Friday, August 3, 2007

The Porcupine-Lay

I first learned about Patrick O'Brian through David Mamet, of all people. He claimed--I think it was in an interview--that the best novelists then writing (this was 15 years ago) weren't the so-called "literary" ones (Auster, DeLillo, Roth, etc): they were genre writers. As examples he listed John LeCarre and Patrick O'Brian. I read LeCarre almost immediately. (He's excellent, by the way). O'Brian, for some reason, I put off. Maybe I wasn't ready for twenty straight 300-page novels. I think I knew that once I started, I wouldn't stop. It was a big commitment.

Five years ago, I finally picked up Master and Commander, the first book in the series. I read it, then I read the series. A year later, I read the series again. In the process, I bought eight of the novels. Perhaps unfortunately, they now reside six inches from my reading chair. The result is that I reread them over and over--generally to the neglect of whatever book (usually 'literary') I'm supposed to be reading. At this point, I've probably read each of them at least ten times. I know them better than anything else in my shelves.

I don't have the time or ability to attempt a full-length appreciation of O'Brian. Briefly: he is amazing, and I would encourage you all to read him. As far as it's possible to know what it would be like to live in a different era, O'Brian, I think, knew. (By which I mean: imagined.) To read him is to have, at least in flashes, hints of that same knowledge. He's a writer of phenomenal intellect and great wisdom, of course; but more than that, he is a writer, like Shakespeare, able to depict fully-realized portraits of society on every level. Dukes and princes, admirals and captains, sailors and whores: they're all there. None of them are sentimentalized, and all of them are somehow real.

Big claims, I know, and ones that I can't illustrate in a single passage. Here, though, is one of my (current) favorites. The ship is about to leave port. "Jack" is Jack Aubrey, the captain and one of the book's heroes. The other character, Heaven, is insignificant to the plot:

...and now they had been together long enough, with a good deal of foul weather and some very hard fighting, to have formed a distinct community with a great sense of their ship and a great pride in her.

A somewhat anomalous community however in a ship that looked so very like a man-of-war, for not only did it contain no Marines, no uniformed officers and no midshipmen, but people walked about at ease, even with their hands in their pockets; there was a certain amount of laughter in the forecastle in spite of the parting; and the quartermaster at the con, wiping a tear from his cheek and shaking his grey head, did not scruple to address Jack directly: "I shall never see her like again, sir. The loveliest young woman in Shelmerston."

"A lovely young woman indeed, Heaven," said Jack. "Mrs. Heaven, if I do not mistake?"

"Why, sir, in a manner of speaking: but some might say more on the porcupine-lay, the roving-line, if you understand me."

"There is a good deal to be said for porcupines, Heaven: Solomon had a thousand, and Solomon knew what o'clock it was, I believe. You will certainly see her again."


Bryan said...

'Why, as to that,' said Jack, blowing on his coffee-cup and staring out of the stern-window at the harbour, 'as to that ... if you do not choose to call him a pragmatical clinchpoop and kick his breech, which you might think ungenteel, perhaps you could tell him to judge the pudding by its fruit.'

'You mean, prove the tree by its eating.'

'No, no, Stephen, you are quite out: eating a tree would prove nothing.'

Sebastian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sebastian said...

The writer of the foreword to Twenty-One, which O'Brian was writing when he died, offers the opinion that O'Brian was the greatest fantasist ever to have written in the English language: certainly the greatest of the modern era, at any rate. As O'Brian himself admits in a prefatory note somewhere around volume 6, what we have in the Aubrey-and-Maturin stories is not the true world of the age of Nelson, but that world as O'Brian vividly imagined it. His creation is so complete, so absorbing, and so masterfully layered as to render the efforts of other world-builders - including Tolkien, LeGuin, and Eddison - quite eclipsed by comparison.

Whatsoever the other writers have provided in terms of talent, invention, and skill, O'Brian matches and exceeds. Where Tolkien is cold, relegating Arwen to an appendix, O'Brian pulses with humanity: the thrashing with which Sophie threatens Diana is but one example, given sharp relief by the prematurely hardened Clarissa Oakes, who pistols a man at point-blank without a moment's hesitation. Where LeGuin is thoughtful, O'Brian is encyclopedic in his attention to detail from the mizzen topgallant down to Dr. Maturin's beloved insect collection. Where Eddison is lyrical and whimsical, O'Brian is legible, deftly plotted, and above all brimming with gallant action, keen emotion, and humor at every level.

O'Brian is often compared to Melville, Forester, and Dickens, comparisons I find demeaning to O'Brian. To the mind of this reader, O'Brian blows them all out of the water like one of Jack Aubrey's target rafts. The Aubrey-and-Maturin chronicle is a boys' story, to be sure, but it is a boys' story par excellence. I can think of only one other English writer who seemed to share O'Brian's talent for reaching the pit-gallery as well as the educated elite, and that is the Bard himself.

Huzzah for the Doctor, three times huzzah!

Cartooniste said...

my friend matthew, a novelist himself, points out that of the fiction of the nineteenth century we still read those books which were meant in some ways as genre, or popular, fiction. all the serious "literary" fiction was absorbed in temperance novels and works of moral uplift which are now regarded to have very little merit.

L's favorite o'brien moment is the drunken sloth that they take aboard the ship, who rides around in the rigging. i am thinking of getting a sloth for our sailboat. we will feed him cape-codders exclusively.

Sebastian said...

Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, 'Jack, you have debauched my sloth.'

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