It’s been almost half a year since my last report on my nightly reading, so I thought I’d update you all with a particularly fine quote from our current volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, The Commodore (the seventeenth of twenty!—we’re trying to avoid thinking about the abyss that awaits us in a few months, when we’ve finished the lot). The context is the case of a little girl named Brigid, who at first seemed speechless and virtually inhuman but thanks to the care and attention of the almost monoglot Irishman Padeen (i.e., Páidín), the loutish but lovable servant of the Irish/Catalan doctor Stephen Maturin, has blossomed and become reasonably talkative (though mainly in Irish) and outgoing. Maturin is talking:

‘In any case I should like to have Brigid under the care of Dr Llers, who has had more success with children of her kind than any man in Europe. Not, the dear God be thanked beyond measure, that she seems to need the care of any medical man at all. The change is of the nature one usually associated with miracles alone.’
‘It is utterly beyond my comprehension,’ said Clarissa. ‘Nothing I have ever known has given me such happiness – day after day, like a flower opening. She prattled for quite a while with Padeen and the animals, and now she does so with me and the maids: a little shy of English at first. To begin with she spoke it only to the cats and the sow.’
Stephen laughed with pleasure, an odd grating sound; and after a while he said, ‘She will learn Spanish too, Castellano. I am sorry it will not be Catalan, a much finer, older, purer, more mellifluous language, with far greater writers – think of En Ramón Llull – but as Captain Aubrey often says, “You cannot both have a stitch in time and eat it.”‘

Llull is real; I don’t know about Llers.


  1. I wonder if Studiolum has written about Llull – he’s a Majorcan writer. Is this the first speech bubble?

  2. you want the acute on the last i (í) in pa/idi/n

  3. apollo sic, rss fail, nevermind the above

  4. There’s an old joke, I suppose you would call it, about the scholar collecting traditional lore from Irish farmers, and he discovers that they talk to their animals in English, although the rest of the time they only speak Irish. He asks why and they tell him “They’re just animals. English is good enough for them.”

  5. The “stitch in time” thing is very nice, because we can’t imagine Aubrey saying anything of the kind — his idiomatic confusions are much simpler, of the “bear with a sore thumb” type. This is Stephen in such a state of happiness that he actually constructs a feeble joke — and then fathers it on Jack.

  6. Yes, O’Brian is wonderful that way.

  7. Yes, this is a wonderful quote. I’ve been saving the Patrick O’Brien books, for a very rainy day.

  8. Several rainy weeks, I think.

  9. Oddly enough, Llull’s Blanquerna is the oldest surviving work in any language to mention Tabelbala, one of the oases I’m studying. He’s a rather interesting character – among other things, he was arguably the first European novelist, and studied Arabic literature extensively.

  10. Huh, I didn’t know that. Interesting indeed.

  11. And here was my introduction to Ramon Lull, from Harry Harrison’s novel Deathworld 2 (aka The Ethical Engineer):

    “Limb of Satan!” Mikah shouted, leaping to his feet and pacing back and forth before Jason, clasping and unclasping his hands with agitation. “You seek to confuse me with your semantics and so-called ethics that are simply opportunism and greed. There is a Higher Law that cannot be argued —”
    “That is an impossible statement — and I can prove it.” Jason pointed at the books on the wall. “I can prove it with your own books, some of that light reading on the shelf there. Not the Aquinas — too thick. But the little volume with Lull on the spine. Is that Ramon Lull’s The Booke of the Ordre of Chyualry?”
    Mikah’s eyes widened. “You know the book? You’re acquainted with Lull’s writing?”
    “Of course,” Jason said, with an offhandedness he did not feel, since this was the only book in the collection he could remember reading, the odd title had stuck in his head. “Now let me see it and I shall prove to you what I mean.” There was no way to tell from the unchanged naturalness of his words that this was the moment he had been working carefully towards. He sipped the tea. None of his tenseness showing.
    Mikah Samon got the book and handed it to him.
    Jason flipped through the pages while he talked. “Yes … yes, this is perfect. An almost ideal example of your kind of thinking. Do you like to read Lull?”
    “Inspirational!” Mikah answered, his eyes shining. “There is beauty in every line and Truths that we have forgotten in the rush of modern life. A reconciliation and proof of the interrelationship between the Mystical and the Concrete. By manipulation of symbols he explains everything by absolute logic.”
    “He proves nothing about nothing,” Jason said emphatically. “He plays word games. He takes a word, gives it an abstract and unreal value, then proves this value by relating it to other words with the same sort of nebulous antecedents. His facts aren’t facts—just meaningless sounds. This is the key point, where your universe and mine differ. You live in this world of meaningless facts that have no existence. My world contains facts that can be weighed, tested, proven related to other facts in a logical manner. My facts are unshakeable and unarguable. They exist.”
    “Show me one of your unshakeable facts,” Mikah said, his voice calmer now than Jason’s.
    “Over there,” Jason said. “The large green book over the console. It contains facts that even you will agree are true — I’ll eat every page if you don’t. Hand it to me.” He sounded angry, making overly bold statements and Mikah fell right into the trap. He handed the volume to Jason, using both hands since it was very thick, metal bound and heavy.
    “Now listen closely and try and understand, even if it is difficult for you,” Jason said, opening the book. Mikah smiled wryly at this assumption of his ignorance. “This is a stellar ephemeris, just as packed with facts as an egg is with meat. In some ways it is a history of mankind. Now look at the jump screen there on the control console and you will see what I mean. Do you see the horizontal green line? Well, that’s our course.”
    “Since this is my ship and I’m flying it I’m aware of that,” Mikah said. “Get on with your proof.”
    “Bear with me,” Jason told him. “I’ll try and keep it simple. Now the red dot on the green line is our ship’s position. The number above the screen our next navigational point, the spot where a star’s gravitational field it strong enough to be detected in jump space. The number is the star’s code listing. DB89-046-229. I’ll look it up in the book”—he quickly flipped the pages—”and find its listing. No name. A row of code symbols though that tell a lot about it. This little symbol means that there is a planet or planets suitable for man to live on. Doesn’t say if any people are there though.”
    “Where does this all lead to?” Mikah interrupted.
    “Patience—you’ll see in a moment. Now look, at the screen. The green dot approaching on the course line is the PMP. Point of Maximum Proximity. When the red dot and green dot coincide….”
    “Give me that book,” Mikah ordered, stepping forward. Aware suddenly that something was wrong. He was just an instant too late.
    “Here’s your proof,” Jason said, and hurled the heavy book through the jump screen into the delicate circuits behind. Before it hit he had thrown the second book. There was a tinkling crash, a flare of light and the crackle of shorted circuits.
    The floor gave a tremendous heave as the relays snapped open, dropping the ship through into normal space.
    Mikah grunted in pain, clubbed to the floor by the suddenness of the transition. Locked into the chair, Jason fought the heaving of his stomach and the blackness before his eyes. As Mikah dragged himself to his feet, Jason took careful aim and sent the tray and dishes hurtling into the smoking ruin of the jump computer.
    “There’s your fact,” he said in cheerful triumph. “Your incontrovertible, gold-plated, uranium-cored fact.
    “We’re not going to Cassylia any more!”

  12. It might be reassuring to know that, in my experience, by the time you have read the 20+ volumes of Aubrey-Maturin, you can start again with even greater pleasure. I am on my fourth circumnavigation – particularly enjoying the punctuation (and even the occasional lapse?) and the whiches. Question: did the US publishers edit out restrictive which and substitute that’s throughout, or was it POB’s own style?

  13. Which I meant “thats”, in course, so.

Speak Your Mind