Down to the Sea in Ships
Two of my favorite friends are fictitious characters; they live in more than a dozen volumes always near at hand. Their names are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and their creator is a 77-year-old novelist named Patrick O’Brian, whose 14 books about them have been continuously in print in England since the first, “Master and Commander,” was published in 1970.
O’Brian’s British fans include T. J. Binyon, Iris Murdoch, A. S. Byatt, Timothy Mo and the late Mary Renault, but, until recently, this splendid saga of two serving officers in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars was unavailable in this country, apart from the first few installments which went immediately out of print. Last year, however, W. W. Norton decided to reissue the series in its entirety, and so far nine of the 14 have appeared here, including the most recent chapter, “The Nutmeg of Consolation.”
How good can they really be? In England, after all, 19th-Century naval fiction--from the classic Horatio Hornblower stories by C. S. Forester to the waterlogged tales of Dudley Pope--is a tried and true, not to say tired, genre with limited appeal. But O’Brian’s books are as atypical of conventional sea stories as Conrad’s. Like John le Carre, he has erased the boundary separating a debased genre from “serious” fiction. O’Brian is a novelist, pure and simple, one of the best we have.
Presiding over the tales is Jack Aubrey, an overweight, red-faced, open-hearted post captain who fights for glory and prize money in equal measure. He has known war at sea since first joining Nelson’s navy at age 12, and he abhors what he calls “the unnatural stability of the land.” Ashore, Aubrey is clumsy and endearingly naive, incapable of managing his financial affairs and foolish with women, but on the quarterdeck of a man-of-war, “with a hundred years of tradition behind him,” he’s a natural leader, a cunning tactician and as bloody-minded as a lion.
But a single blunt character like Aubrey cannot make one novel, let alone 14, great; he is only half the equation. The other half is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a small, unprepossessing physician in a ratty, unpowdered wig, Jack’s opposite in everything except their shared love for music. Where Aubrey is the garrulous optimist, Maturin is the saturnine loner. The illegitimate son of an Irish officer and a Catalan lady, he is secretive, intellectual and, like Sherlock Holmes, an intermittent drug addict--laudanum, preferably.
As a ship’s surgeon, Maturin can satisfy his penchant for scientific study: He collects prodigious quantities of animal and vegetable specimens from around the world. He also collects intelligence of another sort as a clandestine agent of the British Admiralty in the war against the French.
The novels are above all the history of their unlikely friendship. Together, Aubrey and Maturin survive diseases, typhoons, great sea battles with the French, imprisonment, shipwreck, bankruptcy and betrayal; once, they even fall in love with the same woman, the troublesome Diana Villiers, a fiercely independent widow, bowed but never broken by the limits the era places on her sex. She is too much for Aubrey, but her cynicism is a perfect match for Maturin’s melancholy, and their tormented folie a deux runs the length of the series, a bittersweet counterpoint to the two men’s rapport.
O’Brian’s style is understated and unsentimental; the humor sneaks up unawares, and the slow accretion of countless details, physical and psychological, amounts to a blueprint of a lost world so complete you feel you could reconstruct it from scratch, using just the novels as reference. Even shipboard meals are given the encyclopedic treatment: “Jack’s cook Wilson had excelled himself with a fish soup, made mostly of prawns from a passing proa, and a roast saddle of mutton, followed by a variety of puddings, and the pale sherry they drank throughout had not suffered at all from at least three crossings of the Equator.” Not to mention the “treacle tart,” “boiled sago,” “Shrewsbury cakes” and “flaming sugared omelette.”
These are contemporary novels, written, paradoxically, in an 18th-Century voice. The Age of Reason is just making way for the Romantic era; Maturin and Aubrey, the philosophe and the man of action, are on the cusp. Without a hint of anachronism, O’Brian still manages to suggest a modern sensibility struggling to be born. (Once, Maturin even comes perilously close to discovering the subconscious a century in advance of Freud; another time, contemplating a peculiar animal specimen, he speculates on the origins of species and their evolution, but can’t quite work out the details.)
Patrick O’Brian’s fiction, like life at sea, is not for everyone. At first, it may pay to have a reference work handy in which to look up naval terms and archaisms, though this quickly becomes superfluous; after a single volume, even the most recalcitrant landlubber will know a staysail from a topgallant.
Although the books were written in chronological order, it is not necessary to read them that way. Start anywhere, then let serendipity lead you forward or back. The series is an open-ended epic. It follows the cyclic rhythms of the sea: A voyage may begin in one book and continue over the course of several, then another begins and the cycle repeats. Each time, though, Aubrey and Maturin are a little older, wiser and sadder, and each adventure brings us inevitably closer to the day when the voyages must cease.
As to where it will all end, O’Brian’s not saying. At least one more in the series is on the way. “Are endings really so very important?” asks a friend of Maturin’s during a discussion of literature in, of all places, far-off Botany Bay. “Sterne did quite well without one. . . . I remember Bourville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end. And there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it.”
The Aubrey/Maturin Novels, by Patrick O’Brian
New in hardcover:
THE LETTER OF MARQUE, ($18.95; 284 pp.)
THE THIRTEEN GUN SALUTE, ($19.95; 320 pp.)
THE NUTMEG OF CONSOLATION, ($19.95; 320 pp.)
Available in paperback:
MASTER AND COMMANDER
THE MAURITIUS COMMAND
THE FORTUNE OF WAR
Forthcoming in paperback:
THE SURGEON’S MATE
THE IONIAN MISSION
THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
THE REVERSE OF THE MEDAL