Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Greatness of Patrick O'Brian

I first heard of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series from a yachtsman. He was a client of mine; I was helping him write his memoir; he kept glancing at the series of twenty historical novels in his private library (first editions, probably signed, of course) as though they were the holy of holies.

This made an impression but I am no yachtsman.

In fact, I am known in my family as Bert Dow, Deep-Water Man because of an unfortunate incident in the lagoon at Disneyworld, during which I abandoned ship while my two young children were still aboard. But I’ll leave that lying with my deeper, more shameful secrets.

A friend of mine with whom I used to take took long Saturday hikes along the North Shore was next to tell me about O’Brian’s series of twenty historical novels, which stretch to more than 6,500 pages in the Norton edition. Dick said that he was rationing the books so that he would not finish them much before he died.

Dick was sixty then. I don’t whether he has finished them yet or not, but he is not dead that I know of. Unless he died last night.

Still, I didn’t bite.

It was only after I became Catholic in 2008, and began to blog, and subsequently started hearing from other Catholic bloggers about O’Brian as a Great Catholic Novelist that I took the bait. I wasn’t more than 10 pages into the 6,500 before I was hooked.

Patrick O’Brian is a great novelist, Catholic or otherwise, and you don’t have to care a fig about the Catholic Church or sailing or naval history or the Napoleonic Wars, which happens to be the era in which the books are set. All you have to care about is humanity.

On the very first page of volume 1, Master and Commander, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin are attending a chamber concert, side by side by chance. (They do not know one another.) Stephen is a connoisseur of chamber music, Jack thinks he is. The bluff captain beats out the rhythm audibly while the mild-mannered doctor fumes. Their opposition of characters is set; their friendship is only a few pages away, when Jack needs a ship’s doctor and Stephen enlists for the voyage. Soon they are playing duets in Jack’s cabin, Stephen on the cello, Jack on a scratchy violin.

I have just finished volume 9, Treason’s Harbor, in the Audible edition narrated by the incomparable Patrick Tull. As I wrote at Goodreads, “Tull can spend five seconds rolling out an adjective like splendid, and with the opening phrase of the book, A gentle breeze, Tull makes you think you've entered a liturgy. Which, for me, you basically have.”

Two quick examples of greatness from Treason’s Harbor, which doesn’t even roll out the thirty-two-pounders until the very, very last scene of the last chapter (10).

Chapter 2 finds Maturin, a devout Catholic of mixed Irish-Catalan heritage, in Malta, “sitting on a bench in the abbey church of St. Simon’s, listening to the monks singing vespers.” Stephen is doing a sort of penance for lusting after an Italian woman. Listening to vespers he thinks of as “a means of reducing his concupiscence.” Eventually his lust is silenced by the song:

“For some time now Stephen had been in what might almost have been called a state of grace, stomach, break-back bench, carnal desire all forgotten, he being wafted along on the rise and fall of the ancient, intimately familiar plainchant.”

Next comes a (historically accurate) description of the depredations brought upon the abbey by the French military, which had occupied Malta before the English during the long tug-of-war between King and Emperor:

“Not only had they taken away all its treasure and sold off its cloister but they had wantonly broken the armorial stained-glass windows (which had been replaced with cane matting) and had stripped the walls of the exceptionally fine marble, lapis lazuli and malachite that covered them. Yet this was not without its advantages. The acoustics were much improved . . . ”

As the music ends and Stephen leaves, he comes across another listener, Andrew Wray, who will prove to play a key role in the plot. Again, a historical commentary:

“Wray’s presence surprised [Stephen]: the penal laws were not what they had been, but even so the acting Second Secretary of the Admiralty could not possibly be a Catholic . . . ”

Wray is not a Catholic, but he is a connoisseur of music. Though he is a suspicious character, O’Brian makes it clear we are not meant to be suspicious of him here in the abbey: he is a Protestant moved by traditional Catholic music. The two men agree on music:

“They talked about modes, agreeing that in general they preferred the Ambrosian to the plagal, and Wray said, ‘I was at one of their Masses the other day, when they sang the Mixolydian Agnus; and I must confess that the old gentleman’s dona nobis pacem moved me almost to tears.”

A writer without a fine appreciation of Catholic liturgical music could not have written that line.

The other example occurs in chapter 5, where we are let in Jack Aubrey’s mid-career crisis:

“For some time now he had been dissatisfied with himself and although as a result of his being sent into the Ionian [Sea] the French had been turned out of Marga he knew very well how much had depended on luck and on the excellent conduct of his Turkish and Albanian allies. He had also sunk the Torgud. But that was more in the nature of a massacre than an evenly-fought battle, and mere slaughter could not cure that deep dissatisfaction.”

The captain, the naval hero, goes on thinking in terms that any fairly self-aware man or woman in mid-life might identify with:

“It seemed to him that his reputation in the service (and with himself as one who watched Jack Aubrey’s doings from a certain distance and with an almost perfect knowledge of his motives) was based on two or three fortunate actions; sea-fights that he could look back upon with real pleasure, small though they were; but they belonged to the past; they had all happened long ago; and now there were several men who stood far higher in the esteem of those whose opinion he valued.”

Finally, Jack Aubrey thinks, “It was as though he were running a race: a race in which he had done fairly well for a while, after a slow start, but one in which he could not hold his lead and was being overtaken, perhaps from lack of bottom, perhaps from lack of judgment, perhaps from lack of that particularly nameless quality that brought some men success when it just eluded others, though they might take equal pains.

“He could not put his finger on the fault with any certainty, and there were days when he could say with real conviction that the whole thing was mere fatality, the other side of the good luck that had attended him in his twenties and early thirties, the restoration of the average.

“But there were other days when he felt that his profound uneasiness was an undeniable proof of the fault’s existence . . . ”

Can you think of a better description of the awareness of original sin, when viewed by the sinner himself as if through a glass darkly?

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