Shipmates in a Man's World

November 28, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Recognition came to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin rather late in their careers, but there's no doubt it's here today.

The first meeting of the two, at a concert in Minorca at which they almost came to blows, occurred in the spring of 1800. It is described by their creator Patrick O'Brian in the novel ''Master and Commander,'' published in 1970. They became friends and JTC sailed the world together for the next 14 years, through the tumult of the Napoleonic wars.

Novel after novel followed the first, chronicling the rise of Captain Aubrey's Royal Navy career and observing the Irish-born Dr. Maturin's adventures in medicine, natural history and espionage. But most soon went out of print, and 10 years ago hardly anyone had heard of Aubrey, Maturin or O'Brian.

Today that's all changed, changed utterly. The 16th volume in the series, ''The Wine-Dark Sea,'' is just out, and has been received as a major literary event. All 16 are now in print, and sales are spectacular. Mr. O'Brian, a reclusive octogenarian, is now a much sought-after interview target. His readers, once almost a cult, are everywhere.

Why is this? Why are books nobody read in the 1970s a smash in the 1990s? There ought to be an answer other than clever marketing, or the smug but inaccurate suggestion that in literature as in dairy science, the cream always rises to the top. And -- you won't be amazed to hear -- there is.

There are two answers, really. The first is that the books -- or the saga; the novels are really long chapters in a continuing tale rather than stand-alone stories -- have intrinsic merit. They are brilliantly researched, the writing is easy, and the characters major and minor are well realized. This isn't trash that's attracted a sudden trendy popularity.

But merit alone can't account for the wild success of these works of historical fiction, focused on a period of secondary interest to most Americans. Something about them must have a particular resonance for these times. If so, it's surely their overpowering political incorrectness.

It's generally acknowledged that a large majority of American readers of fiction are women. Why that is I don't know; various explanations have been advanced, some persuasive and others only provocative. But if 80 percent of the readers sufficiently captivated by Mr. O'Brian to have read his entire series aren't male, I'd be amazed.

Neither Aubrey nor Maturin is in any sense misogynist. Aubrey's attitude toward women tends to be more sensual, Maturin's more intellectual, but in each it's a genuine and deeply-felt appreciation. By the time of ''The Wine-Dark Sea'' each has married and fathered children. But the world of a warship in their time is a man's world, and they unabashedly live men's lives.

The two heroes of the novels are men with many weaknesses, some of which they overcome and some which they do not. But they are nonetheless men with evident virtues, not the least of these being great physical courage, which they are called upon to demonstrate again and again. They are, in sum, men to be admired.

Aubrey, big and bluff, is something of an oaf ashore, financially gullible and socially crude. But at sea he is a brilliant ship-handler and a ferocious warrior. He is a natural leader of men. At one low point in his career he loses his command and is sentenced to be pilloried -- to stand for a short period in the London stocks, exposed to the stones and calumny of the public. But his old shipmates clear the streets and protect him until he is released.

Maturin, half-Irish and half-Catalan and completely cerebral, has none of Aubrey's instinctive reverence for the British crown and the global empire it controls. But he views Napoleon as something distinctly worse, and thus welcomes service in Aubrey's command as ship's surgeon, and in British intelligence as a trusted, multi-lingual agent. At sea, however, he is a landlubber's landlubber, and frequently falls overboard.

Around the world they go, these two, usually in Aubrey's favorite frigate, H.M.S. Surprise. They are shipwrecked in latitudes high and low, imprisoned by various adversaries, surrounded by cannon smoke and flying spray. But Mr. O'Brian makes sure they also have time to go foxhunting (Aubrey), climb mountains in strange lands in search of little-known flora and fauna (Maturin), and enjoy the peaceful dailiness of fair-weather sailing far

offshore.

Meanwhile, we the readers learn as we go about royals and topgallants, about gunnery practice and ship's carpentry, about admiralty ritual and Royal Navy food. (There are two popular desserts known as ''boiled baby'' and ''spotted dick,'' but I, at least, haven't yet figured out just what these are.).

Eventually, being human, Patrick O'Brian is going to give out, and this great tale will end. I don't look forward to that. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin make much more congenial shipmates than most of the flotsam recent fiction has left on our beaches.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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