Sugar and Rum

Sugar and Rum

by Barry Unsworth
     
 

A "powerfully done" (Times Literary Supplement) and tantalizingly semi-autobiographical novel from the author of the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger.
Unable to work on his novel about Liverpool's slave trade, Benson is teaching creative writing and wandering the city. The pupils who bring him their fantasies are a sad, dispossessed group with varying degrees

Overview

A "powerfully done" (Times Literary Supplement) and tantalizingly semi-autobiographical novel from the author of the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger.
Unable to work on his novel about Liverpool's slave trade, Benson is teaching creative writing and wandering the city. The pupils who bring him their fantasies are a sad, dispossessed group with varying degrees of literary talent. Caught up in a series of bizarre events, Benson nevertheless finds his own imagination sparked by an encounter with two old army colleagues: Thompson, down-and-out and homeless; and Slater, a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur. In trying to heal old wounds, Benson unleashes a plan that just may blow up in his face. "There is a violent resolution to this obsessive and provocative novel that examines the abscesses and abysses beneath the violence of urban life and offers a quixotic personal answer." — The Times [London] "Fine descriptive writing and spirited humanity." — The Guardian Published for the first time in the United States Booker Prize-winning author of Sacred Hunger

Editorial Reviews

Marion Lignana Rosenberg

"My life seems to have lost all direction," remarks Clive Benson, the 60-ish novelist and protagonist of Barry Unsworth's 1990 Sugar and Rum. "I am not aware of any operation of the will, any progression. One minute I might be sitting down, the next I am standing or walking. There is no sense in my mind of an interval between those two states, no moment of purpose or decision."

Unsworth's book is a journey through the dark, claustrophobic places of depression, both personal and economic, as well as a dazzlingly ambitious work of fiction. Set in a Liverpool festering under the Thatcher regime, it conveys Benson's misadventures as he struggles with writer's block and ministers to his "fictioneers," the ragtag assortment of aspiring authors whose manuscripts he critiques to eke out a living.

The fictioneers' prose and Benson's glosses deliver consistent belly laughs, as when Sheila and Albert, the perennially frustrated lovers of Mr. Carter's opus, finally copulate: "She eased the implement of his power into the deepest fronded recess of her being." "There was a disturbing touch of the Black and Decker in the description of Albert's member," Benson muses. The varied fragments of student narrative, though, along with Benson's own scrapbooks and his unfinished novel on the Liverpool slave trade, also form a daring, sophisticated counterpoint to his restless meanderings through the city streets and alleys and his quest for "a thread, a pattern of meaning" in the "sickening welter" of words, memories and events on which he ruminates -- a quest that culminates in encounters with two fellow Second World War veterans of the harrowing Anzio campaign, one a homeless drunk, the other a pompous, socially ambitious leech.

It's an undertaking worthy of Italo Calvino in its dizzying layers of inter- and intratextual references. Though Unsworth lacks the Italian master's deftness, you can't help admiring his command of this intricate material and his graceful, evocative way with what his hero refers to as "the mildewed Logos": "Benson swept the glasses slowly through a world that was arbitrary and intense, disconnected, vivid green of the lawn, deep blue glow of the canvas, glittering sections of the lake, woods a depthless tangle of sunlight and leaf." Just as remarkable is the way that silence permeates this story of wordy undertakings and characters. Much of the dialogue is, in fact, monologue, either uttered by Benson to dazed vagrants during his nightly wanderings or exchanged by him with impossibly defensive interlocutors -- his students, for example, and the political zealot he is courting.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the novel's breathless, surreal conclusion amid riots and terrorism doesn't tie things up rather too neatly, and whether the continual winking at cultural icons -- a would-be muse named Alma, the Tolkienesque subdivisions "Signs and Portents," "Middle Passage" and "Reunions" -- isn't finally cloying. Still, Sugar and Rum is a rewarding meditation on literature, with its limits and consolations, and its shifting, elusive interplay with the obscure, disreputable places of the body politic and the human heart.
&151; Salon

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
...Sugar and Rum is Barry Unsworth's 1988 novel, published here for the first time, about a 63-year-old writer in decline. Depressed, nearly manic, unable to work on his historical novel about the slave trade, Clive Benson roams the streets of a Liverpool also in decline, filled with ''abandoned projects, derelict enterprises, boarded-up ambitions"....Benson's...climactic venture into action, after his long apathy, is...doomed.
The New York Times Book Review
Norah Vincent
....[I]t is in its language that Sugar and Rum succeeds where other books failand in its ability to conjure up inner life — reminding the reader that at their bestwords can bridge the gap between the mind and the world outside it. —The Weekly Standard
Library Journal
Clive Benson, a noted historical novelist, has moved from London to Liverpool to research a book on the slave trade. But the project is hopelessly stalled, and Benson, divorced and in his sixties, is beginning to feel that this drab industrial city may be the end of the line for him. To supplement dwindling royalties from earlier books, Benson hires himself out as a literary consultant, offering editorial advice to a morose group of would-be novelists. Unsworth is himself the author of several well-received historical novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger (LJ 7/92), a novel about the Liverpool slave trade. Sugar and Rum is obviously partly autobiographical, and the first half of the book is a brilliant satire of the writing profession. In the second half, Unsworth attempts to use the slave trade as a metaphor for contemporary urban problems in Liverpool, with much less success. This interesting minor work by an important British novelist is noteworthy mainly as a supplement to Sacred Hunger. For larger fiction collections.--Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A 1990 novel by Unsworth (After Hannibal, 1997, etc.) finally surfaces here, adding a distinctively quirky note to his Booker-winning Sacred Hunger (1992): here, an obsessive novelist overcomes writer's block by resolving the guilt he's carried since his closest friend died beside him in Italy during WWII. Benson is so blocked that he's taken to chatting up the wrecks of humanity he finds on his walks through the streets of Liverpool, where he's supposedly writing a tale of that city's prosperous days in the 18th-century slave trade but is actually frittering away his time as a manuscript consultant. He seeks portents of change everywhere, and witnessing a man jump to his death becomes a potent symbol for him—though of just what he can't be sure. His self-absorbed take on it, however, succeeds in alienating Alma, a woman he's just met in a pub who he believes could be his Muse. The encounter with Alma proves to be a portent of even more significant changes in Benson's life. When he chances on a former comrade-in-arms singing for coins in the street and follows the wheezing derelict home, sharing a whisky with him conjures up a mystery about Benson's wartime buddy, Walters, for whose death the writer had always blamed himself. A search for the mystery's solution takes Benson to the sumptuous estate of his old platoon leader, Slater, now a semiretired, archconservative financier. The truth revealed there galvanizes Benson to take charge of his life again by making use of his wartime skills to deflate Slater's pompous visions of knighthood. This certainly goes to show that what lurks in the head of a frustrated writer isn't pretty, but the quiet desperation and its surprisingturns seem more a matter of skillful artifice than sublime storytelling.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393318906
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
05/17/1999
Pages:
258
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


This was a time of trouble for Benson, when he felt silence forming over him like a crust, when he couldn't work and couldn't sleep and spent a lot of time walking around the city in an ancient overcoat of grey tweed, talking to strangers, looking for signs, portents, auguries. Unhappiness made him superstitious; he saw clues everywhere, even in the vagaries of the weather.

    In February the grip of winter eased for a short while, the temperature rose suddenly and there was a succession of sunny, astonishingly mild days. They began in the same way, with thick mist off the river; but by mid-morning the sun had licked this up and the sky showed through, pale and radiant, suffused with a soft, bright haze, as if the gorged sun were breathing out the surplus of the feast in vaporous exhalations.

    Some of Liverpool's blackbirds were fooled into singing early; Benson heard them in different parts of the city, singing jubilantly in unlikely places. One afternoon, less than a minute before witnessing a suicide, he heard one in full spate on the parapet of the Yoruba Club in Croxteth Road. At sixty-three the arteries may be hardening but the mind is as soft as ever for impressions. This outburst of the deceived blackbird became linked with death in his mind for ever.

    He had paused to look down the weeded driveway, past the fringe of sad birch trees, at the flaking, dilapidated club house, pale in the sunshine, with its incongruous verandah, the strange confusion of tribal and social in the name above the door. There was never anyone there when he passed, never any sign of life. What were the secret hours of the Yoruba? This afternoon he had felt — once again — something of the half-painful sense of mystery, the sense of a secret life going parallel to his own, that he remembered from childhood.

    After this, he crossed the road so as to walk on the sunny side. He was approaching the tall block of flats at the beginning of Croxteth Road. The white railing round the top was half lost in light, half dissolved in the blank, milky-blue heaven of mid-afternoon. Casually glancing up into this bright zone of air, Benson saw the flash of the leap, heard a cry, but despite this thought at first it was a carpet falling, a red and blue carpet, because of the way it seemed to drift and sidle in the first moments, but then it went straight and fast and landed on the concrete forecourt with a sound a carpet wouldn't have made. Feeling slightly sickened, Benson strove to fix the sound of impact in his mind so that he could make a note about it when he got home — he still made notes. The man was lying on his back, motionless, inside the forecourt but in full view from across the road. His face was turned aside, away from Benson, as if that mild sun were too bright.

    A car had stopped farther down. A small man got out and walked towards Benson. He was wearing a black leather hat with a very narrow brim. "Somebody fell off the roof," he said. His eyes were bloodshot and sad. He looked across to where the man was lying. "He's had his lot," he said. "You can tell, can't you?"

    "Looks like it. No one else seems to have noticed anything."

    Which was odd, considering the sound, the fact that he had gone hurtling past windows and balconies. Benson too was sure that the man was dead. There was no sign at this distance of blood or damage; but he knew, he recognised, in a way at once obscure and definite, that quality of stillness, that semblance of ease. The man was strewn there, littered.

    "We should do something," he said.

    Two young black women emerged from the building. They were dressed to go out, in light, summery-looking clothes. Both were short-haired and slender and young, no more than sixteen or seventeen, Benson thought. Their meeting with the body seemed unplanned, but then there was something ceremonious, accustomed, about the way they took positions, one at the head, one at the feet. Neither of them touched the man or stooped to look at him more closely. After a moment or two both girls clutched at themselves. Perhaps merely chilly, Benson thought — it had seemed to him when they emerged that they were too lightly dressed, that they had been misled by the soft and hazy sunshine. The gesture itself could have meant anything; even the presence of death was not enough for it to be construed with any certainty. Demonstrating the paucity of body movement available to humans in time of stress — he would make a note of that too.

    "He's a goner," the motorist said.

    There was no one else, no other cars had stopped, there were no passers-by. One of the girls went back to the building, leaving her companion on guard.

    "Gone to phone," the motorist said. He glanced along the road to where his car waited. "Gone to notify the authorities," he said, more loudly and somehow demandingly. A warm reek of leather came from his hat.

    Benson assented. He regarded the motorist's face, saw a relief similar to his own: there was no need to do anything, no need to cross over — the girl had gone to notify the authorities. He looked into the man's eyes, sad and moist and shifty under the mildly reeking brim of his hat, and felt for a sharp moment an impulse to embrace him. Instead he made a gift of words, presented a fragment of his experience. "I thought it was a carpet, at first," he said, "you know, from the way he fell."

    He would have liked to enlarge on this, now that the need of action was over, to commemorate this death with at least a few minutes of conversation. But the motorist had already turned away and begun to walk back towards his car. Benson too, after a moment more of hesitation, moved on along the pavement. He noticed after some time that he had reversed direction: whereas before he had been proceeding on a southerly course, towards Sefton Park, he now found himself walking back towards the city centre. This didn't matter. He had no particular destination. He had a client to see at 5.30, nothing before that. On this mild afternoon he was walking down Prince's Avenue, on the southern border of Toxteth, distressed by what he had just seen, lonelier for that lonely death, with a twinge of rheumatism in his left arm and absolutely no sense of where he wanted to go.

    The avenue, in its straightness, its wideness, its long blank vista, seemed designed to add to his desolation. Many of the tall Victorian houses had slumped and cracked open, it seemed, gaping ruinous, eviscerated, spilling their rubble out onto choked gardens, or charred and gutted with arson. People, mainly men, mainly black, mainly out of work, were sitting on seats along the central strip, where stunted saplings grew at intervals in their cages of wire netting. Pausing at intersections, glancing to his left, Benson looked down wide streets of low houses, like streets in settlement towns, where space is plentiful and materials few. Figures in the distance moved slowly against the luminous horizon, were lost in the haze where the streets dipped down towards the Mersey. Stages, he thought. The man's fall had been a kind of paradigm, leap of birth, indeterminate motions of infancy, gathering gravity ...

    When he was nearing the end of the avenue, Benson saw a fattish, serene-looking, middle-aged negro sitting by himself on one of the benches, dressed in a raincoat and sneakers. He crossed over and sat down beside him. After a moment or two he began to tell him about the suicide.

    "He jumped at the precise moment I was passing," he said. "Half a minute either way and I would have missed the whole thing." He leaned forward eagerly, moving his hand in gestures that were rapid but half formed and inconclusive. As always these days his own words impassioned him. "I see it as a performance, a kind of performance," he said. "Meant for me somehow. As if, you know, he was waiting up there. Here is Benson now, hoop-la! Over you go. Just in that space of time." He shaped the duration of it with one of his sketchy gestures. "Then these two girls came out," he said, "that was a performance too. Then the thought came to me that the whole thing was like the stages of life."

    The negro was looking at him steadily with a half smile. The smile was sleepy but the deepset eyes were bright with a sort of derisive appraisal, which Benson was aware of but too intent on talking to consider much. He began to explain what he meant; the leap, the floating, the plunge. His loquacity was not new, but nowadays, when he was on the brink of speech, there was a slight but noticeable convulsiveness about his lower jaw.

    "In the floating there was also the crash," he said. "In my beginning is my end, as Eliot has it." That isn't it, he thought, with sudden discouragement. There was something else he wanted to say, but couldn't — something to do with the hush and blankness up there, the mild sky, the white railing half-melted, the leap, the cry. The man had jumped from the heart of silence. And those two black guardians ... "That is the phase before personality is formed," he said, less certainly. "That would correspond—"

    "No stages," the negro said suddenly in a soft blurting voice.

    "How do you mean?"

    "You telling me he jump off. You talking about stages. No stages there, man. When he jump off, that the end of the story."

    The man's face glistened slightly in the sunshine. He was smiling still but Benson did not think he was very well. His pale lips were chapped and sore-looking and the whites of his eyes were discoloured.

    A little girl and her mother came and sat down on the other side of them. They were waiting for the bus — there was a stop just opposite. The little girl was dressed for some occasion, in a pale blue coat and white stockings, and she had white ribbons in her hair. She was eating ice cream from a carton, freighting her little plastic spoon with minute quantities and eating in a series of darting licks.

    "Woman drown herself in a poddle," the negro said, nodding his broad face in the direction of Granby Street. "Last November. Three inches poddle water. My wife's cousin living in Antigua, cut his wrists but he didn't die."

    "You don't want to get that all over your coat," the woman said. The little girl had started to eat the ice cream very slowly, to make it last, and it was melting and dripping.

    "Policeman in Aigburth eat rat poison," the negro said. "It was in the paper. He's smoking his pipe, lean over the gate, say hello good evening like every evening, then he goes to this little shed he got in the garden and eat the rat poison. Where the stages there?"

    "For God's sake, Sandra," the woman said. "I dunno why I got you that ice cream." She caught Benson's eye and smiled with resignation and pride.

    The negro turned a softly blinking face away from Benson towards the cooling sun. There was a smell of vanilla and dry dogshit and warm dust. Feelings of sorrow came to Benson in this aftermath of shock, amidst these odours remembered from childhood. Something else from childhood too: he had been rebuked; he had spoken on impulse and been rebuked for being excitable, for being fanciful. He remembered the ironical patience on his father's face. "I'm not trying to detract from the man's death," he said, "you think I'm making a story out of it, don't you? But we can make analogies surely. You are only thinking of it one way. In my view nothing is accidental. The universe is a vast system of correspondencies, as Baudelaire said."

    After a moment or two the negro sighed and lowered his head. "Police got their feelings too," he said. "But they buried deep."

* * *


Later, back in his apartment in Greville Street, Benson resisted the temptation to tell Jennifer Colomb the story of the death leap, mainly because she was waiting for his opinion of the new chapter of Treacherous Dreams, and was so tense about it that to raise any other topic at that point would have verged on sadism. Miss Colomb was a valued client. Apart from anything else she actually paid him his fee for the weekly consultation.

    In happier days, when he was full of plans, before he was stricken with silence, while working on the closing stages of Fool's Canopy, his novel set in the Venice of the 1790s, and while at the same time beginning the research for his complex and ambitious new novel set against the background of the Liverpool slave-trade, he had hit upon the idea of supplementing his income by setting himself up as a literary consultant. Have you got that manuscript in your bottom drawer? his advertisement had demanded. If so, now is the time to bring it out. Are you having technical problems with work in progress? Blocked? Stuck? Bogged down? Get expert advice from a professional writer on all aspects of the craft of fiction, style, narrative, characterisation. Also marketing. Fee by arrangement.

    The arrangement was five pounds when he could get it. Initial response had been good, half Merseyside was in a fury to write, it seemed, but now only a few clients remained to him. By an ironic reversal, in which under other circumstances he might have seen beauty, he had become the very bogged-down creature appealed to in the advertisement. He, the unblocker, had got blocked and more than ever talkative and progressively stranger. He was left now with those too innocent, unhinged or self-absorbed to be put off by the change in his manner, the growing lack of any real resemblance between this pale, gesturing improviser behind the desk and knowledgeable Clive Benson, the Literary Consultant of the advertisement and the sign outside the door. This heroic remnant he privately named `Benson's Fictioneers'. They kept on coming, bringing manuscripts for assessment, more then ready to read extracts, avid for practical hints. In the nights of his insomnia he heard sometimes the crazed voices of their fictions whispering and crooning to him from reverberant wells.

    Jennifer Colomb was of this company. She was sitting across the desk from him in jumper and cardigan of the same shade of lilac and pearl earrings, pale hands clutching the handbag in her lap. Silence gathered between them as he read the beginning of her new chapter.

    "This burning sun of June is no friend to one of your fair and delicate complexion." Sir Reginald spoke in a tone between jest and earnest, keeping an easy grip on the reins of his gelding.

    "Nay, Sir Reginald, I am tougher than I look."

    "Ay," he said softly, his dark eyes intent upon her delicate profile, "I doubt it not, but I would not be the cause that you should put it to the test. For the sake of your beauty and my conscience," he urged her, still in that tone of honeyed jest.

    "Nay then, an you list, let us ride into the coverts. I will not gainsay you. 'Twould be impolite in a hostess. You will not have cause to complain of your treatment here at Beaulieu Castle, and in my father's absence. Besides, it makes no difference to me as I have ever been a lover of the wildwood."

    "Have you so?" The innocent gaiety of her words had touched him but abated nothing of his fierce purpose. The motto on his crest was `I Will Repay', and in the dark history of his family it had always applied equally to a debt of honour or an injury, With a kindled look on his hawklike features, he signalled his retinue to retire a little farther off, while he led the Lady Margaret into the grateful shade of the trees.

    Being in the wood was something like sitting on the inside of a green aquarium, the tens of thousands of leaves all round filtering out the unwanted blues and reds from the spectrum to leave a sort of green haze broken only by an occasional shaft of sunlight.

    Benson raised his eyes from this to the fair-skinned, delicate-featured woman opposite; she was flushed and her eyes had an oddly beseeching look. It was a look he sometimes saw on the faces of all his clients, except on that of the dreaded Hogan, whose face was too rigid with depression to show much.

    "Well," he said, "I think it's going along all right."

    "Do you really?"

    "Yes. I would cut out that first `delicate' if I were you — you don't really need it. And I am not sure that you are quite getting the right consistency of tone."

    "Where do you mean?" Miss Colomb had leaned forward tensely. Her hair was streaked blonde and permed in an elaborate style that swept it high off her forehead, giving her face a naked, exposed look. With this elaborate coiffure and her naked face and her pearls she always seemed to Benson like a person made ready for sacrifice. She was easily his most affluent client. She lived with her father in Kirby, in a house near the sea; her father was an antique dealer and Miss Colomb helped him in the shop — she loved beautiful things. There had never been mention of a mother.

    "It's Lady Margaret," Benson said. "Sir Reginald always stays cool, bless him, but she keeps jumping out of the frame. I mean, for example, would a woman of her class and time say, 'I'm tougher than I look'?"

    "She might," Miss Colomb said defensively. "I don't see why not. She is very unconventional. I've made that clear elsewhere in the book. She is a free spirit."

    "She is, yes." Familiar weariness descended on Benson. Miss Colomb was using the argument of character against him, a ploy used by all his clients at one time or another. "She may be a free spirit," he said, "but that doesn't enable her to defy anachronism. We must remember that she is a character in a story. And a story is a world. It has its own laws, its own internal consistency."

    "Yes, but she is a free spirit in the story. She defies the narrow conventions of the day."

    "That may be so, but she can't anticipate the speech patterns of a future age."

    He paused, smiling at Miss Colomb, for whom he felt considerable sympathy. He was conscientious in his dealings with his clients, making it a point of honour, even in the midst of his own despair, to take their work seriously, try to offer what help he could. But there was not much point in pursuing this particular issue. He thought he knew why Lady Margaret, and only she, committed these solecisms. It had started happening since Sir Reginald Penthaligon had ridden into her life on his bay gelding and she had become the object of his dark designs. In fact, it was Miss Colomb's voice that kept breaking through, but he didn't think he could say this to her except indirectly. He didn't want to hurt her.

    She was waiting. She was looking at him expectantly. He must say something. What sins have I committed, he wondered, that I must be plagued so now in late career? A little tact, Benson.

    "Of the various attributes we fiction-writers require," he said, "one of the most important is detachment. Of course tenacity of purpose is the sine qua non, otherwise we'd never keep on with it for the year or two years or longer that it takes to finish the work. And we have to be a certain sort of egotist or we wouldn't want to make a display of ourselves, would we? But without detachment, without distance, there is always the danger of losing perspective, of getting enmeshed in our own fictions."

    He paused, looking across the desk with a hope that quickly withered of some admission or acknowledgement. Miss Colomb's level grey eyes looked back at him steadily. Her mouth, which must have been pretty, did not make motions of speech. In her silence, on her face, Benson read the marks of the true fictioneer, saw his own abjectness, his own absurd obstinacy. Miss Colomb was in the prison of her invention and she did not want to be free. He thought in that moment of the man who had jumped. High up there, quite alone, he had clambered over the white bars of the railing. Benson knew now why the railing had fascinated' him, knew what he had wanted to tell the man on the bench, but had been afraid to because the man was black. In the Liverpool shipyards they had fitted high rails on the slave ships to make it difficult for the slaves to jump into the sea.

    "That description of the wood," he said, "it's a bit ordinary, isn't it? All you are saying is that inside the trees the light was different. And they are not sitting in an aquarium, they are sitting on their horses, they are moving. Couldn't you give it more atmosphere, more sense of movement away from the light? This is not just any old wood, is it? It is the fatal wildwood, it is the wood that Lady Margaret and Sir Reginald Penthaligon are entering together."

Meet the Author

Barry Unsworth (1930-2012), who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker Prize finalist for Morality Play and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel.

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