Friday, October 10, 2008

45. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Master & Commander pictureThese well-known Napoleonic-era naval adventure books have been tempting me for years. I kept going back and forth with the slight hesitation that they were dumbed down and written for a mass audience. You have to be so suspicious of books that are really popular as they usually suck. On my trip to Saskatchewan Manitoba we shared a flight with another couple from the wedding and the guy really talked me into checking them out. He spoke particularly of the relationship between the captain and the surgeon (I've seen the movie, so I knew the basic premise) and the beautiful descriptions of the ship at sea. So despite having already purchased an armload of books, I snagged this one (easy to find and cheaply priced). It's the first of the 20-book series (though the movie has the same name, it's actually based on a later book). So if you want to get into this series, this is where you start.

Well holy shit, I was sucked in right from the beginning. This book has the kind of rich, British language that I love to read and immediately the relationship between the doctor and the captain is so compelling. You know, I started writing about their initial encounter, but then I realized it would be a major spoiler of what was for me one of the many pleasurable moments in this book. So even though it's only the first 30 pages or so, I'll leave it up to those of you who find this kind of thing appealling to read it for yourselves.

Here is an example of the language. The captain is having some tension with his First Mate, the latter being an Irish Catholic who was, unbeknownst to the captain, involved in the uprising against the crown.

'...And,' said he [Captain Jack Aubrey], hitching himself a little closer to Stephen's ear, 'I blundered into one of those unhappy gaffes... I picked up the list and read off Flaherty, Lynch, Sullivan, Michael Kelly, Joseph Kelly, Sheridan and Aloysius Burke -those chaps that took the bounty at Liverpool - and I said "More of these damned Irish Papists; at this rate half the starboard watch will be made up of them, and we shall not be able to get by for beads" - meaning it pleasantly, you know. But then I noticed a damned frigid kind of a chill and I said to myself, "Why, Jack, you damned fool, Dillon is from Ireland, and he takes it as a national reflexlion." Whereas I had not meant anything so illiberal as a national reflexion, of course; only that I hated Papists. So I tried to put it right by a few well-turned flings against the Pope,; but perhaps they were not as clever as I thought for they did not seem to answer.'

That joke about the beads just really cracked me up. The book is filled with this kind of dialogue, showing a range of idiom from the most educated (the doctor), to the badly educated (the captain) to the uneducated (the seamen).

My only problem is that in the descriptions of work on the ship and in the sea battles, I can barely understand any of the vocabulary. No real effort is made to explain it to the reader, except that sometimes brief explanations are made to the doctor, who has no experience at sea. I appreciate this and wouldn't want to lose the flow, but I would love to have some kind of electronic book version where you could click on words and see a picture of a ship and what the hell the part they were talking about was. Same with maneuvers. (Update, I think I need to find this book.)

The other thing that sort of throws me is that it seems to have an almost flippant attitude towards the violence. I understand that this probably reflects the brutally stoic zeitgeist of the British Empire, but it almost seems unrealistic. The deaths and violent wounds of the sailors are treated offhandedly, merely as references to the doctor's work for the most part. It makes it seem like naval battles on the high seas in this period were as fun as a rougher-than-average game of rugger. There is a very similar attitude towards discipline, with men happily accepting their flogging for being drunk. I'm sure this is how the ruling class wanted it, but I'm not so sure it was all so rosy for most of the people. On the other hand, that could be my own modern PC interpretation trying to be imposed on what is a not inaccurate capturing of a period. The rest of the reading is so deliciously enjoyable, and it is an adventure story after all, that I think I can move beyond these minor concerns. I mean, I wish it was that way!

So quite seriously, after reading The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I thought I had reached the peak of reading pleasure this year, but I have to say that Master & Commander has edged it out and it if wasn't for me not understanding the maritime vocabulary (oh dear god is this more empirical, geeky information I am going to have to absorb!?), this may have been the book of the year. Definitely lives up to its reputation. I'm tempted to just go get the second one right now, but the books on deck shelf are falling off the edges, so I need to cut into that first. Highly, highly recommended.


meezly said...

you went to a province called Manitoba, which is just east of Saskatchewant, dear.

meezly said...

maybe if you created a game based on M&C, it'd be a great way to acquaint yourself with the terminology ;-)

nice review!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Whoops! These prairie provinces tend to blend together. :)

Buzby said...

You are such a prairieist.

I have heard a lot of good things about this series but have yet to get going on one of the books. Navel adventure plus rich English do the trick for me. It's coming up next.

WeSailFurther said...

yeah, i want to get into them, too.

Read the very readable "White Jacket" by Melville to get a taste of life aboard a US Navy frigate. He is a foretop man, and earns his moniker by painting his jacket white in an effort, I think, at waterproofing it. It doesn't quite work out.

Anyway, the book has the reputation of having gotten the US Navy command-folk to pay attention to flogging aboard ships and thereafter stop it.

I'll get on this.

(Dear beemused, 1/4 of all thing Things I Know I know because of gaming.)

WeSailFurther said...

Added to my Christmas wishlist. At my current rate, look for a review somewhere in 2011.

WeSailFurther said...

or this book: