Barry (Forster) Unsworth Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Durham, England, 1930. Education: University of Manchester, B.A. (with honors in English) 1951. Military Service: British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, 1951-53: second lieutenant. Career: Lecturer in English, Norwood Technical College, 1960 and 1963-65; lecturer in English for British Council, University of Athens, Greece, 1960-63. Since 1965 lecturer in English for British Council, University of Istanbul, Turkey. Awards: Royal Society of Literature-Heinemann award for literature, 1974, for Mooncranker's Gift; Booker prize, 1992, for Sacred Hunger.
The Partnership. London, Hutchinson, 1966.
The Greeks Have a Word for It. London, Hutchinson, 1967.
The Hide. London, Gollancz, 1970.
Mooncranker's Gift. London, Allen, 1973; New York, HoughtonMifflin, 1974.
The Big Day. London, Michael Joseph, 1976; New York, Mason/Charter, 1977.
Pascali's Island. London, Michael Joseph; as The Idol Hunter, NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1980.
The Rage of the Vulture. London, Granada, 1982; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Stone Virgin. London, Hamilton, 1985; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Sugar and Rum. London, Hamilton, 1988.
Sacred Hunger. London, Hamilton, and New York, Doubleday, 1992.
Morality Play. New York, N.A. Talese, 1995.
After Hannibal. New York, N.A. Talese, 1997.
Losing Nelson. New York, N.A. Talese, 1999.
The Student's Book of English: A Complete Coursebook and Grammar to Advanced Intermediate Level, with John Lennox Cook and Amorey Gethin. Oxford, Blackwell, 1981.
Novels and Novelists in the 1990's. London, Random House, 1993.
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Barry Unsworth's fiction offers powerful and closely observed explorations of human relationships in which desire is entangled with exploitation and with potential, and sometimes actual, violence. In his first novel, The Partnership, the association of two business partners is complicated and eventually destroyed by the repressed homoerotic attraction that one of them has for the other, and in The Hide, a semiarticulate gardener is pressured by his dominating friend into arranging the rape of a young woman. Both of these early works are set in England in modern times, and their close focus on the relationships they portray largely excludes explicit engagement with wider concerns; but in Unsworth's most characteristic work, such relationships are placed in broader geographical, political, and historical contexts. Pascali's Island and The Rage of the Vulture go back to the last throes of the Ottoman Empire in 1908; Stone Virgin takes place in Venice, partly in the 15th century, partly in the 18th century, and partly in the later 20th century; Sacred Hunger, set in the 18th century, moves from the British port of Liverpool to a slave ship, the Guinea Coast, and Florida; Morality Play returns to northeast England in the 14th century, in a bitter time of plague, famine, poverty, and anarchy; the location of After Hannibal is the idyllic landscape of modern Umbria in Italy, but, as the novel's title indicates, we are reminded of its bloody past, when Hannibal massacred the Roman army or the homicidal Baglioni family ruled in the Renaissance; the narrator of Losing Nelson is a late 20th-century biographer who finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that his hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, tricked the Neapolitan Jacobean rebels in 1799 and sent them to their deaths.
A recurrent concern of Unsworth's novels is the link between the relationships of his characters and the artifacts and representations that they make, display, observe, exchange, or desire. In The Partnership, for example, the pixies turned out by one of the partners, Foley, provide the staple of the business, whereas the seraphs and cherubs he also makes represent his desire for independence and finally become the object of his partner's violence. Pascali's Island sets up a complex relationship between a marble head of a woman that is fraudulently claimed to have been found on an archaeological site, a bronze male statue, which is actually buried on the site and provokes a fatal attempt at theft, and a wax model of a saint that topples down during the ceremony of his Assumption. The central motif of Stone Virgin is a carved Venetian Madonna that is first fashioned by Girolamo, a Piedmontese stonecutter; is subsequently discovered after three hundred years by a rake called Ziani; and finally, in 1972, falls into the hands of an English conservation expert, Simon Raikes. The ambiguity of the artifact—as both a product and a denial of mortality—is forcefully encapsulated in Mooncranker's Gift, where the "gift" of the title is a bandaged effigy of the crucified Christ that is in fact made of sausage meat and turns rotten and stinking. Artifacts take on a range of symbolic functions in Unsworth's novels, and they link up with his other concerns, such as voyeurism, in The Hide, or the commodification of human beings, in Sacred Hunger. After Hannibal examines the way in which houses may become objects of desire, focusing on a group of people who come from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany to buy a house in Umbria—as Unsworth himself did after Sacred Hunger won the Booker Prize, the UK's best known literary award. The dream of a house, one of the characters reflects, is unlike any other dream of ownership because the dream of a way of life goes with it.
Theatrical representation is a key theme of Morality Play, as its title suggests. Unsworth's tale of a group of strolling players in medieval England provides a fascinating recreation of the stagecraft and theatrical philosophy of the Middle Ages and dramatizes the question of the relationship between art and life when the players decide, in order to try to increase their audience, to re-enact the recent murder of a twelve-year-old boy, for which a local woman is soon to be executed. The divide between representation and reality gives way as the woman's guilt is called into question and the actors don masks to play out a real event. On and off stage, things are not what they appear to be. Losing Nelson focuses on biographical and historical representation, on its protagonist's attempt to recreate and exculpate a truly heroic Nelson with whom he strongly identifies: the novel sharply examines the relationship between the truths that we may desire from history and biography and the truths which they may actually yield.
At his best, Unsworth has a precise, nuanced, and rhythmically accomplished style that enables him to register psychological complexity sensitively and evocatively to render time and place. Some of his novels, such as The Greeks Have a Word for It, employ an omniscient narrator, allowing for movement between the minds of different characters for dramatic effect; in other novels, for instance Pascali's Island, the story is told in the first person, whereas Stone Virgin combines third-person with some first-person narration. The novels are skillfully structured to maintain narrative interest—for example, Morality Play is, among other things, a compulsively readable mystery tale—and to provide a range of perspectives on their themes and symbols.
Whether he writes of the past or present, Unsworth demonstrates that he has the realist novelist's ability to bring places, people, and situations before us in a convincing and immediate way. But he also demonstrates a postmodernist awareness of the way in which fiction—and, to some extent, history and biography—construct the reality they supposedly convey. Sugar and Rum, which portrays a novelist who wants to write a novel about the Liverpool slave trade but is suffering from writer's block, provides a kind of metafictional commentary on the book that follows it, Sacred Hunger. Despite its vivid medieval detail, Morality Play, like some of William Golding's novels, can be read as a kind of fable for the present. Losing Nelson explores the obsessions and compulsions that may enter into the writing of historical biography. Unsworth has made a major contribution to reviving the historical novel as a serious form both by writing powerful historical novels but also by raising questions, in his fiction, about how and why we represent the past. He has also, in both his historical and present-day fictions, shown the need to engage with the past in order adequately to portray and understand the present; for example, Sacred Hunger confronts an area of Britain's imperial past, its involvement with the slave trade, which is a deeply repressed but still potent subtext in contemporary British debates about immigration and national identity. Unsworth has become an increasingly accomplished and ambitious novelist, whose work constitutes an exciting and wide-ranging exploration of human complexity in the past and present.
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