Finished Master and Commander yesterday. I recently wrote about struggling to push-through that one, but as I suspected, I’m glad I did. The deeper I got into it, the more I loved it. So what changed?
I think it was just a matter of getting comfortable with the writing and that took longer than usual for me. The same thing happened when I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. There was something very odd about the narration style, an obscure syntax that I found hard to understand at first. I can’t even really explain my problem with it, just that the narration had this strange third-person quality, which I eventually got used to after ~fifty pages or so. And once I got used to it, man, I devoured Wolf Hall and then Bring Up the Bodies, back-to-back, then tried to download the third book right away – only to learn it hadn’t been written yet.
Patrick O’Brian’s writing had a similar obscure quality that’s easier to explain. I’m not an expert in the Napoleonic Wars, but clearly the book is exhaustively researched and reads as authentically as anyone could ask for. The flip-side of that achievement means that the vocabulary, prose and dialogue were often a struggle to understand. I mentioned before that I was especially having problems with the esoteric sailing vocabulary. Well I discovered a little late that there was a very handy diagram of the parts of the ship on the first page of the book, including the mizzen sails… (which are the sails directly behind the main, if anyone cares.) Regardless, I had to get used to the pointedly old-fashioned writing to enjoy the story. And I did, it just took about 200 pages instead of fifty.
I was talking about this book with a family friend, who like my father, had read the entire series and loved them. But he said that it took him a few books into the series to realize that O’Brian is also a very funny writer. It’s a dry British humor that I noticed occasionally, but was still so confused by much of what was going on that I assumed I didn’t really understand Stephen Maturin’s little asides. Poor Jack, always the good-natured butt of Maturin’s jokes and criticisms. I empathized with one example in particular, which made me laugh aloud:
Context: A major naval battle between the English and the French is about to take place off of Gibraltar. The French have already taken Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin prisoner, but they’re on the honor system and so are allowed to walk around town and go watch the battle when it begins.
“Has she got out of the mole?” cried Stephen, at a considerable distance. “Has the battle begun?”….
“There’s no hurry – no one will touch a gun for hours,” said Jack. “But I am sorry you did not see the Caesar warping out: it was a glorious sight. Come up the hill with me, and you will have a perfect view of both squadrons. Do come. I will call in at the house and pick up a couple of telescopes; and a cloak – it grows cold at night.”
“Very well,” said Stephen, after a moment’s thought. “I can leave a note. And we will fill our pockets with ham: then we will have none of your wry looks and short answers.”
Basically: Yeah, we better bring some food too, Jack, so you don’t get hangry.
As someone who also gets hangry, I lost it right there. What a great character detail. Certainly makes me love Jack even more, and love Stephen for being both aware of his friend’s tendencies and willing to attend to them. My husband does the same thing for me: always making sure I’ve got some nuts in my purse before we go out anywhere.
Of course, I don’t have to love the characters to love a good story. Far from it. But in this case, I would say that is part of the appeal of Master and Commander. You struggle through thick writing to more or less watch Jack and Stephen become friends. That's not the whole point of the book, I think. In hindsight I can see how Master and Commander serves as an expository novel to introduce these two characters and their friendship in great detail for the stories to come. And that characterization is some of the best I've read in a while. I find it lacking in so many contemporary books. It often seems to me that no one bothers writing characters with any more detail than the color of their hair and eyes. Or if the author has a literary bent, then what serves for character is a nasty existential attitude, or a clownish naiveté.
Jack is a cheerful, intelligent, capable, and something of a manly buffoon on land. Stephen, who is plainly good-hearted, but so analytical that he is prone to dissecting and criticizing everyone around him to the point that he doesn’t appear to have a lot of friends. I guess he just needed an affable bear of man, like Jack, who can deal with his bullshit. I don’t know, I think it’s sad that I’m so impressed with the characters of these two. It’s so simple – so why is it so hard to do?
I couldn't put down the last chapters of Master and Commander. Between the the French capturing the Sophie, the naval battle off the coast of Gibraltar, and Jack's court-martial, I was finally invested. And even though I'll see my parents this Thursday, and could borrow the book from my father then, I couldn't actually bear to wait that long. I had to be a book-brat and download O'Brian's Post Captain directly onto my trusty old kindle. (We can talk about being a book-brat another day.)
I don't know how far I'll read this series. I've always resisted getting too far into any of them, mostly because they displace other books I've been wanting to read. Poor Anthony Doerr, I'm always pushing him back another book. I thought when All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer that I would finally push it to the top of my list. But here we are again.
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