Patrick O'Brian's 17th: more swashbuckling fun

April 09, 1995|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to The Sun

"The Commodore," by Patrick O'Brian. 282 pages. New York: W. W. Norton. $22.50

For fans of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin sea stories, the business end of this review comes up front: "The Commodore," published last year in England, is now out in the United States. Two or three nagging questions are finally answered in "The Commodore" (including the identity of the limping traitor), and a brand-new loose end is left dangling, "Perils of Pauline"-style, in the very last line. Buy it at once.

Non-fans who in recent years have seen friends lugging around "The Nutmeg of Consolation" or "The Wine-Dark Sea" are maybe wondering what all the fuss is about. In a nutshell, Patrick O'Brian has written 17 novels about Jack Aubrey, a violin-playing captain in His Majesty's Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, a half-Irish, half-Catalan ship's surgeon who doubles as a British intelligence agent. Set in the Napoleonic Wars, the Aubrey-Maturin novels are a Kiplingesque amalgam of adventure, romance, swashbuckling battle scenes and sound Tory philosophy, and they are as addicting as crack.

A good deal of nonsense has been written about the Aubrey-Maturin novels by hyperenthusiastic reviewers, and .

O'Brian's publishers have been unwise enough to reprint bits and pieces of it on the covers of the paperback editions. One critic has compared him to Proust, another to Homer. These comparisons are silly, but they are also understandable:

O'Brian's books are so far above the normal run of seagoing fiction that some sort of unlikely-sounding analogy is necessary in order to put them into perspective. Certainly comparisons with C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels are utterly irrelevant - O'Brian is to Forester as Count Basie was to Guy Lombardo.

To my way of thinking, O'Brian's closest counterpart in the world of "serious" fiction is Anthony Trollope. Taken together, the 17 Aubrey-Maturin stories constitute a serial novel not dissimilar in style or quality to Trollope's Barsetshire books. As Henry James famously said of Trollope, O'Brian has a complete appreciation of the usual: For all the skill with which he portrays his heroes in combat, his real interest is in the interplay of character and the texture of shipboard life.

O'Brian also knows how to sustain interest across a long series of novels. There is no flagging of vitality in the later Aubrey-Maturin books; indeed, they gain in richness and ease of effect from the reader's deeper knowledge of the main characters. This is, however, a good reason for first-timers not to start with "The Commodore." The new book will make sense to those unfamiliar with its predecessors - O'Brian, a true literary professional, has seen to that - but half the fun of the series is in getting to know Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin cruise by cruise.

Fortunately, the first 16 Aubrey-Maturin novels are all available in paperback from Norton, and any landlubber who feels even slightly curious about them should lay a course for the nearest bookstore, purchase a copy of "Master and Commander," the first novel in the series, and set aside an evening or two. If you have any taste whatsoever for good old-fashioned adventure stories - or if you simply like the idea of Trollope on a boat - you won't be able to put it down. Not to worry: "The Commodore," like ship's biscuit, will keep.

Terry Teachout ia arts columnist of the New York Daily News and editor of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" (just out). His books include "Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture and Politics." He is writing a biography of H. L. Mencken.

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