Barry Unsworth, who explored the ethical complexities of humankind in novels distinguished by scrupulous historical research and compelling narratives, died on Tuesday in Italy, where he had lived with his wife, Aira, for many years. He was 81.
We interviewed Unsworth in 2008 and had the pleasure of his and Aira’s company at the 2009 seminar, where he delivered the John Hersey Memorial Address. He had told us of wanting “to break away from the solitude that is the normal condition of writing and have an audience, people who are well-intentioned, who are interested in what I am trying to do and even in why I am trying to do it. When it goes well, it can be exhilarating—to feel the response, to have it brought home to you that you have touched people’s minds and feelings. On occasions like that, there is a genuine sense of unity, of shared value and common endeavor.”
Three of Unsworth’s presentations from the 2009 seminar are preserved in our audio archive, including one called “Why Bother With The Past?,” in which is contained, as we mark the passage of a great writer and generous man, the following balm:
“The past is another country, we know. It’s not recoverable. Even our own past, our own childhood is not recoverable. We know that we can’t get back to it, but we know at the same time that we’ve never lost it. We know it belongs to us because it has made us what we are.”