Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bon Voyage Jack, Stephen, and Patrick: I am about to start the 20th, and final (except for a partial rough draft of 21 found after his death, which I doubt I will read), book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and O'Brian clearly running out of steam. Or maybe I am. He had an excuse though: he was near the end of his life, and even if he wasn't, for God's sake, he had written 20 novels with these characters. He lost a lot of the beautiful subtlety and delicate dramatization that informed the earlier novels and was meandering into minutiae and irrelevant sidebars -- basically just taking the characters through the motions; motions we had seen before. Still the decline in quality is not so steep that I am going to stop. And the fact that the series was well into the teens before it started to tail off is amazing in and of itself.

Should you read these books? Maybe. Certainly anyone with a dedication to exceptional literature should. Until the last few, they are striking well written. They are certain to quicken the heart of anyone who really loves masterful writing. But the fact is, they are not remotely colloquial. The formal style may make you feel as though you are reading Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Which is to say, they won't do as a casual read for most people.

And if you are looking for a nice, expository, linear narrative -- A does B that leads to C and makes D do E, and so forth -- you'll be frustrated. Passages, and whole books, are meant to be appreciated only when they are over. Often characters are introduced without fanfare, they hang around on the periphery of the attention of Aubrey or Maturin, and only many scenes later do we see their significance. Events, people, even inanimate objects must regularly be tracked by the reader until they are revealed in full. I found this to be an attraction once I got used to it. O'Brian trusted his readers to have patience and allow uncertainty to temper their assumptions about the nature of things for extended lengths without bailing. That takes guts in the modern world of congenital ADD. And talent.

Yet another thing that stands out against the modern world is that the way of the universe in these books is very much ancient Greek. For centuries now, we have been in the thrall of Shakespearean heroes and anti-heroes who guide events and set their own fates for better or worse through their own decisions. Although Aubrey and Maturin are certainly men of action who take stands and fight good fights, they are, at all times, dependent upon luck and providence. The gods of their time are not Zeus and Apollo, but the weather and the Royal Navy -- both are arbitrarily beneficial or detrimental, both are destroyers of design and granters of wishes, and both will not be denied by the puny acts of men.

Part of the reputation of these books is that O'Brian fills them with technical details of sailing in early 19th century. That, I'm afraid, is true. O'Brian knew his audience and there was a portion of them -- perhaps a large portion -- who were mavens of historical dramas of the Horatio Hornblower genre. You'll have to either get comfy with the language or get comfy skimming over the particulars of shipboard life. Either way, the stories will not suffer.

If you saw the movie and liked it, is that a good indicator? Uncharacteristically, I think yes. I found the movie to be excellent and true to the spirit of the books. You should be advised that the movie, complete title Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, is based on an amalgam of events from several books. Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10) are just two of them.

Lastly, and in contrast to the majority of contemporary literature, these are books about, and for, men of a certain type. Courage, honor, and duty play major roles in the motivations of many characters, to an extent that is no longer seen on the 'new releases' shelf at Borders.

As a final warning, I reiterate that there are 20 novels, all fairly dense. If you get hooked, plan on partitioning off a healthy slice of your life for them.

As for me, I now find myself snickering at the people who are having Harry Potter withdrawal after a whopping six plainly written books. You have no idea. I have decided to move on by going in the opposite direction as a shock to my senses. I'm thinking of returning to some Peter DeVries satires. I have also been thinking about reading Kerouac's On The Road, since it would be about 180 degrees in contrast from Patrick O'Brian.