In 1970 Patrick O’Brian began writing what was to become a long, extended series of twenty-one historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, but more particularly set on a dozen or more sailing ships of the British Royal Navy. These books are the roman-fleuve tales of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. Most readers generally refer to the whole collection as the Aubrey-Maturin series, but many are now familiar with the title, Master and Commander as a result of the 2003 film starring Russell Crowe as Captain Aubrey. That movie was based on the first book in the series, Master and Commander, as well as characters and events in three subsequent books in the series.
I will happily admit to being one of Mr O’Brian’s more fervent fans, and have long enjoyed his writing in a long list of novels and stories apart from the better known Aubrey-Maturin series. This past Friday I began my third reading of the twenty-one book series. But what would possess a reader to repeatedly undertake such a long and drawn out plan of rereading? While I can’t speak for others, the answer in my case needs a mere two words: the language. Apart from everything else that makes these books outstanding, the experience of reading them is akin to the slow enjoyment of crème brulee and a very fine wine. I often find myself rereading aloud sentences and paragraphs only because the first time was insufficient to absorb the richness of O’Brian’s writing.
The language of O’Brian while fitting the description of modern, is still filled with difficult terms and phrases related to ships and sailing, while speech is true to the era with all its slang, and idioms. It definitely can be a challenge to the reader, but oddly enough has an addictive quality in which you come to almost yearn for even more talk of catharpings, shove-groat and slubberdegullions. I have been told by more than one person that the abundance of unknown nautical terms finally wore them down and caused them to leave the first book unfinished. Let me use the words of Stephen Maturin to help explain how skillfully O’Brian has taken the problem to hand. Early in the first book, Maturin says, “No man could easily surpass me in ignorance of naval terms.” This ignorance of his provides a good bit of humor throughout, but it also subtly aligns the character with the reader, who usually shares the same ignorance. Maturin’s ignorance reassures the reader, and bear in mind that this ignorance has been given to one you would surely call the smartest character in the series.
The fact is, the Aubrey-Maturin books make you want to know more about all sorts of things, including sailing ships, history and geography, as well as Maturin’s birds and beasts. I suspect there are many who would say that reading these books has turned out to be something of an education. Well, it’s all so much for this old grizzled head I have to reread them every three or four years.
I found it an interesting tidbit of information that Patrick O’Brian spurned typewriters and word processors, preferring to write every word of his huge lifelong oeuvre by hand. I wonder what his preferred fountain pen might have been? The final and unfinished book (21) in the series includes in the five volume reissue put out by W. W. Norton and Company in 2004, a facsimile of O’Brian’s original manuscript, with all the editing and rewrites.
Have I interested anyone in making a go at reading 6,980 closely printed pages?