Friday, November 7, 2008

-Patrick O'Brian again...

Lorri asked me whether I posted on Patrick O’Brien because I liked the novels or if I did it because I like the website that showed the satellite view of his missions. Well, I was offended. Of course I like the novels and I guess it did not really come through in the last post, so I’ve taken the liberty of writing a second one, which goes into a little more detail as to why I’m such a fan of the books. The following are several passages that I’d marked upon reading them that struck a chord in me, for some reason. I’ll be damned if I can figure out why that is the case now. Ah well,

The following passage is a conversation between the captain, Jack Aubrey and the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, (as my girl remarked, “what a cheesy name” thinking it derived from the word mature. Ah well, so be it I say) as they talked about the firing of cannons.

“I believe the great thing is not to think of it. Those fellows, rattling their guns in and out, did not think of it. Clapping on to the tackles, sponging, swabbing, ramming – it has grown quite mechanical. I am very pleased with them, particularly three and five of the port broadside. They were the merest parcel of lubbers to begin with, I do assure you.”
“You are wonderfully earnest to make them proficient”
“Why, yes: there is not a moment to be lost.”
“Well. You do not find this sense of constant hurry oppressive – jading?”
“Lord, no. It is as much part of our life as salt pork – even more so in tide-flow waters. Anything can happen, in five minutes’ time, at sea – ha, ha, you should hear Lord Nelson! In this case of gunnery, a single broadside can bring down a mast and so win a fight; and there’s no telling, form one hour to the next, when we may have to fire it. There is no telling, at sea”

I marked this part of the story for the line “Well. You do not find this sense of constant hurry oppressive – jading”

Somehow this struck me. As I am young I cannot stop hurrying from this thing to that thing…Anything for speed and efficiency. Low and behold, I’ve found the pace has left me with no appreciation of life, or less I should say, unless of course all things go exactly as my mind has them worked out, which does happen sometimes… Nonetheless, I can appreciate the mercenary way Aubrey trains his men on the guns, and his love labor which is well organized.
In the beginning of 2008 I was working in a firing range loading bullets and setting them in the Franklin Firing Device. I worked, was fortunate enough to work I should say, with an ex-marine. Our task was to take care of a large back stock of lot testing on Kevlar inserts. The rounds had to be made out one by one, the power weighed to the gram, the target aligned with the laser, fastened hard, and all under a moderately strict protocol. The marine I was working with was very focused, and loved efficiency, accuracy and success in the testing.
The test we were taking was called a V50 in which we had to get three bullets to pierce the sample, and three to become embedded in it. All the shots had to be fired at a speed which was within 200 feet per second of each other. With a bullet moving at an average of 1750 fps, it can get difficult and frustrating, sometimes requiring a minimum of 12 shots.
Within a week or two though, we were getting it in six and seven shots. I would load the round “Weapon Armed” we had to yell. I would head to the isolated firing booth, while the other guy, the marine was aligning the target. We would arrive at the booth at about the same time, where a third guy armed and fired the weapon. I would clear the shell, the boss at the computer doing the firing would read the numbers and tell me the weight of the powder of the next round. Etc.
The back log of a year of neglected testing went away in just under a month. Work flew by and even though we were tired and a bit stressed out, we were ultimately satisfied with our work. The myriad of small tasks that had to be done would be divided between us so that I, the loader, could just barely complete the manufacture of one round in the time it took my coworker to take a reading on the target and realign it. One day we fired 144 rounds, all measured within a thousandth of a gram of powder and shot with a good deal of precision.
Aubrey of course had more to handle, with 18 pound cannon balls and guns that would recoil so fast that they would slowly tear the ship apart. But, the essence of hard work prevails. It is enjoyable to get worked and work well.
The next passage I’d marked is taken from the fourth book, Maruitus Command. Aubrey, Maturin and his crew are forced to place a diplomat in control of a small island that they propose to take from the French. Mr Farquhar is the name of the diplomat and needless to say he and Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor, are quite at home talking to each other. Both are well read and versed in Latin and philosophy, politics and religion.
This may be the main underlying part for which I’ve grown attached to the books. The characters are so deep, having ideologies that persist and are rooted in concepts prevalent in the period in which the novels are set.
Aubrey and Maturin on the other hand agree and agree to disagree. Both have a sense of humor that is funny that the other doesn’t get. Maybe it is that I have not read widely but the discourses between the two, the respective character’s inner dialogues, all go into such detail that you would only be fortunate enough to find in the all too rare late hour discussions with a good friend over some wine. They are there and exist and you feel that you are part of them, or something.

The next passage may contain a bit of this.

“Then there was Mr Farquhar. Jack esteemed him as an intelligent, capable, gentlemanlike man with remarkable powers of conversation, excellent company for the space of a dinner, although he drank no wine, or even for a week; but Mr Farquhar had been bred to the law, and perhaps because of this a little too much of his conversation took the form of questioning, so that Jack sometimes felt that he was being examined at his own table. Furthermore, Mr Farquhar often used Latin expressions that made Jack uneasy, and referred to authors Jack had never read: Stephen had always done the same (indeed, it would have been difficult to refer to any author with whom Jack was acquainted apart from those who wrote on foxhunting, naval tactics, or astronomy) but with Stephen it was entirely different. Jack loved him, and had not the least objection to granting him all the erudition in the world, while remaining inwardly convinced that in all practical matters other than physic and surgery Stephen should never be allowed out alone. Mr Farquhar, however seemed to assume that a deep knowledge of the law and of the public business embraced the whole field of useful human endeavour”

The passage paints such a clear picture of ideas that have occurred in my mind only never were expressed. I guess that gets to the center of why I adore the books. The degree of human interaction necessary for these novels to work is astounding.
There are two men that are always on the same ship for months at a time. In reality it must have been unceasingly boring, yet O’Brian has made it fruitful. In continuing dialogues between the same two men, he can really ferret out the nature of conversation, the nature of human observation of one another.
I am making a mockery of this I fear.
One such example: The characters have staunch convictions which are often humorous and irrational to the reader and yet, the convictions are completely acceptable within the scope of that particular characters place, station and upbringing.
Novel after novel, these two and their respective friends pass through changes and grow. It happens slowly enough that it can fill 21 novels, but quickly enough that the reader is never bored. (I do get bored occasionally, but, only occasionally and they pick right back up) Critical acclaim alone for these novels makes my praise unnecessary, for they are considered “The best historical novels ever written”. At least according to the NYT.
The entire canon is available from The Poisoned Pen at Or just click the LINK. The first one is Master and Commander. Fortunately for readers who have seen the movie with Russel Crowe, they will have no idea about the plot of the first novel. The two have nothing in common. Thank you Hollywood.

1 comment:

  1. Every year a bunch of us here in the Baltimore MD area get together to have a pot-luck dinner, based on the books and companion cook book, to celebrate the life of Patrick O'Brian.
    The fact that this dinner takes place on the USS Constellation museum ship and includes firing of the cannon and a few adult libations only adds to the enjoyment!