Barry Unsworth, Writer of Historical Fiction, Dies at 81
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: June 7, 2012
Barry Unsworth, considered one of the foremost historical novelists in English, who was known for rich, densely textured fiction that conjured lost worlds — those of the Trojan War, medieval Europe and the Napoleonic age, among many others — died on June 4 in Perugia, Italy. He was 81 and had lived in the Umbria region of Italy for many years.
The cause was lung cancer, said Lois Wallace, his literary agent in the United States.
An Englishman, Mr. Unsworth won a Booker Prize in 1992 for “Sacred Hunger,” a story of avarice set amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 18th century. The award, now known as the Man Booker Prize, is considered Britain’s loftiest literary honor. (Mr. Unsworth shared it that year with Michael Ondaatje, who won for “The English Patient.”)
Writing about “Sacred Hunger” in The New York Times Book Review this year, the novelist John Vernon said:
“The novel contains a vision of hell on earth unlike any in contemporary fiction, largely because its account of the unimaginable cruelties of the slave trade is told in the well-wrought prose of an old-fashioned 19th-century novel with an omniscient narrator. The effect is uncanny: its intelligent, controlled and immensely readable sentences glow with a deathly pallor.”
Mr. Unsworth’s books, characterized by prodigious research and propulsive narrative force, have long been renowned in Britain and have gained a broad international following in the last few decades.
Among his best known — he wrote 17 novels in all — are “Stone Virgin” (1986), set in Renaissance Venice; “Losing Nelson” (1999), about a modern-day writer obsessed with the great British admiral; “The Songs of the Kings” (2003), which retells the story of the Trojan War; and, most recently, “The Quality of Mercy,” published last year, which continues the narrative of “Sacred Hunger.”
Mr. Unsworth’s work was a prolonged study of morality. To him, as he made plain in interviews, the historical novel offered a wide portal through which to observe human ethical behavior and its myriad failings as played out across any imaginable era.
His books teem with greed. Displaying visible sympathy for people oppressed by those who lust for power, Mr. Unsworth ranged — sometimes soberly, sometimes humorously — over a catalog of human depredation, which also included kidnapping (remember Helen of Troy) and murder.
Reviewers occasionally chided Mr. Unsworth for appearing to fall victim to his own exhaustive research. “Facts sometimes arrive rather awkwardly,” the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian, in an otherwise favorable review of his 2009 novel, “Land of Marvels,” about intrigue in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I.
Most critics, however, praised Mr. Unsworth’s stylish prose, rigorous fealty to detail and ability to evoke entire complex societies. As they also remarked, his books — with their evocation of mankind’s seemingly limitless capacity for immorality — were also brightly lighted windows onto our own age.
A coal miner’s son, Barry Forster Unsworth was born in Wingate, in the north of England, on Aug. 10, 1930. The first in his family to attend college, he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Manchester, where he studied English, in 1951.
He decided soon afterward to write short stories, but there were difficulties.
“Eudora Welty’s ‘A Curtain of Green’ had an enormous effect on me,” Mr. Unsworth told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1995, invoking the author’s first story collection, published in 1941. “But my early attempts to graft stories from the Deep South onto North of England provincialism were not successful. All were rejected.”
He turned to novels, and his first, “The Partnership,” was published in 1966. It told the story of two men whose business relationship is destroyed by the erotic attraction of one to the other. Another novel from this period, “The Hide” (1970), involved a peeping Tom. Though both novels are set in contemporary England, their fascination with obsession and ruin was a harbinger of Mr. Unsworth’s later work.
Over time, Mr. Unsworth fell into the past.
“I don’t think it has been so much a choice as a sort of gradual process determined by accidents of circumstance,” he said in an interview with the online journal Littoral. “I spent most of the ’60s, when I was starting to try to write novels, living and working in Greece and Turkey. These are countries where the ancient past is interfused with the daily present, and I remember being struck with wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection, the reminders that lie in wait for you at every turn.”
Mr. Unsworth’s first marriage, to Valerie Moor, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Aira; three daughters from his first marriage, Madeleine Reiss, Tania Unsworth and Thomasina Unsworth; a brother, Peter; and six grandchildren.
His other novels include two finalists for the Booker, “Morality Play” (1995), about a band of strolling actors in 14th-century Yorkshire; and “Pascali’s Island” (released in the United States in 1980 as “The Idol Hunter”), set in the early-20th-century Ottoman Empire.
Both books were made into feature films: “Pascali’s Island,” released in 1988, starred Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren; “The Reckoning” (as “Morality Play” was retitled for the screen) was released in 2003 and starred Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe.
If Mr. Unsworth’s novels about the past were veiled allegorical tales about the present, then the veil was largely ripped away, he said, during the Margaret Thatcher era.
In an interview with The Independent of London about “Sacred Hunger” in 1992 — two years after Prime Minister Thatcher left office — he made the connection explicit.
“As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies,” Mr. Unsworth said. “You couldn’t really live through the ’80s 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.”
John L. Dorman contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 13, 2012
An obituary on Friday about the British historical novelist Barry Unsworth, using information from his United States literary agent, misstated the day that he died. It was Monday, June 4 — not Tuesday, June 5.