A meeting with Louis de Bernières is an educative experience. In an hour in his company on a sunny day in September, I learn the Turkish for "son of a whore"; the life cycle of rooks; why one should never bayonet a man between the ribs; and an unhealthy amount about roadkill. He also gives me two shiny conkers: "a present from the countryside". And then, in a nonchalant act that renders me more starstruck than I have ever been in my life, he briefly lets me carry his mandolin. He knows how to make the girls swoon, this one.
I try to be cool about the small black instrument case that he puts in my hand, because it's important to remember there is a lot more to Louis de Bernières than Captain Corelli's Mandolin. He is "very grateful to it and quite proud of it", he says, but it is not the book for which he wants to be remembered. His new collection of stories, Notwithstanding, is a million miles from wartime Kefalonia, set in the English country village where De Bernières grew up. It's a book that he has been writing, story by story, for about 20 years, full of the comedy, the eccentricity and the sharp melancholy that his fans will love. But this is not the book for which he wants to be remembered, either. There's a contrary side to this irresistibly charming, bestselling author. But then, if you had written a magnificent epic such as Birds Without Wings, or had practically rewritten the wedding vows ("and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two..."), you could afford to be contrary, too.
De Bernières, famously, has mastered a certain sort of densely plotted novel set in a picturesque warm country with compelling characters usually involved in a war. He can barely mention a location in print without provoking a rash of tourism, or an unfortunate film, in the case of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. (Asked if he was happy about the 2001 movie, he once replied, "It would be impossible to be happy about your own baby having its ears put on backwards.") But while he is used to finding inspiration on foreign shores, it took a conversation with a Frenchman to inspire this new book about his own country. "He told me that he adored Britain, because it was so exotic," he explains in an afterword to Notwithstanding. "I realised that I had set so many of my novels and stories abroad, because custom had prevented me from seeing how exotic my own country is."
De Bernières moved from a grotty east London flat to a Norfolk village just before the turn of the millennium, and lives with his two young children in a big house that he bought courtesy of Captain Corelli. "I think I've got over my preoccupation with violence and death, now," he muses. But this new book is no romanticising of the English pastoral. "If you move out of town back into the country, the first thing you notice is just the incredible amount of roadkill," he says. "And every year in the late winter, early spring, you get this horrendous plague of myxomatosis..."
There is as much physical horror in Notwithstanding as there is in many of his books, really; his seeming obsession with the pathos of corporal degradation is as vivid in the story called "Rabbit" as it was, say, when Pelagia's betrothed, Mandras, returned from the war with maggots in his feet in Captain Corelli. "Well, that must come from growing up in the country, mustn't it?" he laughs.
De Bernières grew up in Surrey, the descendant of an illegitimate child of Edward IV and a French Général de Bernières who was captured by Napoleon. He went to a "bitterly cold" prep school in Kent followed by a public school in Berkshire, where he would bunk off sport and roam about the countryside. He then spent a seemingly incongruous four months at Sandhurst. "Oh, I enjoyed all the machine-gunning and hurtling around assault courses throwing hand grenades," he says. "But I just hated being told what to do. And I didn't want to tell anyone else what to do, so I obviously wasn't officer material." This must be where he learnt about bayonets: stick one between someone's ribs and you won't get it out again, he claims in two of his books; the rib bones grip the blade like a vice.
(The day before going to press, an author tells me he was once with De Bernières on a writers' junket in Rio. At a restaurant, he says, Louis was attacked at gunpoint. Taking a punt on his assumption that Rio muggers can't afford bullets, he wrestled the man to the ground. The defeated mugger told him, in Portuguese: "I'm going to kill you." Louis replied: "You and whose army?" What makes me suspect that this story is not apocryphal is the open envy in the other author's eyes.)
Anyone who has read a few of De Bernières' books might feel a sense of déjà vu perhaps in only one respect: the depressing repetitiveness of the wars that he writes about. Is he not, then, a pacifist? "Well, of course, as a soldier you have no discretion," he says. "Really, if you have an issue of conscience, you have a problem. I wouldn't want to be in Afghanistan. And I would have had big problems about going to Iraq. So when I was 18 I did think I was a pacifist. I'm not, actually. There's lots of people I want to kill now..."
So he quit Sandhurst, his parents paid back the scholarship fees and he stayed in the countryside working as a mechanic, dismantling battery chicken farms and suchlike – jobs that seem to have involved an unusual amount of contact with manure. He couldn't see himself in an office job, though he rather regrets that now. "I've realised that people [who work in offices] have the most wonderful social lives and lots and lots of affairs." But it was a teaching job abroad that changed everything. "If I hadn't gone to South America I would have been writing very much like Martin Amis," he reckons. "I would have been writing in a much more metropolitan way, about people being horrid to each other in bad relationships in north London." His three novels set in fictional Latin American countries made his name, and saw him hailed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 1993.
Though he jokes about it, De Bernières is very serious about writing. He has one more epic in him, he says, loosely based on the life of his grandfather. He plans to publish a collection of his poetry next summer. He is writing the script for Birds Without Wings ("I wouldn't write a script for a British studio or a Hollywood one, but the guys who are making this are Turks and they're sensible") and looking forward to the movie of Red Dog ("Look up 'Red Dog' and 'Koko' on YouTube," he enthuses. "If that dog gets the part, it's bound to be a huge success.") And he is committed to the Antonius Players, with whom he gigs on woodwind, guitar and mandolin. He's also pretty handy around the house; his four-year-old son, Robin, thinks that what daddy does is "mending".
He also appears, peripherally, in many of his stories, he admits. He had a flatmate a lot like Roza in The Partisan's Daughter, who would buttonhole him and tell him the stories of her life. A little like the boy in the story "Silly Bugger" in his new book, the adult Louis kept a tame rook, called Woot Poot, who fell in love after two years "and flew away to make babies". ("I suppose it is a bit eccentric to have a pet rook," he considers, later.) He was also the boy in his village who caught "the girt pike". He does a lot of things, in fact, that are surprisingly butch, for a deeply sensitive novelist type. ("Is that a compliment? Oh, thanks!") But he also has one of those faces that one wants to tell things to. ("I only ask questions," he laughs.)
When he came to write the character of Leyla in his masterpiece, Birds Without Wings, he interviewed a Colombian ex-girlfriend about what it is like to be beautiful. And she told him. He is "a disillusioned feminist", he says, partly because back when he was hoovering up feminist literature in the 1970s, "if you told a woman she was beautiful she was quite likely to slap you in the face". So what would he do if he could live life as a beautiful woman for just one day? He looks aghast, and then says, "Well, I've always wanted to know what the female orgasm is like."
De Bernières is clearly disappointed that the reading public prefers Corelli to his own favourite book. The new BWW film adaptation might change that, but after the Corelli fiasco, it would also seem to be quite a risk. "Well, it's a bit like losing your virginity," he says. "You know it's probably not a great experience, but it doesn't stop you trying again."
I would have ended, then, by praising Birds Without Wings as a huge, devastating, dazzling achievement of a book; by repeating other reviewers' descriptions of it as a War and Peace for our time; or by echoing the words of this paper's critic: "captivating... compelling... a masterpiece." I would have ended like that, but then Louis de Bernières let me carry his mandolin, and I was starstruck. Sorry.
Notwithstanding By Louis de Bernières (Harvill Secker £12.99)
'... The rabbit does not try to get away. It is so harrowed by misery that it has lost all sense of self-preservation. For days now it has stayed out in the same place in the grass, unable to find its burrow, freezing and shivering by night in the March frosts, drenched by the March rain... enduring the slow cruciation of this casually inflicted death, its own, insignificant, tiny, world-destroying Calvary...'