The bestselling novelist's first verse collection is fuelled by rum enthusiasm and a debt to his favourite poet
Louis de Bernières has always said he was a poet before – and after – being a novelist. He has said that this is how his fiction – including Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994), Birds Without Wings (2004) and the short-story collection Notwithstanding (2009) – began. But this is his first published collection, and it is a homage to Constantine Cavafy (or, as De Bernières calls him, Constantinos Cavafis) (1863-1933), the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, author of Ithaca and Waiting for the Barbarians. De Bernières keeps a volume of Cavafy in his pocket, has read him daily for 30 years but admits to wearying of the relentless homoeroticism, the young men "always up to their necks in 'sensual delights'". Yet he praises the poems for their "honesty" about sexual passion and their "nostalgia… guiltlessness… and pain".
It might seem eccentric for a middle-aged, divorced heterosexual to follow in Cavafy's poetic footsteps but the rum enthusiasm fuelling this collection endears it to the reader. De Bernières disarmingly refers, in his introduction, to the translated feel of his own poems (he reads Cavafy in English). And it's true: several give the impression of having travelled too far, lost heart en route. The weakest are flat as pitta bread. Yet the more I read, the more I acquired the taste, appreciated their clarity, character and unleavened candour.
Love dominates. There is nothing as precise as the definition of love we are offered in Captain Corelli's Mandolin ("…love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away…") but we are told the truth about love – even when it is awkward (as in Like Iphigenia, where a woman glances at the clock during a night of non-bliss) or lacking (in the excruciating Charity Function, a married woman appears to be offering herself: "She was middle-aged, no doubt her husband never touched her,/ No doubt she didn't want it; / But she was strong and hale, silent and suffering, and/ Someone ought to love her". And perhaps ought to refrain from writing poems about her?
In one of the more charming pieces, Your Brighton Dress, he describes buying a brown dress for a young woman with his last 12 shillings. The ending is wistful thinking: "…I like to remember,/ False though this may be,/That when I woke up and you were there,/ You were bringing me Mexican presents,/ Wearing a silver necklace, /Wearing your Brighton dress."
It is all clunkily prosaic, with a likable absurdity waiting in the wings. In For One Night Only, the lines "There was nothing to be said./ So nothing was said" are amusingly conversational. Elsewhere is tiresome schoolboy joshing as in Marcus Severus, of Late Memory, so "prodigiously endowed" that in the bath house the bathers "stood and cheered". And there are cynical performances such as Romance, implying women are sentimental dolts, men conniving cads. But I liked the playful Leonidas the Tarentine Addresses the Two Mice, a comically top-heavy title for the morsels of verse, warning about the penury in poetry:
Dear mice, respect my trade.
I am a poet. Poets need to eat.
I have one dirty lump of salt, a little old,
And barley cake is all I have for meat…
And there is enough sensuality to honour Cavafy. But De Bernières's temperament is more optimistic – better for him than it is for his poetry. When he writes about an ending (as in It Ended) his poem avoids finality, concentrating on the heart's desire to retrace its steps. Cavafy, in Things Endedcorrect, dares to face the uncompromising, unpredictable, terminal nature of disaster. Similarly, when De Bernières writes about a man looking at his life in The Man Who Travelled the World, the man still hopes to find the woman of his dreams. Perhaps it is no more than the difference between middle- and old age. But Cavafy, in An Old Man, acknowledges the running out of time. The undeceived stance makes a superior poem as Cavafy's old man slumps at the café table and sleeps.