25 March 2007

The Commodore

"Thick weather in the chops of the Channel and a dirty night, with the strong north-east wind bringing rain from the low sky and racing cloud: Ushant somewhere away on the starboard bow, the Scillies to larboard, but never a light, never a star to be seen; and no observation for the last four days." (This is the opening paragraph in Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore, #17 in the Aubrey-Maturin series.)

There are days, usually cold, gray, rainy days, when I'm battened down with The Captain and The Doctor, somewhere off Brest, Gibraltar, the Macassar Strait, or the wide blue expanse of the Indian Ocean, and I'm convinced--certain, in fact--that Mr. O'Brian is the finest writer in English, nay, the greatest master of the Mother Tongue to have ever put pen in hand. Just look: how many guys can put a colon and a semicolon in the same sentence without blushing, not only that, the sentence is perfect, grammatically speaking, and that same sentence is a complete paragraph and capsule summary of a week's action; not to mention a precise, beautiful and vivid description of place. Imagine twenty novels. Imagine them to be the same story, the same characters, the same setting. Now imagine being enthralled from cover to cover twenty times over, and you will have some sense of P. O'B.'s appeal. Despite my earlier hyperbole, I do know for certain that the aforementioned Doctor, Stephen Maturin y Domanova, is my all-time favorite fictional character. In fact, I know him and love him like a brother. This series, this gigantic 20-chapter sea story and adventure novel, is a meditation on friendship, love and loyalty, and a study of the peculiarities of relationships and the social conventions that bind and break them. O'Brian's grasp of history and language, his astonishing erudition, his encylopedic technical knowledge of ships and sail, his feelings for nature, his keen eye, and his sense of cosmic wonder leave me speechless with awe. There are writers who can do things better than O'Brian, but I'm hard-pressed to find those who can do all the things he can do as well as he can do them. The World Cup of Cricket is happening in the West Indies right now, and that quintessentially English game gives us a term, "all-rounder," describing an athlete who leads his team both batting and bowling. That's Patrick O'Brian.

2 comments:

Gil said...

Which I am, ain't I? Reading the series through for the second time in 5 years, on book 17, The Commodore, and already dreading that there are only 3 full books, and a partial left. There's not a moment to lose...

M.C. O'Connor said...

18, 19 and 20 are on my MMIX list. Also my second time through.

God and Mary and Patrick be with you, my brother.