Saturday, March 6, 2010

Losing Nelson


Blame it on Chang-Rae Lee. If I hadn't read the perfection that is The Surrendered my reading choices would have been more varied. If Surrendered was less than it was I could have picked and started anything after finishing it, but was that good and you can't follow a future prize winning novel with just any old thing. If you do you get caught up in the nothing-is-as-good-so-let's-not-finish-this-book-and-try-another-instead cycle. You do not bust out of that one until you get another pearl beyond price and how can you count on that happening any time soon? You can't. The odds are against it happening.

So what's a reader to do? Fall back on a book by a beloved author that you have not read yet. This is the kind of problem solving that I do Flower. What author saved the day? Barry (my secret crush) Unsworth. The author of my dreams to my rescue. I had saved Losing Nelson for just such an occasion. When an author reaches the If He/She Re-Wrote The Phone Book I Would Buy It And Read status I have to save one of their books, unread, for an emergency or their death reading purposes. In this case it was an emergency but the in case of death situation is something I plan for. There is also the author is already dead so keep one of their titles virginity intact for later reading. A good example of this for me is Charles Dickens. He's been dead for longer than I've been reading so when I went full on into Dickens in my teens I saved Barnaby Rudge as my un-read Dickens. It is still ready for me to read when I get to the point that I cannot stand not having read a new novel by Charles Dickens to read. So far I'm ok since I re-read the other novels of Charles so often.

In Losing Nelson, Charles Cleasby leads a completely orderly life. It is a life where "...habit is safety, without habit we would all just flop around and die". His most constant habit is Lord Horatio Nelson. Cleasby is a knowledgeable but loony wanna be Nelson biographer. Everyday Cleasby relives Nelson's life. The battles, events and non-events of Nelson's history govern his own. He has constructed a calendar of Nelson's life and follows it, even takes holidays on the days of Nelson's greatest victories, religiously.

There are, occasionally, intrusions on Cleasby's obsession. Miss Lily, Cleasby's assistant, refuses to see Nelson as the perfect hero.Then there are the members of the Nelson Club who are more interested in drinks and two hundred year old gossip than the perfect man. There is fabulous humor in the Club scenes and in Charles' imaginings of Emma Hamilton. Cleasby himself cannot get past a particularly savage moment in Nelson's history. This has stymied the progress of his glorious biography. The biography where suddenly references to Nelson are becoming "I" and "we" instead of Nelson or him. This is were you realize that Losing Nelson is a part historical fiction part intense thriller.

Barry Unsworth has a shelf of brilliant novels behind him. In all of them history, static already written history is what will undo the living. Immersed headlong into intelligent writing you're never allowed to be sure whether or not it will be Cleasby's undoing. This is another exceptionally impressive novel by Unsworth. He is a gift.


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