Authors: Patrick O'Brian,Patrick O'Brian
Tags: #Maturin; Stephen (Fictitious character), #Historical - General, #South Africa, #English Historical Fiction, #FICTION, #Aubrey; Jack (Fictitious character), #Historical adventure, #Sea Stories, #Historical, #British, #Crime & Thriller, #General, #Fiction - Historical
“Where does he stow himself now?”
“Why, in the little cabin behind his lordship: and I doubt he comes out of it so soon. It is fair wonderful what a face of brass with do, but I doubt that anyone could face the country – the English country, the part around us, or in London – having as near as damn-it refused to fight. I remember how his lordship went out a dozen times when I was young and always bloodied his sword…….Coming sir,” he cried and vanished aft.
Killick delighted in Pineapple-shrub and
in pig’s trotters; but they did not nearly reach his high and exalted pleasure in very specifically obscene stories, however improbable (which alas he could never remember accurately, if even at all) and accounts of high life .
He did not come on deck the next day, that of the prodigious, very moving great-gun exercise; nor did he appear for the small-arms exercise in which he had trained some of the Marines. From time to time he turned into the wardroom, to pick up a newspaper, when almost nobody was there. His appearance never altered from its perpetually mottled sweating complexion, yet he frequently changed his uniform, blaming his servant perpetually for any slip.
Some days of quite untypical South African weather slowed the squadron and it was possibly during these hours of sitting in the cabin that …….
HE OTHER DAY I heard Patrick O'Brian receive about as high a compliment as a writer can get. An old friend of mine, a professor of history and literature, had just read Master and Commander again for the first time in a decade.
“How well it holds up!”
he e xclaimed. “
It's amazing. That first meeting, it's like ….”
He waved his hand as he searched for a comparison . “
It's like Prince Hal meeting Falstaff.”
The meeting, of course, takes place between Lieutenant (for just a few more hours) Aubrey, and a weedy-looking little physician named Maturin. It was a contentious meeting, and might well have led swiftly to the death of one of the two –
most likely the young naval officer. Instead, of course, it led to the greatest friendship of modern literature, and ushered millions of twentieth-century citizens into a world warmed and clouded by sea-coal fire, rationalized and tormented by the architects of the Enlightenment, fed salvers of steaming offal washed down with suicidal quantities of claret and port, and defended by hundreds of close-packed seaborne towns whose elders’
grasp of mathematics, physics, ballistics, and meteorology was all that stood between the residents and extinction.
, who made the Shakespeare comparison, Fredric Smoler, had come early to this harsh, seducti ve world, back when its creator’
s books were struggling to find an audience in the United States. Lippincott, Stein & Day, Master and Commander, Post Captain, HMS Surprise . . .
the publishers tried and withdrew –
after Desolation Island, permanently .
Or so it seemed. During the years of drought, Patrick O’Brian’
s acolytes did what they could to keep Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in their lives.
They opened accounts at the great English bookstore Hatchards; they wrote to booksellers in Canada; the most fortunate of them acquired, along with the precious novels, a correspondence with the lively and gene rous-spirited Richard Ollard, O’Brian’
s English editor, and himself a formidably accomplished historian and a superb writer.
Another friend of mine, the journalist Mark Horowitz (who would later publish an i nfluential profile of Patrick O’
Brian in the New York Times Magazine), had left New York to become a belligerently loyal Angelino , and sent Fred and me messages saying that every bookshop in Los Angeles stocked imported O’
Brian novels - and how do you like that, you haughty Manhattanites? (Surely this can't have been entirely true, and yet Mark always seemed to have read the latest one before we did.) In the meantime, of course, we proselytized, with the predictable success: Them: I’
ve read all the Hornblower novels, and that’
s enough for me.
Us: But that’
s like saying, I've read Robinson Crusoe so there’
s no reason for me to look at Dickens.
Such harangues often ended with an indulgent smirk from the victim. And why not? If this writer was really all that good, everybody would know about him, right?
s a fair question, and eventually Starling Lawrence answered it. He is the editor -in-chief of W. W.
Norton & Company, and in 1990 O’Brian’
s agent, Vivien Green, pressed a copy of The Reverse of the Medal on him as he was leaving London bound for New York.
By the time he disembarked at JF
K he had been won over: he would bring out the next O’
Brian, The Letter of Marque.
This was a courageous decision; the series had already failed here, and it is considerably more costly to publish a writer than it is to pester your friends about him across a dinner table.
But it turned out to be the right time. All those scattered little enclaves glowing with O’
Brian enthusiasm were ready to reach combustion. The resulting blaze created rather than destroyed; so far it has cooked up five million copies and an admirable motion picture that will continue to spread the word for years to come.
(That the movie became the object of some prissy reproach for not more fully unfurling the characters of Stephen and Jack only ratifies the power of the books that gave it birth.) This American enthusiasm sent ripples back across the Atlantic. On a visit to London in the mid-1990s , I was gratified to see that O’Brian’
s novels had been moved out of “Naval Fiction,”
a bookstore section we alas don’
t have over here, across the aisle i nto “Literature.”
So in a very short time everybody f
inally did know about Patrick O’
Brian, to a degree that when he visited our shores he attracted a following of a dedication and willingness to travel great distances to be in The Presence that seems to me equalled only by that of the Grateful Dead or the Rolling Stones. And, like Mick Jagger, he never disappointed. What writer since Hemingway –
and perhaps Fitzgerald –
has l ooked so thoroughly the way you’
d want him to? Clean-shaven, slim, slightly below middle height but giving the impression of that “wiry strength”
more often found in novels than on the speaker’
s podium, and with the affect of bemusement that was, I think, a sort of courtesy to soften the impact of those daunting eyebrows and the comprehension, wit, and, occasionally, caustic scorn that flicked from him unceasingly.
And then he was gone. Gone not merely from New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and all the other cities where people of high consequence were now wild to get him to their dinner parties, but from the world.
AND YET, as the surprising volume you are holding reminds us, he is not gone at all. When death took Patrick O’
Brian, this book had not been given a name. It had advanced only three chapters, 65 handwritten pages, most of which had been typed and giv en preliminary corrections by O’Brian (I say “preliminary”
because there are, here and there, a few repetitions that this most scrupulous of writers would not have permitted himself). O’
Brian in holograph offers advantages and drawbacks. I find his handwriting both exquisite and difficult to read, but persevering through it offers the pleasures of a wonderful bloodless duel that Stephen engineers, and a casual sketch of a seating arrangement that has the electrifying effect of making the principals see m entirely like living people. “21”
is a fragment, of course, and one would expect such a document to be little more than a forlorn remnant. After all, O’
Brian had been composing it during a melancholy time. His wife, Mary, had died; he was alone; he was eighty-five years old; and his newfound fame had brought his life under media scrutiny that would have dismayed people far less protective of their privacy than he.
But just look at “21”
! There is no sense of harassment or desolation here, no loss of focus, nor of energy. And if it ends too soon, it is nonetheless a rich distillation –
a summary of sorts –
of all that has, over thousands of pages and tens of thousands of miles, won O’
Brian such passionate admirers. First of all, there is the language –
and here I mean not O’Brian’
s prose but what he gives his characters to say. He insisted that their speech was an accurate reflection of how early nineteenth-century people talked; but I believe it is a brilliant poetic invention, complex yet so wholly consistent that we in time learn to speak it almost through the same process we would follow acquiring a foreign language. It never ceases to show us that this is a world at once remote and familiar, and the conveying of that familiarity is, I think, a feat of the imagina tion that far surpasses, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’
s kingdoms of dwarfs and sorcerers.
We get to be introduced to Jack and Stephen one last time, and how keen the pleasure remains: Stephen abashed in the composition of his heavily-coded love letter; Jack with elephantine, ignorant delicacy discussing the Church of Rome with his closest friend. And here is Killick, his insolence for once extinguished by the calamity that has befallen Jack’
s best uniform during freezing weeks off the Horn. Now come the curiously stirring details: the men begging slush from the galley to give the shot in the garlands a pleasing sheen; Steph en clipping the tip of his pen “
with a minute pair of m etal jaws made for the purpose.” To be sure, there’
s no battle in these pages, but the great-gun exercise on the Sussex gives a highly satisfactory sense of the violence and power that men like Jack Aubrey controlled. And any disappointment at the lack of a frigate duel must be eradicated by the presence of the humour that quietly leavens every paragraph. Jack, explaining how he acquired the extra gunpowder necessary for hi s spectacular exercise, says he’d bribed “
the last powder-hoy, for a trifle of whiskey –
you know the I rish drink, Stephen, I am sure?” “
I have never heard of it,”
says Stephen. This tiny exchange is marvellously appealing: both men are being funny; both men understand one another perfectly.
Their amity suggests what I find so moving about this last work from Patrick O’Brian’
s hand. Some of the novels end with their principals settled and content, some with them in poverty and peril. It is, of course , impossible to say where “
would have left them. I’
m sure the egregious Captain Miller would have reappeared to work some malice after Stephen’s humiliation of him. And Jack’
s money-making initiatives would likely have put him on the metaphorical lee-shore.
Right now, however, we are able to visit these friends we have followed so very far in a rare state of almost perfect felicity. Jack has seen his black son ably discharging important duties. Sophie and his daughters are with him; Brigid is with her father, she’
s thriving, and Stephen is with a woman who is very dear to him. Jack is flying a rear-admiral’
s flag aboard a ship of the line. So we can leave them sailing through fair, sweet days –
Stephen with his dissections, Jack with his “sacred blue flag,”
Killick muttering darkly over the toasted cheese –
embarked on a voyage like the one that opens the book: “
Quietly indeed they sailed along, with gentle breezes that wafted them generally northwards at something in the nature of five miles in the hour, north-wards to even warmer seas. Little activity was called for, apart from the nice adjustment of the sails, and although the exact routine of the ship was never relaxed nor her very strict rules of cleanliness, these long sunny days with a soldier’
s wind seemed to many the ideal of a seaman’
s life –
regular, steady, traditional meals with the exact allowance of grog; hornpipes in the last dog-watch , the deep melody of the Doctor’
cello from the cabin and the cheerful sound of the gunrooms dinner; the future lost in a haze somewhere “north of the equator.”
Remember that this was written at a time when the author was lonely and tormented.
Yet Patrick O'Brian has given a farewell to his follower ’
s that is as gracious as it is gallant. And we, in turn, may find some solace in the thought that of all people, this man would not have hated to be taken out of action much as Nelson was: deep in triumph, shedding glory on the service he loved, and still at the peak of his powers.