(Or, A Post Part-Written on Boxing Day 2006)
I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book, of the kind that turns you, temporarily at least, into an anti-social biblio-mole. [The ‘bibliomole’ is able to go for days at a time with only minimal social company and is content with the occasional meal, delivered book-side, which can be eaten blind and without the complicated operation of utensils. (Forks are just about possible, so long as the food isn’t drippy; knives and spoons require too much hand-eye co-ordination.)]
…Arguably it was not the best kind of book to be reading at Christmas time, when family is clamouring around and demanding your already much-divided attention (‘look at this Barbie! It speaks Spanish!’; ‘mince pie?’; ‘The Queen’s Speech is on’ etc, etc.), but, then again, perhaps it was the perfect anecdote and escape to all that chaos.
Either way, the novel in question was Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian and you should go out and find a copy right now (or scroll to the end of this post!). I tell you this for your own good. (Hobgoblin thinks so too.)
Originally published in 1970, it is the first in O’Brian’s very famous and much lauded series of naval adventures centred on the irrepressible Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, naval surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin. It begins in April 1800, in Port Mahon in Minorca, just as Aubrey -, garrulous, somewhat plump and a Tory – meets and befriends Stephen Maturin - half-Irish, ‘cadaverous’ and a natural philosopher - and is given his first command as Captain of the sloop Sophie. Further awarded the opportunity of a ‘cruise’ - a prize-hunting mission along the coast of Spain likely to enrich him and his crew immeasurably - Aubrey offers Maturin a place on board the Sophie as ship’s surgeon, and soon embarks on a series of breathtaking engagements with the enemy (apparently based on real clashes between Lord Cochrane and the French and Spanish in his sloop the HMS Speedy). These form the main body of the novel, which is wickedly episodic (oftentimes disconcertingly so), until circumstance finds Jack and Stephen made prisoners on the Rock of Gibraltor just before the climactic Battle of Algeciras in the autumn of 1801.
Admittedly, there is a lot of jargon to this naval jaunt – lots of sails being hoisted, lots of tacking, lots of land to the leeward and all that – and a good deal of talk about different kinds of boats too – frigates, sloops, xuebecs, brigs and ships-of-the-line. Which is confusing at first (and, if you’re like me, will always be so), but quickly becomes engaging, if only because O’Brian is so obviously an author in love with his material. Certainly, he knows his business, but more than that he writes about the sea, and the ships that plough it, with a touching poetry:
‘ – a vessel ready for inspection, holding her breath in case any of her beautifully trim rigging with its geometrically perfect fakes and perpendicular falls should be disturbed. She bore as much resemblance to her ordinary self as the rigid bosun, sweating in a uniform coat that must have been shaped with an adse, did to the same man in his shirt sleeves, puddening the topsail yard in a heavy swell; yet there was an essential relationship and the snowy sweep of the deck, the painful brilliance of the two brass quarter-deck four-pounders, the precision of the cylinders in the cable-tier and the parade ground neatness of the galley’s pots and tubs all had meaning. Jack had whited too many sepulchres to be deceived…’
How to resist this? Even if you have no clue what a ‘fake’ is, or which sail is the ‘topsail’, or which deck the ‘quarter-deck’, there is something compelling about it. (The idea of a sail ‘puddening’ particularly satisfies me…) O’Brian’s writing is ever active without being rough, detailed without being superfluous, gentile but never dull. All historical fiction should be this way: immersive, vivid, intimate, and yet also somehow alien and exotic, emphasising both our closeness and our distance from what is past.
The thing that brings us in close in O’Brian’s case is characterisation, and particularly the fascinating, (dare I say charming?) friendship that springs up between his violently different principle actors. When Aubrey and Maturin first meet at a music recital, Jack is all uniform, flesh and vigour, pounding his fist up and down on his knee to the beat, while Stephen is ‘a small, dark, white-faced creature in a rusty black coat – a civilian…wearing a wig, a grizzled wig, apparently made out of wire, and quite devoid of powder’. Jack’s first impulse is to hit his cadaverous neighbour with a chair, while Stephen regards the Captain with a haughty disdain. Each intuits a man wholly and disagreeably unlike himself. Until, that is, the next day, when, meeting by chance in the street, they realise their mutual passion for music – Jack for the violin, Stephen for the cello – and a strange compatibility.
Indeed, it is their dichotomy that draws them together – they are perfect antidotes for each other. Sounding boards. Or ‘better angels’. Or whatever you like. Stephen, melancholic and amused mostly via irony, is much in need of Jack’s bumptiousness and less-than-sharp wit, while Jack’s chunky heroics would spell disaster if not mediated by Stephen’s astute caution. Their exchanges, which are frequent, are clear highlights of the novel. Like this one, for example, one of the many occasions on which Stephen’s passion for all things natural overcomes his natural reserve:
‘Did you see that hoopoe?’ cried the man in the black coat. [Stephen.]
‘What is a hoopoe?’ cried Jack, staring about.
‘A bird. That cinnamon-coloured bird with barred wings. Upupa epops. There! There, over the roof! There! There!’
‘Where? Where? How does it bear?’
‘It has gone now. I had been hoping to see a hoopoe ever since I arrived. In the middle of the town! Happy Mahon, to have such denizens. But I beg your pardon. You were speaking of wetting swab.’
‘Oh, yes. It is a cant expression we have in the Navy. The swab is this’ – patting his epaulette – ‘and when we first we ship it, we wet it: that is to say, we a drink a bottle or two of wine…’
‘Indeed?’ said Maturin with a civil inclination of his head.
‘…I am so happy that you saw your epop.’
Or this one, after Jack has been forced to take a creditor’s son as a midshipman on a run to (our very own) Alexandria:
‘It might be just as well if everybody were impotent,’ said Jack sombrely. ‘It would save a world of trouble.’
‘And having seen the parents I am impatient to see this youth, the fruit of their strangely unattractive loins: will he be a wretched mammothrept? A little corporal? Or will the resiliency of childhood…?’
‘He will be the usual damned little nuisance, I dare say; but at least we shall know whether there is anything to be made of him by the time we are back from Alexandria. We are not saddled with him for the rest of the commission.’
‘Did you say Alexandria?’
‘In Lower Egypt?’
‘Yes. Did I not tell you? We are to run an errand to Sir Sydney Smith’s squadron before our next cruise. He is watching the French, you know.’
‘Alexandria,’ said Stephen, stopping in the middle of the quay, ‘O joy, I wonder you did not cry out with delight the moment you saw me. What an indulgent admiral – pater classis – O how I value that worthy man!’
‘Why, ‘tis no more than a straight run up and down the Mediterranean, about six hundred leagues each way, with precious little chance of seeing a prize either coming or going.’
‘I did not think you could have been such an earthling,’ cried Stephen. ‘For shame. Alexandria is classic ground!’
‘So it is,’ said Jack, his good nature and pleasure in life flooding back at the sight of Stephen’s delight…
Of course, Stephen’s passion for plants and birds and a hundred other things, is routinely thwarted by Jack’s sheer bloody-mindedness, or by his dedication to the ‘Service’, and the divergence of their final aims and ambitions seems set to become more and more of a wedge between them. But, for now at least, they go together: a strange companionship, but true. I honestly can't wait to read on - I have Post-Captain at the ready.
(And did I mention that I love the film with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany? I actually think it does a creditable job of capturing the spirit of O'Brian's novels, or the first one at least.)
And finally, because I love you all, and because it was recently BAFAB week, I want to give away a copy of Master and Commander, free. The only stipulation being that, should you receive and read it, you’ll blog about it. So if you would like to go into the draw for it, note below. (NB: You should!)