In the latest adventure in bedtime reading, I’ve just started Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series; if my wife likes it enough, it should keep us occupied for some time, since there are twenty novels in the series. A minor problem is that she found it too absorbing to fall asleep, but after I stopped she drifted off readily enough, and the prose is such a delight to read I hope and trust she’ll want to continue. Here’s a sample passage from the opening scene, in which Lieutenant Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, temporarily without a ship, is enjoying a string quartet a little too enthusiastically (he has already been chidden by his neighbor for beating the measure with his hand):

The minuet set Jack’s head wagging with its insistent beat, but he was wholly unconscious of it; and when he felt his hand stirring on his breeches and threatening to take to the air he thrust it under the crook of his knee. It was a witty, agreeable minuet, no more; but it was succeeded by a curiously difficult, almost harsh last movement, a piece that seemed to be on the edge of saying something of the very greatest importance. The volume of sound died away to the single whispering of a fiddle, and the steady hum of low conversation that had never stopped at the back of the room threatened to drown it: a soldier exploded in a stifled guffaw and Jack looked angrily around. Then the rest of the quartet joined the fiddle and all of them worked back to the point from which the statement might arise: it was essential to get straight back into the current, so as the ‘cello came in with its predictable and necessary contribution of pom, pom-pom-pom, poom, Jack’s chin sank upon his breast and in unison with the ‘cello he went pom, pom-pom-pom, poom. An elbow drove into his ribs and the sound shshsh hissed in his ear. He found that his hand was high in the air, beating time; he lowered it, clenched his mouth shut and looked down at his feet until the music was over. He heard the noble conclusion and recognized that it was far beyond the straightforward winding-up that he had foreseen, but he could take no pleasure in it.

Somehow my throat doesn’t tire quickly when I read that kind of writing.

By the way, my wife and her sister had their hair cut this morning, and while waiting to join them for lunch I had time to kill at Amherst Books; fortunately or unfortunately, I wandered into an area I had not heretofore investigated and found an entire section of Russian/Soviet Studies books I hadn’t seen before. The hour flew by before I could go through more than half the section, but I wound up lugging half a dozen books to the restaurant: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture, by Mikhail Epshtein, Alexander Genis, and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover; Majakovskij and His Neologisms, by Assya Humesky (aka Ася Сергеевна Гумецкая); The Silver Age of Russian Culture, edited by Carl and Ellendea Proffer; Russia and the Middle East: Towards a New Foreign Policy, by Talal Nizameddin (publisher’s price $105.00, originally marked by the bookstore at $75, finally marked down to $2.98!); and two books by Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories (a nice old Progress Publishers hardback) and Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov (with very helpful introductions and notes—Leskov is not an easy read). Oh, and lunch was excellent; I recommend Thai Corner next time you’re in Amherst.


  1. John McIntyre says

    Bon voyage.

  2. I would not have imagined liking any sort of seafaring historical novels, but when I began reading the Aubrey-Maturin series about a month ago, I found myself surrendering to O’Brian’s terrific storytelling, wry humor, and well-crafted prose. The nautical terms, historical references, and period language– even when they are unfamiliar– only add to the sense of absorbing realism. I look forward to the remaining seventeen books that await me.
    Incidentally, for a lexicon of nautical, medical, and scientific terms, along with background information on the Napoleonic era and the role of the British Navy, there is Dean King’s _A Sea of Words_. (Just in case you couldn’t figure out what a “loblolly boy” was from context).

  3. I envy you, Hat, as you start Book One. I fell into the series a number of years ago, raced through the existing books, and waited as patiently as I could for him to write the rest. Since it ended I have reread chunks of it from it time to time.
    I did get just a little tired of some pet phrases and plot devices of his — it’s hard to keep up the same act indefinitely — but what a treasure for those who take to it.
    I will be vicariously sharing your enjoyment of, for example, the opening chapter of Book Eleven.

  4. Amherst! Gyah, I had no idea that’s where you were. As it happens, my trip to Amherst happened last April, when they had the concertina workshop. Now I’m back where I belong, two timezones away.
    I’m trying to remember where it was that we had dinner that was so great, but it’s escaping me. I do have fond memories of my lunch at Hillside Pizza in South Deerfield. If you stop in, give my greetings to the lady in the Himalayan shop next door.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I bought the first book in the series for my brother for Christmas when it first came out in Norwegian, and since then I’ve had Christmas gifts for him every year. But last year, after number eight or so, they seem to have stopped the series.
    (I could keep going in English, but I want to support the art of translation.)

  6. Amherst! Gyah, I had no idea that’s where you were. As it happens, my trip to Amherst happened last April, when they had the concertina workshop.
    Well, that’s too bad. As it happens, I’m getting together with John Cowan tomorrow; he’s visiting the area for family reasons.

  7. We had lunch at Moti. 🙂

  8. Incidentally, for a lexicon of nautical, medical, and scientific terms, along with background information on the Napoleonic era and the role of the British Navy, there is Dean King’s _A Sea of Words_.
    Oh, I’ve got it, and Harbors and High Seas as well (“An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian”). I’ve read a couple of the novels already, but quite a while ago, and I’m looking forward to reexperiencing them with my wife.
    I just discovered there’s a Wiki for O’Brian fans. Viva the internet!

  9. We had lunch at Moti.
    An excellent place, a tad pricier but worth it if you like Persian food (which I do).

  10. I discovered the Aubrey-Maturin novels in the last weeks of completing my computer science degree: I still marvel that I managed to pass all my exams at the same time as I was devouring four or five novels a week.

  11. When I was an undergrad–a freshman, even–I had a class where early in the semester we were all asked about our favorite books, or maybe authors. It was a long time ago. When my turn came I answered, truthfully at the time, I liked me some Patrick O’Brian. Nothing but blank looks and, when I tried to describe the series, faint derision. Clearly any historical fiction series about naval officers was beneath the notice of the common run of Ivy League intellectual strivers. I should totally have said Thomas Pynchon; they would have respected that (and he a Cornellian and all). Lesson learned.
    No, I’m not still quietly ashamed and bitter, why do you ask?

  12. You are so lucky to just be starting those books. Better set aside a few free months. Really, truly great.

  13. The only ‘series’ that long, I’ve read, is the Brother Cadfael novels, and I suspect those are thinner than this.
    How do they compare to the Hornblower novels?

  14. Much, much richer in texture, character, natural history, human history, and language than Hornblower — altogether much better books. Yet his debt to C.S. Forrester was enormous, and he never (that I know of) acknowledged it. It’s always rankled a bit with me that he didn’t.

  15. @Dale – “he”? I enjoyed a few of the Brother Cadfael series in my teens, but I thought they were written by a woman, Edith Pargeter, aka Ellis Peters? Have I been so wrong for so long, again?

  16. Max, I suspect he/his refers to Patrick O’Brian rather than Ellis Peters, who was indeed a woman.

  17. Thanks, rwmg, I completely misread both Sili’s question and Dale’s reply obviously.

  18. Sorry. I had two parts in there.
    I have two of the Hornblower books (somewhere) – one from either end of his career. Never come around to reading them, but bought them at some point after seeing part of the dramatisation with Ioan Gruffudd (yum!).

  19. Really quite different from the Hornblower books, I think, although it’s easy to see why they are compared. Forester’s descriptions of action are superb, and his hero is thoroughly believable – but as a 20th century man, not an 18/19th. Aubrey and Maturin are so very different, and yet you believe in their friendship: they are both wonderfully likeable, and both firmly in their time. Whether all that dialogue is genuinely late 18th century I have some doubts; but it damn-well sounds genuine, which is what counts. Anyway, the writing is a delight.

  20. It’s worth (he claimed) adding that both O’Brian and Forester drew heavily on the real-life (though sometimes scarcely believable) exploits of Cochrane to provide plot material. O’Brian acknowledged that debt, even if he didn’t give a nod in Hornblower’s direction, and it may be that what we think of as O’Brian’s debt to Forester is really Aubrey’s debt to Cochrane.

  21. I’m more thinking of the various tricks of narrative, and point of view, and the handling of minor characters, though. You’re right that O’Brian had a genuinely historical mind, and Forester didn’t. But I don’t for a second believe that O’Brian didn’t read the Hornblower books at an impressionable age! If Barret Bonden isn’t Coxswain Brown I’ll eat my hat.

  22. Your hat may remain uneaten, Dale. Bonden and Brown: I’ll go thus far with you. Point of view – no. Forester’s point of view (as also, and particularly, in The General, of course) is that of a single person. The whole strength of the books is the viewpoint of the single person. With P O’B the point of view shifts continuously between two people (and Maturin is not Bush, of course), or three when the narrative voice is included. The effect with Forester is a concentrated view in which we are invited to share. The effect with O’Brian is a faceted view which we are invited to enjoy from without. Anyway, that’s what I’m claiming today.

  23. A wonderful book, written with relish and skill. Happy travels.

  24. You’re in for a treat.
    If you listen to audiobooks, the version narrated by Patrick Tull is wonderful as well.

  25. Time for a dissenting voice: I read Master and Commander to see what the fuss was about, and enjoyed it, but didn’t feel the need to read any more of the series. My impression was of a man who was trying too hard to show how authentic his representation of the period was. But clearly very many people love the books. And I did like spotting the (real-life) woman who was Queenie in Beryl Bainbridge’s According to Queenie making a cameo appearance. Can there be two writers more dissimilar than Bainbridge and O’Brian who have had the same very minor historical figure appear in their fictions?

  26. More assent from me; a fine book, and a fine series of books, from someone who lived his life badly on a personal level. But, like Yeats or Ezra Pound, he’s not read because of his moral compass or his personality.

  27. rootlesscosmo says

    I had the same experience as Zythophile–enjoyed Master and Commander enough to finish it, but wasn’t drawn to the rest of the series.
    Aubrey and Maturin display a strong admiration for the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel. I’ve played one of the Hummel piano trios and listened to some of the others; it’s nice enough music, but I wasn’t drawn to the rest of the series. Hmm.

  28. narrowmargin says

    LH: How did you come to make that choice?

  29. Whether all that dialogue is genuinely late 18th century I have some doubts; but it damn-well sounds genuine, which is what counts.
    If you read some of his present-day fiction (such as stories in The Rendezvous), you find that those characters talk very similarly. The eccentricity isn’t 18th century, it’s “O’Brienese”. Lovely writing anyway. Go figure.

  30. How did you come to make that choice?
    I had heard good things about O’Brian, so when I saw a bunch of the books at my wife’s family’s house (her father was apparently a fan), I borrowed the first one, gobbled it down, read another, and started collecting them myself. I’d been thinking they’d make good bedtime reading for a while, so when we finished the previous book I suggested we give it a try.

  31. Nice catch, how much was Epshtein’s post-modernism? I see it’s 88 dollars on Amazon.
    Agree about Leskov, wonder what you make of Edgerton’s translations.

  32. $7.50. If I’d known it was such a great deal, I’d have bought it with even more enthusiasm!

  33. Bathrobe says

    I met a Chinese woman last night whose English monicker was “Pom-pom”. What is worse is that her English name was derived from her Chinese surname, and that her Chinese surname was the surname that I’ve adopted as part of my own Chinese name….
    Not terribly relevant unless you believe in some kind of karma, but it was uncanny to read this post after I’d met this lady.

  34. Graham Asher says

    I had the same experience as many here and everywhere, except that I started with Desolation Island, bought twenty years ago and not read, but stuffed into a rucksack before a hiking tour of Norway last year. I went through the whole series, too fast of course, between August 2010 and some time in spring this year, and my message to the faint-hearted or half-persuaded is that, in my opinion, the books get better, at least up to The Nutmeg of Consolation, and then stay at that high level. I’m now re-reading Desolation Island. The stern chase of the Leopard (captain: J Aubrey) by the Dutch 74 Waakzamheid is one of the greatest set-pieces.

  35. I think of books 13 and 14 (The Thirteen-Gun Salute and The Nutmeg of Consolation) as the peak, but I am also especially fond of books 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 11. (Do I appear to be a little obsessed?)

  36. 7.80, blime, do they sell over the internet? did they have Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Empire, for a couple of quid mebbe? I’ve been waiting for it go down, but no.

  37. No, no Martin I’m afraid, and I don’t think they do internet sales. You’ll just have to stay alert!

  38. Am I the only one who perked up at Hat’s (possibly over-corrective) use of “chidden”?
    I have strong instincts to go with “has been chided,” with a secondary preference for “has been chid.”
    I would not have reflexively produced “chidden.”
    I wonder why?

  39. I was wondering if anyone would notice that participle, but I’m not sure what you mean by “over-corrective.” It’s as valid as the alternatives; check any style guide (except the egregious Garner, who thinks whatever he personally likes is the only acceptable usage). The verb chide does not have a standard past participle, for some reason. I have always used chidden because it sounds so great; chided is OK but boring, whereas chid just sounds silly (to me, of course).

  40. “Generations have chid, have chid, have chid”.

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