Thursday, April 08, 2010

Book Review : Patrick O'Brian

If you are red-blooded male of a certain stripe, the sort that likes Band of Brothers and Braveheart in which violence is visited upon bad guys and good guys form the sort of blood-brother connection that we office drones perpetually attempt to re-enact with company wilderness survival courses, whitewater rafting, or an open bar at the Christmas Party; where men of unusual heart and charisma lead other men to their peril, maiming, or worse; if you are, in short, 99% of all men, then I'm sure you've seen Master and Commander : The Far Side Of The World.

It's the story of a small British man-of-war around the early 1800's that has to pursue a much larger brig around South America, guns blazing, storms a-wrecking, men a-maiming. Terror and danger from the enemy, from nature, the tight lashing together of men who must or die. It, like so many of its ilk, hits some raw, primordial nerves, at least in me. Mastodons and hunters and all that.

So that movie, is actually an amalgamation of two books (of twenty) about Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin and their many adventures during the Nelsonic era of naval warfare. They are by Patrick O'Brian, an Englishman who lived in France and who had a predilection for reading source material from the National Maritime Museum for his inspiration. He was also a former intelligence agent and the biographer of Picasso. One of those writers of an entirely different age.

Much has been written about O'Brian, hailed as one of the greatest novelists, let alone historical novelists, of all time. I won't waste pixels going on about that, but about how something so utterly foreign, English 19th century naval dominance can hold any interest to me. I've never been terribly interested in history, or sailing (beyond a puttering a small Lazer around a lake), or the densely archaic language of medicine and biology during the Leeches are A Good Idea WHAT and So What's All This About Evolution Then era.

And yet I am drawn in. But O'Brian doesn't make it easy. He writes very much in that period, one gets the feeling you are reading a Jane Austen book without all the women and marriage business. It's the bit of Austen's novels that chronicles the dashing Lieutenant before he settles down and is pursued by, or pursues sharp-minded ladies buffeted by social pressures, mores, and their own individuality. The bit with the guns and the swords.

Everyone speaks as I imagine they would, not much is explained, not in the way of terms or very strange grammar. It's a bit like a good science fiction book where terms are thrown about, and either you figure it out from context or flounder in the effort. I get the feeling the O'Brian was so well versed that he just mentions things in passing. Thankfully when sea-going technicalities are of the most importance to the plot, O'Brian will expound.

There are quite a few phrases that are endearing in their candour, although through perpetual usage they likely mean no more than a 'sure' and 'whatever' in that time. But to the ears of any modern reader, they have their charm, phrases such as 'never in life', 'with all my heart', 'above all things', 'upon my honour' have pleasant, bare sense to them. Welcome in a modern time of sarcasm and indirection and faux-hip-wink-and-a-nod-kitschy-but-cool, sorta.

It also helps that Dr. Maturin, while also being the ship's surgeon and a naturalist, is also a spy for the British government. He's an idealist and cunning and vastly intelligent. There's ruses and counter-ruses, planting false information and discovering double agents.

Aubrey is jolly and a genius of a sea-men, if a bit dull in other respects. A man of action, of appetite and brimming with all those qualities that sum up a leader. He struggles to climb the ranks of the Navy, and meets fortune, both good and outrageous.

They are tremendous friends, who are so unlike they almost define each other in contrast. Their bound is music, another topic about which O'Brian shows a well-educated mind.

In both the intelligence work and in the direct action of whatever brig Aubrey happens to be in, there is a certain understability to it. That is, if you were to talk of ships today, there'd be AWACs and tomahawk missiles and it would very soon degrade into an appreciation of technology. In the Aubrey-Maturin book, things are so primitive that it's relatively simple to understand things straight away. When Maturin is found out to be a spy in one place, of course he will not be found out in another place because news takes a fair bit of time to travel. A ship that fires guns by being propelled by gunpowder is not far removed from bows and arrows. The differences and the contours that make the battles and intelligence intrigues engaging are human differences that can be grasped instantly.

So many things depend on the better qualities and baser in people. Greed and avarice, shame and pride.

It's a thumping good time, and I've been completely pulled into it. They are all good, but you can't go wrong with starting from the beginning, Master and Commander. I give the series ten broadsides out of ten.


rob's uncle said...

You are sadly 12 years out of date in yr biographical info.

‘ . . [He was] born in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, the son of Charles Russ (1876–1955) . . His grandfather Carl Russ [was] a furrier from near Leipzig [who] had emigrated to Britain . . After [the blitz] Russ was recruited into the political warfare executive, a propaganda and intelligence unit where he worked in the French section . . ’ [Dictionary of National Biography]

Niteowl said...

Ah, so he's English? Oh, so he is. Apologies.