Patrick O’Brian: Post Captain

Post Captain, the second volume in O’Brians Aubrey-Maturin series, presents a marked improvement over the first volume: While there still is a lot of naval battles and detailed descriptions of maritime life and customs, he is giving a lot more space and (in consequence) depth to his characters, giving them a life away from shipboard (it actually takes a hundred pages for our protagonists to first reach the sea in this novel), giving them a history and outlook and even – big gasp here, for this is at its heart still a very male book – romantic relationships. There are still passages where the massed naval jargon forms an impenetrable thicket, but fortunately they are confined to the occasional paragraphs and do not extend over whole pages, seriously hindering the reader’s progress through the novel.

All of this makes Post Captain a thoroughly enjoyable read, and while I do not think that O’Brian has quite found his groove yet, there is a general broadening of scope here, the narrative extending to events on land as on sea, the narrator’s gaze not quite so focused on ships and how they are run but giving room for more general human concerns. The narrative voice still appears a bit tense and cramped compared to the relaxed, almost serene attitude O’Brian will work towards in the next two volumes (which is as far as I got on my first reading of the series), but there already is a certain… camaraderie forming between narrator and reader, which I think might be the hallmark of his writing style.

While O’Brian’s love for the sea and all things naval seeps through every page of this novel, he never unduly romanticises it, he does not gloss over the fact that life on board of a ship of the Royal Navy was extremely harsh and, for all their undeniable excitement, his battle scenes can be quite brutal and never flinch away from the gruesome details. Although one might ask oneself whether O’Brian’s congenial narration is not somewhat counter-productive here – I don’t think there is any doubt that does want to paint the whole picture, but including the sad and ugly parts, but just maybe the narrator is much too comfortable to give much conviction when his tales touch upon human suffering and the occasional tragedy. At this stage, I am still undecided about this myself and will likely come back to that point when discussing later volumes.

In Post Captain it also becomes even more pronounced than in Master & Commander that what makes and drives this series is the unlikely friendship between its two main protagonists. They are very different characters – different from each other, but also full of contradictions in themselves, which is part of what makes them so fascinating – and yet, in some mysterious way they seem to complement each other; and while right now I’m not sure whether I have enough of an interest in the Royal Navy to keep my interest up over twenty volumes of novels, I can actually imagine spending that much time exploring the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

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