De Berniÿres seeks happy ending after book draft is stolen

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The Independent Culture

If his fans thought 10 years was a long time to hang on for a follow-up to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, they could be facing an even longer wait for Louis de Bernières' next novel.

If his fans thought 10 years was a long time to hang on for a follow-up to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, they could be facing an even longer wait for Louis de Bernières' next novel.

Already 30 years in the writing, and still only 50 pages long, the first four chapters of the author's latest work have been stolen from his summerhouse.

Undeterred by a spate of rural thefts since moving from a gritty corner of south London - his car was broken into and a mower and chainsaw taken from his garage - De Bernières decamped to the Edinburgh Book Festival last week, leaving his laptop computer in the writing studio at his 18th century rectory at Harelston, Norfolk.

He is offering a reward, a somewhat modest £500, for the return of the work, entitled A Partisan's Daughter, based on the life of a Yugoslav, who claimed to be a former prostitute, whom he met while living in a shared house in London in the 1970s.

The novel has already been rewritten four times because of "technical difficulties" devising a suitable narrative structure. "I was about 50 pages through and it was going very well, I was on a roll," he said yesterday. "I mostly feel angry. It will simply save me a lot of time if I get this draft back rather than having to start another one.

"I felt stupid for forgetting to bring the laptop in with me. I think I had been meaning to go back down there," he added.

De Bernières's latest novel, Birds Without Wings, published last month, has earned less than ecstatic reviews. Set in a mixed-faith Turkish village during the First World War and the break up of the Ottoman Empire, with a beautiful female heroine, it has been accused of drawing too heavily on the formula that made Captain Corelli an international bestseller.

Corelli won the 1995 Commonwealth Writers Prize and shifted 2.5 million copies, but its 2001 big screen adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, disappointed both critically and at the box office. The follow-up had been this year's most eagerly awaited book.

The author said yesterday that he had started A Partisan's Daughter while in his 20s. "I normally only do one draft, but have gone through several versions. I wrote [the Yugoslav's] story down because I had her voice going through my head, although I am not sure if she was telling the truth," he said.

The document on the computer was filed under the book's title. "I never make disk copies of my work because I am not a computer boffin," he said. "I prefer just to do print-outs after I have finished each chapter - but I had not been doing that because I had been writing in the summerhouse and the printer was indoors.

"I would like to offer a reward of £500 for the return of this computer, and a further reward of the same amount for any information that leads to the conviction of the creeps that stole it. They will no doubt be trying to dispose of it locally," he said.

"I feel contempt for them. Criminals have no conception of the anger and fear they cause."

The loss of a manuscript is a time-honoured literary tradition. Ernest Hemingway and T E Lawrence both lost early drafts in mundane accidents. But it is the long gestation period of what would have been De Bernières's seventh novel that will intrigue the literary world. He has admitted to being "continuously interrupted" during the writing of the Birds Without Wings, and even that he spent three years "doing DIY" before settling down to the task.

De Bernières, who was a cadet at Sandhurst and trained as a teacher, began writing full time in his late 20s. In 1993 was selected by Granta as one of the 20 best young British novelists.

He admits the thefts have shattered his faith in the rural idyll, although he was "touched" that police had offered counselling. "It is incredible, but from my experience it seems to be more dodgy round here than in London."

LOST BOOKS

ERNEST HEMINGWAY In 1922, a suitcase with part of a novel and 20 short stories was stolen in Paris. The bag was not found, but it inspired a 1990 novel,Hemingway's Suitcase, by Macdonald Harris.

JOHN STEINBECK The first manuscript ofOf Mice and Men was eaten by his dog. He said he felt no anger towards the animal.

T E LAWRENCE While changing trains at Reading station in 1919, Lawrence's briefcase, containing the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was stolen. He began a second version of the book in 1920 from memory, finishing it two years later.

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