The Books Interview: Barry Unsworth - Grey skies and blue seas

High ideals and happy toil led Barry Unsworth from a Durham pit village to Umbria's hills. By Charles Nicholl
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The Independent Culture
It is now seven years since Barry Unsworth's Booker-winning novel, Sacred Hunger. It was a big book in every sense, epic in scope, powerfully written, and addressing its central theme - the English slave-trade of the 18th century - with an unflinching eye. Since then he has written two much shorter books, almost vignettes by comparison: Morality Play, about a troupe of strolling actors in 14th-century England; and After Hannibal, a deft comedy of manners based on his own experiences setting up house in Italy. He still lives in this house, and it was there that I met him last week to talk about his latest novel, Losing Nelson (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99).

It was a grey, drizzly day uncharacteristic of Umbria in July - tempo inglese, as the Italians call it. Nearing his village, one skirts the southern shores of Lake Trasimeno. The waters of the lake were dark and sombre. When I mentioned this to him, he nodded as if in recognition of an old friend's moodiness. "Ah yes," he said. "Slatey."

He was waiting for me outside the village post-office; a slim figure in jeans and polo shirt, climbing out of an ageing Fiat Uno, hunched for a moment in the drizzle. He has a trimmed white beard, longish grey hair and tinted glasses. He will be 70 next year, but could easily be ten years younger. His healthy outdoors look befits a man with five acres of Umbrian hillside to tend. And his soft Tees-side accent and considered manner of speech give him a slight air of the schoolmaster, which long ago he was: a good-humoured and genuinely interesting schoolmaster, but one you would do well not to cross.

The house is secluded, pink-washed, with curly tiles and wooden shutters. The view from the terrace is (the weather aside) exactly as described in After Hannibal: "the curve of the road, the ancient olives, the stiff green shoots of the half-grown maize - then the beautiful dipping line of the hills, half melted in the pale blue haze of morning, with the walls and towers of little towns nestling there among them."

He lives here with his second wife, Aira, a Finnish translator. The new book is dedicated to her, as was the previous one. They are a team: he writes in longhand, several drafts, then dictates the final draft to Aira, who types it up on the word-processor. "She's my first reader," he says warmly.

A fluent Italian speaker, she is also in some measure his protector. There have been troubles with hunters coming on the land, exercising their considerable rights. Aira confronted the worst offender. "I once translated a book by Pasolini," she says. "Otherwise I would not have understood all the bad names he called me."

In Losing Nelson, Unsworth returns to the historical terrain he made his own in Sacred Hunger - the world of 18th-century seafaring - but he does so with a difference. The book began with a suggestion from his publisher that he should write a biography of Nelson. The project soon foundered. "I'm not a biographer, I'm a novelist. There is also the problem of research here in rural Umbria. And Nelson is exhaustively documented: every sneeze, every breath."

The book became instead a novel which is, in turn, an oblique and somewhat dark meditation on the problems and paradoxes of writing a biography. It is partly about Nelson, and particularly about Nelson in Naples in 1799, when he first met Emma Hamilton. But these fragments of "genuine" historical narrative are part of another, fictional narrative about a man trying to write a biography of Nelson, a man who will also be drawn by stages to "the poisonous flowertrap of Naples".

This structure acts as a kind of shifting prism through which Nelson is viewed, becoming contrary to the general aspirations of biography - ever more elusive in the process. Had Unsworth been a different type of writer the book might have been called "Deconstructing Nelson". "In my generation," he says, "history was taught in terms of grand figures, men on whom the destiny of the nation hinged, quintessential heroes. Nelson is obviously such a figure, a hero, but now we're not so sure what being a hero means."

Unsworth's fictional biographer is a sickly, reclusive, subterranean figure named Charles Cleasby. He is a kind of Nelson-nerd: a collector of curios and mementos of his hero; a stalwart of the Nelson Society; a re-enactor of battles using model ships on a converted billiard-table at home in Belsize Park. With great skill, Unsworth develops a vein of ironic comment on the dangerous obsessions and hidden psychological agendas of the biographer.

The stylistic tone of the book is downbeat, almost Greene-ish, but as always there are passages of luminous Unsworthian prose, as in Cleasby's strange meditation on heroes or "angels":

"Angels are not complete, they need their counterparts, the dark needs the bright, the hidden needs the open, and vice versa. Sometimes they meet and recognise each other. Sometimes, as with Horatio and me, the pairing occurs over spaces of time and distance. He became a bright angel on the 14th of February 1797 during the Battle of Cape St Vincent. I became his dark twin on the 9th of September 1997, when I too broke the line."

It is a concentrated work, a kind of interior chamber-piece. He says he hopes it has "a simplicity of achievement. It's a single rope - the rope has different cords, different colours. The difficulty was to weave them all together." He notes also a "bitterness" in it, different from earlier books.

It has certainly an element of veiled autobiography - truly a book about book-writing. A bearded novelist who has written a book about the slave trade even makes a brief Hitchcockian appearance. He attends a lecture of Creasby's and asks him if Nelson ever "had a black woman" during his early years in the West Indies.

There is something astringently and honorably old-fashioned about Unsworth - the shady quiet of the house, the disarrayed bookshelves, the longhand drafts, the talk of "moral concerns" and "human condition", the emphatic way he describes the writing of Sacred Hunger as "toil, but happy toil". Born in a Durham pit village, educated at Stockton-on-Tees grammar school and Manchester University, he is essentially of the generation of working- class Northern writers - Braine, Wain, Sillitoe, Barstow - which rose to prominence in the Fifties.

Unsworth was a later starter. He was 36 when his first novel was published. And he has followed his own trail, but one sees him nonetheless as a tough survivor of that generation. When I ask him which novelists had particularly influenced him he comes up unexpectedly with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, and then, more predictably, with Faulkner, Conrad and Golding.

Does he feel his life of exile has cut him off from England, where his new book is largely set, and where his readers mainly reside? He considers carefully. He does not think of himself as an exile, so much as a perennial outsider.

"I like the condition of being an outsider, just passing through," he says. "And though I have become cut off from England, I don't feel cut off from my Englishness. However long you're away, your identity is so bound up with being English - your mind and culture, your understanding of things: you don't lose these. I'm nostalgic for England, but I don't quite know what I'm nostalgic for - for youth, for idealised scenes of long summer evenings, gnats rising by the river, idyllic pictures. I'm not sure what the nostalgia is and what it means."

He is a very private man, searching for that elusive line "between seclusion, which I hope I have, and isolation, which I don't want". He says "We live a retired life", then adds "I mean we don't see many people." That other kind of retirement, which one might associate with a man of his age, is not on the agenda. There is a toughness in him: a strength held in reserve.

Whether he can achieve the level of inner "toil" needed to write another book of the stature of Sacred Hunger is open to question; is, indeed, perhaps the question that Losing Nelson obliquely addresses, with its cunning anatomy of the psychological perils of authorship.

Barry Unsworth, a biography

Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a Durham mining villlage. Educated at Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, he spent a year in France teaching English after completing his national service. In the Sixties he taught at the Universities of Athens and Istanbul. His first novel, The Partnership (1966) was written in Greece. In the early Seventies he moved to Cambridge and continued to write novels while teaching English at a language school. In 1973 his fourth novel, Mooncranker's Gift, won the Heinemann Fiction Prize and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His sixth, Pascali's Island (1980) and eleventh, Morality Play, were on the Booker Prize short-lists. His tenth, Sacred Hunger, which he wrote in Helsinki, was the joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize. He now lives in Umbria.