Never one for naval yarns I didn’t at first spot Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, which are set in the wars at sea against Napoleon and then the United States. But once I’d tried one I bought them by the handful. It was like that for most of his readers.
O’Brian was not successful at first; critics took him for a kind of retread C. S. Forester, and in fact his books did look a bit dated, published next to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for instance, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. A surprising few – Iris Murdoch, Charlton Heston, William Waldegrave and David Mamet, for example – were passionate about them from the start, but ten years passed before most of us realized something new and extraordinary had appeared. Now hardly anyone brackets him with Forester; rather, some compare him to Jane Austen for subtle and comic prose, or Tolstoy for the way he makes past speak to present. His sales have passed 4 million, in twenty languages or more, there’s been a film, and a whole sub-section of scholarship has bloomed, including a dictionary, a gazetteer, a cookery book, a critical bibliography, a recreation of Aubrey’s favourite frigate and a biographical skirmish or two.
At the beginning of the first novel, Master and Commander (1969), an overweight naval lieutenant, Jack Aubrey, is at a private concert next to ‘an ill-looking son-of-a-bitch’ who turns out to be Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan doctor, prickly and brilliant. Jack takes badly Stephen’s demand that he stop beating time and for all love stop going pom-pom-pom! But before the inevitable duel he gets glorious news that he’s been appointed to his first command; suddenly he’s happy to apologize, lays on lunch, discovers that Stephen is for the moment on his uppers, and persuades him to join his new ship as surgeon. ‘Certainly,’ says Stephen, ‘for a student of human nature, what could be better? The subjects of h
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