Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Patrick O’Brian Does the Impossible

About four-fifths of the way through The Nutmeg of Consolation, my second Patrick O’Brian novel for the year, I’m again impressed at how interesting a book can stay without serving up much plot. While the information-conveying function of the words tells the reader what life at sea in the Napoleonic era was like, the pace of O’Brian’s sea stories shows what it was like. As the reader floats along through dinner conversations, telescopic glimpses of the crescent Venus, and the routines of the heaving of the log and the turning of the glass, he gets the sense of the months spent traveling with a perfectly circular horizon.

Sure, every once in a while the lookout atop the mainmast calls down with news of a sail or an uncharted island rising above that circle. In parallel fashion, action crops up from time to time in these long passages. A sailor receives a flogging. A young midshipman requires surgery. Someone says something inappropriate in front of Mr. Martin, the ordained minister acting as surgeon’s mate. I’ve actually come across two gun battles and an epidemic of smallpox in Nutmeg so far. But these events are quickly told and don’t seem to have great impact on the overall story. At my place in the book, Captain Aubrey is still trying to complete the mission he began in the previous installment. Once back on Albion’s shores, he will receive official reinstatement, adding to a story that began three or four volumes back. Two characters even have a discussion in Nutmeg about their preference for novels with no ending, or at most a brief final chapter coolly noting the ends of certain threads. When I quit reading this morning, the crew had stopped at Botany Bay for supplies, where a major character has just committed an indiscretion. Since earlier conversation has established the notoriety of Botany Bay for draconian punishment, I have a feeling that in chapter 9 (of 10) I’m about to encounter the only extended event of the book: an incarceration threatening the completion of the mission.

O’Brian does the seemingly impossible, writing books mostly devoid of driving plot that nevertheless stay engrossing, smart fiction that has slowly become popular with a major motion picture and, even after forty years, a continued presence on the shelves of almost any general-interest bookstore. A joke provides a brief demonstration of the impossible. Jokes come up from time to time in the Aubrey-Maturin novels. For instance, in the one that made its way into the movie, Captain Aubrey says that in selecting a piece of infested hardtack, one should always choose the lesser of two weevils. But in the volume I read earlier this year, after a steward overturns a serving dish of squid, Doctor Maturin says it was quite the lapsus calamari. After he explains that lapsus calami means a slip of the pen, his messmates politely laugh. But I had a stronger reaction. Seriously? A popular novel with a joke in Latin? Patrick O’Brian has done the impossible, and, as the captain of another fictional ship might say, that makes him mighty.

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