Barry Unsworth, R.I.P.


Barry Unsworth, a Top Ten contributor, has died of lung cancer. He was 81.

The New York Times reports: “Unsworth, considered one of the foremost historical novelists in English, was known for rich, densely textured fiction that conjured lost worlds — those of the Trojan War, medieval Europe and the Napoleonic age, among many others.

“Among his best known — he wrote 17 novels in all — are Stone Virgin (1986), set in Renaissance Venice; Losing Nelson (1999), about a modern-day writer obsessed with the great British admiral; The Songs of the Kings (2003), which retells the story of the Trojan War; and, most recently, The Quality of Mercy, published last year, which continues the narrative of [his Booker Prize-winning novel of the slave trade] Sacred Hunger.


“His other novels include two finalists for the Booker, Morality Play (1995), about a band of strolling actors in 14th-century Yorkshire; and Pascali’s Island (released in the United States in 1980 as “The Idol Hunter”), set in the early-20th-century Ottoman Empire.”

His last novel, Land of Marvels (2009), is about intrigue in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I.


Read his obituary in the New York Times.

Read his obituary in the Guardian.

Listen to him discuss his last novel, The Quality of Mercy.

Watch him read from Land of Marvels.


Barry Unsworth’s Top Ten List

1. The Oresteia by Aeschylus (458 b.c.e.).

2. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860).

3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853).

4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).

5. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868).

6. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (1827).

7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939).

8. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967).

9. The stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001).

10. Rites of Passage by William Golding (1980).


* Illustration from New York Review of Books

New List

Jonathan Franzen

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880).
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869).
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925).
4. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
6. Absalom, Abalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
7. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839).
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
9. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940).
10. Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934).


Classic List

Mary Gaitskill

1. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
3. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962).
4. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853).
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).
6. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
7. Gusev by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
8. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904).
9. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842).
10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831).

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