Wednesday, July 25, 2012


A couple of unconnected recommendations lately led me to make a start on Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, but I don’t know that it will become much more than a start. I liked the first chapter, in which the exuberant Aubrey irritates the restrained Maturin by bopping along to a string quartet, but as soon as they get anywhere near a boat, the text just explodes with obsolete sailing terms, and I got bored looking them all up. Here Stephen Maturin, high in the rigging of Jack Aubrey’s ship, and suspicious of his guide Mowett, tries to forestall any malicious intent:
        ‘Tell me,’ said Stephen, to keep the young man talking at any cost, ‘tell me, what is the purpose of this platform, and why is the mast doubled at this point? And what is this hammer for?’
        ‘The top, sir? Why, apart from the rigging and getting things up, it comes in handy for the small-arms men in a close action: they can fire down on the enemy’s deck and toss stink-pots and grenadoes. And then these futtock-plates at the rim here hold the dead-eyes for the topmast-shrouds – the top gives a wide base so that the shrouds have a purchase: the top is a little over ten foot wide. It is the same thing up above. There are the cross-trees, and they spread the topgallant-shrouds. You see them, sir? Up there, where the look-out is perched, beyond the topsail yard.’
        ‘You could not explain this maze of ropes and wood and canvas without using sea-terms, I suppose. No, it would not be possible.’
Possibly this kind of thing recedes as the reader becomes more familiar with the terminology, but it struck me as a clumsy (if self-aware) way to dramatise a technical explanation.

More to my taste is Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in her Fortunes of War series. In this scene the Western journalists of Bucharest are gathered together for a stern briefing by the authorities about the benign nature of the previous day’s assassination of the Romanian prime minister. Yakimov is a charming scrounger, masquerading as a journalist chiefly for the food and drink:
Inchcape sat askew, his legs crossed at the knee, an arm over his chairback and his cheek pressed back by his fingertips. He looked sourly at Yakimov, who took the chair beside him, and said: ‘Something fishy about all this.’
        Yakimov, seeing nothing wrong but fearing to betray again his inexperience in the cunning world of journalism, murmured, ‘Quite, dear boy, quite!’ His tone lacked conviction and caused Inchcape to wave an irritable hand at the buffet.
        ‘Roped off!’ he said. ‘Why? Never saw such a thing before at a public function. These people are nothing if not hospitable. And what are all these damned insolent flunkeys doing here? Are they on guard? Or what?’ In an excess of indignation, he jerked round his head and stared at the back rows.
All at once, the scene opens up, through the mechanism of character.

No comments:

Blog Archive