Patrick O’Brian: The Surgeon’s Mate

Continuing my travels with Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I have now reached the seventh chapter in this ongoing novel. The Surgeon’s Mate seemed a bit rambling even by O’Brian’s standards (although I suppose one might see the opening – Jack returning to the sea and the command of a ship – and the ending episodes – Jack fleeing a French prison – as variations on the theme of escape, thus placing a kind of parenthesis around the novel, a structure O’Brian seems fond of) and that is probably the reason why I liked it slightly (very, very slightly) less than the two preceding volumes.

There is no lack of things happening in this volume, however – the book begins where the last one left off, in Halifax, then moves to London, from there to Scandinavia and finally to Paris. There are no naval battles (but another exciting chase) and no discovery of exotic flora or fauna (but more spy work by Stephen); indeed the various intelligence machinations during the Napoleonic Wars are very much in the foreground here, turning this at time almost into an 18th century version of a John le Carré novel. O’Brian never quite reaches (or indeed aims for) the dizzy heights of moral ambiguity where Le Carré places his novels, but something he shares with that author is the way he can even the most mundane everyday activities endlessly fascinating (placing both in sharp contrast to Neal Stephenson who can make them endlessly boring). After seven volumes, this is turning out more and more to be the second mark of greatness for the Aubrey-Maturin series, together with the characterisation and friendship of its protagonists: the incredibly vivid sense of detail Patrick O’Brian brings to bear on the world he describes.

The freshness of his colours, the fullness of his sounds, the immediacy of his smells, the intensity of his tastes and sensations would already be remarkable in a novelist who transmuted a world into language that was spreading out right in front of him, but to achieve this sensory and sensual richness of description for history, for a world gone and disappeared is nothing short of – and I do not use this word lightly – genius. Even with something I consider a slightly (very, very slightly) weaker installment of this monumental novel of naval history, of friendship and adventure, of warfare and discovery, I am becoming steadily more impressed with the series as a whole the  more of it I read. I can feel a shiver of excitement run down my spine at the thought that there are thirteen more volumes of this waiting for me on the shelf, and a tiny stab of sadness in my heart that there are only thirteen more volumes left. Who knows, by the end of it I might even agree with the Times as quoted on the cover of my edition that Patrick O’Brian was “the greatest historical novelist of all time.” (Okay, not very likely, as I’m inherently suspicious of any statements that feature “of all time”, all the more so if “greatest” is also a part of it. But I can at least feel some degree of sympathy for such a claim, pointless hyperbole that it is.)

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