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Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2000 /6 Shevat, 5760

George Will

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O'Brian Rules the Waves -- 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 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."

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, creating a credible world--ashore as well as afloat--into which we can step without stumbling over anachronisms.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels (splendidly read by Patrick Tull for Recorded Books of Prince Frederick, Md.) rank with the sequential novels of Anthony Trollope and Anthony Powell. And O'Brian is a literary cousin of Jane Austen (two of whose brothers were naval officers during the Napoleonic Wars). 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 O'Brian's are, suffused with the conservative sensibility, because manners are accretions of practices rather than creations of reason. O'Brian writes of something being "worse than inhuman--contrary to custom." When Maturin, the intellectual, inveighs against "subordination," Jack 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, 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 (futtock shrouds, fid-plates) has been published, as has a "gastronomic companion" of recipes of dishes (roly-poly, spotted dog) described in the novels, and an atlas and geographical guide to the novels. There also is a CD of the music Aubrey and Maturin--both are amateur musicians; they met at a concert--play from time to time.

Some of O'Brian's verisimilitude is a chilling reminder of the harshness of life two centuries ago: 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 Jack asks what a particular Turkish potentate had been hunting in the marshes, he is told: "Jews."

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 O'Brian was only--only!--a historical novelist. But as Cezanne said, "Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!" Besides, O'Brian's themes--courage, honor, gentlemanliness--are oceanic.

A few weeks ago 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. O'Brian sailed on, tacking into the winds of age until his old companion Jack reached his goal.

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.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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