Monday, July 13, 2015

Patrick O’Brian — ‘Master and Commander’

My second go at this, having batted it away in its Kindle edition with some fool comment about the mechanism of character (eh?). Since then it has kept popping up in second hand shops, nagging at me that ebooks don’t hold the attention as well as the real thing, and that it deserved another attempt. And so it proved. There is plenty of good characterisation, most obviously with the hearty Jack Aubrey and the precise Stephen Maturin, but taking in too Captain and Molly Harte, and James Dillon. Chapter three is a whirlwind of unfamiliar sailing terms which drives you to a dictionary every few lines (why is there no glossary?), and to Google if that fails, but that diminishes to some extent in later chapters, and is, in any case, integral to the way the book works, because the ship herself is a character, and the navy another, both dragged out of history on to the page through a very specific vocabulary. Set in 1800, it finds the British navy at war with the Spanish and French, patrolling the Mediterranean, safeguarding the passage of trade ships and disrupting the activities (both trade and military) of the enemy. Jack Aubrey is given his first command, the Sophie, and invites Stephen Maturin aboard as surgeon. Maturin has nothing to lose at the time, and is a lost soul:
Stephen Maturin was not afraid of any vulgar betrayal, nor was he afraid for his skin, because he did not value it: but he had so suffered from the incalculable tensions, rancour and hatreds that arise from the failure of a rebellion that he could not bear any further disappointment, any further hostile, recriminatory confrontation, any fresh example of a friend grown cold, or worse. (p. 95)
Both Stephen and the Sophie’s lieutenant, James Dillon, were involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion, and it affects them in different ways. Stephen is relatively apolitical, for someone with such a history: he is interested in science, particularly zoology, and his passions tend to be in the realm of intellectual inquiry. By contrast, James is consumed by the rebellion’s failure, and frustrated that he can’t speak out about it. He and Stephen do discuss it, one night, but he regrets this: nothing can be right with the world while the injustice remains, and he seems to feel he has only belittled his intense loyalties by talking about them. His is a tough, brooding presence in the book, as professional as he is inscrutable. Jack can’t work him out at all and, having once gained his friendship, loses it at a stroke by sending him aboard a ship bound for America to root out two supposed Frenchmen on the run. From their descriptions, James realises they are Irishmen from his own organisation, and seethes with divided loyalty: he can’t betray them, but that doesn’t make foregoing his duty to the navy an easy thing to do. He longs for action as a way of coping with these emotions. Stephen observes all this and records in his diary:
when JA is in a rage with his superiors, irked by the subordination of the service, spurred on by his restless, uneasy temperament, or (as at present) lacerated by his mistress’ infidelity, he flies to violence as a relief — to action. JD, urged on by entirely different furies, does the same. The difference is that whereas I believe JA merely longs for the shattering noise, immense activity of mind and body, and the all-embracing sense of the present moment, I am very much afraid that JD wants more. (p. 303–4)
There are a few great set pieces of action, most spectacularly the taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish ship with a crew which outnumbers the Sophie’s by 319 to 54 because, although the Sophie usually holds 90 crew, they have captured several ships recently, and 40 men are away returning them to Port Mahon, where their base is (there seems to be a thin line between piracy and warfare, because the men directly profit from the ships they capture, even referring to them as prizes). In a feat almost worthy of Douglas Fairbanks’ Black Pirate, the Sophie slips under the Cacafuego’s guns and gives her a succession of broadsides from a distance of six inches, before the fifty-three sailors board, leaving Stephen alone at the tiller. As for The Guardian’s claim that Patrick O’Brian is ‘Jane Austen at sea’ – that’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Intelligent and sensitive though it is, Master and Commander is really about rough and tumble, ambition, real men doing what they have to do, and the politics of life in the navy. Its focus on money and status, I guess, are a connection to Austen, but there are almost no women, and the only romance is between Jack and Molly Harte, which is decidedly short-term, as Stephen observes at one of her dinners:
Stephen felt the odd bareness on his knee that meant his napkin had glided to the floor; he dived after it, and in the hooded tent below he beheld four and twenty legs, six belonging to the table and eighteen to his temporary messmates. Miss Wade had kicked off her shoes: the woman opposite him had dropped a little screwed-up handkerchief: Colonel Pitt’s gleaming military boot lay pressed upon Mrs Harte’s right foot, and upon her left – quite a distance from the right – reposed Jack’s scarcely less massive buckled shoe. […] in time Mrs Harte rose and walked, limping slightly, into the drawing room (p. 272)

New words: holystones, antiscorbutic, roborative, hypnogogue, carotid, drabble-tail, pake, strake, futtock-shrouds, kelson, fid, top-maul, bilboes, orlop, specie, libeccio, patareroes, abaft, mizen, luff, tompion, loblolly, anamometer, stanchion, taffrail, genet, solomongundy, tramontana, xebec, cullions.

(There is more of the vocab in this Goodreads review, which also makes a good point about the desultory nature of the Sophie’s cruises.)

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