A few weeks ago, around the time of the publication of Bring Up the Bodies, Newsweek published Hilary Mantel’s list of five excellent historical novels. Naturally I paid attention. Losing Nelson was the first of them to arrive at my local library and I found it exhilarating. Some critics think historical fiction is somehow lame, or lazy, or unoriginal, and often that’s true. (Also true of literary fiction, though.) Maybe what attracts critical fire is the occasional predictability of the historical novel’s structure. I bring this up because Barry Unsworth so successfully avoids it.
Losing Nelson is narrated by a middle-aged Englishman who has dedicated his life to the late-Georgian naval hero Lord Nelson. This narrator — whose name, Charles Cleasby, is barely uttered in the course of the novel — is one of those lonely weird people who populate the novels of Barbara Pym or, more alarmingly, Ruth Rendell. It’s clear from the start that Charles is immensely damaged and part of the novel’s suspense is generated by sheer curiosity: what the heck happened to him? He is aware of his own peculiarities, but only in part. So he’s one of those tricky unreliable narrators. Especially unreliable because Barry Unsworth pierces narrative convention and has Charles’ story not only shift back and forth in time but also in person, from “I” to “you” to “I” again, only often the “I” is Nelson. One minute we are in Charles’ head, discussing a sea battle, the next minute we are on the deck of a ship, nearly deafened by cannon fire. In effect, Charles in in such psychic distress that he retreats into this alternative identity he has so carefully constructed: Horatio Nelson. He even, it’s clear, has imaginary sex with Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton.
It sounds jarring, but Unsworth is so adept that I found the effect magical instead. Both worlds, the contemporary and the historical, are vividly imagined and described but the way they unexpectedly penetrate each other is both original and effective. What’s more Unsworth keeps the narrative tension taut because Charles has made a hero out of his alter ego. Yet as he works on his book about Nelson (of course he’s writing a book) he has to confront a disturbing, anti-heroic episode in Nelson’s career. It’s clear to the reader that the Nelson fetish can’t hold back the tide of Charles’ psychic agony forever. Will the influence of his part-time secretary Miss Lily offer him a steadying hand? Or will Charles come apart as he investigates the truth about what happened in Naples in 1799? As he stands in a shadowy Neapolitan church he thinks, “I felt the same sorrow, the same helplessness that I had so often felt at home in my study. Whatever one made of the documents, the truth of the past was beyond grasping — it lay in the looks exchanged, the tones used, and the eyes and voices had left no trace.” Okay. Maybe we can’t get to THE truth of the past. (The very idea that there is a single truth is a symptom of Charles’ fragile, absolutist view of the world.) But in Losing Nelson, Barry Unsworth gives us a provocative version of it.