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On the Shores of the Mediterranean

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If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as on our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald. My colleagues, who prefer other writers, gracefully ignore my shop-floor eulogies which they have heard a thousand times.

Then there is the case of Barry Unsworth. Any book of his you buy now flaunts the shameless misrepresentation ‘Winner of the Booker Prize’, as if he has won it many times – except that you probably won’t find much of his backlist in shops, and even Sacred Hunger has not stayed in the public mind like some other winners, such as The English Patient, with which it tied for the prize in 1992. The ploy, however, of trying to make prospective buyers think that a book has won the Booker Prize carries the subliminal message that a book is only worth buying if it has won that notorious lottery. This is a shame. Sacred Hunger is a big, splendid, compelling historical novel about the slave trade, but it is very different from Unsworth’s other novels, which are excellent and have much in common with one another. Above all, his work exhibits a profound exploration of Mediterranean culture. The main character in The Stone Virgin is engaged on the restoration of a late Gothic sculpture in Venice. Brilliantly evoked, the city is a natural backdrop for the themes of decay and corruption, art and empire – and romance – that drive the book. Italy is also the setting for After Hannibal and Losing Nelson, while The Ruby in Her Navel takes place in medieval Sicily, where intruding Normans converged with ousted Byzantines.

My own favourite is Pascali’s Island

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If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as on our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald. My colleagues, who prefer other writers, gracefully ignore my shop-floor eulogies which they have heard a thousand times.

Then there is the case of Barry Unsworth. Any book of his you buy now flaunts the shameless misrepresentation ‘Winner of the Booker Prize’, as if he has won it many times – except that you probably won’t find much of his backlist in shops, and even Sacred Hunger has not stayed in the public mind like some other winners, such as The English Patient, with which it tied for the prize in 1992. The ploy, however, of trying to make prospective buyers think that a book has won the Booker Prize carries the subliminal message that a book is only worth buying if it has won that notorious lottery. This is a shame. Sacred Hunger is a big, splendid, compelling historical novel about the slave trade, but it is very different from Unsworth’s other novels, which are excellent and have much in common with one another. Above all, his work exhibits a profound exploration of Mediterranean culture. The main character in The Stone Virgin is engaged on the restoration of a late Gothic sculpture in Venice. Brilliantly evoked, the city is a natural backdrop for the themes of decay and corruption, art and empire – and romance – that drive the book. Italy is also the setting for After Hannibal and Losing Nelson, while The Ruby in Her Navel takes place in medieval Sicily, where intruding Normans converged with ousted Byzantines. My own favourite is Pascali’s Island. Set in 1908, it is narrated by an educated but lowly Greek who for twenty years has been sending reports to Constantinople about activities on a sleepy island off the Turkish coast. Although he never receives any acknowledgement of his spying and is well aware that the Ottoman Empire is in the last stages of decline, Pascali continues to be paid and still feels a lonely devotion to the old order. When Mr Bowles arrives announcing a desire to obtain a lease on some land for the purpose of archaeological excavation, Pascali soon realizes that the Englishman is a swindler. But what fascinates him, and sustains the novel’s tension, is the recognition that, for all their differences, Bowles’s corruption, like his own, is linked to aesthetic sensibility and to a lingering idealism that both sustains and is sustained by the idea of empire. Pascali’s slipperiness is exquisitely portrayed as he intrigues between Bowles, Lydia (a Europeanized local beauty), the local Ottoman authorities and a sinister German commercial agent, but the novel is most memorable for its lyrical conjuring of provincial Ottoman twilight. Unsworth has returned to this territory in his new novel, Land of Marvels, but he focuses on an explosive situation with a sharper political reach. It is set in the spring of 1914 in Mesopotamia. In this region, fought over by ‘Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Medes, Chaldeans, all bent on conquest, all convinced they would last for ever’, an English archaeologist called Somerville is excavating Tell Erdek, a ‘mound . . . more than a hundred feet from ground level to summit’, which he desperately hopes will yield sufficient treasures to make his name. Now ‘to replace these invading hosts’, as Somerville puts it, the Germans are constructing the Baghdad railway, and he is terrified it will threaten his work. He goes to Constantinople to have a wordwith an old school friend, the British Ambassador, which he thinks will be enough to secure his interests. But the meeting is really controlled by a third person, Lord Rampling, who represents interests that dwarf Somerville’s: money and empire. Indeed Rampling would not give a fig for the excavation were it not for the fact that Somerville is working in an area so rich in oil that it leaks from the ground. It promises not only wealth but also a source of fuel for the Royal Navy in the war that Rampling knows is likely, despite soothing official statements. And in the background is the collapsing Ottoman Empire, ‘the sick man of Europe’ whom, observes the local Ottoman administrator, the foreign powers prop up only ‘for long enough to go through his pockets, meanwhile uttering hypocritical expressions of goodwill’. These numerous historical weights are revealed and balanced in the novel with an extraordinary sureness and lightness of touch, the product of deep familiarity with the context. Unsworth is no less ambitious with his characters. With Somerville is his wife, Edith; Palmer, his assistant; and Patricia, a bluestocking who has come to help and becomes engaged to Palmer. Then there is Jehar, the messenger; Elliott, the American oil prospector working for various masters; and the sinister agents, Manning and Spahl. Their characterization is incisive but subtle, and the dynamics between them are neatly controlled. Despite his self-destructive narrowness, Somerville is mysterious and interesting: he has a real capacity for inspiration and he understands that he ‘had ceased very early in their life together to be truly himself ’ with Edith ‘and would never now be able to find the words to explain why this was so’. He wonders if she has noticed his growing habit of ‘explaining presences and absences, a sort of politeness that belongs to strangers rather than to man and wife’. Of Palmer and Patricia, Somerville notes that they ‘talked the same language. Both took a sort of glee in deflating high-flown sentiments. A glee not shared by Edith, who would find it mean-spirited and cynical . . .’ A few pages later, Edith is described as ‘disliking Palmer’s jocularity, which she thought rather common, his way of questioning and undermining things, the lack of fire in him’. Although Palmer and Patricia might seem dull through Edith’s eyes, they have true dignity while Edith herself, despite her ‘grace and decorum’ is, perhaps, tragically silly. The shrewd Elliott reflects, ‘It was as if she were waiting with an assumption of nonchalance – and this could harden into hauteur if she was pressed too closely – for something, someone, to compel her to frankness, force an admission from her, make her expose herself to damage by declaring it.’ While Somerville’s approach to the excavation is intuitive and passionate, Palmer is methodical and calm. He is an academic, specializing in ancient scripts – and he is much more amiable. After Pascali’s Island and The Stone Virgin it is no surprise to find how adeptly Unsworth portrays both the technical and the emotional aspects of archaeology. More surprising is the detail he gives about the demise of the Assyrians as the archaeologists make their painstaking, thrilling progress. But Unsworth, whose wonderful novel The Song of the Kings is set on Euboea before Agamemnon’s ships depart for Troy, has a rare gift for showing how ancient stories and histories still inhabit landscapes and people. In Land of Marvels, the Assyrian collapse is revealed among the ruins of the Ottomans, at a moment when the empires of Europe are at flashpoint, and the Americans are about to become dominant. So far as the Middle East is concerned, the outcome is shaped by the control of oil-bearing land, and Unsworth’s evocation of the ‘swamps of bitumen’ is characteristically vivid: besides traces of ancient fires in the excavation, we meet a group of nocturnal fire-worshippers and we see through Elliott’s eyes how even the shape of the land is significant. Unsworth deftly sustains the different elements, so that each is illuminated by the others. It could be argued that there is a much bigger novel trapped in Land of Marvels – a Booker-winning epic, say, like Sacred Hunger; that Unsworth does not do full justice to his huge themes. He is an immensely skilful and intelligent novelist, a careful plotter and a master of intrigue, but his genius lies in bringing things together – images, people, political forces – in an atmosphere of intimacy and suggestiveness. His art would unravel in reams of further exposition. It could be argued too that Unsworth would be more widely read if his profile in the media circus were higher. But he doesn’t play that game, so far as I’m aware: he attends to his novels, and to the admirable project of pleasing his readers. And from feedback to my recent endeavours to sell more of his books, I have found that in this he is consistently successful.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © John de Falbe 2009


About the contributor

John de Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in London for more than twenty years. He is also the author of three novels, of which the most recent is Dreaming Iris.

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