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Barry Unsworth: Losing Nelson

This is a novel about obsession and identity, about heroes and nationalism. It is also a novel about Lord Nelson. Charles Cleasby is a fairly solitary man. His father died of cancer a few years ago. His mother left them when he was eight. He has minimal contact with his brother. His father left enough money that he does not have to work. Indeed, he seems only to have contact with three groups of people. The first is Mrs. Watson, the cleaning lady, who comes twice a week. Second is the proprietor, manager and sole employee of Avon Secretarial Services, whom Cleasby calls Miss Lily, and who calls once a week to type up Cleasby’s biography of Nelson. Finally, there are the members of the Nelson Society. All three will have been detached by the end of the book.

Cleasby had a psychological disorder when young. It is not clear what the disorder was but it means that he cannot look at computer or TV screens, neither of which he has and which (for the former) necessitates Miss Lily’s weekly visits. While recovering from the disorder, he visits a psychiatrist, who turns him on to Nelson. When the book opens, Cleasby is obsessed with Nelson. Not only is he writing a biography of the Admiral, he is also preparing a talk for the Nelson Society. More particularly, he celebrates every anniversary in Nelson’s calendar, slavishly reconstructing battles at the precise hour that Nelson did what he did. Indeed, Nelson has taken over Cleasby’s life so much that he fully identifies, seeing himself as Nelson’s dark shadow and using the first person, rather than the second or third, when talking about him.

But Cleasby has a problem. For him, Nelson was the sublime hero, never to be seen again. But it seems that Nelson was responsible – wittingly or unwittingly is not clear – for sending to their deaths numerous Neapolitans, who had surrendered to Nelson after siding with the French against the Bourbons. After their surrender, the British handed them over to the Bourbons who executed them or left them to rot in jail. Cleasby is deeply troubled by this action and tries to find a way of exculpating Nelson. He does not succeed. He is not helped by Miss Lily, who finds other faults with Nelson (his poor treatment of his wife, for example).

Cleasby is a man out of touch with his time. He misses the election (Blair’s first triumph) and fails to understand that hero-worship is not limited to Nelson, when he despises the Nelson Society barman’s adoration of David Bowie (of whom Cleasby has barely heard). He barely even registers his own sexual interest in Miss Lily but even she has to take second place to Nelson. Moreover, he fails to understand that heroes – even Nelson – have flaws. He ends up going to Naples to find out the truth about his hero but the truth is too much for him.

Unsworth does a fine job, not only of telling us about Nelson but also of debunking hero-worship and obsession. He even brings himself – anonymously – into his own novel in a Hitchcockian moment when Cleasby gives his talk to the Nelson Society. Not as fine a work as Sacred Hunger but still a fascinating novel.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Hamish Hamilton