It is the role of writers to tell “stupendous lies” and for readers to believe them. Thus said Louis de Bernieres at the opening night address of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
After a number of official speakers, most of whom excitedly reiterated the fact that Melbourne is the best city in the world, de Bernieres took to the stage. In his characteristic cream-coloured suit and unassuming air, he instantly had the audience engaged.
De Bernieres shared that he had always had a vocation to be a writer, something that can be traced back to a mother who had written an unpublished novella (a work which de Bernieres hopes to have published) and a father who recited Shakespeare at the lunch table. His teachers also provided a strong grounding in the study of literature, including one former Shakespearean actor who liked to act out the texts to his students, memorably playing both Desdemona and Othello in the murder scene. However, dreams of becoming a rock star dominated his twenties and it was only after a motorcycle accident, which saw him confined by his injuries with a landlady who was having an emotional breakdown, that his focus began to shift to writing.
Since then he has become an internationally bestselling author with titles such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Red Dog and his latest release The Dust That Falls From Dreams.
His conversation with Michael Cathcart was candid and explored a number of serious issues. De Bernieres’ views regarding the individual experience in World War II were somewhat challenging as he suggested that, in fact, many soldiers enjoyed fighting. Furthermore, rather than supporting the Wilfred Owen view of ‘futility’ he argued that the majority of soldiers saw the war as completely necessary.
De Bernieres was asked about his own views regarding spiritualism and shared the story of hearing his cat’s bell ring in the corridor a day after it had died. A ghostly call from a world beyond that has not been repeated since. De Bernieres was clear that should a life exist beyond, he believes we are not supposed to know about it.
One audience question seemed to nettle de Bernieres. When asked about writing female characters, he was quick to assume that as a man his authority to write about women was being questioned. Cathcart in turn was quick to try to take de Bernieres off the defensive, assuring him that the question was prefaced with praise for his female characters and was merely enquiring about their construction.
His humour was surprising and at times a little unorthodox, something which both delighted and unsettled the audience, setting the tone for an intelligent and thought-provoking festival to come.