Sunday, October 21, 2007


Beginning in August - a mere eleven weeks ago - I set out on a Literary Mission: to read all twenty novels comprising the Aubreyad, AKA the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by the late Patrick O’Brian.

Aside from having seen the movie Master and Commander, I had first heard mention of the books from none other than Mr. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash himself, Velociman, who had written several posts having to do with various aspects of the series. And then, as it happened, I found that fellow Morning Minyan attendee and Legion of Stevies member Houston Steve was a fan of O’Brian’s works as well, in fact owning copies of all twenty complete novels.

One thing led to another, and I began reading the books, with Houston Steve delivering new ones to me as I devoured the older ones.

This evening, I finished the final complete novel in the series (Blue At The Mizzen), at the end of which Jack Aubrey finally gets word that he has achieved his lifetime ambition, that of being promoted to Admiral and being able to hoist his own flag as commander of a squadron. It’s a bittersweet farewell to a character whom I’ve gotten to know and enjoy over the course of twenty books.

There is a fragmentary novel, The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey, published in the United States under the more compact name 21 and consisting of approximately three rough-draft chapters written by O’Brian shortly before he died in 2000. I’ll read it if I can get my hands on it, but it will be like eating an appetizer and waiting for an entrée that will never arrive.

Besides, isn’t twenty books enough?

Maybe not. Because, perhaps more than any other novels I have read, the O’Brian books truly transport me to another time and place. It’s no doubt the result of an unusual writing style, a style crammed with period language and detail, a style that forms the underpinning of novels that read as though they would, as pieces of writing, be perfectly at home in the period which they portray so magnificently.

Sure, the vocabulary, being so much of the early 19th century as well as being replete with obscure and archaic nautical terminology, is daunting...but after a while one becomes comfortable with all that talk of cross-catharpins, orlops, tompions, and bow-chasers. And it is then that one can imagine himself up in the crosstrees, smelling the salt air in a fine topgallantsail breeze and feeling the pitch and roll of the ship.

I’m under no illusions. The early 19th century was not an especially fun time to be alive. For that matter, any time before the discovery of anesthesia was not a fun time to be alive. But the stories of individual people’s lives set against the backdrop of historical events make for a powerful narrative, and it’s one to which I hope to return.

In the meantime, it’s time to put aside the Sea Legs and get used, once again, to life on dry land. Alas.

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