Hal Espen is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a former senior editor at The New Yorker and he was the editor of the travel and adventure magazine Outside from 1999 to 2006. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications. Hal blogs at Stone Turntable. Here he writes about Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander.
Hal Espen on Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
I should confess straightaway that my writer's choice is a slightly disingenuous one. I frankly don't think that Master and Commander is by any measure the best novel in Patrick O'Brian's sprawling 20-volume series, published between 1969 and 1999, chronicling the exploits of Lucky Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Dr Stephen Maturin of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. It is, however, the first, and it's a thrilling introduction to what is really a single epic work, a continuously unfolding adventure that has given me more pleasure in reading and re-reading than almost anything else I've encountered between covers.
Lovers of the Aubrey/Maturin novels will be nodding agreeably. But sceptics and non-initiates, who may resist a series that sounds suspiciously like hoary genre fiction, rife with swashbucking cliché, are equally likely to baulk at an undertaking comprising more than two million words and no less than 6,980 pages in Norton's Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels. I can only predict that if they sign on with Master and Commander, they'll almost certainly complete the whole vast prose voyage with but a single regret: that there could not be more to come, apart from the tantalizing fragment of a 21st novel O'Brian left when he died in 2000. And for what it's worth, they'll be joining a fan base that has included Sir Francis Chichester, Iris Murdoch, E.O. Wilson, Charlton Heston, David Mamet, Christopher Hitchens and Tom Stoppard, not to mention Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards ('Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin always remind me a bit of Mick and me').
Master and Commander begins with the two lead characters meeting at a chamber-music recital in Port Mahon, on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. It is April 1, 1800. Aubrey, a bluff young officer on the eve of his first command, and Maturin, a down-at-the-heels Irish-Catalan physician, scholar and former revolutionist, collide, skirt an initial enmity, and gradually form a wary, odd-couple alliance. Their growing friendship is carried forward by the way O'Brian combines a propulsive Modernist prose style with an authoritative mastery of period diction and maritime terminology. The stilted antiquarianism that commonly bedevils historical fiction is utterly absent, despite O'Brian's insistence on correct Georgian manners and his love for geeking out on sailing jargon. (He rarely deigns to define or explain what 'hawser-laid' or 'spritcourse' means, apart from those occasions when Maturin's status as an inveterate lubber prompts some polite bystander to relieve the doctor's ignorance.) The eccentric beauty of the writing defies brief quotation, but this sentence, describing the first time Aubrey takes the helm as a ship's captain, hints at its liquid flavour:
Jack let her pay off until the flurry was over, and then, as he began to bring her back, his hands strong on the spokes, so he came into direct contact with the living essence of the sloop, the vibration beneath his palm, something between a sound and a flow, came straight up from her rudder, and it joined with the innumerable rhthyms, the creak and humming of her hull and rigging.
As one might expect from an inaugural volume, Master and Commander exhibits some of the tentativeness of a shakedown cruise. Missing or downplayed are several crucial elements that drive the narrative in subsequent novels, such as Maturin's career as an intelligence agent (featuring intricacies and dark twists that can put le Carré in the shade), his avocation as a passionate pre-Darwinian naturalist, and the presence of strong female characters, including Sophie Williams, Aubrey's love interest, and Diana Villiers, the rakish ne'er-do-well who becomes Maturin's obsession. The second and third books, Post Captain and H.M.S. Surprise, are full-blown masterworks on a Tolstoyan scale; O'Brian managed to maintain this pitch of skill and conviction for three decades, with perhaps only a slight diminishment of force toward the distant end of the 20-novel saga. (One of the most inspiring things about Patrick O'Brian is that he didn't begin writing his opus until his mid-fifties and was still going strong when he died, aged 85.)
From the start, there are booming cannons and flashing sabres. But heroism in the Aubrey/Maturin oeuvre, as in life, is a primarily practical and contingent affair - an outcome of routine, competence, bloody-minded persistence and the complex negotiations of teamwork, rather than a matter of theatrical dash and flourishes on a burning quarterdeck. (On those few occasions when Jack Aubrey delivers a speech going into battle or in the teeth of a disaster, his remarks are invariably brief, plain-spoken, and utterly practical.) To the degree that heroism and martial virtue are idealized, they embody Northrop Frye's concept of the archetypal function of literature as 'visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from "reality," but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate'. The wisdom of these novels - and there are insights on leadership, courage, ethics and love - is tightly bound to a chaotic, physical, profane world we recognize as our own.
If these tales sidestep Errol Flynn-style melodrama, the Aubrey/Maturin story succeeds in delivering globe-spanning adventure and incident in a dazzling range of modes, paced by the counterpoint of friendship as the two heroes trade interludes of vulnerability and protectiveness, foolishness and cunning, happiness and misery, addiction and disillusionment, glory and disgrace. The supreme compositional achievement of the novels is the music of this complementary partnership, one of the great comic alliances and ironic doublings in literature. In a sense, fat, blue-eyed Aubrey and lean, cold-eyed Maturin together make up the parts and powers of a complete man, the leader and warrior joined with the scientist and spy. And their nemesis in the novels is not so much any stock villainy of the Napoleonic empire as it is the perennial enemies of humankind: vulgarity, vanity, cupidity, bureaucracy, abuse of power, deluded idealism, fanaticism, viciousness and torture. Yet as replete as these books are with mayhem and suffering, they're also incredibly funny, in ways that would make Shakespeare and Austen (and Beckett) laugh with delight.
Finally, a postscript on behalf of the audiobook versions of the novels, the full score of them, as read by the late Patrick Tull. They are absolutely first-rate.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]