It’s at such times I realize how falling in love with a book is so similar to falling in love with a person. You don’t really know why it’s happening, but you feel a connection, a feeling of hopeful expectation, which over time, if you’re lucky, is happily confirmed. Or at least that’s how I do it
If you like historical fiction, sooner or later you’ll hear about Patrick O’Brian. I’ve been meaning to give him a try for a long time, but was afraid – when I read stories set at sea I often have no idea what’s happening because of the naval-speak, it’s almost like a foreign language.
The truth is, I did get lost at times while reading M&C, but I worked for my reward. I used Wikipedia, Google Earth, O’Brian’s fandom, videos of boats maneuvering on YouTube, and watching the movie also helped. Even with this amount of information there were times when I lost my thread, but soon realized that O’Brian uses the same tricks as the wonderful Dorothy Dunnett: they throw you into the action and ask you to go along until everything is explained. That’s when you become aware what an amazing time you’re actually having.
Also like Dunnett, O’Brian is completely at easy with cultural references. He mentions obscure details which must have involved a lot of research (see Johnson’s quote below), without insulting the reader with an explanation. The only time he does this is right at the start of the book, when Stephen is taken on a tour of the Sophie, but like us, he also feels an information overload. It’s said O’Brian kept a 1810 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica close to him while he worked, as well as early editions of Jane Austen, who he thought the finest of all novelists.
M&C is first book of a series of 21 (!) books. It’s here that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meet. Jack is a British lieutenant who’ll soon become master and commander of HMS Sophie and Stephen is a half-Irish/half-Catalan physician and naturalist who’s fallen on hard times and so decides to join the Sophie.
I’ve been trying to pin-point what exactly grabbed me so much. There’s 1) the vivid images of life aboard the brig, including the use of language that could be taken out of a real 18th century novel.
‘You know Dr. Johnson – Dictionary Johnson?’ ‘Certainly,’ cried Stephen, looking strange. ‘The most respectable, the most amiable of the moderns. I disagree with all he says, except when he speaks of Ireland, yet I honour him; and for his Life of Savage I love him.’
2) There’s the wit, which was a surprise until I knew he was an Austen fan.
‘There is a systematic flocci-naucinihilipilification* of all other aspects of existence that angers me.’
‘I have done with all debate. But you know as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean wither my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.’
‘I have never yet known a man admit that he was either rich or asleep: perhaps the poor man and the wakeful man have some great moral advantage.’
Also, 3) Stephen showed enough potential to likely become a Great Favorite, and may even be invited to my select dinner of fictional characters, if he plays his cards right. There are many layers to him, and an interesting past. (It also helps that Paul Bettany played him so perfectly in the movie.)
M&C has 4) one of the best opening scenes ever, probably because it’s so unexpected in a book about war and naval life. It begins at a concert. Still strangers, Jack and Stephen sit next to each other. Jack is so focused on the music that he start to tap to the beat. This annoys Stephen so much (Jack wasn’t even being accurate!) that they almost agree on a duel (the start of The Three Musketeers, anyone?). In the end, it’ll be this mutual love of music that’ll unite them. Another favorite was the 5) lovely scene where they play together for the first time.
‘I am really pleased with tonight’s exercise,’ said Jack, tuning his fiddle. ‘Now I feel I can run inshore with a clearer Conscience – without risking the poor sloop too much.’
‘I am happy you are pleased; and certainly the mariners seemed to ply their pieces with a wonderful dexterity; but you must allow me to insist that that note is not A.’
‘Ain’t it?’ cried Jack anxiously. ‘Is this better?’
Stephen nodded, tapped his foot three times, and they dashed away into Mr Brown’s Minorcan divertimento. ‘Did you notice my bowing in the pump-pump-pump piece?’ asked Jack. ‘I did indeed. Very sprightly, very agile. I noticed you neither struck the hanging shelf nor yet the lamp. I only grazed the locker once myself.’
I never studied literature and usually don’t think about the narration style, unless it’s either 6) especially good or especially bad. I did notice M&C’s narrator. It was like a camera that gets close to a character, then subtly moves to another only to, seemingly without a break, open the angle for a wider view. Author Jo Walton, when talking about O’Brian’s narrator on Tor.com said,
There’s also the camera eye omni, that sees everything but never gets drawn close to anything. There is a variant of that I call Lymondine, which can be seen in Dorothy Dunnett and Guy Gavriel Kay, where you’re usually very closely in somebody’s head but occasionally you pull right away and get a distant perspective. O’Brian’s glide is closest to that, but it’s also really different. He draws in and out almost imperceptibly. It’s very effective and very addictive.
It cannot be a coincidence that I’m such a fan of these three authors. If you spot any other good examples of this “camera eye omni”, send them my way.
Post Captain, the next book in the series, is set mostly in country houses and apparently it’s as much a novel of manners as a naval story. It’s said to be O’Brian’s homage to Austen. How can I resist?
Browsing the fan sites I saw this great quote: “You know that’s not just a series of books, right? It’s a major lifestyle decision. You start reading those and you grow a new space in your brain devoted to them.” I don’t doubt it!
And another fan said: “Will someone write as lovingly about the Internet Age in 170 years as O’Brian wrote of the Age of Sail?” That’s a great image, and it does make you wonder…
*The act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant.