Monday, August 25, 2008

Dreaming of Stephen Maturin

Many years ago--13, to be exact--I read an essay by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times called "Hooked on Boy Books." It was about her newfound obsession with Patrick O'Brian's long series of novels set mostly on British navy ships during the Napoleonic Wars--despite the fact that she had no interest whatsoever in British naval history.

At the time, I paid attention. The man who had broken my heart just a few months earlier had been a huge Patrick O'Brian fan, and even though he is long gone from the city and state where I last saw him, I can still see the novels--all with drawings of ships on the covers--lined up neatly on the top of the bookcase in his living room. Like Tamar Lewin, I had no interest in British naval history, but after reading her essay, and while still in mourning for my lost love, I read the first one, Master and Commander. I can't say that I was an instant fan. I liked it well enough, but I couldn't really see reading the whole series, which, at that point, totaled 17 books (and now totals 20 complete novels plus the beginning of the 21st). It seemed like too much of a commitment, more of a task than a pleasure.

A year or so later, though, I took a teaching job at a local college, and suddenly I had a 35-40 minute commute each way, 3 times a week. It only took one day of driving to realize I needed a diversion, and so I turned to books on tape, combing various local libraries for my supply. One day, I saw the second Patrick O'Brian novel--Post-Captain--and decided to try again. It was fortuitous because Post-Captain is O'Brian's "homage to Jane Austen," set mostly on land and the book in which the two main characters--bluff naval captain Jack Aubrey and physician/spy/ardent natural philosopher Stephen Maturin--meet the women they will eventually marry. It only took one drive, one way, for me to be hooked. I discovered that listening to the books made much more sense for me than reading them. There was enough plot to hold me, and if he went on a bit too long about mizzen topsails or main foretop-gallant sails or whatever, I could space out and tune back in when the plot picked up again.

Over the next 3 years, I listened to the first 10 in the series, all on tape and read by Richard Brown. But then life interfered. I went to India and came back and went to India again, and though every once in awhile, I thought of picking up book 11, I never did.

A few years ago, though, having graduated from books on tape to books on CD to books downloaded onto my iPod, which meant that I could listen to them more easily and not just in the car, I decided I wanted to finish the series. But when I went in search of Richard Brown's reading of book 11, I learned that there were multiple narrators of the books, and only one narrator, Patrick Tull, had narrated the entire series. At that point, it had been long enough that many of the details (not to mention major plot points) in the earlier books were fuzzy, so rather than starting halfway through with a new narrator, I decided to let Patrick Tull read me the entire series, from start to finish.

Since then, I've traveled with Jack and Stephen to Malta and Gibraltar, to Java and Peru and Botany Bay. I've been shipwrecked with them, both in the far south and on a tropical island, and taken prisoner, by the Americans and the French. I've worried through Jack's near ruin, through a false accusation of rigging the stock market, and Stephen's near ruin, through his addiction to the alcoholic tincture of laudanum. And it's true that I know more about life on a British naval ship and about the Napoleonic wars than I did before, but that's secondary for me. What keeps me going is the deep, contradictory friendship between the two main characters, who I know so well now and who know each other so well. I nod along as they tell familiar stories, tease each other (Stephen's frequent references to Jack's weight, Jack's continued amazement at Stephen's ability to fall in the water despite years of living on ships), console each other, play duets on their beloved violin and cello night after night in the cabin of the ship they're sailing, most often the "dear old Surprise," first introduced in book three.

In the last few weeks, I've even found myself dreaming of Stephen Maturin, twice now. (The second time, he was in a dream with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and I really wish I could remember what happened.) Alex likes to say that I have a crush on him, which isn't exactly true, though I suppose if your girlfriend is going to be dreaming about other men, it's probably not a bad thing that the other man is a fictional character who lived several centuries ago. I will admit that I do sometimes find myself wanting to talk like Stephen, as read by Patrick Tull, with a slight Irish lilt. "Never in life," he likes to say, and "I would like that of all things."

As I've found myself proselytizing about the Aubrey/Maturin books these past few months, I've tried to explain what it is that draws me to these books, when the actual subject matter isn't what I'm really interested in. (In the same way that I enjoyed the "peace" parts of War and Peace much better than the war parts, I could easily live without the various fleet actions in O'Brian's books, except, that, of course, they're kind of the point.)

Mostly I think it's that, as adult readers, we don't get to follow the same characters very often. When I was a kid, many of my favorite books were series books, and there were series' that I read over and over again--The Little House on the Prairie books, the Betsy-Tacy books, Madeleine L'Engle's various series'. I loved the familiarity of the characters and the ability to watch their lives go on over time, to be able to return to them over and over again.

I miss that quality as a grown-up reader, and I'm always delighted when I find it. I'm a mystery reader, which helps, because that's where you find series most often, but I treasure it when I find the occasional literary writer who chooses to stick to the same characters. It's one of the reasons I love Barbara Trapido's books, that sense of a broad fictional universe I can see from multiple perspectives and over multiple books.

As I write this, I'm just finishing book 17, The Commodore, and book 18, The Yellow Admiral, is waiting on my iPod. I'm in a slight state of denial that the end is so close in sight. Patrick O'Brian died in 2000, several chapters into the 21st book, so there's no real ending, just an unfinished novel and legions of readers left without closure.

Since I haven't read any of the books since the first one, I don't own any of the books to dip into, and I can't quite see myself with the matched set with all the ships on the cover and diagrams of the sails on the inside flap. But I can see that, in a few years, when the details start to get a little fuzzy in my head, I might want to have Patrick Tull take me through the series again. And even though I'll know that Jack is reinstated to the Navy list after his near ruin, that Stephen will eventually marry the tempestuous Diana Villiers, that the dear old Surprise will be sold out of the service but bought by Stephen, it won't really matter. It will be a pleasure to return to that long ago concert in Port Mahon, in Minorca, where Stephen and Jack first sit next to each other (and insult each other to the extent that they nearly have a duel), when all their voyages and adventures are before them, and when they don't yet know what their future holds.


The Tall, Handsome, Pillared Octagon said...

Serious fans do not "tune out" when reading about a ship's evolutions; they look up antique manuals of seamanship and try to follow them.

Serious fans know there is no more a "main foretop-gallant sail" than there is a "third base catcher."

There are no fleet actions in any of the books. A fleet action involves two fleets -- dozens of ships. There are, at most, some actions by ships in a small detached squadron.

You really do need to go back again, reading this time. Audio books have the same problem as TV -- you don't get the chance to stop, think, and re-read. Reading lets you digest.

rob's uncle said...

I agree that the books work much better as audio; I greatly enjoy the social comedy and don't give a biscuit's toss about the technicalities.

POB had virtually no seafaring experience so one should in any case not rely on him on such important matters as how long it might take to sail from one end of the Med to the other.

This comment arises because I have posted a link to your interesting essay at the POB Forum: They are a motley crew!

rob's uncle aka Chrístõ

Bob Bridges said...

Let us not be pendantic, for all love. The woman loves the series we love, and if her enjoyment takes a different form, then allow her that, I say. Did you know the difference between a stunsail and a scrivener after your first reading? Some of us see new details with every pass through the Canon.

Ms Dickman, if you like reading series with characters that grow from one volume to the next, here are some other possibilities, in what I judge to be descending order of quality:

> A space-navy series by Elizabeth Moon, starting with Hunting Party. If you like her work, she wrote another series that takes place in Middle Earth; the whole series is called The Deeds of Paksenarrion.

> If you find you liked that, you might try another space-navy series about Honor Harrington by David Weber - lots of good characters and plots not entirely unlike O'Brian's, though the writing isn't in the same class. Character development isn't as complete as Moon's, but the political and military situations actually manage to be interesting, even to me who fancies he isn't interested in politics.

> About even with the Honor Harrington series in quality is the Horatio Hornblower series, of which you've no doubt heard. Character development is nothing compared to any of the above, but there are many other things to recommend it. David Weber has Honor Harrington reading Patrick O'Brian, but he named her in honor of C S Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower.

Sue Dickman said...

You guys are probably not the natural readers for my blog, but thanks for showing up. As for being a "serious fan" of O'Brian, I don't necessarily need to be a serious fan, if it means that I have to consult antique manuals of seamanship. (More power to you if you get pleasure out of that, but I definitely wouldn't.) I may be a serious fan or serious reader of other things, but with Patrick O'Brian, I'm an appreciator of his great powers as a storyteller. I think the beauty of O'Brian is that you don't have to be a "serious fan" to enjoy his work or appreciate his extraordinary knowledge and ability to translate that into compelling fiction. His books are generous enough that they can support all kinds of fans.

And apologies for the main foretop-gallant sail error--that is one thing about listening rather than reading--I was writing what it sounded like he was saying, which, clearly, he wasn't.


Ponto said...

Patrick Tull was the great reader of O'Brian - and Dickens, too. I was able to make a short video of him, reading the pillory scene from "Reverse of the Medal":

He was also a friend - mad, bad, and dangerous to know - a force of nature...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for verbalizing what I've been thinking for so many years. I have had the pleasure of beginning with Tull and ending with him for the entirety of the series. During many a long night at the office or commute, those books have easily been responsible for much of my knowledge of the world and its ways. I too find myself thinking in Tulls Irish brogue with Stephen's testy response to the question "Are you awake?" from my wife. This series carries the reader from pole to pole, from land to sea, and with characters as varied as one could wish. No single character feels one dimensional, and every conversation worth listening to. Even if you happen to be privy to what's going to happen next. O'Brian and Tull are as close to perfection as we'll see in this life and I am so happy I got to be a part of it. I still get goosebumps when I hear, "Chapter One".

Clay Fritz said...

I agree about Tull. I listen to what is available at the library and switching from Tull to Brown is really off-putting. 20 and 1/2 books were not enough for what O had to say. I have read and listened to the series, both. Listening to the book is another dimension of understanding the author's original intent, but the reading has to be done to fully immerse yourself in that world.

Anonymous said...


I too like the audiobooks for all the same reasons, though I cannot get on with Tull. Simon Vance is my favourite, followed by Ric Jerrom.

May I respectfully suggest a "SPOILERS FOLLOW" warning at the start? I am only on book 4, and I think people would generally prefer to be kept in suspense! I had to break off reading during the last paragraphs!

Great article otherwise though.