Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Master

By my title, "The Master," I don't mean Shakespeare. Every once in a while I write some comments about historical fiction, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and since Hilary Mantel (one of the good ones) is taking so long to give us her last book in the Thomas Cromwell series -- I look for it constantly -- the prize today is going to Patrick O'Brian.

Yes, Patrick O'Brian of the Aubrey-Maturin series, the seemingly (and seamlessly) endless, continuous novel, published through the 1980s and 90s and focusing on the years between 1800 and 1815, when the British Navy was fighting Napoleon. The first book, Master and Commander, was made into a movie starring Russell Crowe. It was a pretty good movie, but no film could prepare a reader for the stunning excellence, the beauty, humor, and literary perfection, of these twenty novels. I have read all of them and I read them in one day. Or it seemed like a day.

How is it that O'Brian can write like Jane Austen -- and I mean with such absolute familiarity with her idiom, with the social practices, customs, and particularly the modes of speech of the early nineteenth century -- when, unlike her, he didn't live back then? Is he a time traveler? The depth of his understanding of not only British maritime life during that time of burgeoning empire, but of general middle- and upper-class Regency culture, is astonishing. It's as bottomless as the sea. O'Brian knows, for example, that the Royal Society was maintained by amateur scientists --
idle clergymen, supernumeraries in their well-paid benefices, who had lots of time to look for strange bugs; gentlemen with "livings" whose wealth gave them leisure time for botanizing -- and his books are filled with such amusing people, who find or get themselves berths (or hammocks) on Captain Jack Aubrey's fighting vessels so they can indulge their passion for foreign flora and maritime fauna. And then, O'Brian knows about the flora and the fauna! He also knows about yard-arms, knots, stun-sails, bowlines, quarterdecks, and frigates, and he knows, or convinces us he knows, about the intricate systems of reward and punishment that constitute "custom" in the royal navy. He knows that well-educated Englishmen of 1810 said things like "Was you wanting the salt, Stephen?," that the F-word existed but was used by gentry only in moments of extreme provocation, and that "be damned to you for a hard ill-natured and pitiless shrew!" was a perfectly serviceable insult for your wife.

In addition to this, he knows Shakespeare, who surfaces as often in O'Brian's novels as he does in Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek. (In fact, it is impossible to read these books without suspecting that the famous friends Jack Aubrey and his amateur-zoologist/surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin are based on Kirk and some odd combination of Bones and Spock. A friend also told me that Aubrey's frequent command, "Make it so!," inspired Captain Picard's use of the same phrase on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

So, where is the Shakespeare? Well. In one novel, the seamen spend their free time practicing Hamlet, which causes Jack Aubrey to recall his own performance of the role of Ophelia on a vessel during his midshipman days. (Please now imagine Russell Crowe playing Ophelia.) Usually, however, Shakespeare appears more subtly in the narrative, through casual quotations or indirect references. "Jockey of Norfolk, be not so bold, for Dickon thy master is bought and sold," muses Stephen Maturin, quoting Richard III to criticize Jack Aubrey's sale of his services to the Chilean government in Blue at the Mizzen. The Wine-Dark Sea features a Frenchman based on The Tempest's utopian-minded Gonzalo. The Frenchman imagines planting a colony in South America with "no statutes, no lawyers -- the voice of the people the only law, the only court of justice -- everybody to worship the Supreme Being just as he sees fit -- no interference, no compulsion, complete freedom" -- with the Frenchman, of course, in charge. ("And yet he would be king on't," as Sebastian sneers in The Tempest.)

But by far the best use of Shakespeare in O'Brian's novels is in Jack Aubrey's misquotations. O'Brian lets them stand uncorrected, because they're funnier that way. Even funnier, and more supportive of his novels' brilliant evocation of the friendship between the jovial, non-intellectual Aubrey and the drily humorous, cerebral Maturin, is O'Brian's refusal to have Maturin correct Aubrey, either. Instead, in The Ionian Mission, we have:

            "Shall we make an attempt upon the D minor double sonata?," said Jack, "and knit up
     the ravelled sleeve of care with sore labour's bath?"
           "By all means," said Stephen. "A better way of dealing with a sleeve cannot be imagined."

And so, I'm not going to correct Jack's misquotations either. I'm just going to list a few of them.

"I ought to wear lean and slippery pantaloons." -- The Nutmeg of Consolation

"O come sir," cried Jack. "My midshipmen, and all my bargemen, in one fell sloop? Is this justice, sir?" -- The Fortune of War

"I wondered that he could bear it; but he did, just like one of your old Stoics, or a patient on a monument, as they say." -- The Fortune of War 

"But there are more things than heaven and earth, you know." -- The Far Side of the World

And my favorite, from Master and Commander:  "I really thought I was dished that time -- career finished, cut down, alas poor Borwick." 

Alas poor Borwick! I knew him, Horatio Hornblower.

But perhaps the cleverest use, or misuse, of Shakespeare in O'Brian is Aubrey's comment in The Reverse of the Medal:  "I shall speak to them like a sucking dove." This is a misquotation of Bottom's malapropism in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Amateur actor Bottom promises that he will speak his lines as gently as a "suckling dove," which of course makes no sense -- we have suckling pigs, but not suckling doves -- and Jack Aubrey mangles the phrase further. O'Brian was clearly enjoying this moment of mis-mis-quotation, because in this case he does have Stephen Maturin point out to Jack that first, doves don't suck, pigs do; and second, it's not "sucking" but "suckling" pig.

To conclude, I am in awe of this writer, who can seemingly absorb all of English literature, history, science, navigation, and language as understood and lived in the early 1800s, and re-present it in the form of stories with complex, compelling plots, vivid scenes located in a huge variety of countries, and, above all, moving and believable characters. And Patrick O'Brian is funny, too! All fans of  historical fiction should read these novels. And anyone interested in writing historical fiction? He should read these novels, too. O'Brian shows us how it's done.

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