an interview with Barry Unsworth      
photo of Barry Unsworth

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You're still living in same house in Italy you wrote about in your previous essay? Do people still hunt on your land?

Yes, we've been here seven years now. The hunting season began about 3 weeks ago. It begins the first Sunday in September and continues until the first Sunday in February. It lasts five months. It's not quite so bad now as it used to be: we've succeeded in fencing some of the land and also there've been regulations restricting the rights of the hunters. So the situation is better.

You're not a hunter yourself?

Oh, no. Not at all, no. I don't find it at all congenial.

I had a map of Italy in front of me a minute ago... where are you?

If you look in the middle--can you see a rather large lake called Lake Trasimeno, which is close to Perugia? If you see the lake there, we're on the south side of it, about four miles from the lake.

How did you settle there as a place to live?

We were living in Finland before. My wife is Finnish, and we thought we might try Italy. We tried Tuscany first, but prices were high there, and we moved into the middle. Into Umbria, which is the name of the province where we live. We only had a few days really. We were shown a lot of houses. Then almost when we were ready to leave, we were shown this one and we liked it. We made a very hasty decision which we haven't really regretted.

Do you travel much?

Quite a lot. Both within Italy and outside. We go to England sometimes two or three times in a year, not for very long. We usually have long holidays in the winter. We've been in the States for two semesters. We just came back in May, we've been in Iowa City, at the Writers' Workshop there.

You were teaching creative writing there?

Yes, it was the graduate creative writing program in Iowa City. Very good program there, very good students.

It's regarded as the finest creative writing program, isn't it?

Well, that's what they say in Iowa. We didn't like Iowa so much, but I liked the workshop well enough. We didn't really take to Iowa City. There isn't much of it. We thought a "city" was going to be a big thing. You know: "city". But it's really quite a small town. A city by name, but that's about all.

What about writing Losing Nelson made it different from your previous books?

Well, they've all been different. My own career as a novelist has been marked by a broad range. Different sorts of novels, different technique, different subject areas and different localities. So Losing Nelson wasn't different from the main body of my work, it was just one more novel in a series of novels that have been different from each other. I had technical problems with it, but I always have technical problems. Writing novels is difficult, and trying to write a good one is extremely difficult. That's really what I've taken away from Losing Nelson is relief at having finished it.

Does it get easier?

It's always difficult. I get better at some things. Increased technical sophistication, probably. But certain things are lost along the way. A certain degree of energy, a certain degree of exuberance, a certain degree of metaphorical delight, if you understand what I mean. That belongs more to youth and youthful phases of writing. But the imaginative grasp of the work remains the same. The problem is one of trying to realize your concept, to give justice to your idea.

How did the idea of this novel occur to you?

I was supposed to do a biography of Nelson. I was invited to do it, but I thought it was going to be too difficult. At least, living in rural Italy, there wasn't very good access to libraries or research facilities. And then, Nelson is a much-biographied figure. There have been about 200 biographies already. So there wasn't much prospect of doing something new in that way. In the end, I changed it into a Nelson novel. But before I made this decision, I did a fair amount of research about Nelson. I knew very little about him to begin with, but just by doing that reading I got interested, and the novel took shape in that way. The novel also incorporates a biography of Nelson.

The desire to contribute something original to the understanding of Nelson becomes problematic for Charles Cleasby, to say the least.

He really wants to preserve Nelson as total hero, as unimpaired. This is the rock on which he breaks, because he can't do it. It's the opposite process of what usually happens these days. Biographers set out to find a weakness in their subject, to denigrate, to find the feet of clay. Cleasby is doing just the opposite, trying to maintain his hero.

The end of the novel takes place in Naples. Did you attempt any research for the book in Naples?

I went to Naples and wandered around a bit. I don't think you could call it research really. I visited the fortresses where the republican rebels were besieged, the palace of the Bourbon kings, the little church where Admiral Couch is entombed. All the sort of things that belong to the Naples episode.

And one of the sites has been turned into a Disney museum?

Yes, that happened! That's literally true. I could see the poster from the window of my hotel. It looked like Donald Duck, but it was too far away to be sure. I thought it couldn't be, but when I went there, sure enough. It wasn't a permanent exhibition, but it was a very large temporary exhibition that happened to be there. I wandered around with a very incongruous and strange feeling.

That must have been distressing.

Yes, it was. It was a chapter of accidents. Everything went wrong throughout the whole visit. There were two fortresses: Castel Nuovo and Castel dell' Ovo. Castel Nuovo, the New Fortress, was taken over by demonstrators from the street who occupied the battlements when I was trying to get up there. Everything was barricaded, so I spent two hours wandering around the courtyard unable to get out or do any useful research for the Nelson book. Everything went wrong on that trip.

For you and for the protagonist of your book, Charles Cleasby.

Yes, for both of us. Except I managed to keep my sanity, I guess.

I finished the book last week and the ending terrified me. Did you set out with that ending in mind?

From the beginning? Not really. For a long time I was undecided. I thought there had to be some climactic gesture of a violent sort. Then I thought that perhaps Charles could draw back from that violence. It seemed to me as I progressed with it that [what happened in the end] was the inevitable outcome. To identify with a symbol is a form of madness, and to identify with a symbolic killer-hero, the madness that results from that would naturally express itself in killing. The identification with that, becoming the twin angel in that, the dark and the bright joined together in murder. That's not the whole of what I feel about Nelson, that he's a serial killer, but there is that element in it. The logic of the book required that kind of ending. The meaning of the novel is in the ending, which means you have to examine yourself first, because it's your own meaning that you're committing to paper, it's not just the novel's meaning. It's what you have to decide about the values and beliefs of your own. I don't mean to say that I found the act congenial, or admirable, but I thought it was the inevitable result of the psychological deterioration of my protagonist.

What are you up to now?

I'm between books now. I'm thinking of another book, beginning to make the first marks on the page. I've had quite a long holiday now. I've been gardening and looking after the place here. We've got five acres of rough land and there's quite a bit to do. We've got olives and vines and a big garden. I've spent the summer laboring, not reading or even thinking very much. I'm beginning to think that that's coming to an end now. I have to do something serious now.

Anything you'd like people to know about the book?

The book itself explains how I feel. Here in Britain it got some good reviews, and some not so good. It's divided opinion quite a bit. I'm not sure how it will do in the States yet. When I was younger I used to always start a new book before the current one came out, to make sure that I was busy before publication day, so that I could protect myself from the inevitable disappointments and the fact of not doing so well as I hoped. With increasing age, or increased prosperity perhaps, I no longer feel the need to do that. I'm going to wait until this book is behind me and then start something else.

You've won the Booker Prize. Doesn't that provide you with protection from disappointment?

Yes, but that's in the past. All the successes, and the failures too, they're all in the past. Nothing gives you the confidence that you're not going to fall flat on your face the next time around. I think it's a question of maintaining confidence, which is not always easy.

--interview by Anson Lang
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