Intensity of Illusion:
a conversation with Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in Durham, England. He is the author of fifteen published novels and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Three of his books– Pascali’s Island (1980), Morality Play (1995), and Sacred Hunger (1992)– were shortlisted for Britain’s premier literary honor, the Man Booker Prize; Sacred Hunger won the Booker in 1993. Unsworth’s sixteenth book, Land of Marvels, a historical novel set in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I, will be published in January, 2009. He will deliver the John Hersey Memorial Address at the Seminar on January 15. Unsworth lives today in rural Italy with Aira, his wife. In this installment of our ongoing interview series, Barry Unsworth talks about the effects of expatriate life, of aging, and the role historical fiction plays in understanding our past and our present.


Littoral: What are you working on now?

Barry Unsworth: I have a new novel in mind, but I haven’t started seriously working on it yet. I am at that very early– and very pleasant– stage, when the idea is exciting and the sense of potential very great, and there is none of that feeling of inadequacy that will come with the attempt to put the words down, an inadequacy in oneself and in the resources of language, experienced every time and always forgotten again. The novel will be set in contemporary Rome and will try to deal with some of the masks and mythologies of that extraordinary city in the course of its long life, and with the fortunes of a cosmopolitan group of Roman residents.
I have lived here in rural Italy for the last 16 years. It has affected me in certain ways– affected the way I write and what I write about, and the way I view the world. A beautiful country and likeable, highly gifted people, betrayed by their own history of disunity and the weakness of state institutions. Corruption, the abuse of power, intricate connections between politics, business and organized crime– I suppose you find these things everywhere, but you find them here in spectacular fashion.

L: As a novelist, you’ve often chosen historical settings over contemporary ones. Why do you choose to write historical fiction?


BU: I don’t think it has been so much a choice as a sort of gradual process determined by accidents of circumstance– like many things in life, I suppose. 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. The seed was there, I think, but I didn’t start writing historical fiction until much later. Pascali’s Island (1980), which was my sixth novel, was the first to be set in the past.
Nowadays I go to Britain relatively rarely and for short periods; in effect, I have become an expatriate. The result has been a certain loss of interest in British life and society and a very definite loss of confidence in my ability to register the contemporary scene there– the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics etc.– with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. So I have turned to the past. The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition– then and now– which transcend the particular period and become timeless.

L: I’m curious about your relationship to language. Spoken language, of course, is mostly absent from the historical record. As an expatriate, I would think that you are daily obliged to speak a language not your own. Two questions, then: What is involved in recreating the idioms in which your historical characters speak? And, how has living in Italy affected your relationship to English?

BU: As you say, it’s rare to find examples of direct speech in the documents of the past. You can find speech patterns in the literature of some former periods- Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, for example, the 18th-century novel, even in medieval love lyrics or drinking songs. And journals can be helpful, being often written in a more intimate and colloquial style.
If you go back far enough, or if the characters have become legendary, it ceases to matter; Achilles or Caligula or Robin Hood can speak in more or less any way you choose. I think the problem arises when you want to be true to the period and at the same time comprehensible to the reader. You can’t make your characters speak in the language and idiom of their own time if the language of the period would seem archaic. It would put too much strain on the understanding and would seem false in any case. There might be various ways of dealing with this, but I have generally found it sufficient to avoid anachronism and contracted verbal forms. If the novel is set in the 14th century, for example, you wouldn’t make one character say to another, “You look great in that dress,” or “Let’s get on with the job.” The extra degree of formality that results from avoiding such blunders does not, in my opinion, inhibit the writer’s powers of expression or stultify his or her prose, in fact it can stimulate invention.
How my relationship to English has been affected by living away from the country is difficult to know; it would be a slow and probably imperceptible process, a sort of linguistic decay, which one would hardly be aware of from day to day. My style has grown terser and sparer, less exuberantly metaphorical, less joyous in a way. But that may well be due to the sobering effect of the years. Anyway, as I draw nearer to 80, I like to interpret it that way.

L: Less joy, less exuberance– that’s a dispiriting sobriety. Has it been a fair trade? What has age granted you to offset these losses?


BU: I suppose I’ve always seen the world in darker tones in my persona as novelist than in the other persona of every day, the social and domestic being. I’m pretty sure that I share this divided nature with a great many other novelists. But in my earlier novels, especially the two written in the early ’70s, The Hide and Mooncranker’s Gift, there was a baroque quality in the style, a density. The mood was grim, but the language was more figurative and more high-spirited. There was more delight in it, more self-indulgence, too. Among my earliest influences as a writer were the American novelists of the deep south, especially Eudora Welty, and some of that elated, grotesque comedy stayed with me.
With time I have grown more sparing with the words. I think less of fire-works and flourishes. I try to get warmth and color through precision of language. This is more difficult, I think, which may be why I find writing novels so challenging and exacting. This whole process, of course, may be set down to a gradual loss of energy, and I wouldn’t want to argue about this. How would one know? Experience changes us, modifies the sensibility, but we still go on shaping narratives, trying to dredge the stuff up.
On the whole, I feel I have gained more than I have lost. I have a clearer sense of what I want to do and what I can do best; I think I am more discerning; I think I have more psychological insight and more knowledge of the working of politics. All this may be an illusion, and I wouldn’t want to argue about that either.

L: It seems to me that public literary events –readings, panel discussions, question-and-answer sessions, even an interview such as this– must force you to confront that cleft persona of writer and ordinary person. Do you enjoy these sort of forums? Is it a form of theater?

BU: There is a strong element of performance in it, of course, and this has got much stronger since I started writing, coinciding with increased public interest in spectacle and in celebrity of all kinds. Writers will vary greatly as to how successful they are at it. To many, it does not come easily- on the whole, we are an introspective race. In any case, it seems it is a necessary accompaniment to the writing career. I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoy doing these things, but I don’t dislike them either. Mixed feelings, as usual. With practice, I have got better at doing them, and in a way more honest- or so I believe. Some of the time, one is putting on an act and I am not always pleased with myself when I realize I have been playing to the gallery.
This question of cleft persona we’re talking about makes me want to break away from the solitude that is the normal condition of writing –the essential condition– and have, just for a while, an audience, people who are well-intentioned (one hopes), who are interested in what I am trying to do and even in why I am trying to do it. It is an attempt to bring the private and public selves together. 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- no playacting in it.
There is also a division of persona in the way the writer is perceived, the discrepancy between the effects of his books and the impression he makes when the reader gets to talk to him or listen to him. It has to be admitted that there will often be an element of disappointment here. The best of us goes into the book. We are not, with some rare and spectacular exceptions, so brilliant or wise or witty as might have been hoped or expected. Far from it. And perhaps the lure of readings and talks and panels, and all these public forums, is simply a doomed desire to live up to the promise, to not disappoint.

L: Your forthcoming novel, Land of Marvels, will be published in January, just before the Seminar begins. What can you tell us about it? How does the history it tells relate to our own time? How does fiction serve “the search for truth”?

BU: My novel has 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.
It is set in the spring of 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict largely caused by imperial ambitions and rivalries. An archaeologist is excavating in what was then called Mesopotamia, digging down through the ruins of empires that believed they would last forever. The 500-year-old Ottoman Empire is falling apart; the French and British, then in a phase of imperial expansion, are poised to divide the spoils. The United States, in growing need of mineral resources, is entering on a policy of interference in the internal affairs of other countries that came to be known as economic imperialism. At the same time, in this “Land of the Two Rivers”– now Iraq– there is beginning a murderous competition to obtain concessions to prospect for oil– another aspect of imperialism when stripped of all the grand words.
As a writer I have always been interested in the workings of power, private and political, its abuses and hypocrisies, the bullies and the victims. In Land of Marvels, I try to illustrate some of these themes– in particular the seeds of ruin that are always there from the beginning in this reaching out for control and aggrandizement. Whether consumed by fire or merely leaking away, the end is always the same.
Writers of historical fiction are 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. We are quite at ease in this no man’s land of ignorance and doubt and dispute, absorbed in the ambiguities of trying to reach truth by mixing fact with invention. 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.

2 thoughts on “Intensity of Illusion:
a conversation with Barry Unsworth

  1. Madhuri Vivit says:

    I am just beginning to read Barry Unsworth and, during a search online for him, was elated to discover Littoral and this interview.
    Thank you.
    m. vivit

  2. Nick Gevers says:

    An excellent interview. A pity Unsworth didn’t write that novel set in Rome; but I suppose we got *The Quality of Mercy* instead, an ample consolation.

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