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From Barnes & NobleThe Full Nelson
Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson is a magnificent tale of celebrity, obsession, and what it's like to be woefully out of touch with the world around you.
It's also about the career of Lord Horatio Nelson, the celebrated 19th-century British naval hero who defeated Napoleon and lost his own life in the historic Battle of Trafalgar.
Charles Cleasby is a reclusive contemporary Londoner who lives alone—except for the artifacts and information he collects about his hero, Nelson. In fact, just about all Cleasby does is Nelson-related: He re-enacts Nelson's battles on a giant blue-glass table in his basement; he studies all available materials ever published on his hero; he lectures occasionally on Nelson at a local historical/literary club. Cut off and about as emotionally unevolved as a contemporary middle-class Westerner can be—he might remind some readers of an older, British version of the title character in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist—Cleasby is content to spend his day chasing Nelson. The only outside influence he has, in fact, is a secretary named Miss Lily, who comes weekly to help him organize the mountains of material he collects. Miss Lily, of course, is a much more contemporary sort and a real "girl": she's intent on making Cleasby consider the personal aspects of Nelson's life—Nelson was married, and his flagrant affair with Emma Hamilton flew in the face of 19th-century (and Miss Lily's current) values. She also tries to bring Cleasby into the present by cajoling him into an outing with her and her son. For a while, it looks like the novel will center on an Accidental Tourist-like romance between two opposites. Will Charles Cleasby's remarkable reserve (even for a Brit) be pierced by the loving ministrations of an equally lonely secretary? Will this neglected and neglectful guy—who reveals to us a bit about his troubled childhood—learn to live and love again?
This is one of the questions raised by Unsworth's captivating book, but it is only one. The author is long-used to pursuing multiple themes (see his Morality Play and Sacred Hunger, which, in 1992, shared the Booker McConnell Prize with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient)and here, as usual, Unsworth has constructed a multidimensional novel. Losing Nelson's juxtaposition of dreamlike sequences and wry, contemporary observation rivals Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (which, incidentally, won the 1998 Booker Prize.) It's as if Unsworth understands precisely the reader's capacity for historical detail—and knows just when to leaven his rather sad story with biting satire. (One scene in which Cleasby discovers that a fellow Nelsonophile is also a fan of David Bowie is a priceless piece of social commentary.)
But Unsworth also knows his character well. Make no mistake: Charles Cleasby is no victim; he does not feel sorry for himself; he is not looking to be "saved." In fact, he's so immersed in Nelsoniana that he has become, in his own mind, indistinguishable from his idol. If Nelson is noble, then he is, too—which is why it is so hard for him to face any proof of Nelson's humanity. In one scene late in the novel, Cleasby has been compelled to go to Naples to try to deconstruct the one horrific, brutal incident in Nelson's history that even he cannot explain, much less glorify. In meeting a local historian, Cleasby launches into his usual speech about Nelsonian glory only to be met with stony disapproval; it had never occurred to Cleasby that the Italians—who were slaughtered by Nelson's men—might see the admiral a little differently. "You have come for the wrong hero," the Neapolitan tells him. "Caracciolo is the hero here. Heroes are always local." Cleasby's reaction is not, of course, to question his idol or his own idolatry but to lament his colleague's small-mindedness. "It was clear that heroes meant little to him," Cleasby thinks. "This was a person without ideals." Cleasby, of course, has more than his share of ideals, but when it becomes apparent that neither he nor Nelson is everything he imagines, he begins a fatal descent into madness.
Clearly, there's a lot to chew on here—both factual and fictional—but for all its historical detail, Losing Nelson never feels like a history lesson. Instead, it is a universal, contemporary tale that examines issues very relevant to our time: Why do we exalt some people as heroes? Should a hero be held to the same—or higher—moral and emotional standards as the rest of us? How much does the hoi polloi need to know or to care about a public figure's private behavior? Reading Unsworth may not explain our fascination with Bill Clinton, George Bush, or Brad Pitt, for that matter, but it will surely make us question that fascination. In other words, Charles Cleasby may be stuck in the 19th century, but Unsworth is very much a writer of the moment.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now editor-at-large of SELF magazine. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
About the Author
Barry Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger, his next novel, Morality Play, was a Booker nominee and a bestseller in both the United States and Great Britain. He lives in Umbria with his wife and recently held the position of Visiting fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.