From walks on the beach to dinner with celebrities, these snapshots offer a personal glimpse of the man behind the reputation as a giant of Balkan literature

Between 1995 and 2014, David Bellos translated from French a number of works by Ismail Kadare, Albania’s best-known novelist and poet, including The Siege, The File on H., The Successor, The Pyramid, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and Twilight of the Eastern Gods, as well as revising earlier translations of Chronicle in Stone and The Ghost Rider. When Kadare won the inaugural International Booker Prize in 2005 for his entire body of work, he shared the award with Bellos, who at the time was his most recent translatorFollowing Kadare’s death at the age of 88, Bellos recalls some of his favourite memories of the author.

Written by David Bellos

Publication date and time: Published

In the café

Come rain or shine, around 10am he would always be there in his seat in the north-west nook of the Café Le Rostand, with a corner view of the gates to the Luxembourg Gardens. Always wrapped in a brown outfit of suit and coat, most often with a scarf around his neck and the least exciting footwear that can be found since the fall of the USSR. And grumpy with it, too! A forced smile of recognition as I sit down, then the grumbles begin. Why it is a waste of time to write fiction these days. Why he really should stop writing as he has nothing more to say. I try to distract him towards more entertaining topics, mostly in vain. When I leave via the veranda, I spy out of the corner of my eye the Man from the Moscow Omnibus getting back to scribbling his next witty article or story or novel on the notepad he was never without.

On the beach

In the summer months, on doctor’s orders, he would take a 30-minute walk every morning on the beach that spread out in front of his summer dwelling. The Communist-era bunkers had been covered with graffiti and filled with trash; some were sinking at odd angles into the sand. There were wisps of plastic here and there, and the tidal seaweed didn’t smell too good, but on we strode nonetheless, with him in his brown worsted trousers and 1950-model walking boots, and me in sandals and shorts. The beach wasn’t very crowded, but it was very extensive, and many people were swimming or playing with their children in the warm water of the almost-Ionian Sea (I think it was still technically the Adriatic). One by one, men and women, young and old, started to look at us, then to stand, then to walk towards us, stretched out in a wide arc. There was nothing remotely threatening about the approaching crowd of people in wet swimsuits. In fact, they were unbelievably disciplined as they formed a line to the side of us, smiling and stretching out their hands, to receive the hand of the Great Man. For his part, he muttered words of greeting to each as he passed by. I realised that he did this every day, and that every day different retainers, worshippers and loyal servants came out of the water to stand in line to be honoured by the touch of his fingers. It’s the only time in my life I have felt close to royalty.

Cafe Le Rostand, Paris.

At home

He fled to France, was given political asylum and a large advance by his publisher to tide him over. He was then made a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, which is part of the Institut de France. The Institut owns a number of properties in Paris, Chantilly and elsewhere, principally from bequests. That is how he and his wife and daughters came to occupy a rambling apartment above a fast-food outlet on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, a few steps from the Panthéon and the Luxembourg Gardens. As an address, it could hardly have been grander. But to call it old-fashioned would be too polite. The kitchen was little more than a cupboard, the plumbing seemed to have been copied from Ancient England, if not Ancient Rome, and the windows let in the noise of the busy Boulevard and its exhaust fumes as well. Yet his wife (sometimes helped by a daughter and eventually his granddaughter too) managed to lay on quite wonderful Albanian dinners for all kinds of distinguished guests. Always in the big chair at the head of the table, he was treated as the paterfamilias, if not an outright monarch, and he rarely smiled, even when the dish was spectacular and delicious, which was often the case. He had by then learned a fair bit about French wine, and always read the labels, did the tasting, and made comments on the quality before passing the bottle round. He had come a long, long way from Maoist Albania. I think the wine ceremony was his way of saying: I made it! If I dropped in on him in the afternoon, however, I would find him in the lounge in front of a wide-screen TV watching soccer on a satellite feed from Tirana. He’d always told me he never worked more than two hours a day in his life. It was then that I began to believe him.

Among the glitterati

In 2008, the Scottish National Gallery, at the foot of the Mound, was the location for the grande soirée celebrating the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where he had spoken to an audience of many hundreds about his newly translated novel. Forewarned of the dress code by the invitation which said something like ‘Formal Glitter’, he had hired a coat-and-tails and the requisite trappings, and he walked or rather waddled up the steps beneath photographers’ flashlights more like a penguin than most who try. The host of the splash was none other than the actor Sean Connery, the unforgettable first of the James Bonds in film. He was wearing a kilt and spangled smoking jacket and was quite as tall, handsome and smooth-voiced as his screen self. He sat with Connery for a while and had his photograph taken. Twenty years ago, he said to me with a rare grin and almost a giggle, that photo would have got me shot as an agent of MI5! He was so delighted to have left all that behind. But the most curious part of the evening was the late-night return to the hotel. It was too far to walk, we had not booked a car, and taxis were rare. So we got into a pedicab and off we went down Princes Street, full of the festival crowd, not one of whom could have guessed that the old fogey in ill-fitting evening wear in the back of a three-wheeled pedal-powered jitney was the greatest writer of the age.

Actor Sean Connery presents during AFI's Night At The Movies presented by Target held at ArcLight Cinemas on October 1, 2008 in Hollywood, California.

The compound

He met us at Rinas airport (now renamed for Mother Teresa) with his publisher, who could drive, and took us back along rutted roads and then a track through wasteland to a high wire fence with a gate controlled by a bewhiskered guard with a Kalashnikov. I asked if it was loaded. It was, he said. Behind the fence and 24-hour armed guard lay four houses of varying sizes and luxury. His was certainly less stunning than the one next to it, the domain of a French expat who owned a few newspapers, a batch of TV stations and a small airline, yet still took language lessons on his pool terrace every day so as to be able to understand what his journalists had written. I never got a full tour of the palazzo next door, since most of our visits were to the poolside for drinks and snacks. But one trip to the toilet took me through rooms full of Stalinist artworks – large canvases of heroines astride gleaming tractors, and busts upon busts of the Leader and Guide. It turned out that the proprietor was no recent exploiter of post-Communist freedoms, but a long-term investor in the country, who had begun his career supplying the previous regime with electronic surveillance equipment. He often travelled for business. Where next, I asked? – North Korea. His house was nonetheless open to his neighbour, the great writer, who was in return a good friend of the buccaneer. But French and international royalties hadn’t bought the writer his own house in the compound: it was a gift from an entrepreneur who had made a fortune abroad. 

The vanishing

In 2005, after he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in Edinburgh, I took him on a Shakespearean daytrip in a large rented Mercedes. It taught me that I am not cut out to be a chauffeur. Our first stop was Birnam Wood, and our second, Glamis Castle. There, despite not speaking any English, he managed to disagree with the tour guide about the location of this and that detail in the life and fate of Macbeth. He’d known the place, he said, since he was a boy, because it was the first real book he had read and the first one he had written (by writing out the Albanian translation in his own hand). It was a comical moment, but also a moving one. He’d lived his life in literature since the very beginning, and now here he was, in the assumed physical setting of what was for him the foundational text of his whole oeuvre. Only he really knew what it meant. We went on to St Andrews, since he was very fond of Gothic piles, and he walked out alone on the harbour wall. Then came the haar, the Scottish sea-mist that rolls in at the end of day like a great wad of cotton wool. I stood by the Merc watching Ismail Kadare, with at long last a broad smile on his face, vanishing into the haze.

David Bellos is the Meredith Howland Pyne professor of French and Comparative literature at Princeton University. He was a judge for the International Booker Prize in 2016. His latest book, with Alexandre Montagu, is Who Owns This Sentence? A History of Copyrights and Wrongs, published by Mountain Lion Press in the UK and by W. W. Norton in the United States

David Bellos