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Master and Commander ()

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    'Come, sir, cannot I prevail upon you to go to sea? A man-of-war is the very thing for a
    philosopher, above all in the Mediterranean: there are the birds, the fishes--I could promise you
    some monstrous strange fishes--the natural phenomena, the meteors, the chance of prize-money.
    For even Aristotle would have been moved by prize-money.... '

    'A ship must be a most instructive theatre for an inquiring mind....'

    'Prodigiously instructive, I do assure you, Doctor.'

           -Jack Aubrey convincing Stephen Maturin to ship out with him (Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander)

Like most, I first learned of Patrick O'Brian's excellent series of naval adventures in the pages of the New York Times Book Review.  There, on January 6, 1991, Richard Snow wrote that the Aubrey and Maturin books were : "...the best historical novels ever written."  This statement is not as jarring now as it was then.  We've grown accustomed to seeing rows of O'Brian's books on store shelves and millions have joined what was once an exclusive cult, but at the time Snow was writing the novels were still a well-kept secret, despite the fact that O'Brian had then been writing them for over twenty years.  At any rate, like any good little trend-sucking dilettante, I rushed out to find the first book in the series, Master and Commander, read it as quickly as possible, and was well and truly stumped.

I liked the characters, found the detailed portrayal of life aboard ship to be extremely interesting, and enjoyed much of the humor of the book.  But there was something really curious and elusive about the storytelling.  In the first place, the heroes are mere observers of the climactic sea battle, having been captured earlier, which seemed especially curious for an adventure story.  Even more disconcerting was the sense that I lacked much of the background information that the author expected the reader to bring to the novel.  It seemed as if O'Brian expected you to already be familiar with much of the early 19th century naval terminology, with the intricacies of the Napoleonic Wars, and with the culture, customs and language of the day.  It was like listening to a comedian and only understanding one out of every two or three jokes--you titter nervously and you can follow along thanks to context, but it's a tad humiliating.  I did like it enough to read the next though, Post Captain, and as I did, the joke finally dawned on me.

Patrick O'Brian writes these novels so that they could be read, understood, and enjoyed by the characters who populate them.  The reason that they so effectively transport us to another time and place is because they seem to have been written there and then.  His mission here is not to explain that epoch to us, but to present it for our consideration, nearly unadorned by modern sensibilities.  He writes as if he were actually a contemporary of his heroes and the books have the quality, not of historical novels at all, but instead of classic tales newly rediscovered.  Thanks to this unusual style, O'Brian is more often compared to Jane Austen than to C. S. Forester.

I don't mean to mislead anyone; the books aren't for all tastes and, even if you love them, O'Brian's  manner can be frustrating--you sometimes wish you had an interpreter.  But once you figure out what he's doing, if you accept the technique, you're in for a real treat.  The writing is outstanding.  The setting is endlessly interesting.  Aubrey, the bluff and hearty sea captain, and Maturin, the vulpine doctor and spy, make for a classic pairing of steadfast opposites, in the tradition of Holmes and Watson.  It is not easy reading but it is rewarding and once you read a couple, you'll be hooked.  And be warned, before he died earlier this year, O'Brian had completed twenty novels in the series, so you'll be hooked for a good long time.


Grade: (A+)


Patrick O'Brian Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Patrick O'Brian
-OBIT: Patrick O'Brian: Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters (January 8, 2000, The Guardian )
    -ESSAY: Full Nelson: Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, 4/18/99, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Cast away Three years after his death, his acclaimed seafaring novels are still bestsellers and have just been made into a blockbuster movie. But recent revelations about how Patrick O'Brian abandoned his family have cast a shadow over his work. (Richard Russ, November 28, 2003, The Guardian)
-IN MEMORIAM: PATRICK O'BRIAN: Senior Correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth is in San Francisco, remembering a man who wrote about the sea. (Online Newshour, January 10, 2000)
    -OBIT: Patrick O'Brian: Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters (Guardian, January 8, 2000)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Patrick O'Brian: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -PODCAST: Good Story 275: Master and Commander (2003)
    -PODCAST: ACF Middlebrow #38 Master And Commander: Titus & Peter Robinson & John Yoo talk about Master & Commander, the Peter Weir seafaring adventure movie, about the Aubrey-Maturin novels on which it was based, about the charm of military adventures & the series we've been reading. (Titus Techera, ACF Podcast)
    -ESSAY: An Author I'd Walk the Plank For (Richard Snow, January 6, 1991, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius (David Mamet, 1/17/00, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: A Master and the World He Commands: Pondering Patrick O'Brian and his nautical novels, before Russell Crowe takes over. (MAX HASTINGS, November 7, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
    -OBIT: Patrick O'Brian, Whose 20 Sea Stories Won Him International Fame, Dies at 85 (FRANK J. PRIAL, 1/07/00, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Gone Aloft (Derek Brown, 1/07/00, The Guardian)
    -Featured Author: Patrick O'Brian: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -ESSAY: Full Nelson: Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, NY Times)
-INTERVIEW: Conversations/Patrick O'Brian; In the Glare of the Short-Toed Eagle, Or What You Read Is All You'll Get (FRANCIS X. CLINES, November 14, 1993, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The Seas of Adventure Still Beckon a Storyteller; At 83, Patrick O'Brian Journeys Into History (FRANK J. PRIAL, October 19, 1998, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Patrick O'Brian: The author of the wildly popular 18th century seagoing saga created, out of his own life, a fiction nearly as elaborate. (IAN WILLIAMS, 1/13/00, Salon)
    -APPRECIATION: The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius (DAVID MAMET, 1/17/00, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The real master and commander: The swashbuckling novels of Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester owe much of their inspiration to one man: Lord Cochrane, a seafaring scot whose life was marked by adventure, adulation and scandal. David Cordingly reports (David Cordingly, 02 Sep 2007, The Telegraph)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Master and Deceiver: Patrick O'Brian, the celebrated author behind the new film "Master and Commander", has been branded a callous, deceitful and arrogant bully. His stepson, Nikolai Tolstoy, says the truth is much more complex (Nikolai Tolstoy, 11/30/03, Times of London)
    -ESSAY: Nautical novelist 'couldn't even sail' (James Landale, 8/16/04, BBC News)
    -ESSAY: Cruising with Patrick O'Brian - The Man and the Myth (Tom Perkins, Latitude 38)
-FAN SITE: The Gun Room: which it's the Patrick O'Brian list of the world!
    -APPRECIATION: An Author I'd Walk the Plank For (Richard Snow, January 06, 1991, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The Interview: Geoff Hunt (Bob Frost, 1993)
    -ESSAY: Science at sea: What the novels of Patrick O'Brian can teach us (Stephen Curry 6 April 2008, LabLit)
    -REVIEW: of Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (Jan Morris, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Joseph O'Connor, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: the Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (John Lanchester, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Rachel Cooke, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Max Hastings, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Aubrey/Maturin books: Master and Commander & The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian ( Danny Yee,
-REVIEW: of the Collected Short Stories of Patrick O'Brian (Dinah Birch, TLS)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Aubrey Maturin series (Ex Libris Reviews)
    -ARCHIVES: Patrick O'Brian (NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Patrick O'Brian (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : BEST NAVAL BATTLE :  Full Nelson  Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Book of the Century : The Perfect Storm (1997) by Sebastian Junger  (Patrick O'Brian, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Prize of All the Oceans: the Triumph and Tragedy of Anson's Voyage Round the World by Glyn Williams (Patrick O'Brian, booksonline)
    -CHAT : Patrick O'Brian with Richard Snow ( Live: Chat Transcripts  Thursday, September 29, 1998)
    -ARCHIVE : "Patrick O'Brian" (
    -Ex Libris Archives : Patrick O'Brian
    -Guardian Unlimited Archive : "Patrick O'Brian"
    -Booksonline Archive : "Patrick O'Brian"
    -The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter (WW Norton Books)
    -A Gunroom Guide to Patrick O'Brian Web Resources (compiled by Gibbons Burke)
    -O'Pinions & O'Bservations O' O'Bscure O'Briania : This web site is dedicated to reviews, questions, comments, and observations on the short stories and some of the other obscure works of Patrick O'Brian.
    -The Patrick O'Brian Character Index
    -OBIT : Patrick O'Brian : Creator of a compelling series of sea novels who made his own life a secret (Daily Telegraph UK)
    -OBIT : Patrick O'Brian : Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters (The Guardian,  Saturday January 8, 2000)
    -OBIT : Patrick O'Brian, CBE, novelist, biographer and translator, died in Dublin on January 2 aged 85. He was born on December 12, 1914  (Times of London)
    -OBIT : Sea-novel author O'Brian dies (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times)
    -OBIT : Patrick O'Brian : The author of the wildly popular 18th century seagoing saga created, out of his own life, a fiction nearly as elaborate. (Ian Williams, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Writing Well of the Dead (Francis X. Rocca, American Spectator)
    -TRIBUTE : IN MEMORIAM: PATRICK O'BRIAN (January 10, 2000, Online Newshour, PBS)
    -TRIBUTE : O'Brian: the most Irish Englishman : The master of the naval novel died earlier this month. Kevin Myers reflects on his remarkable and often stormy friendship with this reclusive and irascible author (Daily Telegraph UK)
    -TRIBUTE : An Irishman's Diary  (Kevin Myers, Irish Times)
    -APPRECIATION : (Ken Ringle, Washington Post)
    -TRIBUTE : (Lewis Lapham, Harper's)
    -PROFILE : Master of fiction and creator of personal myths (Dean King, Daily Telegraph UK)
    -PROFILE : Phoney Irish - and a landlubber  (Dean King, Daily Telegraph UK)
    -PROFILE :  The women who inspired the novels  (Dean King, Daily Telegraph UK)
    -INTERVIEW : An Interview with Dean King, Author of Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed (Heart of Oak Sea Classics)
    -ESSAY : Behind O'Brian's Mask (J. Bottum, The Crisis)
    -ESSAY : An Author I'd Walk the Plank For  (January 6, 1991, Richard Snow, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Manners, War and the Sea (George Will)
    -ESSAY : WRITERS ON WRITING : The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius (DAVID MAMET, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Searching for POB  (Jim Klein, March, 2000)
    -FAQ : Frequently Asked Questions about Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000)  and the Aubrey/Maturin series
    -TIMELINE : A Timeline of the Books vs Real Events (Don Seltzer)
    -ART : Patrick O'Brian - Aubrey/Maturin Novels : Patrick O'Brian is the author of the highly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin novels, regarded by many as the greatest series of historical novels ever written. The paintings on the book covers are by Geoff Hunt, click on any of the covers to get a larger picture (WW Norton)
    -ART : HMS Surprise in Mourning (Geoff Hunt, 14 January 2000)
    -ART : A map of HMS Sophie's voyage in Master and Commander (Warren Campbell)
    -MUSIC : Music in the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian (Gibbons Burke)
    -REVIEW :  of Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian (MARTIN LEVIN, NY Times, December 14, 1969)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW :  O'Brian, Patrick The Commodore (Jack Coulehan, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian (Mary Ann Mariner, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (Peter Nichols, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Yellow Admiral (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of  The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian The odd couple all at sea  Caroline Moore enjoys the 18th novel in this 'magnificent' historical saga (Daily Telegraph UK)
    -REVIEW : of The Yellow Admiral ( Eric Pilsk, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Patrick O'Brian : A Life revealed by Dean King ( Ian Williams, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of A Life Revealed : Oh, a lie on the ocean wave : Patrick O'Brian was a great writer. He just wasn't Patrick O'Brian as Dean King reveals in his biography (Jan Morris, Observer)
    -REVIEW : of A Life Revealed :Twenty-Gun Salute (Bob Thompson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : Fame found him out : On the secrets that were safe only in obscurity (John Lanchester, booksonline)
    -BUY BOOKS: Patrick O'Brian (Sea Tales)

If you are already a fan and are intrigued by the musical selections that Aubrey and Maturin play, try this CD of music from the books : Evenings with the Captain

Other recommended books by Patrick O'Brian :
    -The Golden Ocean
    -The Unknown Shore

        (Aubrey & Maturin Series)
    -Master and Commander
    -Post Captain
    -H.M.S. Surprise
    -The Mauritus Command
    -Desolation Island
    -The Fortune of War
    -The Surgeon's Mate
    -The Ionian Mission
    -Treason's Harbour
    -The Far Side of the World
    -The Reverse of the Medal
    -The Letter of Marque
    -The Thirteen-Gun Salute
    -The Nutmeg of Consolation
    -The Truelove
    -The Wine-Dark Sea
    -The Commodore
    -The Yellow Admiral
    -The Hundred Days
    -Blue at the Mizzen


Nice review - you've hit the nail on the head re O'Brian's style of writing for a contemporary of Aubrey and Maturin.

I grew up in Portsmouth, and every school trip was to HMS Victory and every school project was on ships of the line and Nelson. So I already had an idea what a mizzen mast and a fore topgallant were when I came to the series, but nonetheless I frequently found myself quite lost as the jargon flows mercilessly.

Hornblower is possibly more exciting, but Aubrey and Maturin are more rewarding.

- Brit

- Sep-23-2005, 11:00