Monday, January 23, 2012

Consider an Ionian Mission

If you’ve thought about jumping aboard Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which follows a British ship’s captain and doctor through the Napoleonic Wars, it would be logical to start with the first volume, Master and Commander (1970), which gave its name to a Russell Crowe–starring film adaptation in 2003.

But if I were going to recommend one of the twenty books in the amazing thirty-year series that best shows off the mastery of O’Brian, I’d say you might consider volume 8, The Ionian Mission. That’s because almost nothing happens in it.

Perhaps the best way to think of O’Brian, if you’ve never read him is, a Jane Austen for guys. But that also makes him a military-historical novelist for gals. Nothing proves either point better than The Ionian Mission, which begins with a sentence worthy of Pride and Prejudice: 

Marriage was once represented as a field of battle rather than a bed of roses, and perhaps there are some who may still support this view; but just as Dr. Maturin had made a far more unsuitable match than most, so he set about dealing with the situation in a far more compendious, peaceable and efficacious way than the great majority of husbands. 

The Irish-Catalan doctor and secret agent Stephen Maturin has finally persuaded the vain, brainy, beautiful heart-breaker Diana Villiers to marry him, and the book begins with a description of their separate but oddly compatible living arrangements. Then, halfway through chapter one, the metaphor is extended to the longer-term marriage of “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, captain in His Majesty’s naval war against Bonaparte:

As far as real battlefields and beds of roses were concerned, Captain Aubrey was far better acquainted with the first, partly because of his profession, which, with enormous intervals of delay, often cold and always wet, brought him into violent conflict with the King’s enemies, to say nothing of the Admiralty, the Navy Board, and bloody-minded superiors and subordinates, and partly because he was a wretched gardener. 

With that high, tongue-in-cheek style, punctuated by a sharp punchline, consider yourself introduced to the greatest Catholic historical novelist writing in English. (Sorry, I reserve greatest overall for Sigrid Undset.)

In The Ionian Mission, if you choose to embark on it, you’ll sail with “Lucky Jack” and his brilliant, moody friend as they take part in the long, impossibly boring (for Jack) blockade of the French port of Toulon. But it won’t be boring for you, because you’ll have ample opportunity to learn about every possible aspect of English sea-going life at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and smile while doing so.

By the time the sea action finally comes—against a bloodthirsty pirate named Mustapha in the final 15 pages of this 350-page book—you will be so enthralled that you’ll scarcely notice the excitement.

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