Sometimes it is pure chance that makes you pick up a book. I have no idea, now, what made me buy a copy of Stone Virgin, perhaps an interesting review, who knows. But I did buy it and, perhaps more surprisingly, I read it. And I was hooked. More than anything it was probably the atmosphere that caught me, because that is what I still remember more than 20 years later.
After that, I went back and found Pascali’s Island. I saw the film sometime around then and did not rate it at all highly, but I still read the book. That is probably when I discovered what Barry Unsworth was all about. He writes historical novels, yes. They are very thoroughly researched: the texture, the feel, the look of the past is always vivid. It isn’t a glamorous past, they are mostly novels about ordinary people, the locations are dusty, dirty, often rather seedy. You get a very strong sense, in his books, of what it must have been like to live in that place, at that time. And yet, these are not novels about the past. What a Barry Unsworth novel tells you is that fashions change, architecture changes, but most things don’t.
Unlike most historical novelists, he does not restrict his work to a narrow historical range. His settings range from the dying days of the Ottoman Empire (Pascali’s Island and Land of Marvels) to the launching of the Greek fleet bound for Troy (The Songs of the Kings), from the height of the Norman kingdom in Sicily (The Ruby in Her Navel) to a company of players performing a Mystery Play in medieval England (Morality Play), from the 18th century slave trade (Sacred Hunger and its sequel The Quality of Mercy) to a modern day author obsessed with Admiral Nelson (Losing Nelson). And yet, for all their variety, for all the conviction with which you feel the portrait of the past, these are all novels about the present. I don’t mean this in a crude metaphorical sense, he is not setting up the past to act as a satirical mirror for the present. But rather, in the sense that behaviours and relationships reoccur and recho down the centuries.
Take what is, I think, the best novel that he wrote, The Ruby in Her Navel. It is set in Sicily just at the point that the mighty Norman kingdom is beginning to unravel. It is a kingdom in which Moslems and Christians interact and work together, not as an idyll but as rough efficiency. But there are pressures on the kingdom, both internal and external, and through the course of the story we begin to see tiny fissures being widened, until by the end we know that the whole cannot survive. It would be easy to present this as a metaphor for intercultural relationships today, but that is not what Unsworth is doing. He is writing an absolutely straight novel about that time and that place as they were. It is just that the way that people and groups work together is not that different then from how it is now, and in what we see happening then we can see reflections of what is happening now.
His writing is rich and vivid, he captures the flavour of the age without recourse to cod medievalisms or grammatical convolutions. The atmosphere that absorbed me in Stone Virgin is there in all his books. His more recent books have tended to be shorter, more honed, as if he has begun to lose patience with some of the flourishes of the earlier novels, yet they have lost none of their quality for all that. At his best – in Pascali’s Island, Stone Virgin, Sacred Hunger, The Ruby in Her Navel – his writing can be stunningly beautiful. He is, in short, one of the very best novelists of his day.
Yet, despite winning the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger (he shared the prize with the decidedly inferior The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje), and despite being shortlisted for the prize for Pascali’s Island and Morality Play, there is a sense that he is under appreciated. When we talk about historical novelists, his name rarely comes up. Perhaps the sense of quietness that you find in much of his work, the sense that we are looking in on something disturbingly real and current, tends to make it something that we don’t altogether recognise as historical fiction. As if there is something about it that slips through the fingers. Or perhaps the restlessness of his work, the fact that he so rarely returned to the same period or setting, makes it difficult to latch on to.
And now he is dead. There will be no more of these great novels that seem satisfyingly right and utterly surprising at the same time. He was over 80, it’s a good age. But I can’t help feeling the loss. The whole of English literature should feel the loss.
And in among the mountain of reviews I have to write, I’m planning to go back and read, or re-read, all his books. And I’ll be writing about them here.