Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian: Treason’s Harbour

O’Brian’s writing is often compared to Jane Austen, but I strongly suspect that this is just a widespread reflex to which pretty much anything set in the Regency period is somehow “like Jane Austen.” There is at least some justice to it in this case, in so far as the implied narrator of the Aubrey-Maturin novels is clearly a contemporary and shares not only the conceptions and prejudices of his characters but also their language – as manifest not just in the extensive (and to the reader often exasperating) use of nautical terms but in O’Brians’s general choice of words, the way he constructs long periods, indeed even the very rhythm of his prose is somehow evocative of the late 18th / early 19th century. However, while on one hand the narrator appears completely immersed in the period in which the novels take place, at the same time he is clearly not and writes with a distinct detachment, watching the to-and-fro on both land and sea from a distance, with wry amusement and ever-present irony.


Patrick O’Brian: The Ionian Mission

The Ionian Mission is the eighth chapter in the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin – although “adventures” might be just a tad misleading for this particular volume. As O’Brian continues his series he also continues to play with and explore the roman fleuve form, quite obviously enjoying the freedom from structural constraints the serial format grants him.


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.


Patrick O’Brian: The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War by Patrick O'BrianThe Fortune of War picks up only a few days after where Desolation Island had ended, affirming my impession that by now we’re dealing with an ongoing single novel rather than a series of stringed-together separate novels.Which would make this the sixth chapter in O’Brian’s massive novel The Naval Adventures of Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin (a terminology I am going to stick with from now on. Probably.)

What is interesting about this volume in particular is how just when O’Brian seems to have settled down in a comfortable routine and has the novel chuffing along nicely he starts to mess with stuff and play around with his own formula (some slight spoiler in what is following are unfortunately unavoidable). The Fortune of War has a basic structure similar to HMS Surprise, i.e. we get a quiet stretch in the middle sandwiched between two action pieces of naval battle at the beginning and at the end of this chapter, all of it told with O’Brian’s customary verve and brio that keeps even those passages where nothing much is happening lively and interesting.

Against this foil of the familiar, then, the ways The Fortune of War deviates from business as usual contrast all the sharper – the most surprising to me at least being that Jack does not command a ship during the whole of this chapter, and that it are other Captains who fight the sea battles while he is just an onlooker or a minor participant. In fact he is unusually passive during all the events depicted here and we’re getting the unusual situation where Steve exercises considerably more agency than Jack does. This, after five chapters where things have been the other way round, gives a slightly off-kilter feeling to The Fortune of War, of things being just faintly out of balance and not in proper focus. It also expands the canvas of O’Brian’s novel even  more, by showing as a different perspective on a naval battle than the command deck or the surgeon’s cabin. In short, The Naval Adventures of Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin continue to delight, and even manage to spring the occasional surprise on the reader. I’m still wondering whether O’Brian will manage to keep this up over the remaining fourteen chapters, but I’m very eager to find out.

Patrick O’Brian: Desolation Island

Leander Desolation Island (the fifth in the series) seems in many ways like the archetypical Aubrey-Maturin novel, and maybe that is why apparently the bulk of the movie Master and Commander (which I have never watched, so I’m going by hearsay here) was based on it. It has everything admirers of the series (and honestly – who, once they have navigated past the rocky cliffs of the first volume, would not admire this series?) love about it, and all of it even more perfectly balanced out against each other than it was in HMS Surprise.


Patrick O’Brian: The Mauritius Command

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'BrianMoving onward to volume four of the Aubrey-Maturin series. According to O’Brian’s preface, The Mauritius Command is based on an actual campaign, and this shows in various ways. Most notably in how focused it is (at least for a novel by O’Brian) – it follows the course of the campaign closely, barely straying from its tightly defined path – no amorous entanglements, no naturalist expeditions, none (or at least, very few) of the leisurely ambling that characterized Post Captain and HMS Surprise and which, for me at least, tend to be the main source of delight in this series.

As can be infered from this, I liked Mauritius Command rather less than the two novels before, and it most reminds me of Master & Commander with its emphasis placed firmly on naval matters and warfare at sea. And O’Brian is as good with those as always, giving us detailed descriptions of sea-battles that make the strategy involved transparent even to a not particularly nautically inclined reader while at the same time giving a very vivid impression of the messiness, the confusing motion, deafening sounds, overpowering smells of naval fighting. It is all very exciting, but just not what I enjoy most about the series, which are the characters of Aubrey and Maturin, and their constant wonder at each other and at the world around them. That element is not completely absent from The Mauritius Command but it is in relatively short supply.

O’Brian to some degree makes up for that with the new characters he introduces, most notably another captain / ship’s doctor pairing we encounter here in Lord Clonfert and William McAdam, that is very different from the relationship between Jack and Stephen and yet mirrors in very interesting ways. This doubled pairing, Aubrey and Maturin set in relation to what could be considered their dark twins, a deeply conflicted captain and his alcoholic ship’s doctor are what made this novel for me. But your mileage may of course vary, and it’s not like I had been bored during the more strictly nautical parts of the novel – everything considered, The Mauritius Command is another highly enjoyable installment in the series. It’s also where I had to break off my first reading for unrelated reasons, so from the next volume I shall be sailing uncharted waters.

Patrick O’Brian: HMS Surprise

The title is already an indication of it: after Patrick O’Brian went all Jane Austen on his readers in Post Captain, this third volume of his Aubrey-Maturin series returns to mostly naval matters. But even as it shifts focus back to the sea, it retains the human and social dimension that the previous novel introduced to the series, giving the two main characters James Aubrey and Stephen Maturin even more depth, and slowly turning them into what might very well be some of the most deeply realized characters in fiction this side of Ulysses (and, as a brief, totally-besides-the-point aside, nobody, but really nobody, not even Shakespeare does characters like James Joyce).


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.


Patrick O’Brian: Master & Commander

Patrick O’Brian is arguably the third great British writer of historical novels in the 20th century, beside Mary Renault and Dorothy Dunnett. His chef-d’oeuvre is the Aubrey-Maturin series which runs to a massive twenty volumes plus one last, unfinished one; and I’m planning on reading the whole of it (although likely skipping the final one as that apparently was still a very rough draft when O’Brian died) in the next couple months. Well, more likely during the next two years, assuming I’ll manage one volume per month (as I’ll likely want to read other stuff, too). I had already started once and read the first four novels, but then was hospitalized for a while and somehow lost track of it; hopefully there won’t be any interruptions this time.