A point made frequently in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels is that even the most canny and cunning of naval men will, wheA point made frequently in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels is that even the most canny and cunning of naval men will, when they return to land, likely find themselves rather at sea. Stephen’s friend Martin remarks on it here, noting that “sailors ashore are not always as cautious as they should be, considering the rapacious duplicity of certain landsmen,” and the point is dramatized again in the action of this novel.
Though a part of it takes place in the port of Bridgetown, Barbados, and another part at sea in swift pursuit of an elusive American privateer, two-thirds of the story transpires back home in England, where both Jack and Stephen become involved in elaborate deceptions involving money—stocks and bearer bonds. Careers are altered, treachery that has gone undetected for some time is found out, loves are either met again or discovered to be lost, and yet some readers have found this volume less engaging than others in the series; I’m not among them.
Along with the pleasures of the story, there are sidelights of history, including: a discussion of “the miseries of authors,” with examples both familiar and obscure; a few references to the liberty of the Savoy; an account of something Gibbon wrote decrying lawyers, which he decided to omit from his Decline and Fall; a reminder of what it means to be pilloried; and many details of a trial in what later became known as the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814....more
No women are major characters in this volume of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s adventures during the War of 1812, but women are central to parts ofNo women are major characters in this volume of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s adventures during the War of 1812, but women are central to parts of the action, even though the story takes place entirely on and around the frigate H.M.S. Surprise, which Aubrey commands. Needless to say, naval practices were different 200 years ago. Along with two women, the Surprise is carrying a cat belonging to the bosun, a goat named Aspasia to provide milk, and a handful of other animals taken along as food. Though one of the women (whose name already escapes me) plays only a small and benign role, the gunner’s wife, Mrs. Horner, proves to be a dangerous temptation for another member of the crew, and mayhem results. What’s more, when two members of the crew fall overboard in the Pacific one night and are left behind (during which one of them observes that the sea is as warm as milk, a nice telltale reminder of the absence of refrigeration), they’re plucked from the water the next morning by a small band of oceangoing women warriors, who dispatch sharks with ease and are inclined to do the same to the crewmen. Knowing little of South Seas anthropology, I can’t judge whether this fantastical episode draws on fact or fancy, but it reads like a believable surprise, and it prompts a short proto-feminist response from Maturin, who ends by declaring that “If I were a woman I should march out with a flaming torch and a sword; I should emasculate right and left.”
It’s not only women who upset the desired order of things among the men who constitute our central characters. The mission of the Surprise, based in Gibraltar as the tale begins, is to go in search of an American frigate that, according to an intelligence report, is heading to the Pacific to wreak havoc on British whalers there. Thus the Surprise and her crew confront the stifling heat and lack of wind in the horse latitudes; a squall that rips the bowsprit away (while the ship is refitting up a river in Brazil, Maturin meets a Peruvian who introduces him to the coca leaf); the howling winds and icy temperatures off Cape Horn; the quest for food and water, which leads to a spell at Juan Fernandez Island; a pass through the Galapagos Islands (already renowned to naturalists decades before Darwin’s visit), which Maturin and his friend Martin are allowed to see but forbidden to explore; and the seemingly impossible task of finding one particular ship in the ocean.
O’Brian’s language is one of the pleasures of this series. Here, three relative landlubbers take a swipe at the nautical terminology in which these stories abound:
Now there was a pause, and Yarrow said, “I dare say they are hauling away the cat before hooking on the fish.”
Pocock said, “Perhaps they will stopper with a dog.”
Stephen said, “It is my belief that they have raised a mouse, and that having seized it with a fox they will clap on a lizard.”
“Lord, what jargon the honest creatures have invented, upon my word,” said Pocock, laughing heartily for the first time in Stephen’s acquaintance with him. “Were your terms authentic?”
“They were indeed,” said Stephen. “And there are hounds too, somewhere about the masts.”
“So were my cat and fish,” said Yarrow.
A practiced reader of the series will suspect that these landsmen have got the words right but misapprehended their usage. Practically everyone will know what Jack has gotten wrong when he observes to Stephen, “But there are more things than heaven and earth, you know.” And those with a taste for the prose and narrative style of times past will appreciate O’Brian’s way of condensing a discussion into the sort of catalogue that (in my experience) more often appeared at the head of a section or chapter. Maturin and Martin are studying the plates of a particular giant tortoise of the Galapagos Islands through telescopes:
…comparing them with those of Testudo aubreii, which Maturin had discovered, described and named,… and with the thin-shelled and lighter though still respectable tortoise of Rodriguez. Reflections upon insular tortoises, their origin — tortoises in general, whether deaf — their voices rarely heard — capable of a harsh cry however as well as the more usual hiss — all oviparous, careless of their young — crocodiles more diligent as parents — but tortoises more generally sympathetic — perfectly capable of attachment — instances of affection in tortoises.
To employ a more modern expression, gotta love it....more
At the beginning of this entry in Patrick O’Brian’s much-loved series of historical novels, the British are at war with the French and also the AmericAt the beginning of this entry in Patrick O’Brian’s much-loved series of historical novels, the British are at war with the French and also the Americans, and the year is a broadly conceived 1812 or 1813. Jack Aubrey, captain of the small frigate Surprise, and Stephen Maturin, who is Aubrey’s best friend, the surgeon of the Surprise, and—unknown to many—an agent for British intelligence, are in Malta. There’s comedy (Jack falls into a cistern while trying to rescue a dog), a few notes of science (Stephen gets hold of a diving bell), intrigue (more than one man on the British side is secretly serving the French and causing havoc), action at sea and on land, and—perhaps most important—a woman, Laura Fielding. Her husband is being held captive by the French, and their agents are manipulating her into attempting to wrest secrets from Aubrey or Maturin, both of whom struggle with temptation.
As always, O’Brian’s account abounds in nautical detail from the age of sail, which miraculously doesn’t impede one’s overall grasp, and is also rich in many other aspects of language, social custom, natural history (as much of science used to be called), medicine, and political and military history. As A. S. Byatt observes in a back-cover blurb—which I’ll quote because it seems exactly right—O’Brian creates “a whole, solidly living world for the imagination to inhabit.”...more
Atomic bombs falling off planes (in one case, landing in someone's backyard), early-warning radar systems fooled by a flock of geese or the rising mooAtomic bombs falling off planes (in one case, landing in someone's backyard), early-warning radar systems fooled by a flock of geese or the rising moon: this is a collection of such incidents, presented with a refreshing tone of levity. The Bomb (remember when we used to capitalize it?) doesn't care whether you laugh or cower in fear, but laughter may be better for your mental health....more
From a commentary on my blog assessing Turing's position and this book's role in it:
Last year’s film, an affecting drama on its own terms, is both ina
From a commentary on my blog assessing Turing's position and this book's role in it:
Last year’s film, an affecting drama on its own terms, is both inadequate and inaccurate in terms of its subject; anyone longing to know more about Turing’s life and work can do no better than to consult this account. In its 2014 edition, Hodges’s book contains 32 pages of prefatory material and 679 pages of text, including a final author’s note, plus a further 57 pages of notes and an index. It may appear daunting, but the book’s majestic—Tolstoyan? palatial?—scale is entirely justified. One finds here many figures in the carpet, many patterns in the numbers, many leitmotifs at play in the music. Like Tolstoy, Hodges captures a soul on its adventures within society; like a late-Romantic symphony, the book is vast, dense, highly organized, profoundly moving.
Because other reviews here and elsewhere can provide a good account of this book, I won't try to. But I will offer a suggestion for anyone else who'sBecause other reviews here and elsewhere can provide a good account of this book, I won't try to. But I will offer a suggestion for anyone else who's reading the series.
Though I've had both for a while, having found free copies at my job, I hadn't used them much until I began reading The Surgeon's Mate. Presto! Many details came into focus.
Now I know the difference between a best bower, a small bower, and a kedge (they're different anchors); I know a little more about club-hauling than the novel explained (it's “an emergency method of tacking”); I've seen a historical drawing of a Parisian prison called the Temple, which figures into the story; and I can pinpoint on a map Elsinore, overlooking a narrow strait through which our main characters pass on their way to the Baltic. You can easily lose time wandering around in the lexicon, but I wouldn't say that's much of a loss. ...more
"Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there." That’s on the last page of the book, a review reminds me. It was also used in the rock musical that"Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there." That’s on the last page of the book, a review reminds me. It was also used in the rock musical that was derived from this book. When I saw and reviewed the musical sometime in the 80s, I objected to the line; apparently anticipating current thinking, I was inclined to regard the experience of war for soldiers as personal, private, at least partly inaccessible to others, and even in some way unique. If you don’t know what current thinking I mean, consider how often you’re likely to hear objections such as “You don’t know what it was like” or “You can’t possibly understand how I feel,” or simply recall the widespread tendency to distinguish what happened to The Families (i.e., of 9/11 victims) from anything the rest of us went through.
But that’s a dead-end attitude. There’s not much you can say about an experience that can’t be shared. Besides, as I hope I realized at the time, Herr was right about something important. When he came back to the States, Herr observed that “Out on the street I couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock n’ roll veterans.” Pumped up, wigged out, gone electric, the creatures of the rock concerts (Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Altamont) had gone through euphorias and frenzies and nightmares. So had others, which Herr, in his poetic reduction, doesn’t explicitly name: the students who occupied, demonstrated, and sometimes died (Kent State), the rioters (Watts), the political protesters (Chicago ’68). War in the streets? We’d seen it—sometimes anyway, in some of the streets. Vietnam? We had all been there, even if some of us—too young (like me), too old, too otherwise engaged—had been closer to Saigon than to the jungles or anything else.
I probably did get it, back in the 80s, when I wrote about that musical adaptation of Dispatches. (Some personal notes here.) I had read at least some of Herr’s original dispatches in Esquire magazine when they appeared in the late 60s. I bought and read the hardcover edition of Herr’s book when it came out, in 1977. I’d pretty much grown up in the 60s, and in the 70s I had read a cultural history suggesting connections between the war over there and our life back here: in 1966, it pointed out, President Johnson had escalated the bombing in North Vietnam by attacking cities for the first time, and in the same year Bob Dylan, who had been a folkie, used an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, which had been all-acoustic.
America got plugged in and turned on in the 60s. The war was part of it. This book, despite focusing on Vietnam, adds to the bigger picture....more
This is how we often ask questions nowadays: "What's it like [to do physics, to be Lady Gaga]?" We put questions about the past the same way: what wasThis is how we often ask questions nowadays: "What's it like [to do physics, to be Lady Gaga]?" We put questions about the past the same way: what was it like to live near the World Trade Center after the collapse, or to have been in it but escaped?
I'm not sure how far back that goes, but its modern usage appears at the same time as a belief in the isolating qualities of many experiences. Following some expression of sympathy for a loved one lost in war or disaster, for instance, we're apt to hear or to find ourselves saying, "You can't possibly understand what I'm going through [without having lived it]," or "You can't know what it's like." Apparently these situations are not like anything; they resemble only themselves.
This may not be a very meaningful observation. Philosopher Thomas Nagel had no qualms about the expression when he gathered his thoughts about other forms of life under the title "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (Incidentally, his answer was essentially that we can't know.) On the other hand, I'm not alone in noticing that nowadays we often believe we can't convey what something is/was like. French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky remarked on it, in a book that by coincidence I recently wrote about here. Surveying the current state of Western individualism, he notes that many people find it difficult to express themselves and to feel understood.
Whether or not you catch my drift on that point or agree with it, it's noticeable that Jean-Paul Sartre mentions the difficulty more than once in this essay, which he wrote and published in November 1944. The challenge, he says early on, is "how to convey what the occupation was to those who lived in countries that remained free." His immediate next thought: "There is an abyss between us that cannot be overcome by words." Later, he remarks, "It would be difficult to convey the impression that this deserted city made upon us." And a little later still, after describing a "horror" peculiar to the Occupation, in which the Gestapo would make someone disappear at night, while during the day the only Germans they could see appeared to be ordinary people like themselves (note the opening words): "Who would understand me if I said that at the time it was intolerable and that we accommodated ourselves to it quite well?"
Yet despite the declared difficulties, Sartre succeeds remarkably well in conveying the Occupation. He does it not through any abstract analytical means but by accumulation, piling up one concrete report after another. The great city had lost many of its occupants, so the boulevards appeared too big for those who remain. The Louvre lacked its paintings. The former capital now ruled nothing. He touches on the experience of non-Parisians as well. Farmers had to keep growing food so Frenchmen could eat, knowing that some of the food was feeding the Germans. The railways were kept running to serve the French, but they served the Germans as well. Everywhere, the French struggled to remind themselves that the Germans who lived and worked practically alongside them were the enemy, while the British, who for a time were bombing some of their cities, were allies. "We kept quiet when Lorient was razed to the ground, when the center of Nantes was destroyed, when the heart of Rouen was attacked. Perhaps this was what needed to be done."
I'll leave it to historians such as Lisa Lieberman the task of assessing Sartre's purposes, declared and otherwise, and his success in achieving them. Lieberman translated this essay--into conversational but entirely lucid English--and discusses such issues in her introduction. My view is simply that it works: Sartre's essay renders the experiences understandable, tangible, in part by proposing the strangeness of it all--the double uses of food and transport, the apparently friendly enemy, the many ways in which they sensed that things were the same but changed. The country was, at the same time, theirs and not theirs; that also was true of their very lives.
If one lives in a big city, one can easily look around and, having read Sartre's text, wonder "What if…?" One can also get a new grasp on Iraq during the American-led occupation. Sartre has made the situation clear enough that it can be "translated" in these ways. But one need do no more than take "Paris During the Occupation" at face value: this is what it was like. It is possible to share such experiences, if one is a good enough writer....more
It was only by mistake that I read this twice. Though the other volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series that I've read are on my sComments, not a review:
It was only by mistake that I read this twice. Though the other volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series that I've read are on my shelf, this one wasn't. Not until I had bought and read part of it did I have the feeling of having been here before. I didn't mind at all and kept going, glad to be back in the Age of Sail, when life and war were much different, though also much the same.
Every time I finish one, and especially this one, which leaves off somewhat in the middle of things, I'm tempted to do what a friend did, which is to go straight to the next and continue without stopping until reaching the end of the series. So far I've preferred to read them at intervals, always having another voyage ahead of me. This is pointless; my friend has found that by re-reading the full set he, too, always has another voyage ahead. He's given the series six readings so far, and someone else I know has made the circuit more than a dozen times. Maybe they're like the true sailors in these books, such as Captain Jack Aubrey, who feel most at ease when they've got a deck beneath their feet again, and I more resemble Stephen Maturin (apologies for the self-flattery), just as glad, if not more so, to return to the possibilities on land.
Come to think of it, that's not a bad way of saying that more than one type of person can find himself (or maybe herself) in this series....more
The entire 20th century was a period of calamitous mistakes in judgment, which in many ways arose from the errors of the First World War. Many traditiThe entire 20th century was a period of calamitous mistakes in judgment, which in many ways arose from the errors of the First World War. Many traditional views of that war have themselves been mistaken reckonings, according to Niall Ferguson’s sensitive, detailed, and powerfully persuasive reading, the breadth of which ranges from the war’s literature (even his title quotes a poem) to its financing.
As is often the case with The Economist, its review of The Pity of War gives a knowledgeable assessment. The review takes issue with one of Ferguson’s many “iconoclastic answers,” to the question of the war’s inevitability, and though it’s not very evocative it at least praises the book as “a work of grace and feeling.” But those with a serious interest in the Great War would do better simply to read Ferguson....more
Attitudes toward war and weapons are as changeable as other opinions are. We now take for granted the machine gun as just another weapon in mankind’sAttitudes toward war and weapons are as changeable as other opinions are. We now take for granted the machine gun as just another weapon in mankind’s arsenal. To an American inventor named Richard Jordan Gatling during the American Civil War, though, the idea had revolutionary potential. Having observed that war was about men killing other men with rifles, he essentially concluded (though he didn’t put it this way) that if he could make the killing happen faster he could improve war—reduce the size of armies and get the whole thing over with more quickly. Hence the Gatling gun, an early form of machine gun.
Beliefs about atomic weapons may have followed the opposite course, from ordinary to special. We now believe that two of them were used by American forces against Japan during World War II in the expectation that the atomic bomb’s extreme and extraordinary qualities would shock the Japanese into surrendering, and that it did so, thus shortening that war, but historian Michael D. Gordin has marshaled a good deal of evidence to show that this wasn’t the case. He makes and supports a number of arguments to this end, such as: that an attempt to shock the Japanese was a feature of the Allies’ strategy but atomic weapons weren’t the only method considered or used for the purpose; that before it was employed, and even for a while after, The Bomb was regarded by many in the American military and government as in some sense an ordinary weapon; that the firebombing of Japanese cities was already achieving similar results (as General Curtis LeMay later wrote, “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9–10  than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined”); that the military planned to drop more such bombs and was preparing a third when the war ended; that radiation and fallout effects (now one of the distinguishing features in our view of The Bomb) were little appreciated at the time these weapons were used; and that the Japanese surrender, while hoped for, was not expected.
Gordin mentions in his acknowledgments that some scholars disagree with his conclusions, but he has convinced me, and at the very least he must be credited with showing (as is often the case when we look back) that what we now think we know about the past is too simple to be entirely true....more