O'Brian's novels will sail on long after his death

January 13, 2000|By George F. Will

ABOARD THE HMS SURPRISE -- Which is where hundreds of thousands of contented readers are once again.

A freshening Atlantic breeze has the ship's sails billowing. The deck is pitching, but agreeably. Stephen Maturin is anticipating a naturalist's delights at the next landfall. And Jack Aubrey, in command, is looking for excitement and advancement in the Royal Navy in the doldrums after the Napoleonic wars.

It is difficult to describe to the uninitiated the frisson that Patrick O'Brian's readers feel when another installment in his Aubrey-Maturin novels appears. Not until he was 50 did William F. Buckley read "Moby Dick." Then he told friends: To think I might have died without having read it. That is exactly how Mr. O'Brian's readers feel about their voyage that began with "Master and Commander" in 1969 and now has its 20th installment in the publication of "Blue at the Mizzen."

Mr. O'Brian, living in the south of France, once disparaged himself as a "derivative" writer because he followed "most doggedly recorded actions" and "log books, dispatches, letters, memoirs and contemporary reports." He said he would "soon have originality thrust upon him," because he was "running short of history." But he became the greatest historical novelist of his era.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels rank with the sequential novels of Anthony Trollope and Anthony Powell. And Mr. O'Brian is a literary cousin of Jane Austen. That is, his are novels of manners as well as of war and adventure, the manners of male friendship and of military settings.

Novels of manners are apt to be, as Mr. O'Brian's are, suffused with the conservative sensibility, because manners are accretions of practices, not creations of reason. Mr. O'Brian writes of something being "worse than inhuman -- contrary to custom." When Dr. Maturin, the intellectual, inveighs against "subordination," Mr. Aubrey says: "Subordination is in the natural order: there is subordination in Heaven -- Thrones and Dominions take precedence over Powers and Principalities, Archangels and ordinary foremast angels; and so it is in the Navy. You have come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother."

Actually, Dr. Maturin, the ship's surgeon, is an intellectual who becomes intensely appreciative of the deeply conservative, almost liturgical, rhythms of life aboard ship. The parallels between ship and society are clear:

"The seaman's moral law may seem strange to landsmen, even whimsical at times; but as we all know, pure reason is not enough, and illogical as their system may be, it does enable them to conduct these enormously complex machines from point to point, in spite of the elements. ..."

An O'Brian glossary of naval terms has been published, as has a "gastronomic companion" of recipes of dishes described in the novels, and an atlas and geographical guide to the novels. There also is a CD of the music Mr. Aubrey and Dr. Maturin -- both are amateur musicians; they met at a concert -- play from time to time.

Some of Mr. O'Brian's verisimilitude is a chilling reminder of the harshness of life two centuries ago: Dr. Maturin uses badgers or even "whole orphans for dissection when they were in good supply toward the end of winter." Sharks swarm where slave ships sail, feasting on jettisoned bodies. A sailor says Easter Islanders "are not an ill-natured crew" although "they ate one another more than was quite right. It makes you uneasy to be passed a man's hand." When Mr. Aubrey asks what a particular Turkish potentate had been hunting in the marshes, he is told: "Jews."

Mr. O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin volumes actually constitute a single 6,443-page novel, one that should have been on those lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Some list-compilers probably decided that Mr. O'Brian was only a historical novelist. But as Cezanne said, "Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!" Besides, Mr. O'Brian's themes are oceanic.

A few weeks ago, Mr. O'Brian said he was making headway on volume 21. But the 30-year voyage is over. "Blue at the Mizzen" refers to the blue flag that an admiral flew from his ship's mizzenmast. In volume 20, Jack Aubrey gets his blue. Mr. O'Brian sailed on, tacking into the winds of age until his old companion reached his goal.

Mr. O'Brian died the other day in his 86th year, leaving a solid legacy of craftsmanship, and proof of Chesterton's axiom that great men take up great space even when gone.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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