcries in recent years from those who don’t feel it’s appropriate at such a family-friendly event. But at this year’s fair, one fan bought the entire stock of racy photo books from three male models in one go (see our story here). De Bernières laughs merrily when we ask him about this. “Well, I’m not interested in topless men!” he admits. “[This is all] a sort of comment on how trivial and silly the human race is.”

De Bernières does however reveal his own willingness to push boundaries when we enquire whether he’d ever write under a pseudonym. “There are lots of things I haven’t tried,” he says. “It might be fun to write something really, really super vile, like, you know, American Psycho or Trainspotting or Last Exit to Brooklyn – something really horrible or even pornographic…  I would do that under a pseudonym, but mainly for a laugh.”   

The next thing on de Bernières’ plate is the release of his poetry collection, Imagining Alexandria, which consists of odes inspired by his fave poet, Constantine Kavafis. He wrote several of the poems the last time he was in our city, in 2010. “I’d been reading him all the way over on the plane, and when I got here I was in such an altered state of mind that I immediately sat down and wrote about five, in his manner,” says the author. “To write poetry, I need to be in a slightly altered state of mind. I have to be upset or excited… or very jetlagged!” We’re glad to hear that Hong Kong has contributed to the work of this popular writer. However, he resolutely bats away any concept of fame. “Who says I’m famous? I’m not famous at home! It’s just me and my cat and my hen. My hen keeps me grounded.”

Imagining Alexandria is published on Aug 15 by Harvill Secker, priced $95


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