Saturday, June 18, 2011

Three Points off the Larboard Beam

A few years ago while traveling to or from the AP Music Reading, I was browsing at a bookstore in the airport and noticed a cover with a picture of a sailing ship. I think those vessels, with their complexes of spars and ropes and all those white curves, may be the most beautiful instrumental things ever made by human hands. And I like historical adventure. So I picked the book up to check it out. It appeared to form part of a series, and the blurb on the cover said the New York Times Book Review thought they were "the best historical novels ever written." This was the New York Times, not the Dixon Pilot, and "best" and "ever" didn't each have capitals and periods, so the blurb really caught my attention. I felt the call: this was something I had to read.

The book was part of the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. I don't remember which volume it was, but a comparison between the list inside and the shelf in the store showed me they didn't have the first: Master and Commander. So I didn't buy then. I waited until I got home, tried a library copy, and loved it. I've been reading one a year ever since, for eleven years.

The books present three hurdles to the new reader that might make the series seem a little daunting at the outset. First, O'Brian fills the narration with technical terms, topical references, and period slang. Chapter two of this year's selection starts with a good example of sailing talk:
The caravel Nossa Senhora das Necessidades, a very old-fashioned square-sterned vessel, was taking advantage of the in-shore breeze to approach Needham's Point; but unhappily she was doing so on the starboard tack and the moment she crossed the line of white water separating the local breeze from the trade-wind she was brought by the lee -- the north-easter laid her right over and the Caribbean sea gushed in through her scuppers.
O'Brian's knowledge of the times is amazing. The period-specific language and topics come so quickly and consistently, it seems to me while I'm reading that O'Brian is not just an expert but a time-traveler. I read just the other day in a bit of narration -- not even dialog, mind you -- a reference to "both innate and acquired habits," just the kind of thing a (conservative) man of letters from 1812 might casually slip into his account. But if you don't know starboard from larboard or stem from stern or what a tack is or a scupper, the thought of three-hundred pages of this kind of thing can be intimidating. Help is available, though. I've learned a lot about early nineteenth-century sailing and the Napoleonic Wars from A Sea of Words by Dean King and friends: a guide to the Aubrey/Maturin series.

A second hurdle: O'Brian's narrative style involves sudden shifts of scene or perspective without warning. You're reading along in a conversation between, say, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin about, say, music. The tags disappeared a page ago: you know which words belong to Jack and which to Stephen because the speakers alternate conventionally with each indentation -- and because they have distinct voices: Stephen with his eloquent philosophy and classical allusions and Jack with his bluff navy cant and awkward attempts at wit. Then at the next quotation mark you read, "It's got to be ostrich eggs this mornin', which I mean ter say he don't never eat 'em afore they're cold." The first hundred times this happens can be disorienting, but this time you're used to it and you know: the time and scene have shifted abruptly, and this is the steward, Preserved Killick, grumbling as he prepares the captain's breakfast.

The third hurdle involves Stephen's mysterious activities and sidetrips, which go unexplained for a couple of volumes. But patience is rewarded, and the race becomes a pleasant trot after these hurdles are cleared. Of course, reading a book is not the same thing as an Olympic race: the reader can opt not to jump and simply walk around the hurdles. Skim over the technical jargon and just consider it all atmosphere. Laugh off the sudden changes with the assurance that all will be explained within a page or two. And enjoy Stephen's unexplained adventures as part of his rich character. For it's the characters living and breathing in this atmosphere that capture the imagination. Jack can go straight from playing a tune by Thomas Arne on his violin to a disciplinary hearing that ends with some poor hand getting fifty lashes for stealing grog. He covers the globe to follow orders or search for a prize ship, but he spends a quiet hour alone reading any time a port has a letter for him from his beloved wife Sophie. Stephen knows several languages, botany and zoology, medicine, and politics, but he can't remember starboard from larboard (or even stem from stern) and can't step into a tender without falling into the water. The two go to sea for different reasons and they often quarrel, but admire and trust each other and play beautiful music together whenever possible.

Are these the best historical novels ever? I don't know: A Tale of Two Cities is Pretty. Darn. Good. But I'm hooked on Aubrey and Maturin. I finished The Reverse of the Medal yesterday, and it ended with a cliffhanger. O'Brian always works a summary of the situation into the first chapter, so I've been doing fine reading one a year. But the overarching story has been getting more and more continuous with each volume, and now I'm left with a government official climbing the stairs with a message for Stephen and Jack already with a new ship, a crew, and a mission. I'll have to read volume twelve this summer, and I may have to speed up my schedule on these. Two a year? Three?

1 comment:

  1. Don't know how i missed this post. I have read the series twice through and just started it again. Slowly memorizing the names of the sails and remembering my trig as i imagine how to rig the jib, the rake of the mast or call out noon. What fun.