Barry Unsworth: Historical novelist who won the Booker Prize

Unsworth's work was characterised by a willingness to tackle big subjects, while also bringing enormous pleasure

Martin Childs
Friday 08 June 2012 20:16
'Mastery of technique': Unsworth in Paris in 1994
'Mastery of technique': Unsworth in Paris in 1994

Barry Unsworth was one of the foremost writers of historical fiction and won the premier literary honour, the Booker Prize, in 1992 for his novel Sacred Hunger, about the 18th century Atlantic slave trade. It was his way of using allegorical stories set in the past to comment on the present. The novel was joint winner with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.

In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger, two years after Margaret Thatcher had left office, Unsworth made the connection about his allegorical stories explicit. "As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies," Unsworth explained. "You couldn't really live through the Eighties without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences."

Unsworth was the author of 17 novels, most recently The Quality of Mercy; published last autumn and shortlisted for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize, it continues the narrative of Sacred Hunger. Morality Play and Pascali's Island were also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1995 and 1980.

Unsworth's work was characterised by a willingness to tackle big subjects with great humanity, while bringing enormous pleasure as well as being illuminating; his was a prolonged study of morality. For him, as he made clear in interviews, the historical novel offered a wide portal through which to observe human ethical behaviour and its myriad failings as played out across many different historical eras.

Unsworth admitted feeling at ease with historical fiction, as authors were not under the same obligation as historians to find evidence for the statements they make. "For us it is sufficient if what we say can't be disproved or shown to be false," he said. "The search for truth in historical fiction – in fiction of any kind – is really a search for intensity of illusion. If this is achieved, the events and characters will take on a deeper reality than could ever be achieved by fidelity to the facts of the matter."

Barry Foster Unsworth was born in the small mining village of Wingate, County Durham in 1930. Unlike generations before him who had worked in the mines, he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School, near Middlesbrough, before becoming the first member of his family to continue to higher education, at Manchester University, where he studied English. Thereafter, he completed his two years national service and then lived in France for a year, where he taught English.

During the 1960s, Unsworth spent a number of years in the Eastern Mediterranean, travelling extensively in Greece and Turkey and teaching at the Universities of Athens and Istanbul. Inspired by Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green" (1941), he initially tried writing short stories. He attempted "to graft stories from the Deep South onto North of England provincialism", but these proved unsuccessful, and all were rejected.

Unsworth decided to use his travel experiences in Turkey and Greece, and turned to novels. In these countries he saw the ancient past interfused with the daily present. "I remember being struck with wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection," he recalled.

Aged 36, in 1966, his first novel, The Partnership, was published. Set in Cornwall, it is about the psychology and the mechanics of the business relationship between two men, which is destroyed by the erotic attraction of one to the other. His second novel, The Greeks Have a Word for It (1967), is set in the aftermath of the Greek Civil War and draws on his teaching experience in Athens. Mooncranker's Gift, set in Istanbul, brought Unsworth to the fore as an author and received the Heinemann Award for 1973.

Further novels followed. The Rage of the Vulture (1982) is a historical narrative told through the story of a British spy in Constantinople; Stone Virgin (1985), set in Renaissance Venice, interpolates the story of a contemporary restorer working on a Venetian Madonna with earlier related episodes set in the 14th and 18th centuries; and "Losing Nelson" (1999) tells of a modern-day writer obsessed with the famous British admiral.

Sugar and Rum (1988) was inspired by his residency at Liverpool University and contrasts the city's contemporary problems with its prosperous heritage. Research for the book led him to write Sacred Hunger, recounting the slave trade that moved from Liverpool to West Africa, Florida and the West Indies.

Unsworth's other Booker Prize nominations, Pascali's Island (1980), set during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, and Morality Play (1995), a murder mystery set in 14th-century Yorkshire, were both later made into feature films.

Land of Marvels (2009), set in Mesopotamia on the eve of the Great War, explores two interrelated themes, both concerning the human tendency to dominate and exploit. The first is the destiny of empires, the pattern of their rise and fall; the second is about the early scramble to obtain oil-prospecting rights in the Middle East. The novelist Ursula Le Guin likened the novel "to watching an Olympic athlete about to win the gold: the seamless flow of action, the mastery of technique, seemingly effortless yet demanding attention and eliciting admiration as an end in itself."

Unsworth was Visiting Literary Fellow at the Universities of Durham and Newcastle, and was writer in residence at Liverpool University in 1985 and at the University of Lund, Sweden, for the British Council, in 1988. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He succumbed to lung cancer at his home in Perugia, aged 81, and is survived by his second wife, Aira, and three daughters from his first marriage.

Barry Unsworth, author: born Wingate, County Durham 10 August 1930; married first Valerie Moor (divorced, three daughters), second Aira; died Lake Trasimeno, Perugia 5 June 2012.

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