Sacred Hunger | Interview by Barry Unsworth with Phil Hogan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sacred Hunger.
This section contains 906 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Barry Unsworth with Phil Hogan

Interview by Barry Unsworth with Phil Hogan

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.

(read more)

This section contains 906 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Barry Unsworth with Phil Hogan