Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's MASTER AND COMMANDER #ReReads2013

Caveat lector: this is another re-read, of one of my favorite series ever, so 'ware gushing ahead.

Much as I love the Sharpe novels -- and it should be pretty obvious that I do by now -- there is as yet no danger that they shall supplant Patrick O'Brian's magnificent Aubrey/Maturin series in my heart, even though by all rights, as a landlubber, I should probably have more sympathy for the proper bastard infantryman than for this naval captain his best friend and ship's surgeon and their little wooden world. But there is more to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin than their offical roles in Admiral Nelson's navy. Oh so much more.

The pair's meeting at a concert in Port Mahon has to be one of the greatest literary meetings of all time. For much of the first scene they seem likely to come to blows, but both were brought up better than that; both have been taught that manners and courtesy are most especially due where there is dislike, and it is manners and courtesy, ultimately, that triumph and let them see one another's better qualities very quickly. Well, manners and courtesy and a stroke of well-deserved good fortune on Jack's part, for I doubt much beyond a nice dinner could have come of this meeting had not Jack "gotten his step" -- promotion to Master & Commander, and command of a vessel, and the impulse to invite his new acquaintance along on his first cruise.

What follows does not so much have a grand overall plot as a series of smaller plots enacted in succession: after the Meeting there is the Shakedown Cruise on Jack's first command, the Sophie; then there are their Early Successes; then the Taking of the Shore Battery; the famous action with the wonderfully named Spanish frigate Cacafuego*; the Encounter Where Too Much Is Bitten Off to Chew:, etc. This makes this first in the series a bit of an unfortunate leader, and I see that many readers have been sufficiently put off by its odd structure so as not to want to continue with the other books and to be baffled by the enthusiasm of people like me. But come on, think of it as a cheese course: Lots of little samples that give a taste of what's to come!

But so far there is little in my description to indicate why these novels stand out from the pack of novels set during the Napoleonic wars, set in Nelson's navy, set on the high seas (though really, the relationship between Jack and Stephen is key; they are Kirk and Spock in saltwater-stained canvas, these two). For me a lot of the fun is the language, though I must confess to being at times bewildered by it, having constantly to refer to the diagram towards the front to keep all the different sails and yards straight in my head, to say nothing of the differences between a sloop and a snow and a poleacre and a... but that's not really what I mean about the language, which shines most in the dialogue; even in life-or-death situations where terseness and clarity are of the utmost importance, their speech is still highly mannered, even formal. I'm not sure anyone in Nelson's navy ever really spoke that way, but I'm not sure they didn't, either. I am separated from that world by so very, very much that I cannot be sure, but it does not matter. I simply enjoy.

Part of the fun of re-reading this series from the beginning is getting my first glimpses of various characters in their, as it were, larval stages. I know what's in store for them and marvel at the journey they'll take. It's like getting a chance to see your best friends as little children. Little children firing four-pounders and scrubbing the deck with holystones and climbing precariously high into the air and slashing at enemies with cutlasses and sabers and getting their skulls trephined, but little children all the same. And through it all, there are Jack and Stephen, here still feeling each other out, in awe of each other, not sure how much trust they may extend to one another (but needing to extend much; Stephen is a complete lubber constantly in danger of committing horrible breaches of naval etiquette when he's not in danger of getting a clout on the head or falling down a hatch or getting blown overboard; Jack newly in command and discovering for the first time that it's even lonelier than he'd always suspected), playing the violin and cello in the captain's quarters of an evening and eating ridiculously named food together: soused hog's face, lobscouse and spotted dog (the latter two dishes featuring in the title of a cookbook by which you, too, could eat like an O'Brian sailor, though I suspect these recipes are light on mold and weevils).

Then again, the other thing that really makes these novels work is the other characters, those outside or apart from Jack and Stephen's core crew. Here the two most important ones are doozies: Molly Harte and James Dillon. Molly is the wife of Port Mahon's commandant, a lovely woman, a harp player, and already Jack's paramour as the novel opens. Their liaison causes most of the troubles that follow in this first outing; the cuckholded husband holds just enough power to make life very difficult for Jack and his crew. Meanwhile, James Dillon, Jack's new lieutenant on his first command, is a figure from the Irish/Spanish Stephen's past among the rebels of Ireland. James and Stephen spend the first part of the novel avoiding each other, afraid each of being denounced; later it's Jack who has problems with James, whose guilty conscience and high dudgeon keep them from becoming friends until it's almost too late.

And now permit me a happy sigh, for I get to read all the rest of the books again now, as easy as kiss-my-hand, joy. Bring on Post Captain! Again! Again!

*I dare you not to mentally translate that as referring to burning excrement.


  1. Oooo...my in-laws bought our son the boxed set of this series for his birthday a few years ago. I'm definitely going to read it sometime now that I've read your thoughts on it. Thanks!

    1. Oh yes, do! These books are quite remarkably good. Just bear in mind the first one may seem a bit rough going. Had I not a good friend chivvying me on to read the rest, I might have missed out!


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