Saturday, March 15, 2008

Patrick O'Brian, Part 1

The Aubreyiad
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

Patrick O’Brian’s twenty novels about dashing 19th-century British naval hero Jack Aubrey, and his tortured, intellectual best friend Stephen Maturin, combined an ear for language, an eye for imagery, a nose for authentic historical fact, a feel for the complex hearts and motives of human beings, and a taste for gripping drama and thrilling adventure. So as you read this series that spanned thirty years of creativity (1969-99), and which nevertheless seems like one uninterrupted tale, you find yourself experiencing a feast for all the senses. Behold, the vivid picture of a lithe frigate sailing on a bowline. Hearken to the beautiful, intimate music shared by a ship’s captain and its surgeon. Feel the sway of the deck and the roar of guns shaking your universe. Smell the salt spray, the smoke of battle. Taste the delights of humor, romance, tragedy, triumph, suspense, intrigue, and the simple pleasures of a daily routine that is now completely extinct.

It has been very satisfying to follow Jack Aubrey from his first command in Master and Commander, through the tenth book that has already become a film (The Far Side of the World), and beyond. At this writing I confess that I am only on the twelfth book of the twenty. [UPDATE: Actually, I am reading the thirteenth book right now, mainly during breaks in Symphony Chorus rehearsals and performances.] But what books! These are books that I cannot stop reading until I get to the last page. And the rumor that O’Brian was working on a twenty-first part of the series when he died will probably gripe my heart as I turn the last page of the last book. I have spoken highly of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series; but I think O’Brian’s work is even better.

O’Brian also wrote a collection called The Rendezvous and Other Stories; biographies of Picasso and Joseph Banks (the English naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook); a novel titled Testimonies, and two early works of naval fiction which are currently in print, The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore.

Before I leave off, I would like to plug a couple of very helpful “support” books. First, I recently came into possession of A Sea of Words by Dean King et al, Third Edition, published by Owl Books in 2000 – the year of Patrick O’Brian’s death. It is a very simple, clear, well-written “lexicon and companion to the complete seafaring tales of Patrick O’Brian.” In other words, it is a dictionary, explaining not only nautical terms but also foreign phrases, biblical and literary references, and historical figures mentioned in the Aubrey-Maturin series. Why buy it? Well, I bought it because I have enjoyed O’Brian’s books very much, even without being able to guess what “bitts” and “hances” are, to say nothing of the difference between shrouds and sheets. In the first hour that I spent with this book, I learned the solution to dozens of puzzles that had been lingering in the back of my mind, mostly ignored but subtracting just a bit from my overall enjoyment of O’Brian’s magnificent novels. So that’s one recommendation.

Second, I was also delighted to find Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World, a large-format “coffee-table book” with color pictures, edited by Richard O’Neill. It includes really helpful diagrams of the parts of a ship, paintings from the period (say, late 1700s and early 1800s) in which Jack Aubrey would have lived, a thorough explanation of what Aubrey’s political, naval, and cultural world was like, a glossary of naval terms, and a guide to the characters in O’Brian’s novels. By now I have probably guessed enough from reading the “canon” that I don’t really need this book, but I enjoy having it much as we Harry Potter fans enjoy visiting MuggleNet. O’Neill & co. make a case for calling O’Brian’s landmark series the “Aubreyiad,” a reference to Homer’s Iliad and a measure of how popular and respected these books are becoming. At another point, O’Neill compares O’Brian’s writerly qualities to those of Jane Austen. If you haven’t read any of the Aubreyiad, I hope these comparisons will intrigue you. And if the books are too hard to read at first, do look into O’Neill’s and King’s helpful companion works.

Master and Commander

You may have seen the very excellent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a curiously titled film, so named because it is loosely based on two different books by the same author. Patrick O’Brian’s long series of naval novels about a British captain in the Napoleonic Wars begins with this book; the one called The Far Side of the World was the tenth of twenty books, all of them centering on the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon, and conscience, Dr. Stephen Maturin. And if they aren’t the greatest series of historical novels about 19th-century naval warfare, they run a close second to C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series.

I can tell this already after only reading the first book. I can also tell that this series is going to cost me a fortune, even in paperback, because I will buy them and line them up on my shelf next to my prized Hornblowers. And not for showing off, either; I mean to read them to pieces.

Newcomers to sailing stories will be somewhat aided by a diagram of a ship and its sails on the frontispiece, though it is not the kind of ship Captain Aubrey commands in this book, nor are all the sails represented. Even more helpful is the way the book shows you the sailing life from Dr. Maturin’s point of view — a landsman who, before this story, had no knowledge of the workings of the ship. As he learns the parts of a ship, and the customs of its crew, so do you. I suppose this book would make an excellent laymen’s introduction to the subject of 19th century naval warfare, almost textbook material. But it is more; oh, so much more.

The first thing that grabs you about the book is the very un-sanitized, un-prettied-up, human portrait of the heroes of the British navy who stood between Napoleon and world domination in the early 1800s. You don’t just learn the difference between topmasts and topgallants; you also discover that the navy had all kinds of personalities in it, made up of all different good and bad parts, and plagued with every problem from greed, guilt, despair, and jealousy, all the way to substance abuse, vermin, weight problems, and debt. They conversed with women of ill-repute, ate with unwashed knives after using them in an autopsy, and occasionally had themselves let blood.

But zounds, how they fought! Most people living today would consider it an act of heroism just to live with seventy to ninety men together on a 14-gun sloop-of-war like Aubrey’s first command, the Sophie. The crowded conditions, the poor food and water (constantly running low), the danger from the elements, the swaying heights of the rigging, the short hours of sleep (watch and watch, four hours on deck and four hours below), the heavy work and severe discipline; and then, for an amusing diversion now and again, tons of burning metal being hurled at you from the deck of an enemy ship.

In this story, set around 1800, Aubrey and Maturin, together with other enjoyable characters, sail out of Minorca to harrass the trade along the Spanish coast. They take some lucrative prizes, win some spectacular battles, and also experience a good deal of loss. They are joined by a tortured but unforgettable Lieutenant named Dillon, a quiet master’s mate named Pullings, a hilariously boastful captain’s clerk named Richards, a merry captain’s coxswain named Bonden, a master rumored to be a pederast (alas, another tortured soul), a loblolly boy shunned by the superstitious sailors because of his on-land career as a sin-eater, and a similarly varied assortment of midshipmen, standing officers, and seamen. They use clever disguises, marvelous feats of navigation, maneuvers so daring you will hold your breath, and a lot of well-practiced gunnery to triumph over xebecs, snows, galleons, and sloops.

Even during the introspective lulls between engagements, you will be fascinated by the questions that whirl within and between the characters. Will Dillon and Aubrey ever become the friends they should be? Will Aubrey’s famous luck at sea uphold him on land? Or will he torpedo himself (to borrow a phrase from a different era) personally, politically, or in worse ways? Observe with pleasure how, in a short time, he comes on board a ship whose crew is set in its ways, and whips them into shape—makes them a fighting crew, and earns their respect and devotion. And feel your flesh crawl with the tension, not only between the characters but also between ships and nations, as Dr. Maturin looks on with his cool, philosophical, scientific eye.

OK, here it is in a nutshell. If you saw the movie, you saw almost everything that happens in this book — except the part where the Doctor operates on himself; that isn’t in the book. And the setting is the Mediterranean instead of the coast of South America. But other than that, if you saw the movie, you will find a lot of the events in this book very familiar. Nevertheless, the book does much that no movie could ever do. It is so convincing that you can all but feel the deck heaving under your feet as you read it, and become enveloped in the historical setting and the naval jargon until you find it running out of your own mouth. And instead of only seeing what’s happening on the surface, you come to understand what’s behind it all — which is what really makes this a great story.

Post Captain

This is the second book in the series that began with Master and Commander. It continues to follow the at times strained friendship between a brash young Royal Navy officer named Jack Aubrey and the physician, ship’s surgeon, naturalist, and sometime spy named Stephen Maturin.

It picks up in 1803, at the end of the short-lived Peace of Amiens that divided Britain’s war against Napoleon in two. As Spain makes up its royal mind whether or not to join Napoleon’s side, the British navy is scrambling to prepare for an expected French invasion. Meanwhile, a bitter political battle is going on in Parliament between the ousted Whigs (who are no friends of Aubrey’s) and the embattled Tories (who can’t adequately explain what they are doing with the secret funds... because they’re... SECRET!).

In the midst of all this, Jack Aubrey has his own problems. For reasons best explained by you reading the book for yourself, he has become romantically involved with two women: cousins — one of whom poor Stephen also fancies. And as if it isn’t enough to be emotionally savaged by two constitutionally opposite females (to say nothing of their mother/aunt), he is also dogged by debt (his financial advisor ran away with all his money), his career is at a standstill, and the navy doesn’t have enough commands to go around. In desperation, “Lucky Jack” accepts the command of a bizarre, experimental ship (the Polychrest) that has no business being afloat. His problems multiply as his romantic life gets entangled in his command, as the threat of being arrested for debt dogs every step he takes on land, as the admiral commanding his squadron turns out to be one of his most malignant enemies in the service, and as the sadistic harshness of his Lieutenant brings the crew to the brink of mutiny.

Nevertheless, Jack once again takes his ship and his crew—such as they are—into battle against staggering odds and brings home a prize. This means promotion to Post Captain—not a breakfast cereal; this means he can command a big “ship of the line,” that he will always be on full pay whether he is in active service or not, and that if he lives long enough, he will eventually become an admiral on the basis of sheer seniority. “Post Captain” seems like a really good thing for Jack, until he gets it. Then he realizes that there are far more Post Captains than Post Ships. At a point where he could be taken up for debt and thrown in prison for the duration — when the women in his life have seriously let him down — and when the only commands available are in dirty jobs that he would hate with all his soul — Jack springs at the chance of a “temporary command.”

And so the adventure winds up with Jack in “temporary command” of His Majesty’s Frigate Lively, a “crack vessel” that sails like a dream, with an incredibly competent crew... but no experience in battle. Knowing Jack, it’s only a matter of time until they get some. A climactic action as Spain poises to enter the war... bringing not only this phase of Jack Aubrey’s career but also his love life, his friendship with Stephen Maturin, and Stephen’s intelligence work to a tightly woven climax.

Like the first book in this twenty-volume series, Post Captain is such a vivid historical novel that the language, social setting, and naval activities become as real, as clear, and as familiar to you as the room in which you are reading it. Sometimes, while reading this book, I was so caught up in the tension of the story that I wanted to give this or that character a sharp talking-to. But there were also laughter, sadness, burning injustice, triumph, low spirits, and puzzling little mysteries spread throughout the book. You see a side of Dr. Maturin you had not seen before — perhaps more than one side — and you see his friendship with Aubrey stretched to the breaking point. But of all the things one may see in this book, there is one thing I could not find: any reason to doubt that the third book, H.M.S. Surprise, will be at least as good as the first two.

H.M.S. Surprise

I am occasionally criticized for focusing my readings (and writings) too narrowly, and not posting enough reviews of adult novels. Well, here’s an adult novel for you, definitely. There is so much historical research behind these books, they should be required reading for history majors. Like a veritable Sybill Trelawney, O’Brian “channels” the style of speaking, the political situation, the social attitudes, and the intricate details of ship-to-ship warfare in the British Navy of the wee years of the 19th century. He even makes you feel like listening to music by composers rarely heard today (such as Corelli, Hummel, and especially Boccherini). If someone printed a set of CDs called “Music from the Aubrey-Maturin novels” I would buy it before you could say “Beat to quarters!”

Besides that, there are complex characters colliding in exciting but very adult ways, and while the books have plenty of action that is not for the faint at heart, at the same time there are lingering expanses of philosophical reflection and character-centered storytelling. And most grown-up of all, a full set of the current trade paperback edition would cost about $280.00 American, if you bought them new. Of course, that’s twenty books’ worth... but that, too, requires an adult-sized investment, both of time and of concentration.

Nevertheless, I think the part of me that is hooked on O’Brian’s brilliant “naval novels” is the same part of me that loves to read fantasy and children’s stories—the young at heart part, the part that looks for a book not to complicate my life further, but to take me to a world I can only dream of. And after reading three of them, I can tell you quite honestly that I do dream of them — in vivid, full-color detail.

This third book in the series carries forward the complicated, Romantic mess which started in Post Captain. Captain Jack Aubrey is still on the run from his creditors—even the capture of a ship full of Spanish gold at the end of his previous command does not enable him to claim the hand of his devoted Sophia. While her younger sisters marry themselves off, and other suiters pester her, and her mother persecutes her for her devotion to the financially strapped “Goldilocks,” it seems to be a matter of time before Sophie knuckles under and marries the handsome vicar instead. Meanwhile, the same ignorant twit of a First Lord of the Admiralty who cheated Aubrey out of his prize money, has also compromised the “cover” of Jack’s best friend: physician, ship’s surgeon, musician, naturalist, and daring intelligence agent Stephen Maturin.

The excitement begins when Jack sails his temporary command, the H.M.S. Lively, to the Spanish-held island of Minorca to rendezvous with Stephen. It turns out that the rumor of Stephen’s covert activity has reached the ears of the French, and the poor Doctor has been arrested and tortured. The Livelies bust Stephen out, but he is still recovering from his ordeal months later on board Jack’s new command, the frigate Surprise, bound for the sweltering ports of India and almost certain heartbreak. For Stephen knows that the woman he loves, but who is the mistress of another man, will be in Bombay to meet him... and naval intelligence is concerned that she may be a spy!

Throw in a couple of stomach-twisting storms at sea, a deadly squall that roars out of nowhere during a dead calm, an engagement between a convoy of British merchant ships and a convoy of French ships, and a fatal duel that results in the amazing Dr. Maturin having to operate on himself... OK, I’m back from being sick. What was I saying? Yes, all that and tensions between men in a sailing ship, tensions between men and women on land, tensions between seamen and landsmen, tensions between the Royal Navy and the merchant marine... Whew! And you thought historical novels were supposed to be boring! And magical? You want magical? If Jack Aubrey isn’t some kind of genius wizard, I don’t know how he pulls off some of the tricks he does!

I want to very firmly encourage all you youngsters, and not-so-youngsters, to experience a world that has mostly gone by the board (to borrow a sailing term). Do, do, do give these books, and/or C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower books, a try! And if you can hack it, I advise you to experience sailing on the real ocean at least once. It’s a lot more work than flying a broomstick (if you can make the broomstick go), but it really is as close to the feeling of flying as a Muggle can get, without foolishly jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Bon voyage!

The Mauritius Command

This is the fourth novel of the twenty-book series about the Napoleonic-era exploits of British naval captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon, and intelligence officer, Stephen Maturin. Or rather, as one reader wrote to me, it is the fourth part of one huge, wandering novel in twenty parts.

Well, the huge novel might wander a bit, but the small one is as tightly constructed as you could wish. O’Brian swears, in his brief preface, that everything except his main characters is a strict reconstruction of a little-known, historic campaign. Even while this historical novel nearly crosses into the realm of pure history, it remains a page-turner of a novel—and a dramatic masterpiece. The optimistic, commanding figure of Jack Aubrey strikes enough of a contrast with his cerebral, melancholy friend to generate a whole novel by itself; but the real conflict lies in other directions, between the captains under Aubrey, in a fleet sent around the southern tip of Africa to take a pair of well-fortified islands (Reunion and Mauritius) from the French.

I particularly speak of a captain named Lord Clonfert, an exact contemporary of Aubrey but inferior to him in seniority, tactical ability, and self-respect. Lord Clonfert is a complex, paradoxical character whose need to prove himself—especially overagainst Aubrey—makes him a classically tragic figure. Deeply flawed, yet deeply sympathetic, his fate seems inevitable, yet at the same time, truly heartbreaking. Though the greater part of the novel depicts Aubrey’s triumphant fleet action against the French—a triumph that seems inevitable in spite of a crushing series of setbacks—through the heart of it runs the bitter tragedy of a dashing young captain of more ambition than skill, slowly destroyed by his rivalry with a man who meant to be his friend.

Since I reviewed H.M.S. Surprise, I have been informed that you can listen to the sort of music Jack and Stephen played, and their jolly tars sang, above and below decks. Look for a CD of sailor songs called Roast Beef of Old England and two CDs of violin-and-cello music of that period, titled Musical Evenings with the Captain, vol. 1 and vol. 2. [EDIT: Visiting these links will lead you to several other disks of similar material.] This may also be the place to recommend Chris Chant’s book Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World. But as for me, I find that the sound of naval gunnery roars off the pages of these books — along with the song of wind in the rigging, the bosun’s pipe, and the salty speech of sailors and soldiers. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would be deaf to any music while reading a book like this; and the pictures that O’Brian’s words draw on my imagination are illustration enough. I hope, before you make a huge investment in music and reference books, that you will first learn to love these adventures at sea, and the way this moving, exciting book comes to life in your hands.

Desolation Island

Fifth in the series of historical novels that started with Master and Commander, this book continues the adventures of the big, jolly Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his small, melancholy friend and ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. And though the mission in this book is an enormous test of Jack’s seamanship, leadership, and heroism, it is — more than the previous books in the series—really Stephen’s adventure, for the most part.

For as you know by now, if you have read this far in the series, Stephen is not only a physician but also an intelligence agent. His career in espionage has fallen on hard times, and it is clear that he is in danger of being considered a has-been who knows too much. So, even though he is nursing a broken heart over yet another brush with the faithless Diana Villiers, Stephen accepts an assignment to an American lady-spy who strongly resembles Diana, and who is being transported to Australia for her crimes. And since Jack’s new command, the fifty-gun, two-decker Leopard, is headed that way as well, they are teamed once again.

It isn’t the most action-packed book, from the standpoint of roaring broadsides, yardarm-to-yardarm, with boarding parties fighting hand-to-hand and brilliant maneuvers turning the tide, etc. In fact, there is only one relatively brief, desperately intense battle between two ships. But don’t let that fool you into thinking this isn’t an exciting naval novel. In fact, I don’t recall feeling so much suspense in the previous four books put together as I did reading this book. There is a long, grim chase between the Leopard and a much larger and stronger Dutch man-of-war. In fact, it is from this book that Russell Crowe gets his line in the Master and Commander movie: “I wonder whether it is just an odd chance, or whether we killed some relative of his? His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.”

There are also a couple of nasty storms, a shipwide epidemic, a near mutiny, and a shipwreck amongst mountains of floating ice that will inspire dread and awe for scores of pages. And of course, there is the tense and delicate situation that develops on the penguin-infested island named in the book’s title (read it — I don’t have to give everything away!). Running through it all as an organizing thread is Stephen’s intelligence operation of touch-and-go, surgical precision, whose final outcome will have you pacing the quarterdeck until the very last page.

Dress warm!

1 comment:

Gil said...

Arrrgh! Lest ye be accused of being a lubberly swab, avast and stow your comment that it is a "rumor" that O'Brian was working on a 21st book in the series. Ain't Norton already published "The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey" ?
Three chapters are printed with a finished version and his handwritten drafts on opposing pages. Preserved