Sea stories' enchantment is the individual's potency

The Argument

Patrick O'Brian's immense popularity arises from the thrill of vicarious power.

March 05, 2000|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

In 1967, after death had permanently decommissioned C. S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower novels and proprietor of a maritime industry in his own right, a publisher approached an obscure British author named Patrick O'Brian with the suggestion that the public might appreciate another novel about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars.

When O'Brian died in January, his novels about Jack Aubrey, a British naval officer, and Stephen Maturin, his ship's surgeon and intimate friend, amateur naturalist and spy, extended to 20 volumes with sales of 3 million copies, subsidiary publications and fans numbered by cohorts and legions.

Of the writers who struggle for a publisher's attention, some are lucky to earn in royalties more than their advances. A handful become popular, and some very few become phenomena. The passing of Patrick O'Brian offers an occasion to examine what happens when a writer kindles the public imagination. The books alone are not enough; inevitably, the author comes under the microscope.

To explain the powerful pull of O'Brian's work, one need look no further than the earnest desire that individual effort should make a difference in a world that seldom permits it.

If the Royal Navy fascinated readers, they would make a best seller of N. A. M. Rodger's "The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy" (W. W. Norton, 445 pages, $14.95), an excellent nonfiction book reissued by O'Brian's American publisher. But interest in history alone is not enough; it is a secondary product.

The reader also craves adventure, with a strong narrative line. Our ancestors huddled around the fire telling stories through the night, and our appetite for stories has not diminished. One of the oldest, Homer's "Odyssey," sends a man on a long sea voyage with exotic locales and characters, danger, reversals of fortune and surprises.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels focus on Aubrey's naval career and ambitions of hoisting an admiral's flag. They carry the reader to the coast of France, the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire, South America, the South Seas and Cape Horn. British seamen, Algerian pirates and Polynesian cannibals provide an agreeable variety of acquaintance. Aubrey's weaknesses and the fortunes of war ensure episodes of loss and embarrassment that build up suspense before eventual triumph.

In short, the series is escapist fiction, permitting the reader, the seeker of distraction from humdrum life, to take off to far shores. But that alone does not explain the O'Brian phenomenon.

O'Brian's novels offer the additional dimension of the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin, two opposite personalities confined to narrow quarters and shared adventures as they develop a profound understanding and mutual respect. They play duets in the great cabin, accommodate each other's faults and idiosyncracies and support each other in common enterprises. The novels come to be written increasingly from Maturin's viewpoint, richer and subtler than Aubrey's.

Even that would not count for much -- dozens of novels examine intimacy -- if O'Brian had not tapped into the emotional need of the reading public for what one reviewer called the "fantasy of competence."

Readers live in a world run by governmental or corporate bureaucracies. Everyone endures cant about "teamwork" while feeling powerless, except to obstruct. Anyone who has ever made an insurance claim or filled out a tax form or lingered in a labyrinth of voice mail can understand the appeal of taking control. In the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the man, or woman, who has never commanded anything larger than a desk can pace the quarterdeck with Jack Aubrey and order the starboard guns to fire as they come to bear.

This is one respect in which the historical setting takes on importance, because the first half of the 19th century marked the last time that the individual counted for much in warfare. John Keegan's book on leadership in battle, "The Mask of Command" (Penguin, 368 pages, $13.95), points out that at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington could ride from one side of the battlefield to the other, able to survey the entire action personally.

In this country, the Civil War marked the turning point between war as a set of episodes of individual valor and war as an industrial process. That is why people dress up in period costume and assemble to act out battles, because in that war there was still a place for gallantry. Men do not outfit themselves in period garments to re-enact wretched deaths in the mud of the Somme.

To read the Aubrey-Maturin series is to enter a world in which individual effort makes a difference, prevailing against great odds, and the satisfaction of vicarious participation in that world holds a powerful attraction at the end of the 20th century.

Once a writer touches the public's sensibilities, the secondary manifestations appear.

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