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Paperback Losing Nelson Book

ISBN: 0393321177

ISBN13: 9780393321173

Losing Nelson

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Book Overview

Losing Nelson is a novel of obsession, the story of Charles Cleasby, a man unable to see himself separately from the hero--Lord Horatio Nelson--he mistakenly idolizes. He is, in fact, a Nelson biographer run amok. He is convinced that Nelson, Britain's greatest admiral, who lost his own life defeating Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar, is the perfect hero. However, in his research he has come upon an incident of horrifying brutality in Nelson's...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Myth and identity - a dangerous mix

When an infant, I used to wiggle the ridges off my candlewick bedspread. I don't know whether it was a search for solace in the tactile, but it used to exasperate my mother, because I used to pick things into holes. Charles Cleasby, the Horatio Nelson worshipping main character of Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson, often sleeps under a holed and worn blanket of his mother's whenever he needs reassurance. It's a covering of peace for him, a way of shutting out the complications of the world and operates physically in the same way that his need to wrap himself in the myth of Nelson protects him mentally. Thus he is perhaps more a worshipper than a scholar. But the myth has become part of his psyche, part of his identity. Nelson's greatness, Nelson's genius, are parts of the nation's greatness and genius and thus, by association, part of Cleasby's own moral and personal identity. But, wanting to find out more, Cleasby researches Nelson's history, expecting to confirm greatness and therefore bolster myth. To his increasing dismay and reluctantly admitted disbelief, what he uncovers are the complications of history, the messy realities of war and the personal limitations of the historical figure, who is often revealed as less than competent, certainly less than diplomatic, but also, and more importantly, as a self-seeking, ruthless individual, certainly not a team player. The myth dissolves little by little and so does Charles Cleasby's hold on reality. As Nelson loses his mythical status, Cleasby's world simply falls apart. He is no longer able to interpret experience nor relate to his surroundings. The blanket cocoon offered by myth generates an intellectual and mental solace that can both justify and reinforce identity and, once the protecting wrap has been holed for Charles, at least and perhaps for a nation, it is identity itself that is challenged. Losing Nelson is a serious and moving study of the essential role of myth in defining identity and creating psyche, citing its power and its limitations, these derived from its essence of simply being myth.

An absorbing study of character, theme, and history.

There have been a number of dramatic, descent-into-madness books in the past few years (McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Murr's The Boy, among them), but Losing Nelson is so much more sophisticated and so much broader in scope that I hope it will not be categorized with these other, more limited (though still fascinating!) books. It is a truly a remarkable novel, with a character so complete that one remembers him for much more than his obsession with Nelson and his descent into madness. Charles Cleasby, highly intelligent and very reclusive, believes that he and Adm. Nelson are the same person-- that he is, in fact, the dark side of Nelson. At the outset of the novel, Cleasby is trying to reconcile his abiding belief in Nelson's heroism with Nelson's behavior in 1798, when he aided the Bourbon rulers in Naples against the French and directly contributed to the outbreak of a civil war in Naples. Strong evidence suggests that Nelson has betrayed a truce and that he bears responsibility for the hangings of hundreds of Neapolitans. Unsworth so thoroughly incorporates the life of Nelson with the life of Cleasby that we feel Cleasby's confusion about his alter-ego Nelson and sympathize with his moral quandary about the Naples executions. The historical detail throughout is both fascinating and pertinent in showing parallels between the characters and in highlighting their differences. The movement of the narrative back and forth in time and location is seamless. Ultimately, Unsworth raises the larger questions of what constitutes a hero and why a nation even needs heroes, elevating this book to a significance of scope and universality that few novels ever achieve. This novel is utterly fascinating-- my favorite Unsworth novel to date. Mary Whipple

The ending was NOT a letdown!

I finished reading this book a month or so ago and it's been haunting me ever since. I had observed my husband's startlement when he finished the book, as well as read some of the reviews, so I knew the ending was surprising. Having read it, I believe that the violence at the end is not a concession to addicts of video games or Schwartzennegger movies. Rather, what Unsworth's protagonist does at the close of the novel is inevitable--not the specific act he commits, perhaps, but in terms of its violence. Oddly--brilliantly--Miss Lily is the trigger for this violence. Until her entrance into his life Charles Cleasby has been timid, awkward, repressed, obsessed... However, he has never been utterly mad. His therapist fosters Charles' interest in Horatio Nelson in the hope that it will be a healthy outlet for his energy and intelligence; instead it consumes both, shaping Charles' days and his identity in the endless loop of Horatio's battles. If no one had interfered Charles could have probably ignored that nasty business in Naples, and maintained his tenuous grasp on reality, going to the Club, working on the book, and not firing his cleaning lady. But the work on the book demands some help, and Miss Lily, whose common sense and good heart leave no room for hero worship, seems to represent salvation for Charles, a lifeline to save him from the interminable succession of Trafalgars. Miss Lily's sharp observations of Nelson's flaws would no doubt have gotten her promptly sacked if they weren't accompanied by such warmth; the affection with which she treats her employer allows him to respect her spunk and return her friendship as well as such a social misfit can, even while he dismisses her intelligence. But in this he cannot totally succeed, not when her criticisms of Nelson are so apt, when they exacerbate his own uneasiness over the events of June 26, 1799. Perhaps if Miss Lily had not gone away, not abandoned him as his mother had done before her, Charles could have separated himself from his hero and, with the help of Lilian and her son, forged an authentic self in which to center his formidable will and mind. But she does go, and Charles cannot believe that she will return. And in the face of this loss he must also confront the loss of Nelson, of his Bright Angel, with no one to substitute for him. He was just learning how to start to become a real person, but now he is left without anyone to guide him in the process. The mosaic of his previous identity, which he had pieced together so painfully over the years of repeated battles, is disintegrating in Naples. He has to do something. Something to sever himself from the identity that cannot be. Something to restore the identity that never was. Something violent. Just reread my verbiage. Am I pompous or what? But it's a great book. I don't think many books are 5s, and _Losing Nelson_ may not be either, but it is more that 4.

A twin study of Horatio Nelson and Nelson obsession

Losing Nelson is a brilliant book about a man trying to write a book about Horatio Nelson. The main character, Charles Cleasby, is a nebbish and a Nelson nerd, who, ever since beginning to specialize in Nelson on the recommendation of his psychiatrist, has no life beyond this obsession. He reenacts Nelson's battles, in real time and on their anniversaries, in a special room in his house; attends the Nelson Club, where he eventually gives a disastrous paper; and, most important, is trying to write a biography of Nelson. In it he hopes to prove his own firm conviction that Nelson was a perfect hero, a bright angel, who never did anything that was less than heroic, at least at sea. Cleasby is troubled by two things, one human and one historical. The human being is his typist, Miss Lily, who asks unsettling questions about Nelson's megalomania, his indifference to the sufferings of his men, his craving for celebrity; the other is a historical event, Nelson's apparent collusion in the betrayal of some Jacobin rebels in Naples, who left their fortresses under a promise of safe conduct but were arrested and executed. Cleasby hopes to "clear" Nelson of guilt in this case. His efforts to do this lead him further and further into the byways of his obsession, which, having started out looking like a hobby, becomes more and more a kind of derangement. Eventually he is drawn into the "poisonous flower-trap" of Naples himself, with surprising results. Unsworth is a fine historical novelist and one learns a lot about Nelson from reading this book; more interestingly one learns about the results on the fragile psyche of a Nelson fan (in his own mind, a double) of losing Nelson as a shining model of English perfection.Merritt Moseley

A Brilliant Study of Obsession

Unsworth remains true to form in this exceptional study of one man's descent into obsessive madness. The extents to which Charles Cleasby is prepared to go just to prove to his typist (not to mention himself) that Nelson was a true hero are nothing short of exasperating. Whilst this book is undoubtedly a dense read, it is also wickedly funny, terrifying and, ultimately, extremely satisfying. How this was not short listed for the Booker (not to detract from Coetzee's win, though) is completely beyond me.
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