Sunday, May 12, 2013

Barry Unsworth - Losing Nelson

I have to admit to being left feeling very uncomfortable by Losing Nelson. In part this is the subject matter - the novel tells the story of a man moving from obsessive behaviour to madness. But it is also to do with the way the story finishes, something that I won't reveal in this review.

In some ways, the central character of Losing Nelson, Charles Cleasby is no different to countless other obsessive hobbyists. While others collect train numbers and learn minute details about steam engines, meeting in the back rooms of pubs to talk with other enthusiasts. Unusually though, Charles is obsessed with Admiral Nelson. The obsession has its roots in Charles' difficult childhood, when finding himself gifted at chess Charles is a little to triumphant when defeating one of his Dad's friends. His father, disapprovingly introduces Charles to a picture of Nelson, a proper hero.

As he grows and finds himself more and more at odds with the world, Charles identifies further with the Admiral. Increasingly, especially after his Dad's death, he lives his life on a Nelson timetable. Marking the anniversaries of his great battles with naval re-enactments on a pool table in the basement. Not only does Charles observe every complex manoeuvres of the ships, but he's also built the accurate models with which he recreates the battles. Then he toasts the admiral's genius and brilliance at the end of the day.

Unsurprisingly, Charles is also writing a book about his hero. But he has reached an impasse. The impasse is a now forgotten, but central moment of Nelson's life, when in the aftermath of the defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson is involved in the bloody suppression of a rebellion in Naples. Charles finds this so out of character that he cannot explain what happened. Despite being able to quote Nelson's letters verbatim, or having an encyclopedic knowledge of Nelson's life, Charles simply cannot understand why his "angel" behaved like this. Even worse, as Charles becomes more and more obsessed with Nelson, he frequently thinks he is the Admiral and Barry Unsworth does a brilliant task of blurring this distinction, as Charles' internal monologue switches from "he" to "me", "I" to "us". There is one particularly uncomfortable moment when Charles fantasises about Nelson and Lady Hamilton, or rather Lady Hamilton and "I".

The one anchor in Charles' reality is the woman he has hired to type his manuscript. Miss Lilly knows little about Nelson, but she asks difficult questions, ones that challenge yet further Charles' heroic images. Miss Lilly pulls Charles back into the real world, he takes Lilly and her son to visit HMS Victory in Portsmouth and the reader sees the potential for Charles to break from his obsessions. Yet the forces pulling him the other way, the ones that are so tied up with his own personal relations and difficulties are very powerful and it is unclear until the very last few pages quite what will happen.

Barry Unsworth's novel is full of brilliant detail. Charles' obsessive knowledge of the period mean that the author can provide us with brilliantly powerful accounts of the bloody battles, as well as recreating the atmosphere that followed Nelson around. Crowds would cheer him, Royalty dined with him, and everyone commented on his doomed marriage and affair with Emma Hamilton. Within this, Unsworth uses Mrs Lilly to cast a disapproving modern liberal commentary on events, while Charles struggles to cope with an imperfect hero.

The book is, as I said, uncomfortable. His descriptions of Charles' mental anguish and his questionable sanity are carefully but sympathetically done. The ending then, is brutal, and for the reader unsatisfactory, though strangely, and with hindsight, it was probably inevitable.

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