LitFest’s Golding Speaker: Louis de Bernières introduces a full house to his poetry - and his sense of humour

Written by Lucy Budd on .


(Courtesy Ben Phillips Photography)(Courtesy Ben Phillips Photography)With the Marlborough Literature Festival now in its fifth year and with a series of inspiring speakers and events under its belt, this year witnessed a rapid increase in its popularity - as Friday night’s Golding Speaker Louis de Bernières clearly showed.

Marlborough’s Town Hall was packed with audience members eager to hear the Commonwealth Writers’ prizewinner give a talk on his latest endeavour - a collection of poetry entitled ‘Imagining Alexandria’.

With a voice as clear as a bell, and a generous helping of blithe humour, de Bernières gave an enthralling hour-long talk, provoking equal measures of laughter, gasps of wonder, and sighs of appreciation from all corners of the crowded hall.

Although de Bernières is best known for his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the evening’s talk took a slightly different turn with the writer treating the audience to a selection of his poetry, both published and unpublished, and a short story.

(Courtesy Ben Phillips Photography)(Courtesy Ben Phillips Photography)De Bernières explained that he’d been writing poetry since his early teens, that his father was a poet, and that his ambition had always been to become a poet, causing himself some surprise when he later found himself first and foremost a novelist. Yet it became clear within minutes of the event that he fits the cap of a poet perfectly, reading poetry he described as inspired by - and poetry that would have been liked by - the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.

Indeed, Greece - in particular philosophy, the Mediterranean and eroticism - permeated the readings, and one could almost sense the Alexandrian poet at his side throughout.

His love of Greece began, he explained, the second time he visited Corfu after a less than ideal first experience with an ex-girlfriend. He described falling in love with music by contemporary Greek composers who had set poems to music, calling these artists ‘heroes of music and literature’.

One poem, Parvulus, sketches the story of a Greek slave-boy as if raised from the grave (‘They changed my name to Parvulus,/ I don’t recall my given name’). When musing upon the life of a slave, de Bernières gave some insight into the inspiration behind the poem, remarking, ‘nothing makes up for losing your family’.

As well as Greece, de Bernières read poems with subjects as diverse as his six year old daughter, the poet Nossis of Locris, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, each striking and vividly imagined.

Questions from the audience provided an opening for humour, with de Bernières answering a question about how deliberate the difficulty of the first 100 pages of Captain Corelli was by saying “It’s deliberate. I don’t want readers who can’t concentrate.” And adding: “it’s a bit like a marriage: you’ve got to work at it.”   

More laughter followed  after a questioner asked for advice on writing a first novel. The writer quipped, “Louis de Bernières does not want any competition… Next!”

Overall, the talk was a lively and upbeat affair, revealing Louis de Bernières to be both an excellent speaker, with the audience in the palm of his hand, as well as a sympathetic and colourful poet with a refreshingly modest outlook.

For more about the Golding family's connection with Marlborough and the LitFest see Judy Golding’s article for Marlborough News Online.