By BARRY UNSWORTH
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN 0-385-48652-9 352 pages 6-1/4" x 9-1/4"
Reviewed by Jules
On the surface, Barry Unsworth's
Losing Nelson is a rather slight black comedy of an emotionally
disturbed biographer's struggle to come to terms with a disgraceful
episode in the life of Britain's greatest hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. Yet the novel
evolves relentlessly into a searing indictment that will probably
have its greatest political and emotional impact in England but
will stand on its own as a compelling achievement anywhere else,
in any other language.
Each character in the book
is drawn with exquisite realism, but nonetheless symbolizes some
greater meaning. It's clear that Unsworth is not merely writing
about Charles Cleasby -- an eccentric British amateur scholar,
Miss Lily -- his practical secretary, and the solution to an academic
dispute: did Lord Horatio Nelson knowingly deliver hundreds of
men, women and children to prison, torture, and the gallows despite
a treaty assuring their safe conduct from Naples? Losing Nelson
is about how heroes are created by the same process that produces
As the Cleasby discovers,
Admiral Nelson's celebrated courage and genius cannot disguise
the fact that he was driven by greed for glory and gold to the
exclusion of all normal human values. He did not serve freedom,
as English school children are taught, but the most vicious tyranny.
Judged by the professed English values of fair play and honesty,
Lord Horatio Nelson was a wretched criminal who stained British
history with a despicable act of ruthless betrayal that only a
Stalin or Hitler could have admired, much less excused.
His victories cost him
an eye and an arm and -- eventually-- his life, but Nelson's rewards
were fame, gold, a beautiful woman -- Lady Emma Hamilton, whom
openly he shared with her husband -- and the lavish gratitude
of the despots he saved from Napolean's armies: "The gold
medal for Cape St. Vincent, the Star of the Bath, the Sicilian
order conferred by King Ferdinand, and a resplendent aigrette,
or plume of triumph, from the grand signior of Turkey, which had
thirteen strands of diamonds, one for each of the French warships
taken or destroyed at the Nile, and the middle a radiant star
turning on its centre by means of concealed clockwork."
Unsworth brings it all
to astonishingly vivid life through the eyes of Nelson's would-be
biographer, who is so obsessed with his subject that he considers
himself the hero's dark side. As Nelson is all courage, so Cleasby
is all coward, drowning in severe paranoias and compulsions that
he attempts to escape by attaching himself to the great admiral,
whose life and battles he acts out in precise daily rituals. He
has a billiard table covered with blue glass on which he moves
model ships in perfect parallel to Nelson's battles.
Cleasby, it seems, is the
British upper class at the end of the hawser tied to Nelson's
treachery at Naples. Readers familiar with the works of Robert
Graves and Sir James Fraser will recognize him as the sacred king's
tanist, the dark twin who will eventually kill him and replace
him as the queen's consort. Miss Lily, as sane as Cleasby is deranged,
is the voice of modern, sensible, practical, socialist England,
but also the oracle who tells the truth.
"They cut pieces off
him, didn't they?" she observes, commenting on Nelson's childhood.
"He was an orphan, wasn't he? His mother died when he was
nine, and he was only twelve when he went away to sea.... I don't
know whether you'd call it cutting pieces off or just sort of
putting him in a narrow place where he couldn't grow." Elsewhere,
she calls Nelson a "sort of serial killer."
Like Ariadne in the palace
of the Minotaur, she offers Cleasby a way out of his labyrinth.
Unsworth never so much as points to his mythological, Joycean
metaphor. The book is always perfectly human. Its plot is even
conventional: will Cleasby follow Miss Lily out of the dark shadows
and weird reflections of his maze and to the real world of her
daffodils and home-made cookies?
The book approaches its
climax as Tony Blair puts an end to Thatcherism. Unsworth brings
this single moment of political news into the story like a sudden
exclamation point revealing yet another level of insight. Southern
Italy never recovered from the massacre of its intellectual elite
at Naples. Neither did Europe. The triumphs of Margaret Thatcher
(and Ronald Reagan, her American counterpart) were the historical
consequences of Lord Horatio Nelson's service to his royal masters.
It's time to discard Nelson and all he means, Unsworth seems to
In Losing Nelson,
Unsworth combines impeccably lucid prose with convincing historical
and human detail in a novel that keeps the reader eagerly turning
pages. Unfortunately, many will be disappointed by the book's
ending, which flows inexorably from its internal logic, but offers
little to those who favor Miss Lily's clarity to the murky British
imperial hypocrisy summed up in the Tsarist Russian epithet "perfidious