All the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which the...moreAll the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which the drama of Lord Clonfert played out. His was the story that most captured my attention this time through.
Clonfert begins the tale as the captain of HMS Otter. He is a vain man. A handsome man who cuts a dashing figure in his finery. He has developed some bravery (after a shaky beginning to his career), is a "capital seaman" and has the loyalty of his men. He is also an unabashed liar when it comes to his accomplishments (even suggesting he was present at the killing of a unicorn, using a Narwhal tusk as his evidence), but his vanity quickly undermines his spirit when he's thrust into the shadow of his former shipmate, now commanding officer, Commodore Jack Aubrey.
Clonfert is eventually made Post-Captain by the man he sees as his nemesis and is given the frigate HMS Néréide as his command. He eventually loses his ship and half his face in a poorly executed action, and once he realizes that Jack Aubrey will again return him to command, after the Mauritius Campaign has reached its successful conclusion, he takes his own life in his convalescent bed.
It's not a tragic death. It's rather pathetic, actually. O'Brian's expression of Clonfert's fall, however, is touching and strikes at a truth I've witnessed amongst many of those who find themselves in competition with one another. Quite often, the successful person, the "bull" in an analogy of Stephen Maturin's, has no idea that the less successful person, the "frog" in the same analogy, envies him, hates him, or obsesses over him in any way. So the bull steps on the frog without ever noticing, and as Dr. Maturin suggests, "how can the bull be blamed ...." How, indeed?
I never want to be a frog, but I fear that there is a bit of that beast in me despite my desire. It is something for which I must be wary. I should probably be wary of being the bull too. Wariness may just be the most benevolent policy. (less)
I took up a writing about reading challenge recently, and I ran into a question asking, "What is your favourite series?" I'd have thought this was an...moreI took up a writing about reading challenge recently, and I ran into a question asking, "What is your favourite series?" I'd have thought this was an easy topic to write about. How man good series can there be? Turns out quite a few.
Yet with all this choice, and all these series that I love (and more than a few that I've left unmentioned), there really is only one choice for me -- Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books -- so it turns out to be an easy question after all.
O'Brian wrote twenty books in the series, and died in the middle stages of his twenty-first. Twenty books about two men: Captain Jack Aubrey, the big, brash, reluctantly bellicose Captain of many ships (but most often the HMS Surprise), and his best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the half-Irish/half-Catalan natural philosopher with a talent for espionage and a dangerous temper. We get to know their characters in ways and depths that I've never experienced anywhere else, and O'Brian never strikes a false note. Not once. Everything his men do are exactly what these men would do and when they would do it and how and why. We get to know all the people they love, all the people they hate, all the things they believe in, but most of all we get to see two men love each other over decades. Two men for whom the most important person in the world is the other.
We see Jack save Stephen from torture at the hands of the French, and carry his best friend with the delicacy of a father carrying a newborn, fighting back his sorrow because he must remain a Captain in charge. We see Stephen buy Jack a ship when Jack's been ignominiously drummed out of the service, and somehow he manages to give the gift without wounding his friend's pride.
I came to this series quite late, just before my twins were born eight years ago, and already I am back to book five in my reread (though much slower this time than last). Meanwhile, I am listening to the original book, Master and Commander, with my son whenever we get a chance to sneak into my office, all wood panelled and candle-lit (like a small cabin on the Surprise herself), and lose ourselves in the earliest meetings of Aubrey and Maturin. I've even passed these books onto my non-reading father (despite our longstanding problems), and even he has become a fan (no surprise, really, considering his nautical background).
For sheer comfort there is no series like Aubrey/Maturin. I love spending time with them. I love the action when it comes; I love the women they love; I love the intrigue and political machinations and way the wind and the sea make them the most themselves. More authors need to dedicate themselves to characters the way O'Brian dedicated himself to his men (not to plots and tales, but to the characters themselves). The literary world would be a much richer place. (less)
I like listening to this book better than reading it, I think. This one is steeped in the emotional lives of Jack and Stephen. It's the first that rea...moreI like listening to this book better than reading it, I think. This one is steeped in the emotional lives of Jack and Stephen. It's the first that really starts showing us how deeply these men feel about each other and the others they care about, and hearing it rather than reading it adds a level of intimacy that increases the novel's emotional satisfaction.
It opens with Stephen's torture at the hands of the French, and Jack's daring rescue. Captain Jack cares for his wounded friend with a tenderness that belies his massive frame, and he can't help but be rattled by the state in which he finds Stephen.
HMS Surprise continues in this vein, moving from emotional moment to emotional moment. Jack loves Sophie Williams, but cannot marry her because he is arrested for debt and Mrs. Williams wants a rich man for her daughter, not just a rank or name. It cuts Jack to the quick.
Stephen loves Diana Villiers (Sophie's cousin), but she has run off with Canning, a much liked Jewish merchant with interests in Diana's birth home -- India. Stephen also comes to love a little street urchin named Dill, and he eventually loses both Diana (for now) and Dill (forever). And he kills Canning in a rather spooky dual, where Stephen, even with his torture-warped hands and a bullet in his chest, manages to end the dual with the death of his rival. Death and heartache are Stephen's lot.
And then Jack and Diana, and Bonden and Killick and all the Sophies (the crewmen of Jack's first ship), are in a deep state of dread that Stephen will not make it through the infection left behind by his surgery (which he himself performed) -- and the love that they all feel for the too intense, rather ugly, brilliantly talented doctor is revealed.
Listening to Simon Vance bring this to life increases the intimacy for the reader/listener, making this a rare case when the audio book increased my enjoyment. I wonder if this will happen again? There're still 18 books to listen to. Perhaps it will. (less)
Anne Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas put together a fascinating mix of literary veneration and nautical cooking, collecting all the recipes eaten by Jack and Stephen over the course of their adventures so that we, their fans, can eat everything from lobscouse and spotted dog to bashed neeps and voluptuous little pies.
I used the book in December 2008 to make my family a Christmas at Sea meal. The thought of hare was too much for my mother when trying the hare stew, but even she took a bite, despite her fear. The bashed neeps and stuffed pork roast were the real hits of the night, and my father and I got to share some winks and chuckles over the appropriate Aubrey/Maturin quotes we read from the book as we ate (particularly the whining from Killick).
The best part of Grossman/Thomas' book is that the food is incredibly edible. I expected most of it to be brutal fare, but everything I have tried so far has been delicious.
I makes me wish that tortoise wasn't on the endangered list because that turtle soup looks very yummy. Mmmm.
I'm bumping my rating of this up to five stars from four after my reread.
Damn this is a fine addition to the Aubrey-Maturin series. There is genuine...moreI'm bumping my rating of this up to five stars from four after my reread.
Damn this is a fine addition to the Aubrey-Maturin series. There is genuine comfort in reading this book, and I think some of that comfort stems from Patrick O'Brian's comfort with his characters. O'Brian knows his men intimately by this fourth book, and he is able to let them live on their own, confident, it seems to me, that they will take him where they need to go.
In this case, they take him to the Mauritius campaign of 1809-1811. Jack Aubrey stands in for real life Commodore Josias Rowley, captaining HMS Boadicea, while Stephen is busy fomenting unrest on the islands. Apparently The Mauritius Command follows the true campaign faithfully, which makes for a fascinating experience for those who love historical novels, but the real interest for me is -- as always -- the characters. Whether reading (or rereading) about the family of men, Jack's "brothers" and friends and followers, I've grown to love as they live and work, or reading about the pathetically narcissistic Lord Clonfert and the fatally brutal Captain Corbett (who may have met his maker from "(un)friendly fire" during a pitched battle with the French), it is a reading experience I am able to fully immerse myself in. O'Brian's is a world I don't ever want to set aside.
I believe in O'Brian's fictional men, which makes me believe that O'Brian's take on the real men that surround them is equally plausible, and I want to be part of that group, eating plum duff and "hauling to" and boarding the enemy vessel and waiting for news from home. The closest I will ever come is O'Brian's books, but at least I have them. (less)
It's my second time through H.M.S. 'Surprise', and I am surprised to discover that I am ever so slightly disappointed. The narrative of H.M.S. 'Surpri...moreIt's my second time through H.M.S. 'Surprise', and I am surprised to discover that I am ever so slightly disappointed. The narrative of H.M.S. 'Surprise' felt a little uneven this time through, and despite a breathless second act and an emotional denouement, I put it back on my shelf a little disappointed.
This disappointment feels strange, though, because there is so much that I love in the story. The opening debate over the Spanish gold -- prize money won at the end of Post Captain -- is a fascinating peripheral episode, and an important expansion of Sir Joseph Blaine. Stephen's reunion with Diana in Bombay is as it should be, and Patrick O'Brian's evocation of India is impressive and rather sad when it touches on the death of Stephen's guide, Dil (a death Stephen is inadvertently responsible for, having given her the silver bangles that led to her murder). One of my favourite fictional naval actions, Captain Jack Aubrey's defense of the East India Company's China Fleet through subterfuge and ballsiness, runs for nearly the entirety of the story's second act, and it stands out as one of the best battles in a series that spans twenty-one books. And the story ends with Maturin dueling with Canning at twenty paces. Stephen takes a ball in the chest, then kills Canning with a ball in the heart, but best of all, Maturin removes the ball from under his ribs in a steely surgical scene with help from Mr. M'Alister (his assistant) and Jack (which remains one of the best scenes pillaged by Peter Weir for his adaptation of Master and Commander). Yet for all that, I still feel disappointed.
The reason must be the doldrums of the first act. While I usually enjoy the pseudo-Regency romance of Aubrey-Maturin, while I usually love the day to day relationships of the Surprises, I found my attention drifting this time through. I dunno. Maybe it's just my mood. Maybe it's that I am reading Ulysses at the same time. I can't be sure what it is really.
But me being disappointed with H.M.S. 'Surprise' and giving it three stars isn't a clear reflection of how I feel about the book. For me the entire series -- all twenty and a half books -- are worthy of five stars. So H.M.S. 'Surprise' stands in judgment only alongside its kin, not literature at large. It's three stars, but any O'Brian book, even H.M.S. 'Surprise' still comes before most books on my to-read shelf when I need something late in the night. (less)
Master and Commander is a great book, and our introduction to Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin is a great hook, but it can stand alone as a simple Naval adventure without any need for additional information about the men and women confined by its pages. This could, of course, simply be a result of its place as the first book in the series -- a series which stretches just over twenty books -- but there is little if any building for the future in Master and Commander, making it more in conception like O'Brian's The Catalans than his Aubrey-Maturin series.
But all of that "future building," all of that stuff needed to sustain a tale over twenty books, is present in Post Captain.
Many, though not all, of the characters that will become important to Jack and Stephen make their first appearance here: Mrs. Williams and her daughter, Sophia (Sophie (view spoiler)[when she becomes Jack's wife (hide spoiler)]), their cousin Diana Villiers and Sir Joseph Blaine. The relationships with these people will continue to define Aubrey and Maturin until the end of their adventures, and it will define their friendship with one another. We see the return of such stalwarts as Preserved Killick, William Babbington, Heneage Dundas, Barret Bonden, Joe Plaice, and Thomas Pullings -- and their stories are lovingly broadened and deepened, as though O'Brian is now committed to them for a long voyage.
There is also the solidification of Aubrey's friendship with Maturin; they suffer the first and most dangerous test of their love for one another -- a test that brings them even closer to a fatal duel than their first meeting at the Governor's mansion in Port Mahon. We are introduced to Jack's ill luck with money, his penchant for saving drowning shipmates, his inveterate randiness, his father's big mouth (which causes no end of trouble for Jack) and his skill as a Captain and seaman; we are introduced to Stephen's work as an intelligence agent, his deadliness with a sword and pistol, his ideals, his hand in Jack's success, and his tendency to obsess over the unattainable. And all of these deliver plenty of foreshadowing of the challenges our heroes will face during their further adventures at sea and on land.
Moreover, O'Brian delivers his first statement that the remaining Aubrey-Maturin books will be more than they first appeared; they will also be testosterone driven Regency romances -- Boy's Own Austen, if you will.
Much has been made of O'Brian's debt to Jane Austen, and that debt is obvious in Post Captain. At least half of this book takes place on land, and most of that time is spent with Aubrey and Maturin chasing the women who will be their wives. While not all of the Aubrey-Maturin novels spend so much time on land, the concerns of their private lives, whether through epistles or genuine time spent in England, will never lose their importance.
All of this suggests to me that Post Captain was the moment when O'Brian really knew this series was special. This was the moment it became his life's work. And it may very well be the best book in the series (although I've no doubt I'll say that again about another chapter).
How amazing must it have been to be O'Brian the day he wrote the last page of Post Captain, scribbling that toast to Sophia? I wish that had been me.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
ii. I'm at it again, but this time I opened up my Aubrey-Maturin reread by listening. It took a month of commuting, but it was worth the time and the...moreii. I'm at it again, but this time I opened up my Aubrey-Maturin reread by listening. It took a month of commuting, but it was worth the time and the patience, and though I have gleaned no new insights into Master and Commander, my enjoyment of the audio experience was more than fulfilling enough.
O'Brian wasn't a big fan of the audio versions of his books, nor of the men reading them: “To revert to my ideal reader: he would avoid obvious emotion, italics and exclamation marks like the plague - trying to put life into flat prose is as useful as flogging a dead horse.” As a fan of O'Brian's "flat prose," however, and one who is only coming to the audio books after having read the novels multiple times, the life that his readers bring to the characters is as welcome as a fine Madeira off Gibraltar.
I've long heard that Patrick Tull is the man to listen too when it comes to Aubrey-Maturin books, but my MP3 copy of Master and Commander was read by Simon Vance. I was a little disappointed at first because I wanted to hear and engage with Tull's reported excellence, but once Vance's vocal performance began, once Stephen and Jack were jostling one another during the concert at the Governor's Mansion, I was content.
The voices of Jack and Stephen took some getting used to (and I am not a fan of Vance's Spanish accent), but the range of his vocalizations is quite impressive. And I really enjoyed his narrative voice. It is clear, emotive without being too much so, and he offers a real liveliness during Naval actions. I think my favorite part of his reading, though, was his characterization of First Lieutenant James Dillon. Dillon is an important corner of the first book's Aubrey-Maturin-Dillon triangle, and his presence is key to the love Aubrey and Maturin come to have for one another. Vance captures the subtlety of this, making Dillon likable even when he's being unfair to Jack -- as it should be.
It was such a good experience that I have already purchased Post Captain. Tull may be the best reader of Aubrey-Maturin, but don't be afraid of Vance, especially if you've not heard Tull before, he does a commendable job.
i. When I do finally get around to writing my PhD, I want to do my work on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. It offers endless possibilities for critical analysis and even more possibilities for discussion.
One could paint politics, science, sports, warfare, literary allusions, sexuality, manners, and all things naval of Aubrey/Maturin without ever tiring the possibilities, and these are only the broadest strokes. Each of these themes -- and countless others I haven't mentioned -- generate focused areas of specialization that could cover everything from the most general to the most minute.
But when you're rereading Master and Commander (in my case it's the first rereading), most of those concerns take a backseat to the simple strength of O'Brian's vision. Everything you need to know about Lucky Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin takes shape in O'Brian's masterpiece of an inaugural novel, and one wonders how much of O'Brian's twenty and a half books he had in his mind the day he sat down to start writing the story with his pen and paper.
The first book foreshadows the last, and for a series that reaches upwards of 10,000 thousand pages, that level of coherence and depth is a tremendous feat.
We learn of Jack's genius at sea and his social ineptness on land. We learn of his needy ego and unquenchable desire for advancement. We learn of his fierce loyalty and his even fiercer libido. We learn of his pure love for his ships and how that love opens him up to emotional wounding. We're introduced also to nearly every person who will be important to Jack, for good or ill, over the course of his career.
We learn of Stephen's love for naturalism and physic. We learn of his deep loyalty of and care for Jack. We get hints, if we are paying close attention, to his role as a spy and his frighteningly dangerous temper. We are introduced to his loathing of Napoleon and his indifference to King George. We are shown the earliest manifestations of his shipmates' respect for his skills, and his absolute inability to understand anything nautical. We even get a hint that he will never leave Jack's side.
And of course we are introduced to Jack's fiddle, Stephen's cello and Killick's toasted cheese, which are at the heart of what I think is the most compelling component of the Aubrey/Maturin books -- the intimacy between Jack and Stephen.
No matter whom they marry, whom they hate, whom they love, whom they care for, whom they save, whom they kill, they are and will always be the most important people in each others lives; from the moment they bump heads at the concert to the last moment of 21, Aubrey and Maturin are intimates in every emotional sense of the word. They are intimate in a way that Holmes and Watson, Crusoe and Friday, and Jeeves and Wooster never approach. They are as close as two humans can be, and I find myself longing for that companionship. Of course it is impossible, but I can live vicariously through Aubrey/Maturin, and for any man longing for intimacy in a world that denies men intimacy, Master and Commander, and every book that follows, is a boon companion in a lonely world.
Next up: Post Captain...again...and I can't wait. (less)