Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1498
SOURCE: "Painted into Opposite Corners," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXII, No. 41, October 9, 1977, p. 14.
[In the following review, Broyard compares Unsworth's The Big Day to MacDonald Harris' Yukiko. Though his critical evaluation focuses more on Yukiko, Broyard uses it to illustrate why he finds The Big Day a disappointing follow-up to Mooncranker's Gift.]
Yukiko and The Big Day illustrate, all too neatly in my opinion, two contrasting attitudes toward the novel, two unrewarding corners into which quite a few authors have painted themselves. MacDonald Harris writes a dogged, log-ahead prose under the assumption that his story is irresistible enough to grip and hold the reader. Barry Unsworth offers impressive style and technique that overwhelm the thin and rather stale idea behind his novel. Mr. Harris's style, his novelist's equipment, seem to be virtually forgotten in his preoccupation with his subject. His diction is deadpan, and there is hardly a memorable sentence in the book. His tone seems solemnified by the grandeur of what he is attempting. He has no time for frivolity, for bandying words or digressing into the psychological complexities of his characters. He is a bringer of a message, a purveyor of profundity.
Compared to him, Mr. Unsworth strikes me as a literary playboy. He enjoys the run and rhythm of a sentence, the happy impact of a well-chosen word. He has such a consummate talent for getting inside his characters' obsessions, he so blurs the figure-ground boundaries, that his characters spill like wine over the table he has set. It is, however, merely a platter of hors d'oeuvre.
Yukiko concerns four men, three American soldiers and a Japanese-American interpreter, who land on the island of Hokkaido in August of 1945. Their original mission was to deliver Havenmeyer, a commando, and his interpreter Ikeda to the island by submarine so that he might blow up a heavy-water plant. Under ambiguous circumstances, the submarine runs aground on a reef, and Gus, the sub commander, and Angelo, his navigator, are forced ashore with the other two.
Havenmeyer is a caricature, a destructive machine. Ikeda is a shadow, a mere decoder of language. Gus, the narrator, seems to have been hired, as one hires a butler, to bring a wry, humanistic perspective to the proceedings. Against all these predictable elements, Angelo embodies the unpredictable. He is moody, ironic, laconic, mysterious, forever saying things the others fail to understand. This deliberate inscrutibility, one supposes, is meant to create an aura of ominousness, of more-than-meets-the-eye, of suspended tensions.
When Gus asks Angelo whether he deliberately ran the submarine aground, Angelo will not talk about it, even though they have been friends and fellow officers for several years, even though four men were drowned as a result of Angelo's "mistake." It is not "healthy," Angelo says, to dwell on such things. He is not traumatized by the incident; he just does not feel in the mood to discuss it. He is, in other words, a prototype of contemporary fiction.
It may seem that I am laboring the point, but in fact most of the action in the book is of this nature. Mr. Harris is forever retreating into coy obscurity. There is no reason, for example, for Gus and Angelo to accompany Havenmeyer on his suicidal mission. The war is almost over, they point out. Under the circumstances, the mission is not only suicidal, but pointless. Havenmeyer invited them to leave, adding that they are useless anyway—yet they tag along with him, more obedient to the author or the plot than to their own convictions.
Sensei, Havenmeyer's local contact, is a school-teacher. His name, in fact, means teacher. He is an Ainu, one of a tall, pale, hairy, primitive people who are discriminated against by the Japanese. Sensei's behavior is consistently baffling, beginning with his mirrored sunglasses. After speaking of the novels of D. H. Lawrence, which he has puzzled out with a dictionary, Sensei delivers a homily on love, which he follows up, like a true teacher, by presenting to the group an "Air Fairy," a remarkably lifelike rubber doll that they are invited to employ for whatever kind of communion best suits their individual needs.
Why does Sensei introduce this doll? What does it have to do with Havenmeyer's mission, which he is supposed to assist? Is this some sort of psychological test? Is he practicing Ainu voodoo on them? Havenmeyer and Ikeda use the doll, which is named Yukiko, for simple masturbatory purposes. Gus has a vague but more complex attitude toward it. Angelo turns away in disgust.
Sensei consistently refuses to advance the mission or to clarify his position relative to the Americans. Everything he says must be filtered through the stumbling translation of Ikeda, which makes for considerable monotony and causes Sensei to seem even more stilted and removed than he already is. When he takes Gus on a dangerous eight-hour boat trip for the sole purpose of having him photographed in the nude—a preliminary step for the manufacture of a rubber doll in his image—Gus never even asks Sensei why they are doing this.
After a couple of hundred pages of undistinguished conversation and little action, all five characters come to seem like zombies, passive creatures of the author's will, simply waiting for him to put them to work. Now, it has always been my feeling that a good character occasionally overflows the author's intention and appears to speak to us directly. He takes on autonomy and denies that he is only part of someone else's "story." A character who is tranquilized by the author, who is held in thrall to a preordained plot, is nothing but a doll like Yukiko.
At the end of Yukiko, it is not Havenmeyer who blows up the heavy-water plant, but Navy dive bombers. If it is possible for them to do this, why was Havenmeyer sent in the first place? The point I am making is that there is a gratuitous looseness of thinking here that has tended to become an accepted convention. As I see it, one of the functions of a novel is to usher us into the presence of mystery, to frame, reaffirm and perhaps even celebrate certain indissoluble tensions that we all share. But this is not the same as making mysteries out of everything and nothing.
In the name of the social order, the Victorian novel tied up every loose end, but the novel of the 70's, in a belated backlash, seems determined to untie them. Only connect, E. M. Forster said; and now it has become only disconnect. Disorder is our pride. Romanticism has degenerated from the extravagant to the random.
Readers seem to have accepted the situation with a remarkable complacency. The willing suspension of disbelief was never more willing. Familiarity breeds contempt: if a character's behavior does not contradict every expectation, he is the worst sort of conformist. The melancholy result of this fashion is that the true mysteries—love, loneliness, the fear of death, the need for a structure of some kind—are lost in a welter of trendy improvisation, of scare-crows dressed in Samuel Beckett's clothes.
While Mr. Harris attempts to "rivet" us, Mr. Unsworth is content merely to entertain us. Cuthbertson, his protagonist, has founded a bogus school that confers "degrees" on those who cannot get them elsewhere, particularly foreigners who have not mastered English. There is a good deal of talented parody of this last group, and I am reminded of Malcolm Bradbury's witty novel, Eating People Is Wrong, which was written at least 15 years ago. There are echoes of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, too, but faint ones.
The Big Day seems to have a very limited ambition. Most of Mr. Unsworth's considerable talent is expended on the disintegration of Cuthbertson, and while his is a brilliantly rendered decline, it is not enough. Cuthbertson, a rigid character, is undone by such influences as the shifting patterns of light on his highly polished desk, by the odor of hyacinths that an overzealous assistant has concealed in his office, by his attempt to persuade himself that his school is an honest attempt at education, by his emancipated wife's importunities. No one can suggest better than Mr. Unsworth the panicked floundering of a consciousness about to drown in its own elements. Like the rubber doll in Yukiko, The Big Day is a skillfully crafted but lifeless artifact. Cuthbertson has no more personality than Yukiko. He is only a vehicle for a certain kind of exercise.
Mr. Harris's previous novel, The Balloonist, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976. Mr. Unsworth's last novel, Mooncranker's Gift, was one of the best books I read in 1974. If I were asked to explain why these two authors have not done better here. I would be tempted to answer that the reading public has not sufficiently moved them to exert themselves. A cynic whose name I forget said that people deserve what they inspire. I think that readers certainly do.
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SOURCE: "Other Times and Places," in New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1981, p. 10.
[In the following review, Malone provides an appreciative assessment of Unsworth's main character in The Idol Hunter.]
In 1908 on an irrelevant Greek island of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, the Levantine spy Basil Pascali writes his 216th irrelevant report to Constantinople, this time to the Sultan himself. Monthly, for 20 changeless years, the fat shabby informer has received for his services the same sum but never the slightest response to these millions of words poured into an Imperial void. In the silence he has written his life away and in so doing has fashioned it into the marvelous lapidary creation that constitutes British novelist Barry Unsworth's The Idol Hunter. Esthetic, solipsistic, constrained to see himself from the viewpoint of others as an obsequious, cowardly buffoon wretchedly cavorting for cadged meals, Our Man in Asia Minor is a spy Graham Greene could appreciate. George Smiley would employ and Peter Ustinov should play. He is a wifeless, homeless, drugged Ulysses abandoned to live by trickery on a foreign island.
By 1908 Turkish dominions have contracted to a moribund core of corruption and clogged bureaucracy, which exists only by the inertia that pays Pascali's salary and that keeps immobile the old emigres who sit hearing Offenbach and reading frayed Figaros in the pink rattan chairs of the island's Hotel Metropole while rebels collect in the hills. In fact, the Young Turks soon will depose the Sultan, Balkan wars will remap Europe, a World War will re-create the world. Poised at this abyss, Pascali yearns both for the past's "fixity of perfect balance" and for the "gesture that shatters the glass." The world awaits new idols.
Waiting too, this scrounger and clown who studies Parmenides and quotes Mallarme, who squires paying American widows and saves up for fortnightly visits to a boy prostitute, this observer of nuance and gesture who has always falsified his reports "for the sake of color and variety," this artist has created an island. Its opaline blue gashed with white, its jumble of jasmine and dark tobacco, of Roman harbors, Moslem mosques and Crusaders' castles, its Greeks, Turks, Jews and Armenians, the woman painter he desires, the English adventurer with whom he attempts a deadly con game—all are caught like exotic fish in the net of Pascali's unanswered words.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860
SOURCE: "Books of the Times," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1983, p. 15.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers praise for Unsworth's evocation of the Middle East in the early twentieth century in The Rage of the Vulture.]
In Barry Unsworth's latest novel, The Rage of the Vulture, Capt. Robert Markham—a British infantry officer posted to Constantinople during the final years of the Ottoman Empire—is a complicated and not very sympathetic protagonist. He regards his 10-year-old son, Henry, mainly as a rival for his wife's affection.
He resents his wife for her failure to understand a secret thing about him, which secret, paradoxically enough, he refuses to reveal to her just because of that resentment. Convinced that Henry's governess can understand him, he all but rapes her and then rejects her for understanding him too easily.
He has a facility for surpassing in unpleasantness even the worst of the novel's other characters. In one of Mr. Unsworth's more bitter scenes, an English visitor named Miss Munro, who finds Constantinople "romantic," asks Markham to accompany her on an interview she has arranged with one of the Sultan's eunuchs. She has had great success with a series for an English magazine on Turkey during the 1908 revolution and wants to see "what the experience has meant to people. The guardsman, the concubine, the pageboy." "'Ordinary people,' Markham said, but Miss Munro was too absorbed in her subject to notice the irony."
When the liberal Miss Munro inadvertently prompts the eunuch to describe his castration, Markham savagely translates the horrifying description while Miss Munro tries to stop her ears. We actually end up feeling sorry for the petty-minded creature. Why then, you might ask, does one continue to put up with Markham as he makes his way through Barry Unsworth's dazzling and complex portrait of Constantinople in the year 1908? Why does one continue reading The Rage of the Vulture, whose title is taken from Canto I of Lord Byron's "The Bride of Abydos": "Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle / Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime? / Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle, / Now melt into sorrow, now madden to crime." Why does one go on? For one thing, because Robert Markham's secret is a plausible reason for his complicated behavior. He had been in Constantinople 12 years earlier, about to marry an Armenian girl, when the Turkish massacre of the Armenians began to spread throughout the city. At their engagement party, Markham's fiancee was raped and murdered while he stood by, protesting to her tormentors: "I am an Englishman. I am an Englishman." The shame of the incident has unmanned him, which, of course, is why he translates the eunuch's experience for Miss Munro with such savage relish. Now, in the novel's present, he is determined somehow to make amends for his shame.
Of course he cannot. As a young Armenian nationalist tells him, "The suffering of individuals is not important." He continues, "You lost your fiancee. You think: They did this to me, to me! You nurse what they did to you. You think of yourself as an outraged individual. You are alone with yourself. There are two million Armenians in Turkey, Captain Markham. The very great majority of them have no leisure to cultivate their personal sense of outrage in that way."
What is more, the reader knows from actual history that whatever Markham may accomplish by way of revenge or self-punishment, the Armenians in Turkey will eventually suffer far more widespread massacres.
Still, Markham will pursue his own degradation all the way to the Sultan's personal torture chamber. And if he accomplishes little more than to have his English pride and individuality beaten out of him, he serves along the way as the reader's witness to the splendors of exotic Constantinople. Many of Mr. Unsworth's spectacles, such as the celebration of a holy day in the interior of the Hagia Sophia, are heightened in their effect by being made an integral part of the plot. But even when he is merely sightseeing, his scenery is often spectacular.
Markham's eventual defeat transports him into a state of eccentricity somehow peculiar to the English. In the novel's epilogue, set toward the end of World War I, we find him back in England, living once again with his wife, though at a somewhat chilling remove. He has taken up bee-keeping, as well as writing a massive book whose thesis it is that in keeping with the tendency of certain races to "take on an excitatory role in history," it has been the fate of the Armenians to stimulate "the atrocity glands, that was their collective historical role."
As the conclusion to a heroic quest, this is not very satisfying. But it is an altogether fitting end to this curiously crabbed and obsessive adventure, in which Barry Unsworth once again, just as he did earlier in such accomplished novels as Mooncranker's Gift and The Idol Hunter, has exercised his strange fascination with Turkey and the Middle East during the early years of this century, and has thereby succeeded in fascinating his readers.
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SOURCE: "Atonement in Turkey," in New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1983, p. 7.
[In the following review, Edwards finds The Rage of the Vulture an admirable attempt to reveal personal conflict amid catastrophic world events.]
The recent conquest of America's television screens by The Winds of War is the latest evidence of our desire to know the origins of the cataclysms the 20th century has made so commonplace. Or since such entertainments conceal as much as they reveal, maybe it is our desire not to know these origins too accurately, on the not unreasonable assumption that the whole truth might be more than we could handle.
The Rage of the Vulture, the sixth novel by the British writer Barry Unsworth, could also be made into a pretty good television spectacle but only by excising most of what makes it impressive as a novel; it comes not to conceal but, like any serious work of imagination, to tell us more than we are morally prepared to know. Mr. Unsworth's story is set in Turkey in 1908, when "the sick man of Europe" at last lay dying while its racially and religiously fragmented populace was in turmoil and the European powers sought to extend their spheres of influence. These struggles would become more public in August 1914.
As the novel begins, the aged Sultan Abdul Hamid II, rightly fearful that his cruel reign has brought retribution close to his door, studies Constantinople through a telescope from his hilltop palace while, within his field of vision and deeply aware of being so, Capt. Robert Markham of the British Military Mission gives a garden party for members of the European community. Farther away rebellion is stirring in Macedonia, led by the Young Turk dissidents in the army, avowedly bent on European-style modernization and liberalization. Ethnic and religious animosities in the diverse populace, relatively quiet since the massacres of Armenians in the 1890's, are on the rise. And the other major powers are maneuvering to block the ominous growth of German influence in the region.
Observing a primary convention of historical fiction, Mr. Unsworth places a minor personal experience at the center of the public drama. In the eyes of his British colleagues Robert Markham is rather a difficult sort. Clever, sensitive, aloof, "erratic," he lives with his wife and 10-year old son, Henry, in a non-European quarter of the capital. He seems puzzlingly "proprietorial" about Turkey, with a most un-British interest in its political and cultural subtleties, and it alerts him to an impending revolutionary change to which his hidebound colleagues are quite oblivious.
The reader learns that Markham has a secret concealed even from his wife. He was in Turkey 12 years earlier, when he was compelled to witness the rape and murder of Miriam, his Armenian financee, during the Armenian massacre of 1896. He saved himself by telling her killers that he was English, asserting a detachment from the horrible event that has haunted him ever since; his return to Turkey seems in some way meant as atonement. As Markham enters the unknown depths of official and underground politics that involve both Turks and Armenians, his son, in a delicate echo of his father's initiation, begins a childish but incipiently sexual relationship with the little Turkish girl next door.
Markham's search for self-respect provides both a gripping story of adventure and intrigue and a deeper portrait of an interesting mind puzzled and thwarted by its own experience. As events compel the Sultan to accept the constraints of constitutional monarchy, Markham's suspicions about Colonel Nesbitt, a senior colleague who seems closer to Turkish Intelligence than he should be, lead him into a secret world of subversion where a faction of Armenian nationalists and Young Turks guardedly conspires against the old regime. At home, needing someone to hear his confession about Miriam, Markham makes a rather predatory conquest of Miss Taverner, his son's young English governess, which Henry (something of a spy himself) witnesses and later deliriously reveals when stricken with typhoid fever.
This domestic disaster—his wife and son and Miss Taverner quickly return to England—brings Markham the physical and moral solitude his quest for personal and political understanding requires. And a pattern begins to emerge from his experience: He seeks in effect to be a man, not merely an Englishman (the identity that protected him from Miriam's fate), not a husband or father or lover or soldier, not subject to terms of existence narrower than those of full humanity. But this desire is enclosed by history, with (as T. S. Eliot wrote) its "many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues." And Markham's search for his own humanity through the physical and moral labyrinth of prewar Constantinople is ironically shadowed by the novel's depiction of the maze of secret corridors and exits the doomed Sultan keeps rebuilding in his palace to foil assassins.
Markham's effort to participate meaningfully in history, to know and assist those who would bring down a brutal regime, causes him to shed his European selfhood even as he physically assumes native identities. He takes refuge with gypsies, dresses as a Turk and finally enters the palace in disguise as the Sultan is at last being deposed, for an oblique but personally decisive encounter with the tyrant who has obsessed his mind for so long. But the ironies of history cunningly persist and triumph. Markham's assertion of his humanity by revealing his moral guilt to others is compromised by his unrecognized need to dominate, even destroy, those to whom he reveals it. His sympathetic approach to the Armenian cause, to the achievement of a national homeland, makes him a useful pawn of extremists in that cause who would provoke new massacres to dramatize their plight. Provoked or unprovoked, massacres did indeed take place in 1915, after the "liberal" new regime replaced the Sultanate.
The Rage of the Vulture is in many ways a curious novel for these days. Eloquently, even poetically, written, it still does not pursue ambitiously "literary" effects, meanings noticeably larger than its material suggests. Though its chief concern is coherent narrative, it isn't really an espionage-intrigue tale or a historical novel in the popular mode. (Devotees of those genres ought nevertheless to enjoy it.) Nor, despite its potential resonance with religious and racial horrors still abroad in the Middle East (and elsewhere), is it a parable about contemporary history. It is a beautifully honest story of how a life is both given point and thwarted by its concern for self-definition through political commitment, and I admire Barry Unsworth very much for having told it so scrupulously and vividly.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
SOURCE: "Death in Venice," in New Statesman, Vol. 110, No. 2839, August 16, 1985, p. 28.
[In the following review, Clute finds the meaning of Stone Virgin somewhat confusing but appreciates Unsworth's depiction of Venice.]
Bulging like a teardrop into its poisonous lagoon, Venice boasts a geography so graspable for purposes of art that it comes as a surprise not that so many stories are set there, but so few. In its fatal intercourse with the sea, the city models an inherent tendency of the Western mind to see the world as a series of dire consequences: the old familiar marriages of love and death, art and decay, power and corruption, sex and drowning.
Stone Virgin, a tale of love and death, art and decay, power and corruption and sex and drowning, has been set by Barry Unsworth, who is a deft and canny teller of tales, in the best place possible to add depth and a sense of the sorrows of time to a story that might otherwise seem marginally overblown. Conservation expert Simon Raikes has been called to Venice to restore a 15th-century Madonna, almost instantly to be haunted by the intricate circumambient city whose every vista seems to embody and to intensify his veil-rending obsessions. For he is an epileptic and, succumbing to seizures in the Virgin's presence, catches glimpses of an epiphanic Venetian past: bodies in clean rapture; hints of events that must have occurred when the sculpture was whole; a light as golden as childhood.
While this is going on, Unsworth omnisciently weaves into the main text two smaller narratives, the story of the artist who carved the Virgin in 1432 and of an 18th-century rake who seduced a woman in her shadow. Raikes's visions are of events from these two narratives. It seems that we are in the world—it is not an ignoble one—of the Venetian tales of Vernon Lee and Daphne du Maurier, for Raikes's visions can only be supernaturally derived. It is precisely at this point, however, that Stone Virgin slips into a slightly tedious mundanity—for Unsworth is clearly unwilling to give his novel any supernatural warrant.
The ending isn't much helped, either, by this refusal to tie the knots. Raikes falls in love with a woman whose family has been darkly involved with the Virgin throughout its history and it begins to look as though he's destined to reenact the same fatal sequence of passions that uplifted but then destroyed his predecessors. Perhaps wittingly, she has involved him in the death by the drowning of her artist husband; he is in sexual thrall to her—in thrall, also, to Venice. Unfortunately, through omniscience, we know rather more about Raikes's situation than Raikes does. Even so, because the novel has lost some of its coherence by this point, when Raikes does reconcile himself to her, goes to her isolated islet and watches her 'pale gold, glistening form emerge' like Aphrodite from the sea, we do not know if she is meant to be redeemed, redeeming or merely wet.
All the same, Unsworth's lovingly detailed Venice resonates with all her old beauty, her old desolate hints that time will not have a stop. She saves Stone Virgin.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
SOURCE: "A Sexual Rectangle," in New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1986, p. 27.
[In the following review, Pollitt considers Unsworth's figure of the Madonna in Stone Virgin more interesting than his depiction of his human characters.]
Just when I thought I couldn't stand to read another semiautobiographical novel about a failing marriage, a blocked writer or a young man on drugs and the make, along comes the British novelist Barry Unsworth (Mooncranker's Gift) with a book that makes me think of that old Monty Python line "And now for something completely different." Stone Virgin is certainly that. Set in Venice in three different centuries, it's the only novel I can think of besides The Picture of Dorian Gray whose central figure and most interesting character is a work of art—a late Gothic statue of the Virgin of the Annunciation that seems to glow, may have supernatural powers and is definitely associated with murder, treachery, vengeance and high erotic doings down through the ages. There are problems with having a statue upstage the human characters, and I'll get to them in a bit, but give Mr. Unsworth credit: one couldn't be farther from the Upper West Side.
The main line of the story, set in 1972, gives us the British art restorer Simon Raikes, who has come to Venice to clean a sadly corroded Madonna as part of an international effort to rescue Venetian art treasures from the ravages of acid rain and air pollution. Raikes becomes obsessed with tracking down the statue's lost history: who was its sculptor, and what happened to him? Why was it installed in a church only in 1743, and where was it before? More to the point, why is Raikes, a rather tepid and tweedy sort of fellow, suddenly tormented by sexual desire and hallucinatory visions? In pursuit of the answers to all these questions, Raikes becomes involved with Lattimer, a sinister collector of artistic and sexual trophies, and Chiara, elusive wife of the gloomy sculptor Litsov.
If Raikes soon finds himself enmeshed in a rectangular drama of adultery, art theft and possibly murder, it comes as no surprise. Flashbacks set in 1432 show us the Madonna's creator, Girolamo, framed for the murder of the beautiful prostitute who served as his model. "Interludes" dated 1793 present Ziani, an aged aristocratic rake in whose salacious memoirs the Madonna, demoted to garden statue, plays a starring role. Both these men end up badly, and so, almost, does Raikes.
Mr. Unsworth has lavished a great deal of ingenuity—not to mention historical research—on his plot, carefully placing motifs and settings and incidents that echo back and forth in time. Yet I have to say that rarely have I read a novel with so little suspense. Part of the problem is that since we already know the Madonna's story through the flashbacks, it's boring to watch poor Raikes piece it together all over again from documents. And part of the problem is the prose. Mr. Unsworth offers touching desperation in the Girolamo chapters and elegant pastiche in the Ziani ones ("The airs of the past came to him, warm with malice, spiced with lechery, scented with self-congratulation"). But he also writes too many sentences like "Time and the world stood still for Raikes" and "Was this the burning creature of the night?"
Mostly, though, the problem is the characters. Lattimer is too creepy, Chiara too wise, Litsov too solemn and Raikes too flat to make us want to believe their rather improbable story. Never mind whether Raikes's visions are epileptic symptoms or psychic tremors from the Madonna's past. What I really wanted to know was what on earth Chiara, the pagan goddess of love and sex, sees in a morose young man who has never been in love and abandoned his sculpting ambitions out of cowardice. The minor characters are national stereotypes—the Italians dangerous and passionate, the English hyperrational and cool and furtively kinky. It would be fun to see the stereotypes reversed for a change—are there no fierce, licentious Englishmen, no shy, cerebral Italians? But that would require a writer with more of a sense of humor than the author cares to display here. Mr. Unsworth, moreover, is in the grip of a large idea. Men, he is out to demonstrate, see women not as complex human beings but as sex objects, to be worshiped as Madonnas if unattainable and despised as Jezebels if won. This is perhaps not as large an idea as he thinks, but virtually every character and every situation in Stone Virgin is set up to bear it out. Girolamo and Ziani are destroyed because they think their mistresses are playthings; Raikes almost loses Chiara because he confuses her sexual autonomy with a propensity for murder. Litsov possesses his wife through his sculpture; Lattimer collects pornographic souvenirs; all of Raikes's male colleagues are obsessed with the beautiful breasts of Miss Greenaway, the boiler-suited Titian expert. "It is you who are interested in fetishes, not us," Chiara tells Raikes, just in case we've missed the point; "you, all these dirty little boys who cannot grow up."
Against such a human backdrop, the Madonna looms steadily larger. Posed for by a prostitute and commissioned by an order of flagellant monks. Girolamo's statue embodies both sides of men's attitudes toward women, yet her strange luminosity, her otherworldly smile and her semierotic pose lift her beyond categories. I felt sorrier about the "badger stripe" of pollution across her face than about the travails of all the humans put together, and I held my breath when Raikes lifts his cleaning tool for the last, supremely dangerous touches, as I did for none of the murders, couplings and betrayals, past or present. Mr. Unsworth's people may lack reality, but if I ever visit Venice, I fully expect to see Girolamo's Madonna smiling down at me from a church front. And if I don't, I'll be disappointed indeed.
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SOURCE: "Standing outside England and Looking In," in London Observer, No. 10,488, October 18, 1992, p. 59.
[In the following interview, Unsworth reflects on his childhood and literary influences as well as on winning the prestigious Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger.]
On balance, Barry Unsworth is in favour of literary prizes, even if he has to share one.
'I'm glad enough to have trousered the money,' he says, smiling diffidently—as much at his turn of phrase as at the sudden novelty of being £10,000 better off. 'And if the judges were genuinely at loggerheads between myself and Ondaatje, it was better to divide the prize than settling on a third who might not have been the first choice of anyone.'
In a posh suite on the tenth floor of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, Unsworth pours a second cup of morning coffee after the night's celebrations. Cheerful and attentive, he's too polite to burden strangers with details of his hangover, though he is noticeably wary of the Danish pastries.
The prize will come in handy. After several years' residence in Finland—where people go to bed early—he and his second wife are currently converting the pigsty of a 100-year-old Umbrian farmhouse into a habitation fit for a newly prominent novelist. 'It costs money,' he explains. But if previous Booker form is anything to go by, worldwide earnings for Sacred Hunger will pay for an embarrassment of pigsties. And the lira is cheap at the moment.
This move is the latest of many. Unsworth has led a nomadic life since fleeing the coalfields of County Durham 40 years ago—Greece and Turkey in the Sixties and Seventies, Liverpool and Cambridge in the Eighties—eking out his royalties by teaching, and taking whatever scholarships or reviewing work came his way.
Unsworth broke loose from the North-east after his parents died in the early Fifties. His father—'an intelligent and energetic man'—had worked down the pit; his children did not. Determined to be a writer, Unsworth junior donned a black polo-neck jumper and moved to Cornwall, whose craggy scenery and wild aspects—it has to be imagined without the cream teas—attracted all manner of bohemian types. Ensconced in a cliff-top cottage Unsworth dispatched dozens of short stories to publishers in return for dozens of rejection slips.
While he admits that Cornwall was an awfully romantic idea, he points out that to a lad from Stockton-on-Tees—a place where ownership of an umbrella was an affectation punishable by public ridicule—it was the pinnacle of sophistication. It's not difficult to imagine the young Unsworth on that clifftop. The strain of idealism survives in Sacred Hunger, his epic tale of life aboard an eighteenth-century slave ship. For all its portrayal of brutality and corruption, there lies at its heart a niggling argument for man's capacity for good. Rationalist ideas—Rousseauesque philosophy, pre-Darwinian inklings—battle against the prevailing moral orthodoxies born of mercantile expedience. The book resonates with glimpsed Utopias—like Unsworth's Cornwall—amid the despair and degradation.
But when at one point the narrator speaks of 'wealth creation' as a sacred duty, it rings a bell closer to home. Unsworth is unrepentant about using this buzzword from the Thatcherite Eighties—the point being made is identical, he says. 'It was impossible to live in the Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term "wealth creation" deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.'
Unsworth's narrator pops up in other places to prod us with some pointed aphorism. One doesn't want to press the point too much, but where exactly is that authorial voice coming from? Which century? This is one of those awful postmodernist things. Unsworth looks thoughtful, even perturbed. 'I'm not sure. When I started, I wanted a narrator who would be like some grandmother who sits by the fireside moralising and throwing in little axioms and proverbs and homely sayings. She would tell a story that she knew and at the same time reflect upon it.'
As a child, Unsworth worked his way through his father's shelf of Victorian novels—George Eliot, Dickens, Wilkie Collins. Is this the kind of narrator he's talking about? 'I know Henry James and Flaubert have intervened since those days. But it is possible to regard the modernist aesthetic as an aberration. One doesn't need to apologise for not having a centre of consciousness or an exclusive viewpoint. My own daughters took to George Eliot at an age when you would have expected them to be involved with … what was he called, big ears …'
Er, Prince Charles? 'Enid Blyton, you know.' Oh, Noddy.
Will Unsworth ever come back home for good? His adherence to traditional storytelling and his uncluttered moral vision is at odds with the intellectual cladding that has become the sine qua non of 'smart' contemporary fiction. 'It's become a habit now to be a bit on the outside looking in. I do love England and I hope to live here eventually but I wouldn't like to be too much in the swim.'
He's talking about London's literary clans: 'I don't think I'm built for that. I would get impatient with it. It is too incestuous, too …' He trails off, diplomatically, decently. But you know what he means.
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SOURCE: "Books of the Times: Trading in Misery on a Doomed Slave Ship," in New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1992.
[In the following review, Mitgang calls Sacred Hunger "a remarkable novel in every way."]
Reading Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth's long and beautifully written novel, you know you are in the hands of a master craftsman when you find yourself slowing down on page after page to savor his thoughts and words.
A hypocritical shipowner engaged in the slave trade: "Wealth had not dimmed his need to be liked, his desire to appear knowledgeable."
The shipowner's self-praise for including a doctor on his slaver's roster: "God balanced the ledgers. Nothing went unrecognized. A good deed was an entry on the credit side, a bill drawn on destiny which could not fail to be met one day."
The slave ship's cruel captain: "He felt the beginnings of rage, always his willing confederate."
Before setting sail to Africa from Liverpool, the captain and the doctor, his nephew, "touched glasses and drank, but it was the spirit of enmity they imbibed that afternoon, and both of them knew it."
He writes of a half-blind former slave in New Orleans, "He was small-boned and delicately made and he had a way of tilting his head up when he spoke, as if seeking to admit more light to the curdled crystals of his eyes."
Sacred Hunger can be read as a straightforward story of the British slave trade in the middle of the 18th century. Right down to the last impressed seaman and knotted lash, the novel's specificity is so detailed that you accept the characters as true to life and the horrible scenes as an accurate picture of the trade in human beings. But in this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth's characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed—sometimes within the same person—and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.
A slave ship is being built for a proud Liverpudlian businessman, a member of the newly formed Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, created for what is known as the triangular trade. Goods, muskets and cheap trinkets are traded in Africa in exchange for blacks from other raiding blacks; the slaves are carried to America or the West Indies and sold there; tobacco, rum and sugar are then bought with the proceeds and resold in England.
The slave ship, called the Liverpool Merchant, has certain special features. The swivel guns on its quarterdecks are mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts. The ship's rails are thickened to make death leaps more difficult. In the hold, at the lowest level of the ship, there is room for 200 slaves, tightly packed together. In language that echoes Joseph Conrad, the author describes the ship's maiden voyage on the first leg of the triangular trade:
And so, in the course of that morning, the Liverpool Merchant was turned loose into the Irish Sea. With her mainsails set and a fair wind from the southeast, released from tethering rope and umbilical cable, she was for the first time in her life unfettered, free—save for her own groaning tensions—between wind and current.
On board is the novel's hero, the scholarly young doctor. While unsympathetic to the barbarities of buying and selling the human goods that have enriched his uncle, he has his own reasons for taking a job on the Liverpool Merchant. Having served a prison term on vague grounds of defending free speech, and because his wife and infant have recently died, he is seeking a new life.
But the Queeg-like captain, an experienced professional in the slave trade, quickly recognizes the young doctor as his enemy. He doesn't want the waterfront dregs who make up the ship's crew to be treated for illnesses and beatings; the doctor's role is only to keep them healthy enough to work and pay off their drinking debts. When the enslaved families, made servile by their nakedness, are bought on the western coast of Africa, their treatment is even more demeaning. With a hot iron, the slaves are branded like cattle with the initial of the ship's owner: the men on their chests, the women on their buttocks. A smell of burned flesh hangs in the air over the Liverpool Merchant.
Again and again, the captain tells the doctor that a prime male slave is worth hard cash on the auction block in Jamaica or Virginia, and that a gentleman can live well in England for a year on the proceeds brought by a single slave. Watching the slaves stripped and branded, humiliated and whipped, the doctor finds that he too is becoming degraded.
While the Liverpool Merchant is crossing the Atlantic, the author keeps a secondary story spinning in Liverpool itself. The shipowner's son has fallen in love with an amateur actress, part of a young circle of friends who are rehearsing a play. And which of Shakespeare's dramas has Mr. Unsworth so cleverly chosen to remind the reader of the two different, but parallel lives, led by the two cousins: one on the perilous high seas, the other safely at home? The Tempest, with its shipboard scenes, inferno, storm, shipwreck and attempt to enjoy an idyllic life on a desert island.
Without straining too hard, the rehearsal of The Tempest can be read as a metaphor for what occurs in the harsh reality of Sacred Hunger. Prospero's line "Abhorred slave!" brings together the events in the play and the novel. But it isn't necessary for a reader to do so because Mr. Unsworth's main story is propelled by its own strong narrative engine.
In Sacred Hunger, disease spreads, the crew mutinies, the captain goes to his just reward and the Liverpool Merchant ends up shipwrecked on the coast of Florida. There a secret community is formed by the doctor, the sailors and the slaves, living together in what is an uninhabited land only lightly under the domination of Spain. But the story is not yet over; the two cousins, one driven by greed and revenge, the other by a dream, living on opposites sides of the world, will meet again.
Mr. Unsworth's book, which this year shared Britain's top fiction award, the Booker Prize, with The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, is a remarkable novel in every way.
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SOURCE: Review of Morality Play, in Publisher's Weekly, August 21, 1995, p. 43-44.
[In the following review, Steinberg praises Morality Play as a "gripping" examination of the tension between appearances and reality.]
A portentous opening sentence—"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on"—sets the tone for Booker Prize winner Unsworth's (Sacred Hunger) gripping story [Morality Play]. Indeed, a larger spectre than those two deaths hangs over this tale set in 14th-century England. The Black Plague is abroad in the land, and here it also symbolizes the corruption of the Church and of the nobility. One bleak December day, young Nicholas Barber, a fugitive priest who has impulsively decamped from Lincoln Cathedral, comes upon a small band of traveling players who are burying one of their crew. He pleads to join them, despite the fact that playing on a public stage is expressly forbidden to clergy. His guilt and brooding fear of retribution pervade this taut, poetic narrative. Footsore, hungry, cold and destitute, the members of the troupe are vividly delineated: each has strengths and weaknesses that determine his behavior when their leader, Martin, suggests a daring plan. In the next town they reach, a young woman has been convicted of murdering a 12-year-old boy, on evidence supplied by a Benedictine monk. Desperate to assemble an audience, Martin suggests that they enact the story of the crime. This is a revolutionary idea in a time when custom dictates that players animate only stories from the Bible. As the troupe presents their drama, many questions about the murder become obvious, and they improvise frantically, gradually uncovering the true situation. This, in turn, leads to their imprisonment in the castle of the reigning lord and their involvement in a melodrama equal to the one they have acted. Among the strengths of this suspenseful narrative are Unsworth's marvelously atmospheric depiction of the poverty, misery and pervasive stench of village life and his demonstrations of the strict rules and traditions governing the acting craft; underlying everything is the mixture of piety and superstition that governs all strata of society. Though sometimes he strays into didactic explanations, Unsworth searchingly examines the chasm between appearance and reality and the tenuous influence of morality on human conduct.
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SOURCE: "The Great Pretenders," in New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, pp. 11+.
[In the following review, Burroway cites minor flaws in Morality Play, but otherwise praises the novel's deft universality of theme.]
In a bitter winter in 14th-century England, a young scholar-priest comes upon a troupe of traveling players. These are violent times, when victims of the plague are heaped in common pits and "the spirit of murder is never far." Nicholas Barber is in several sorts of flight: from the verbosity of the Latin manuscripts he has been set to copy, from the wrath of the bishop whose kindness he has betrayed and from the husband of the (most recent) woman he has toppled. Characteristically, the engaging hero of Barry Unsworth's new novel, Morality Play, is walking not on the road but in the shadows. From his hiding place, he witnesses the actors in a real-world death scene, gathered around one of their number. We know at once that Nicholas will join the troupe, taking the dead man's place.
One of the things that distinguish Mr. Unsworth's fiction is a sense of community that is warm without being sentimental. In Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1992, Mr. Unsworth created a leaderless band of former slaves and sailors in a credible utopia. In Morality Play, he offers a rich mix of squabbling, prideful players: the leader. Martin Bell; pale Straw, the mime; old Tobias; Stephen, whose deep-voiced dignity earns him the part of God in the morality plays; Springer, the boy who plays the women; and slatternly Margaret Cornwall, who looks after the mending and the money basket.
This band is en route to a performance at Durham, arranged as a Christmas gift from their patron to a relative. Determined to give their dead comrade a Christian burial, they make their way to the nearest town, now with Nicholas as well as the ripening corpse. But the cost of rent and rites is high, perhaps exorbitant. To raise the money, they must ply their trade; and, the drawing power of live theater being what it is, the take is hardly enough to offer rest to any of them, alive or dead.
Very soon it becomes clear that the town has another drama on its mind. A peasant boy has been murdered, and has been buried with strange alacrity. A beautiful deaf girl, who cannot speak, is being brought to justice with a speed also perhaps too deliberate. Listening to the town's gossip, the "greatly gifted" Martin, with his "zealot's face," comes up with the idea of docudrama. If we play their play, he tells the troupe, they will come; and, of course, he is right—although, then as now, the process involves both legal and spiritual pitfalls. Nicholas, too uneasy in his new profession to resist, at least knows with shame that "our profit would come from the shedding of a child's blood."
In order to plot their play, the actors skulk and interview and theorize. They become investigative journalists whose media are rhyme and dumb show. Yet it is in the feigning of the murder that they are led to the truth, not so much stumbling upon it as entering into it through the minds of their half-invented characters. Martin is most possessed by the enterprise, unable to detour from either his artistic insights or his role as savior of the girl, even at the threat to all their lives.
Historical genre fiction wants to amaze us with exotica: with dazzling costumes, splendid pageantry, feats of daring. In such fiction, any modern note reads as an anachronism, often unintentionally comic. But Mr. Unsworth has the art to enter the sensibility of a period—its attitudes, assumptions and turns of phrase—so convincingly that he is able to suggest subtle yet essential parallels between an earlier era and our own. The sailors of Sacred Hunger fought scurvy and foul weather and a cruel captain, familiar struggles all, in a way that made no concessions to Hollywood. In Morality Play, Mr. Unsworth has devised for his sinner-priest a voice that is sweetly pious, logical in a slightly literal-minded way and full of medieval-seeming wonder. Nicholas is a man well acquainted with the smell of death and muck but riven with fear that "if we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions."
Nicholas's wide-eyed explorations illuminate a range of current issues, seen in a new light by way of this unexpected context: the plight of women, the general abuse of children and the disabled, the fear and ignorance that surround a plague, the showy cynicism of the law, the social and political corruption that is found to spread farther and higher than could at first have been imagined. Even jousting, like today's prime-time sports, represents an expensive nostalgia for battle.
Embedded in Nicholas's tale is a variety of speculations about the nature of art and its uncomfortable fit in the "real" world of commerce, power, will, greed and intrigue. He delineates the subtle tyrannies of patronage and the preference of the populace for the crude entertainment of a dancing bear over the careful skills of an actor. He is full of Pirandellian reflections on the dangerous freedom the actors acquire with their roles, and the masks to which all return in their daily functioning, "playing parts even when there was no one by but themselves."
The little band makes a trap of Hamlet's kind, the play being the thing to catch the murderer. When Martin teaches Nicholas the prescribed theatrical gestures, we sense the mismatch between immediate matter and formal style—like the mismatch between Chekhov's realism and the rhetorical acting style before Stanislavsky. There is even an echo of Beckett's Vladimir, seeing the suffering world as the dream/drama of some greater being.
Occasionally, Mr. Unsworth nudges us a bit too hard. It is very convenient in a story so full of disguises that the lord of the locale is named de Guise, and that when the players finally confront him his face is "obscured from us by the brim of his hat and the plume set in it at the side." It undermines our readerly cleverness when Martin declares. "This is the way that plays will be made in the times to come." Nicholas's foreshadowing also hints at a doom that never materializes, so the novel's ending seems slightly askew, given the preparation that has come before it.
But these are minor cavils. Morality Play is a bravura performance, sparkling with the author's and the players' invention and mined with small ironies, like the description of Tobias, "who played Mankind and doubled the small parts and did attendant demons." The novel is a thought-provoking comedy on the eternal sameness of disaster and the recurrent uses we put it to in art. On the way, we toy with morality and also play our way to truth.
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SOURCE: "All the Stage Is a World," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, pp. 2, 7.
[In the following review, Nicholl presents an appreciative assessment of Morality Play, maintaining that the novel is a worthy successor to Unsworth's prior works.]
It is three years since Barry Unsworth's last novel, Sacred Hunger, won plaudits and prizes (including the United Kingdom's prestigious Booker Prize) for its rich, harrowing portrayal of lives aboard an 18th-Century English slaving-ship.
The setting of his new book is very different, and the tone of it even more so. Morality Play tells the story of a troupe of players on the road in late 14th-Century England. The action unfolds over a few days and features a tight ensemble of characters. Most of it takes place in a small, unnamed Yorkshire town where the actors arrive, in the deep midwinter, and set up their stage in the inn yard. After the epic sweep of Sacred Hunger, this is a spare and sharply focused piece. It has the deceptive conciseness of a parable, or indeed a medieval morality play, in which the complexity lies not in the telling of the story but in the meanings and resonance that echo in the mind after it is told.
If this makes it sound rather austere, I should add straight-away that it is also an intriguing murder mystery, which keeps you guessing until almost the last page.
The story is narrated by a young man called Nicholas Barber. "A poor scholar, open-breeched to the winds of heaven," he has run away from his tedious studies as a subdeacon at Lincoln Cathedral and taken to the open road. Cold and hungry and full of remorse, he falls in with a troupe of strolling players. They have recently lost one of their members, the comic Brendan; Nicholas is taken on as a replacement; "it was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."
The players, led by the pale, charismatic Martin, are en route to Durham, to entertain at a nobleman's Christmas. Somewhere in Yorkshire they stop off to bury Brendan and to eke out a few shillings with a performance of the "Play of Adam." Nicholas makes his debut—as an attendant demon with a horned mask and a rope tail and a trident "for roasting the damned"—and learns the dangerous excitement of the stage: "A mask confers the terror of freedom, it is very easy to forget who you are. I felt it now, this slipping of the soul."
Unsworth handles the playing scenes with quiet relish: the repertoire of gestures and symbolic costumes; the drums and the torchlight and the alarming masks; the appearance of God on stilts. He catches that vividly makeshift quality of early drama.
Then the story begins to darken. They learn of the recent murder of a 12-year-old boy, Thomas Wells. A young woman, a weaver's daughter, has been charged and—rather hastily, it seems—condemned to hang. The circumstances are shady, and become more complex as the players start to inquire about them.
There is a key scene, beautifully written, in which Martin broaches the idea that they should perform a play about the murder. To the others, this idea of representing a real event, rather than the stock themes and figures of the moralities, is extraordinary. They are nonplused. "Who plays things that are done in the world?" asks one. "It was finished when it was done. How can men play a thing that is only done once? Where are the words for it?"
As their "Play of Thomas Wells" becomes, in itself, a form of detection and inquiry, and as the finger of suspicion points ever higher toward the household of the local feudal magnate, Richard de Guise, one sees that Unsworth's story is about the capacity of art—and particularly the live, momentary art of theater—to create new meanings, and thereby new possibilities, in the lives of its audience.
Their performance is contrasted with the chivalric jousts and tourneys that also feature in the story. In these the knights and ladies play their parts in a performance that reinforces the hierarchies and assumptions of feudal society. The play does something different. It questions and explores, and within the marked-out boundaries of the stage, and with the active collusion of its audience, creates an area of comment and debate.
As a medieval murder mystery, Morality Play invites comparison with Eco's Name of the Rose, and to admirers of the latter it will perhaps seem somewhat skimpy. I personally find its cool, lapidary style something of a relief. This is not a historical novel that depends on texture—that brothy accumulation of period detail, picturesque squalor and archaic turns of phrase—to achieve a sense of the past. Even the best practitioners, like the late Anthony Burgess, tend toward this rhetorical construction of history. Too often a historical novel seems like a piece of repro furniture deliberately "distressed" to make it look like an antique.
Unsworth's story wears its authenticity lightly, and his dialogue is entirely free of "gadzookery." The social setting is cleverly evoked: wintry scenes, hard-bitten lives etched against a background of frost and snow. There is a sense of confinement and control—the presence of hunger and plague; the daily oppression of feudal society. Morality Play is a book of subtlety, compassion and skill, and it confirms Barry Unsworth's position as a master craftsman of contemporary British fiction.
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SOURCE: "Barry Unsworth Rescues 'All the World's a Stage' from Cliche," in Chicago Tribune Books, December 24, 1995, pp. 3, 6.
[In the following review, Begley praises Unsworth's deft handling of the historical novel genre and his thought-provoking themes in Morality Play.]
Morality Play, a fine new novel by Barry Unsworth, who won the 1992 Booker Prize for his Sacred Hunger, works brilliantly on three levels. It's an accurate, carefully imagined historical novel, set in 14th Century England; a dark and suspenseful murder mystery; and a provocative meditation on the birth of a new art form. Each layer adds a different flavor and texture. Binding the whole is Unsworth's understated, unerringly precise prose, and his narrator, a priest on the lam, very young and very poor, named Nicholas Barber.
We meet Nicholas as he's running out of a house without his cloak, running from the rage of a jealous husband. A priest caught in the act of adultery? Nicholas is wayward and weak-willed, but engagingly honest in his confessions: "[I]t was not lust but hunger drove me, a lesser sin, I was hoping she would give me to eat, but she was too hasty and hot. Then by ill luck the husband returned before expected and I had to escape through the cowshed and left my good cloak behind in that bitter December weather."
Nicholas runs straight into a band of traveling players, also poor, and short a man, too: One of their company is breathing his last just as Nicholas appears. Desperate, and again a little weak, Nicholas joins them, though it is expressly forbidden for clerics to perform on a public stage and players are thought of as little better than vagabonds.
Bound for Durham, where they are meant to perform Christmas plays for their patron's cousin, the players are forced to stop in a strange town to bury their comrade. They also hope to replenish their common purse by staging the "Play of Adam." But the burial is unexpectedly expensive, the audience for the play unexpectedly small. The town is distracted, full of odd tension. There has been a murder—a young boy strangled. A woman has been swiftly tried and found guilty, sentenced to hang. Unsettling questions linger.
Martin, the master-player of the company, a man intensely devoted to his craft and skilled in uncanny ways, hatches a plan the others rightly fear: He wants to stage a play about the boy's murder. To act out secular events, the news of the moment, is a staggering proposition in an age when religious pageant and morality plays are the only sanctioned, the only known forms of theater. The other players are scandalized by Martin's subversive suggestion. And yet Martin wins them over, thanks in part to the force of his conviction.
To prepare the play they must learn more about the murder. They become detectives, and soon the clues are pointing away from the condemned woman. Her accuser is a Benedictine monk, confessor of the powerful lord whose castle looms above the town. The mystery deepens and the danger grows even as the players rehearse their parts.
Against the backdrop of cleverly plotted suspense, Nicholas engages in nervous speculation about the consequence of their audacious enterprise. He understands how this new kind of play turns everything topsy-turvy: "[I]f we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions. He will leave us in the void without the comfort of His Word." If man by his art manages to piece together some kind of truth, that truth may prove comfortless.
Part of the beauty of Morality Play is the way the mystery and the metaphysics come together. If the players can indeed find out truth by crafting a faithful representation of reality, then the murder will be all but solved. If not, their player's pride has led them sadly astray. There's a further twist, too. If, as they suspect, the murderer is still at large, then the better the play, the more danger for the players. Truth is deadlier than fiction.
Most historical novels are loaded down with too many period details. Obsolete and dated doodads choke the flow of narrative and reveal the author's anxiety about making it all seem at once old and real. In this respect, Unsworth travels light, giving the reader just enough to suggest a coherent world very different from our own.
The historical detail gets technical only when it comes to the players' acting methods. Nicholas is initiated into a secret language of hidden signs and a public language of ritual gesture. When they speak among themselves the players mix words, signs and gestures: "[H]e made the sign of money, which is done by opening and closing the hand very rapidly."
Unsworth makes wonderfully efficient use of this for color, comic relief, characterization (each player has his own repertoire of gestures), and also to underscore the exotic element—it is strange to travel in this motley company.
Nicholas learns to act. He makes an unexpected discovery: "[T]he player is always trapped in his own play but he must never allow the spectators to suspect this, they must always think that he is free. Thus the great art of the player is not in showing but in concealing." He learns to see the world through a mask, and to see the machinations of others as elements in a larger drama.
Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" is worn thin from overuse; Morality Play gives it new life. Unsworth shows us the moment in Nicholas's education—and the moment in history—when it becomes possible to see in all the earnest bustle of mankind a gaudy pageant, footlights, costumes, greasepaint, props.
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SOURCE: "When Someone Zigs Instead of Zags," in New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1996, p. C16.
[In the following review, Bernstein praises Unsworth's "tightly constructed murder mystery" and the evocative details with which he builds his story in Morality Play.]
The first few sentences of this cunning, suspenseful medieval murder mystery by Barry Unsworth [Morality Play] are a model of literary compression and an illustration of the artfulness that adorns the novel's every page. With quick strokes of the pen, Mr. Unsworth introduces his narrator, Nicholas Barber, as a priest who in the recent past was searching for a meal but ended up in an act of adultery from which he had to make a quick escape. This, in turn, put him in the woods, rather than on the open road, and it was in the woods that he ran into a troupe of itinerant players standing mournfully over the corpse of a recently deceased fellow. And this warrants the first half of Mr. Unsworth's opening line: "It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."
At the heart of Morality Play is the fascinating logic obeyed by the chain of circumstance, whereby tiny, ordinary events lead to unforeseen large and life-changing ones. There is a theological statement here someplace about the role of free will and accident in human affairs, about the things that are predetermined and the things that are governed by a kind of 14th-century chaos theory, the contribution of the butterfly's wing to the movements of the atmosphere. Morality Play is constructed like a lesson in butterfly-wing complexity, showing the way in which one small decision about an obscure death in the forest later comes to intrude into the life of the lord's castle in town.
Morality Play, Mr. Unsworth's first book since his Sacred Hunger won the Booker Prize in England in 1992, is not theological. It is a learned, witty, satisfying entertainment set in medieval England. (The dust jacket says the 14th century, but this is not specified in the actual text.) Mr. Unsworth's not-too-pious priest—who is nonetheless concerned about his moral bookkeeping—joins a debate among the players in the woods over how to dispose of their recently deceased fellow actor.
They are on their way to perform for a relative of the lord who owns them, and since they are in a hurry it would be expedient for them to leave the body in the woods, where Nicholas, fleeing an irate husband, first sees them. The ground being frozen, however, and the dead player's friends eager to give him a proper burial, the troupe decides to take him along, and Nicholas too. And so, the priest's hunger determines his encounter with the troupe, and the company's compassion for the dead determines everything else, including a detour into an unknown town. There, in accordance with Mr. Unsworth's first-page hint, the actors learn of another death, and the tightly constructed murder mystery unfolds.
A story like this depends on the power of the payoff at the end, of course, and here is perhaps a minor weakness in Mr. Unsworth's book. Some readers will guess the secret of the plot well before it is disclosed in the final chapters. Moreover, Mr. Unsworth gets his characters out of the scrape their actions have led them into by creating a character whose presence on the scene is a somewhat too lucky coincidence.
Still, what Morality Play loses in climactic surprise, it gains by its originality as a mystery story and the persuasive strangeness of the 14th century in which it is set. The detective story unfolds through the activities of the players. They create a play intended to depict the murder—according to the official account of it by the authorities—to local townsfolk. They do this piece of pioneering theatrical work not to solve the crime but to make money.
"It has been in my mind for years now that we can make plays from stories that happen in our lives," says one member of the troupe, foreshadowing the made-for-television movie of half a millennium later. "I believe this is the way that plays will be made in the times to come."
As they rehearse, the players begin to see flaws in the official version of events. They come to see that nothing about the crime is what it first appeared to be. The play in this sense does not catch the conscience of a king, but it allows for the exploration of reality. "The player is himself and another," Nicholas explains at the end. "When he looks at the others in the play he knows he is part of their dreaming just as they are part of his. From this come thoughts and words that outside the play he would not readily admit to his mind."
Meanwhile, Mr. Unsworth evokes a believable 14th century, a time of religious conflict, of the struggle for power between the king and the country's great lords, of pervasive barnyard smells and the Black Death, which turns out, like everything else in Mr. Unsworth's plot, to play an indispensable role. The narrator speaks convincingly as one imagines narrators to have spoken in 14th-century England, and within that framework, Mr. Unsworth creates many scenes of graphic beauty.
"The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a rawboned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold," Mr. Unsworth writes of a scene in the market. "The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow. He saw me watching him and smiled the same smile, with the wet of the snow and egg glistening on his innocent face."
Nicholas Barber seems too good a narrator to let go after just one short book. Perhaps Mr. Unsworth will write "Morality Play, Part II," in which Nicholas tells us another savory story.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895
SOURCE: "Creepy Crawling, Heavy Breathing," in New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1996, p. 12.
[In the following review, Quinn offers praise for the reprint edition of The Hide.]
Better known for his potent fictional reconstructions of time past—most memorably the slave trade epic Sacred Hunger, which shared the Booker Prize in 1992—Barry Unsworth reveals in this early novel, first published in Britain in 1970, an equally assured grasp of the modern world. Bristling with menace, The Hide is a superbly modulated study of the blighting of an innocent. While the canvas is somewhat narrower than one might expect from Mr. Unsworth, the texture of the prose is easily recognizable. And it is as dense and dark as the overgrown estate that furnishes the novel's setting.
The Hide is laid out as a dual narrative. Simon, who speaks to us in half the chapters, is a creature of the underground, obsessively patrolling the wild acreage of his sister's estate while he digs an elaborate system of hidden trenches, a "hide" from which he can watch "girls cycling past at weekends, careless of their skirts on the empty road." With his heavy binoculars and his heavy breathing, Simon likes nothing better than to spy on the woman in the bungalow across the way, priding himself on the discipline and stealth required for this perverted surveillance. He feels his secret domain coming under threat, however, when his sister, Audrey, hires a gardener. Terrified that the interloper will expose his subterranean labyrinth, he immediately embarks on a plan of defense.
The gardener, 20-year-old Josh, is the book's other narrator, as open and innocent as Simon is furtive and scheming. Their voices are also markedly different. Where Simon's is fastidious, precise and braced with an almost Nabokovian disdain ("I see the bright frizz of her hair in the sunshine—she will inflict on herself these unbecoming home-perms"), Josh's is untutored and countrified, couched in an ungrammatical idiom that Mr. Unsworth catches beautifully ("She would never of tried to catch me out or show me up like").
Josh has been used to a peripatetic life—though he is touchy about any references to being a Gypsy—and while working at a seaside fairground falls in with Mortimer, an older man whose influence on him is, we soon learn, quietly pernicious. As Mortimer's brand of unsentimental education takes hold, distant but ominous alarms begin to sound in the reader's mind:
He said blokes like that, cripples and blokes without their faculties, should be kept away from healthy people…. It is no use trying to feel what a dumb bloke feels, Mortimer said, and his eyes got bigger because I was arguing like, he hates to be argued with. Well I got scared when I seen that, I hate Mortimer to be angry with me, he might just decide to stop being my friend and once he did that I know he'd never change, it would be for good. You are taking the sentimentalist line, he said. Haven't you heard of neecher? Neecher? I said…. Slave morality, he said, looking at me with those big eyes.
Meanwhile Josh himself has had a conspicuous and half-unwitting effect on the novel's two women characters. Audrey, a Brooknerish widow somewhat past her prime, seeks to relieve her loneliness in his company. She mistakenly assumes that her affections are returned when Josh makes her a gift of a toy horse he has carved. Unbeknown to her, Josh is already involved with her young housekeeper, Marion, a romance in which both Simon and Mortimer take a keen interest. The former sees it as a chance to compromise Josh and effect his dismissal; the latter has more sinister designs.
Mr. Unsworth sustains the motif of concealment: Simon's "hide" symbolizes the narrative's complex network of secret alliances and motives. It also yields a wonderfully grotesque set piece when Audrey has the local Dramatic Society round for a supper party. Simon, in revenge for his sister's appointment of the gardener, conceals his false teeth in the chocolate mousse and watches in an agony of excitement as the guests begin to help themselves:
The teeth are already served then, already dished out. Perhaps, perhaps in mine. I return to my place in the corner, attack the mousse immediately, nothing, nothing at all. The glutinous stuff, darkly glistening, mocks my spoon with its lack of resistance, sweetly dissolves against my toothless gums. I see Mrs. King finishing off her mousse with dainty licks, nothing there either…. It is like seeing humanity for these few moments sub specie aeternitatis. We are all doomed, of course, but one of us is more immediately singled out.
Mr. Unsworth demonstrates throughout a steely command of technique. His patience in detailing the shifting nuances of a relationship is exemplary, but even more impressive is the suggestion of unspoken—hidden—feelings desperately contained. Moment by moment, we feel Josh's progress from puzzled ingenue to reluctant accomplice, a corruption no less agonizing for being inevitable. It is remarkable how much has been packed into so slight a novel. The most obviously compelling aspect of The Hide is in the characterization of Mortimer, an individual of unregenerate malignity. Yet in the novel's glancing depictions of seafront shabbiness, of the tight-lipped politesse of county society, of the exploitation of a luckless itinerant, Mr. Unsworth also offers us a bitter little slice of England.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316
SOURCE: "The Weight of History," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 2.
[In the following review, Eder considers After Hannibal a "dazzling" exploration of history, greed, and betrayal.]
"Do you know the land where the lemontrees flower?" Goethe wrote in a poem that helped shift the elevation angle at which the Romantics regarded earthly salvation. Instead of going upward to heaven, you went sideways to Italy.
Since then, untold hundreds of thousands have traveled from Northern Europe, the United States and elsewhere, not so much for the sun as to follow a grand line of beauty and aesthetic order that shifted from Greece to Rome, sheltered in the medieval abbeys and burst forth in the Renaissance. Above all, it went beyond works of art to show itself at the turn of a street, to blossom almond-white in a restaurant's courtyard and to stretch over patterned hills, olive groves and terra cotta roofs, as if that same art had formed them all.
Increasingly, when the grand hotel gave way to the pensione and then to the dream of the perfect villa or a month's apartment rental, the sense grew that you could do more than follow the line. You could join it; you could become part of the beauty. You could change your life, have breakfast in the painting, wash dishes in the three stanzas retained from college Dante. Literary adjectives would climb off the shelf and enlist as daily household help. "Crystalline" might overdo it, but water would be more than water when you turned the tap.
Or less—and when a plumber finally came, he might go away without fixing it, overcharge and get mysteriously angry. Baffling notices would slide under the door; a routine bank errand turn into an inexplicable crisis. The cheerfully talkative butcher would fling an indifferent piece of meat across the counter and go taciturn.
The literature of Mediterranean illusion and disillusion is vast. A lot is bad—most recently, the smarminess of Peter Mayles' exploitative romancing about food and the picturesque in Provence. Much of it, honest enough, keeps to the ruefully light. But there is a literary tradition—a leading one, in fact—of great writing: Henry James, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, John Cheever, Penelope Fitzgerald and William Trevor are a few of the very different names that come to mind.
After Hannibal, by the British writer Barry Unsworth, is a vivid, sinuous, profound and entirely beguiling venture at squaring their same circle: How do we balance our need for the Mediterranean illusion, the reality in the illusion and the reality of that reality?
The first leads to an exploration of ourselves, the second to an evocation of the power of art and beauty over time—a power as real as war and plague. The third brings in the war and plague and confronts the first two with the harshness of how people actually struggle and live. We are ravished by the beauty of hill-town walls and facades; we do not know how to reconcile it with the smell of bloodshed so copiously in building, assaulting and defending them.
Unsworth weaves these things together in a polyphony as acrid as a Gesualdo madrigal and playful as a tavern catch. He interweaves the stories of four couples—two Italian, one English, one American—and a single German, who own small villas along a common dirt road in the Umbrian countryside outside Perugia. Each is there after some illusion or fulfillment. Each comes up differently against the consequences of history, stretching back 2,000 years and affecting, right to the present day, the way that people behave and the way the very grass blades grow.
Not far from the dead-end dirt road, Hannibal's troops hid in the fogged-in hills above Lake Trasimeno and swept down to massacre the Roman legions, unfamiliar with the landscape and struggling in the lakeside marsh. Unfamiliarity with the landscape or, in the case of the Italians, with the history that seeps through it, is one of the themes that runs through Unsworth's dazzling novel.
There is Harold Chapman, a blustering, prosperous English developer, and his art-loving wife, Cecilia. She had hoped that an Umbrian villa and lots of culture would bring them together; for Harold, acquiring culture is a war of conquest like any other. He gets into a feud with a peasant family—not in the least picturesque and quite as greedy as he—who wants him to pay for the collapse of their rickety wall after the Chapman's construction trucks have rumbled through. When they hammer in stakes to block the road, Chapman sallies into Perugia to enlist Mancini, the lawyer.
There is Fabio, a former racing-car champion, and his male lover, Arturo, whom he has plucked from a life of prostitution. Benefaction and tyranny are hard to distinguish, though; Fabio insists on meticulous order and labor to embellish their small paradise of a villa. Outwardly compliant, Arturo seduces Fabio into signing the property over to him, arguing tax and other advantages. He then decamps and brings an eviction action. "I will kill him," Fabio rages, but he too goes to Mancini.
There are the Greens, two retired American art teachers who have invested their savings in a broken-down villa, hoping to turn it into a retirement dream. They are hopelessly bilked by Blemish, an English con man who sets himself up in the vicinity as a kind of super-contractor.
Blemish and his stout wife are a wonderfully loving pair. After his day of swindles and hers of frying up rich pastries, they don Restoration costumes and play galumphing sex games. They are a high order of low comedy and sharp as shark's teeth. Blemish's dealings with the sweetly and insufferably innocent Greens are an agonizingly expert course in how to be fooled. Rallying eventually, they arrive at Mancini's rapidly filling waiting-room—of which more in a moment.
Connected in a more ghostly fashion to the story is Ritter, a German translator who has broken down remembering his father, an army officer who took part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre of 335 Italian hostages. The father's self-exculpatory explanations work like slow poison in a son whose profession is words. He labors to clear his five acres of scrub, a wordless image for his battle with the tangled lies of the past.
Finally there is Monti, a historian whose wife has just left him for another man. Puzzling out her betrayal, he parsues his research into the bloody and treacherous conflict of Renaissance Perugia with the papacy. Monti's travels to nearby villages, in order to put together the story of the particularly carnivorous Baglioni family, is one of two silken threads that bind his neighbors' stories together. The gentle Monti learns from the history he unearths; it teaches the futility of revenge and, instead of burdening his grievance, lightens it.
The second thread is provided by the much-solicited Mancini. Angelically devious, he leads his tormented clients through the entirely divergent complexities of Italian law and Italian practice. As a young man, he explains, legal solutions seemed to be straight lines. Not so; they are a web.
This benevolent spider bends his clients' quests for linear justice through the prism of a millennial history. Law is not a sword in Italy—too many righteous causes have been pursued too long and horribly. Instead, it is a cloudiness, under cover of which one can devise advances, retreats, feints, traps and finally, if possible, a solution. The tactics he proposes are hilariously twisted, while serving, strangely, time's long-drawn approximate justice.
Each of the stories achieves indeterminate balances of satisfaction and frustration, thanks in part to the lawyer's tutelage and in part to that of a fortuitous earthquake. History (researched by Monti, applied by Mancini) and the unstable landscape: These are the regulators of the dozen turbulent and comically detailed passions that Unsworth has so finely set in motion.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
SOURCE: "Etrurian Shades," in New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 30.
[In the following review, Mantel finds After Hannibal uneven in structure and character and overly formal in language.]
Barry Unsworth's latest novel [After Hannibal] is a sad comedy of cheats and fools, a story of unbounded beauty and blighted hopes, of multiple and layered betrayals, "a regression of falsehoods and deceptions going back through all the generations to the original agreement, God's pact with Adam." Its setting is the Umbrian countryside, "the hills that Perugino and Piero della Francesca looked at," and the little hill towns with their art treasures and their frequently bloody history. What lies beneath the promise of the spring landscape, the poplars gently unfurling, the peach trees in bud? The answer is there in the place names: "Sepoltaglia, burial ground, Sanguineto, where the blood ran, Ossaia, place of bones."
Mr. Unsworth's characters are linked by the road that runs past their houses. "They are called strade vicinali, neighborhood roads…. Dusty in summer, muddy in winter, there are thousands of miles of them wandering over the face of rural Italy. When such a road has reached your door it has no necessary further existence." These roads are marked on maps, but the maps make no distinction between broad highways and rutted tracks, between roads that are useful and roads that are merely notional. The cost of their upkeep falls on those whose doors they pass. It is a dispute about the maintenance of a wall adjoining one particular strada vicinale that embroils a British couple named Harold and Cecilia Chapman in a quarrel with the Checchetti family, who are just as coarse and cunning as peasants in literature can possibly be.
Not that the reader is on the side of the English couple. Harold is a blusterer, his wife a bore. Their other neighbors are a strange German, Ritter, who has suffered a mental breakdown and lives in isolation in the hills above; an ingenuous American couple, the Greens, soon to become the dupes of a British "project manager" who will wreck their house instead of renovating it; two Italian homosexuals, whose personalities are hardly established before the younger one runs away, having first persuaded his partner to sign over the house to him.
There is also the morose figure of Monti, an Italian historian whose wife has recently left him. Here is a personal betrayal to add to the historical betrayals on which Monti's mind dwells. His function in the plot is that of matchmaker between the past and the present. The history he teaches his students seems old-fashioned, quaint and anecdotal, and the reader may not have much confidence in his judgment. Did Gibbon really find the era of ancient Rome "a period as remote from him in its manners and morals as the time before the Flood"?
In addition to the strada vicinale there is another link between these characters. It is Mancini, the cunning and enigmatic lawyer whom most of them find reason to consult. Mancini seems to be of no particular age. Has he a beginning and an end? His clients, with their childlike notions about justice, merely furnish him with entertainment. He seems to be in possession of some truth—but what is the truth Mr. Unsworth offers us? Houses fall down. They are razed. Earthquakes and enemies blitz them. We are all exposed, sooner or later: "no walls left standing to shelter our illusions."
After Hannibal does not earn the right even to this glib, routine pessimism. Mr. Unsworth himself lives in Umbria. He writes tenderly about fig trees and nightingales, frescoes and stained glass, and particularly about the lovely light of the area: "The experience of it was like the experience of understanding something." Sometimes he seems to be describing the terrain just to cheer us up—after all, there is not much in the characters or plot to please us—and at these times the novel reads like a very superior guidebook. Elsewhere, descriptions carry a heavy weight of symbolism, and this makes the writing seem inauthentic. When Mr. Unsworth's characters have a crisis, they go off to view a ruin; under stress, they urgently examine an altarpiece.
Occasional flashes of acid observation are welcome. (Harold Chapman "was given to the counting of blessings, which in practice meant the listing of assets.") And Mr. Unsworth writes well about how we hate the people we cheat, how betrayal changes the nature of the past by poisoning memory. The interplay of the individual stories is neat and ingenious, but the structure does not allow narrative tension to build.
Mr. Unsworth's intimate knowledge and delight in his territory gives the prose life and beauty, but expatriation may also be undermining him. He has never been a writer who followed the fashion; with admirable integrity, he has plowed his own furrow. But it isn't wise to become estranged from how people in the street use your native language; you should know about it, even if you don't use the knowledge. This is not just a matter of vocabulary, it's a matter of rhythm and speed. In this novel, Mr. Unsworth's idiom is stiff, like that of an old-fashioned schoolmaster. Studied, literary inversions are dotted throughout the text. ("Those we have pardoned do we always underrate?") Some readers may value the elegance of expression, but when this degree of formality is applied not just in narrative but in dialogue, the effect is to make the characters into a ventriloquist's dolls.
There is, too, a problem of register. Ritter, the German, contends with welling memories of a World War II atrocity in which his father was implicated. Blemish, the project manager, is—as his name suggests—a vehicle for broad farce. It is possible that one story could accommodate Ritter's anguish and Blemish's silliness, but it is surprising that an author writing his 11th novel should toss them together so casually, without seeing that something strong and cunning in terms of authorial control must be exercised if one is not to negate the other.
Mr. Unsworth may be a victim of his own recent triumphs. Sacred Hunger, his novel about the slave trade, won the 1992 Booker Prize in Britain and was greeted by many critics as an instant classic. It is a massive work, very different from its quicksilver successor, Morality Play, which was a finalist for the Booker in 1995. Scorned by the imperceptive as a medieval whodunit, Morality Play was a near-perfect novel, with a diamond's glitter and a diamond's hardness: a profound meditation on the nature of justice and the transforming power of art. By contrast, After Hannibal seems a book made up of other books: the commonplace book, the scrapbook.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
SOURCE: "Meet the Neighbors," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 9, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, Schwartz finds the characterizations in After Hannibal particularly intriguing and rewarding to the reader.]
After Hannibal, the latest novel from Booker Prize-winner Barry Unsworth (Morality Play, Sacred Hunger), is a deliciously keen observation of strangers in a strange land, deliciously keen observation of strangers in a strange land. Unsworth reminds the reader of Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym; he shares their understated wit and their talent for clean and stylish description. This contemporary novel even owes debt to E. M. Forster in its portrayal of foreigners at sea in Italy. While Forster may go deeper into the minds of his creations, Unsworth seems to have more fun gleefully setting his characters loose on one another and recounting the ensuing havoc: marriages broken, alliances formed, houses destroyed, secrets unburied.
Unsworth's people live near Perugia's Lake Trasimeno, on a small neighborhood road about which he writes, "the important thing, really, about roads like this, is not where they end but the lives they touch on the way." The inhabitants along this road include a comically mismatched British couple, two gay Italians, a slightly naive American couple and an Italian medievalist whose wife has just left him.
As Unsworth explores the lives touched by this road, he slowly reveals the background of his characters—the detours made, the signposts missed. He is not above poking a bit of fun at his creations ("He was given to the counting of blessings, which in practice meant the listing of assets"), yet they are durable enough to retain a measure of dignity and realism.
Unsworth is most intrigued by the relations between incompatible couples—the constant give and take, the outpourings of the soul versus the lies of omission—all exemplified perfectly here by the supremely incompatible Brits: Harold is a money-grubber feigning refinement, while Cecilia is a dreamy, poetic soul; the tracks of their inner lives will never merge. The gay couple are ill-matched as well, the older man oblivious to his lover's restlessness and duplicity.
The only good, happy people are the Greens, retired American art teachers who, like the abstracted Cecilia, truly appreciate the beautiful Italian landscape and the timeless inheritance of the great Renaissance artists. But the Greens' happiness in themselves, their newly purchased villa and the country is threatened by a dishonest English building supervisor who preys upon newcomers to Italy.
Only one individual rises above the hodgepodge of life—Mancini, a lawyer consulted by the neighbors as they thread their way through treacherous attachments and feuds. Serene and sagacious, he has a hand in every pot bubbling in Perugia and its outskirts; he knows everyone and divines all motivations.
At first Unsworth cloaks Mancini in mystery: It's uncertain if he is desirous of helping the good and thwarting the bad, or merely a detached and amused observer—and much hangs on this tantalizing question. But thankfully, the cagey Mancini is a seeker after both inner beauty and outer order; he serves as a kind of spiritual-legal traffic cop on the road of life. With his guidance, the characters begin to see a path out of the chaos in and around them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323
SOURCE: "It's Hip! It's Contemporary! It's Literature!," in School Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 9, September 1997, pp. 128-29.
[In the following review, Lothrop-Green provides a brief overview of the plot of Morality Play and praises the novel's exploration of the role of art in revealing universal truths.]
Barry Unsworth's Morality Play (Norton, 1995) was praised by novelist Hilary Mantel (in the New York Times Book Review) as "a near-perfect novel, with a diamond's glitter and a diamond's hardness: a profound meditation on the nature of justice and the transforming power of art." It is also a gripping mystery, a coming-of-age story, and a fascinating road trip through 14th-century England. Nicholas is a young cleric on the run from his boring desk job (copying Latin manuscripts). He sees a troupe of traveling players grouped around a death bed; characteristically, Nicholas fails to do his duty and absolve the dying man. The troupe could disguise his fugitive status, however, so he persuades the players to let him wear the dead man's clothes—both literally and figuratively. As he (and readers) learn about the life of the group and the nature of the morality play, issues bridging that time and ours are raised: the role of women, social roles generally, prejudice and fear, the arrogance of privilege and the cynicism of power, and the piety or nostalgia that conceal corruption. Questions of identity and purpose underline the actors masking, disguises, and role-playing (Follow this novel with a discussion of masking in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing). When the troupe stops to raise money for the funeral of the dead man, they are caught in another death. Why has a young boy been so hastily buried? What does a father's radical politics have to do with the accusation against his mute daughter? The players' leader decides to make a daringly original move: to improvise a play about the murder. Like a mask, art conceals but can thereby reveal the truth.
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