Saturday, July 8, 2017

Books on the nightstand: the Patrick O'Brian novels

     Boars are conservative.    
     "Deeply conservative," in fact, according to Patrick O'Brian. "Devoted to the beaten track."
     Aren't we all?  Most of us anyway. Humans as well as tusked swine.
     That perceptive observation comes near the beginning of The Nutmeg of Consolation, the 14th book of what are known as O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin novels," historical fiction of British naval life set 200 years ago, at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
    And yes, I've read the previous 13. Or at least listened to them on audiobooks, which is approximately the same thing.
    "Aubrey" is Captain Jack Aubrey, tall and blond, dashing, if perpetually overweight and florid, as human a hero as ever raised a cutlass. "Maturin" is his "particular friend," naval physician, natural philosopher, Irish nationalist and, let's not forget, highly effective secret agent, despite a tendency to tumble off ships and into dungeons.
     It shouldn't work. Just setting down the details above sounds trite, as if I'm describing some musty maritime cliche. But I have not only read the previous baker's dozen books, but done so almost daily, one after another, over the past six months, and as someone with a highly evolved reflex to reject fiction for being predictable, hackneyed, cliched, or just not good enough, O'Brian's books are none of these.
      The bit about the boar is an illustration why. Whatever is going on in the books, whether boars are being hunted by Maturin, shipwrecked with 156 crew mates on a deserted South China sea island, or battles being fought yardarm-to-yardarm, sails raised, legs amputated or pudding cooked, it is done so with a wealth of well-researched detail and veracity that sings off the page. I've literally never heard a false note.
     The characters are real. His pig killed, Maturin absent-mindedly wipes his hand on his white jacket, immediately fearing for the reaction of the gloriously-named servant Preserved Killick, "an awkward, slab-sided creature," a maestro of the muttered complaint, with his own distinctive way of speaking and a habit of beginning sentences with "Which."
    "Which there ain't no stern galley, sir, now we've been degraded to a sixth grade," Killick cries "with malignant triumph" in The Ionian Mission. "Stern galleries is for our betters, and I must toil and moil away in the dark."
     Yet somehow Killick, with his fetish for cleanliness and rank, is endearing, both to the readers and to his supposedly superior officers. Maturin is terrified that in gutting the boar he soiled his jacket, creating more work for the over-burdened Killick. Maturin tries to sort it out in his own mind as he heads toward his inevitable dressing down.
    "It wasn't even Killick was his servant with a servant's right," he thinks, dreading his encounter.
     "A servant's right" could support a book on it's own, and one of the series' many joys are the lesser, able-bodied seamen characters, their brief exchanges and rituals, superstitions and philosophies. Yet never does it become routine. A lesser writer, penning his 13th book, would have had Killick upbraid the doctor his characteristic "high, shrill, penetrating voice." But Killick doesn't. He looks at the doctor's mirthless light blue eyes, his general disorder from his boar hunt, and uncomplainingly goes about his business, for a change.
    O'Brian knows that human beings are not clockwork. They might have qualities, but they also diverge from them, and one of the truest things about the books are how his characters don't always behave as they're usually do. Aubrey, devoted to his Sophie, still finds himself fathering a child out of wedlock and almost two. Maturin, the man of science, nevertheless becomes an addict of laudanum, a form of opium, and his mental gymnastics rationalizing and hiding his slavery rings completely true. Diana Villiers, Maturin's love interest, is sometimes free-spirited and careless, sometimes devoted.
     Those characteristics that do endure start to develop a power. About the fifth time Aubrey describes Lord Nelson once asking him to be so kind as to pass the salt, the vignette takes on a deeper meaning, one it hadn't possessed before, speaking to the desperate way we cling to our brushes with fame.
     At some point I need to express my gratitude to my older son Ross. I had seen the movie version, "Master and Commander," with Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, and loved it extremely—like the books, it really is a disquisition in leadership. Maybe a decade ago, Ross gave me the novel as a birthday present, but I never got around to reading it until now, really just to stop him from holding that up as a lapse in paternal devotion. It took a few pages to gel, but once it did, I was hooked. Reading O'Brian has embroidered the mundane routine considerably. 
     I don't believe you should recommend a work of art while spoiling it, so I won't give away the surprises, except to say the best moment in the first 13 books comes in The Reverse of the Medal when Aubrey finds himself convicted of stock manipulation—he can be a dunce when it comes to his landward finances—and sentenced to an hour of humiliation in the pillory.  Tears in my eyes.
     The action ranges from Boston to Australia, from Sweden to the Cape of Good Hope, from Antarctica to the equator. There are schemes and traitors, alehouse whores and wheezing admirals. The exchange of letters, the constant consumption of alcohol, the crude medicine, the closeness to the natural world. Some books end in epic battles, others quietly. There is never a sense of repetition, and little crude coincidence—one almost-too-timely rescue, the in-the-nick-of-time arrival of a Polynesian outrigger in The Far Side of the World when Aubrey and Maturin were literally paddling together in the trackless ocean. Then again, it wouldn't do to have Aubrey and Maturin drown in Book 10, would it?
     I won't belabor the point. I've listened to most of the books on tape—a fine alternative to thought, to brooding on the ominous news of the day. I finally joined Audible to do it, since the library didn't carry the full 20 books—O'Brian, an enigmatic figure, died writing the 21st.  I can recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone, particularly during our own difficult days, when men of heroism and backbone, and a bit of escapism are not only welcome, but necessary. 


  1. Thanks for this. I too have read all 21 books, all on audio. Also, thanks for mentioning the scene where Jack is sentenced to pillory. One of my favorite moments.
    I didn't like the movie because there's too much nuance to all the characters to fit into a two hour film. You got all of Jack's heroics, but none of his flaws.
    I also submit that Dr. Maturin is perhaps the single most interesting character in literature. An Irish, Spanish, Catholic, monarchist, polyglot, opium addict, naturalist, spy, diplomat, with far more money than he will ever need.
    Another moment I will never forget is when they pretend to be a French ship under attack with the intention of landing on a Baltic Sea island to persuade a regiment of Catalan soldiers to break with Napoleon.

  2. My father was a fan of the Horatio Hornblower series. Even though I rooted for the Cubs because he did and joined the Navy because he had done so, I thought Horatio was below my literary standard. Certainly, if Horatio was done as well as O'Brian's books, I was dead wrong. I'll try both...soon.


  3. Curse you Steinberg! I have read and enjoyed some of the books over the years, but now must consider listening to all 21 in sequence.

    To the growing body of enthusiasts, Aubry and Maturin are somewhat like Homes and Watson, "two men who never lived and so can never die." Like Doyle's other literary creations, e.g. "The White Company," they were also based on actual historical events. But O'Brien, it turns out, is the better story teller.


  4. I read them all, starting from the beginning, but it's been better than six years since I completed the last one, so I've forgotten some of the finer points. I was given the first three of the series by a friend from work who said he tried to read them but couldn't get into it. I remember reading one Hornblower book, long ago when I was a teenager, fifty-plus years ago now, but I never read another.

  5. Best novels ever. I've read them all twice, and would some day read them again.

  6. They are wonderful read-aloud books. I have read them all, listened to many and read them aloud to my husband on our commute to work. I am not sure which is my favorite, as you say they all ring true. I have crushes on many of the characters and find these books delightful to come back to repeated... not all fiction can stand up to re-repeated reading, O'Brian can.

  7. The pictured vessel is, I believe, "Old Ironsides," the only man o' war saved from the breaking yards by a poem.

    "Aye tear her tattered ensign down
    Long has it waved on high.
    And many an eye has danced to see
    That banner in the sky."



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