Sunday, September 25, 2011

Amazed by “The Surgeon’s Mate”

There is a moment of great beauty in The Surgeon’s Mate, 7th of the historical novels by Patrick O’Brian (left) known as the Aubrey-Maturin series. Ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, a scientist–secret agent of mixed Irish and Catalan parentage, has climbed to the top of a mast aboard the British sloop Ariel, and is looking about him. The Ariel is headed home to England as part of a large flotilla in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The fog is so thick that on deck visibility is near zero. But from his lofty perch, Stephen can see over the fog. His longtime friend, Captain Jack Aubrey, has climbed to join him on the mast . . .

“‘There,’ cried Stephen when Jack appeared in the frail topgallant-shrouds, ‘are you not amazed?’ He pointed cautiously with one finger and Jack looked out to the south-west. At this height they were above the low blanket of fog that covered the sea: clear sky above, no water below; no deck even, but a smooth layer of white mist, sharply cut off from the clean air; and ahead, on the starboard bow and on the starboard beam the surface of the soft, opaque whiteness was pierced by an infinity of masts, all striking up from this unearthly ground into a sky without a cloud, a sky that might have belonged to an entirely different world. ‘Åre you not amazed?’ he said again.”

I don’t know about Jack Aubrey, but I am amazed. Patrick O’Brian himself “belonged to an entirely different world,” or at least his books, which outlive him, do so. There are 20 books in the series, plus a 21st unfinished at the time of O’Brian’s death at the age of 86 in 2000. They follow the fast friends Aubrey, a bluff, handsome, courageous man of the sea, and Maturin, a short, ugly, brilliant man of science, through a series of adventures spanning 1800 and 1815, the year Waterloo ended Napoleon’s imperial reign. The books are scrupulously consistent with European and American historical fact of the period. For example, in volume 6, The Fortune of War, Jack and Stephen find themselves passengers aboard HMS Java in its real sea battle with USS Constitution during the War of 1812a battle O’Brian fictionalized slightly to allow for the presence of fictional characters on deck. O’Brian’s erudition—about everything from naval history and maneuvers to 19th century botany and medicine—is matched only by his exquisite prose. Think a male Jane Austen. O’Brian considered her one of the greatest stylists, and his tales are set during her lifetime.

The Surgeon’s Mate, the title of which is at least a double entendre, is a prodigious act of storytelling. It sends its characters from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Baltic Sea, to the northwest coast of France, to a Paris prison, and finally home again to England. Along the way, the plot runs them through a thrilling chase, a sinking by iceberg, an espionage mission off Denmark, a shipwreck off Brest, and a planned prison break. Meanwhile, Aubrey evades an American gold-digger he bedded in Halifax even as he returns home to his beloved Sophie and children; and Maturin continues his long, tragic, terribly romantic love affair with the cruelly beautiful Diana Villiers. 

To someone, like me, who aspires to write well, reading O’Brian is so inspiring it’s maddening. He sets the bar too high.

To a Catholic like me, the books are doubly inspiring. O’Brian was a Catholic, like his “papist” hero Maturin, and here and there, like pearls scattered on a sea bed, there are references to the faith—and an awestruck wonder at the Creation—that do a modern-day papist proud.

I read the first five books in the series between 2000 and 2007. In the past two months I have listened to audio versions of books 6 and 7, narrated by the magical Patrick Tull. I hope to continue with The Ionian Mission sometime soon.

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