My first session today was Hannah Beckerman talking to acclaimed novelist Louis de Bernières. In Edinburgh to discuss his latest novel, So Much Life Left Over, the second book in a trilogy that he has been planning and thinking about since the mid 1990’s.
The first book in the trilogy (though Bernières says he has designed them to work in any order), is The Dust that Falls from Dreams.
Bernières was inspired, he says, by his grandfather, who, in the face of a disintegrating marriage, took himself off for longer and longer periods until one day he simply did not come back.
It was only when his father received notification that his grandfather had died at that the age of 96 in the Rocky Mountains, that they even realised he had been alive for all those years.
So Louis went to Canada to talk to his friends and find out the story behind what he had been doing for all those absent years. That was the inspiration, but the rest is fiction. From the outset he knew that it would be a trilogy covering the First World War, the Second World War and finally the period up to the mid 80’s.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams looks at the brief golden years before the outbreak of World War I. Rosie McCosh and three very different sisters are growing up in an eccentric household in Kent, with their neighbours the Pitt boys on one side and the Pendennis boys on the other. But their days of childhood adventure are shadowed by the approach of the conflict that will engulf them on the cusp of adulthood.
When the boys end up scattered along the Western Front, Rosie is left confused by her love for two young men – one an infantry soldier and one a flying ace. Rosie and her sisters will have to build new lives out of the opportunities and devastations that follow the Great War.
In the second and current book, So Much Life Left Over, the novel follows Daniel Pitt in his troubled marriage with Rosie between the World Wars.
Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their little daughter to start a new life at the dawn of the 1920s, attempting to put the trauma of the First World War behind them, and to rekindle a marriage that gets colder every day. But the pull of the ties of home and a yearning for fulfilment threatens their marriage.
Back in England, Rosie’s three sisters are dealing with different challenges in their searches for family, purpose and happiness. These are precarious times, and they find themselves using unconventional means to achieve their desires. Around them the world is changing, and when Daniel finds himself in Germany he witnesses events taking a dark and forbidding turn.
Bernières says he pretty much wrote all three novels at the same time, though the third is awaiting completion. Daniel and his friend Fluke are amazed to have survived the war and wonder what to do with so much life left to live . But Bernières makes the point that none of his characters are left unscathed by the war. Daniel has a recurring dream because he killed so many people in the Grand Attack.
Bernières references his Grandfather who was maimed in a Sopwith Camel and took 3 bullets, but never thought the war was futile. For him it was about the independence of small countries.
He also spoke about his mother’s faith, which was strong, though his is not. His mother said she would have died of loneliness without faith. He has scepticism about religion but tries to balance this in his books through a more philosophical spiritualism in one of his characters.
He is interested in different kinds of loving relationships, sexual and non sexual, and, for example, the strength of bond between a parent and his/her children.
Asked by Hannah Beckerman if he thought the she was right to sense optimism at the end of So Much Life Left Over, he looks a little surprised and says that Daniel, his protagonist is saved by the outbreak of a new war and thus has something important to do again.
In conversation with the audience he talked about the experience of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin being made into a film and his naivety about the process. He did confirm that a new stage version of his most famous book will be premiered next year in Kingston involving the use of physical theatre. It is hoped this may go on tour.
Sadly, that was all we had time for, though I could have listened for hours….