I was deeply engrossed, watching two Napoleonic-era battleships splinter the hell out of each other in the sea fog at the beginning of the film, when my friend Jordan (nothisrealname, of course) walked into the lounge.
"What are you watching?" he asked.
"'Master and Commander,'" I replied, "It's a movie based on those nineteenth century naval warfare novels by Patrick O'Brian.
Jordan looked at the screen. Russell Crow, as a very stoic Jack Aubrey, commanded "Get down!" and a cannonball crashed through the ship's rigging. "Are you at the end?" Jordan asked me.
"No, the beginning," I said, "You can watch if you want."
"Whoa, it's the beginning of the story and they're already in a fight?" Jordan asked, "I guess the movie's not like the book."
"Have you read the book?" I asked.
"Oh, ... well, yeah, I tried," Jordan said, "I tried but the story just wouldn't start! It was all full of 'First they shivered their timbers and then they did this and this and...' well, nothing was happening and I just couldn't get through it."
I should pause the recollection right here to mention that Jordan was not some dim jock or dense halfwit who could not get through a novel unless it had the title "Sports Illustrated" across the top. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before joining Peace Corps and after his service was over he managed to obtain a full ride to the prestigious IU graduate business program at the Kelley school. He has recently returned to Mongolia to found a real estate brokerage... Mongolian property having suddenly become red-hot (well, orange-hot) with the recent Chinese economic boom. In short, Jordan was not the sort of person to throw aside a book just because it had big words in it. Even now, as he confessed his lack of patience with Patrick O'Brian's prose, I could see that Jordan had just grabbed (to my annoyance since I had wanted to borrow it) a paperback copy of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" from the informal Peace Corps lending library. When Jordan grabbed paperbacks they tended to never be seen again... not because he was dishonest but because even by the standards of Peace Corps Mongolia Jordan had been assigned to a very remote area. Stationed at Uliastai, a mountainous region that regularly saw temperatures of forty degrees below zero during the winter, Jordan and his fellow site PCVs tended to collect books assiduously during the cold times. Thick tomes would be read, reread and reread again and finally burnt for fuel when every last drop of interest had been squeezed from them.
Jordan's unapologetic lack of patience with Patrick O'Brian's prose in the novel "Master and Commander" took me back to the time when I first tried to read the book. After having heard from all sides that O'Brian was a literary revelation I had finally cracked open the first book of the famed "Aubrey/Maturin" series and, after a beautifully engrossing first chapter, was dismayed to find myself drowning in a sea of farcically indecipherable Napoleonic technobabble. My mother said my mind would adapt quickly to the massive amounts of verbal cordage and man-o-war shipping jargon that O'Brian regularly threw at his readers. This is a sentiment echoed by most of O'Brian's fans and is even listed on the wikipedia entry for "Aubrey/Maturin"
"In addition to the period language, O'Brian is adept at using naval jargon with little or no translation for the 'lubberly' reader. The combination of the historical-voice narration and naval terms may seem daunting at first to some readers, but most note that after a short while a 'total immersion' effect results."
This is a complete and utter delusion on the part of Patrick O'Brian fans. The reader does not "adapt" to the prose in the Aubrey-Maturin series but rather the reverse. Mr. O'Brian, by the time he has started on his second volume "Post-Captain," has cut down the jargon to a more easily-digestable amount. The frustratingly inscrutable sailing hooey no longer lasts for pages but instead is restrained to a paragraph or two as an realistic embellishment to the excellent narrative. Don't believe me? I challenge any and all Aubrey/Maturin fans whose brains have been lulled by such wonderful installments like "HMS Surprise," "Desolation Island" or "The Far Side of the World" to return to "Master and Commander." Try to chew through chapters two through five and try-TRY- to argue that the writing on display is comparable in quality to O'Brian's later works! Try! Unless you are truly masochistic you will not be able to do it.
Patrick O'Brian's prose is extraordinarily realistic when it comes to truly recreating the atmosphere of multiple societies during the early nineteenth century. He was once quoted as saying "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene." This I can well believe. I was well on my way into the second when I started encountering massively rough descriptive breakers such as:
"And then these futtock-plates at the rim here hold the dead-eyes for the topmast shrouds- the top gives a wide base so that the shrouds have a purchase: the top is a little over ten foot wide."
Patrick O'Brian has page after page of such descriptions and he writes with the lightness of a philatelist with Asperger's syndrome.... nattering on about the differences between gravure and off-set lithography while unaware that his dinner companions' interest wandered off fifteen minutes ago. The second chapter of "Master and Commander" is particularly shameless in its descriptive self-indulgence. Witness this paragraph:
"'Hitch on the runners,' said Jack. 'No, farther out. Half way to the second quarter. Surge the hawser and lower away.' The yard came down on deck and the carpenter hurried off for his tools. 'Mr. Watt,' said Jack to the bosun. 'Just rig me the brace-pendants, will you?' The bosun opened his mouth, shut it again and bent slowly to his work: anywhere outside of Bedlam brace-pendants were rigged after the horses, after the stirrups, after the yard-tackle pendants (or a thimble for a tackle-hook, if preferred): and none of them, ever, until the stop-cleat, the narrow part for them all to rest upon, had been worked on the sawn-off end and provided with a collar to prevent them from drawing in towards the middle."
BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, that wacky Jack Aubrey, asking his ship's carpenter to rig the brace-pendants without taking the other necessary precautions to make sure his horses, stirrups, yard-tackle pendants and stop-cleats are all in position! He's not even bothering to spare a thimble for his tackle-hook.... though in this context I'm pretty sure that a "thimble" refers to something else besides the finger-cap used during embroidery. Also I am eighty percent sure that there are no actual horses suspended in the rigging, neighing piteously as their hooves swing forty feet above deck while sailors clamber up the masts around the animals.... no, that would be too interesting.
The fun doesn't stop there! No wait, keep reading and watch for the delightful comedy of Dr. Maturin clinging desperately to the ship's rigging while listening to a good, hard seaman (*snicker, snicker*... but alas that joke starts to lose its glitter after the eighth or eight-times-ten-to-the-eighth time Patrick O'Brian uses it in an entirely innocent manner) natter on about all the points of sailing, masts, ropes, trestletrees, etc. At first it appears that Mr. O'Brian is cutting the lubberly reader a break, allowing the mild comedy of Maturin's height sickness to act as a mental lubricant to the dry description, but after an obscenely long description concerning mast dimension....
"'Ten-inch, sir,' said Mowett proudly. 'And the preventer-stay is seven. Then comes the forecourse yard, but perhaps I had best finish the masts before I go on to the yards. You see the foretop, the same kind of thing as we are on now? It lies on the trestletrees and crosstrees about five parts of the way up the foremast: and so the remaining length of lower mast runs double with the topmast, just as these two do here. The topmast, do you see, is that second length going upwards, the thinner piece that rises above the top. We sway it up from below and fix it to the lower mast, rather like a marine clapping a bayonet on to his musket: it comes up through the trestletrees, and when it is high enough, so that the hole in the bottom of it is clear, we ram a fid through, banging it home with top-maul, which is this hammer you were asking about, and we sing out "Launch ho!" and....' the explanation ran eagerly on."
.... the reader realizes that he's being suckered. Any able-bodied writer could tell you that that last bit of sentence, "the explanation ran eagerly on," could have very easily been transplanted to the beginning of the paragraph, allowing the scene to run more efficiently. Instead O'Brian uses Maturin's polite questions as weak excuses to throw more entirely unnecessary jargon at our heads. Maturin's meek, height-disoriented reception of these utterly tedious words is very weak tea indeed if we lubbers are expected to use its tepid comedy to wash down the rest of the verbal spaghetti tangled up on the page. In other words, Maturin's reactions are like the authorial equivalent of an off-shore tax shelter ("Y'see, it LOOKS like I'm making an obscene amount of money and refusing to pay taxes on it, but actually my bank account is technically not in the US so y'all have no right to lob 'pay-what's-due-like-a-good-citizen' bombs at me" "Y'see, it LOOKS like I'm flinging an obscene amount of boring, unnecessary words at the reader in a self-indulgent way so that my insatiable lust for Napoleonic-era naval warfare trivia can be temporarily (but not permanently-oh no, never permanently) satisfied but actually I've thrown you poor sods a few sentences of something that could be construed as mildly amusing so y'all have no right to lob 'this-slows-down-the-story-and-is-entirely-unnecessary' bombs at me,") and the neophyte reader (and even the seasoned-but-has-not-reread-"Master and Commander"-recently reader) is left to twist in the wind.
I could site further examples but I'll stop here for several reasons: I've made my point, I run the risk of boring the readers of this blog by continually talking about how boring another writer and furthermore Patrick O'Brian is (especially in later installments) such a masterful writer that I cannot really justifiably flog him anymore for his few literary missteps that were made at the very beginning of the "Aubrey/Maturin" series. Of course it wasn't like Mr. O'Brian was young and green when he started the "Aubrey/Maturin" series (he was fifty-four when the first book was published) so I will allow myself to make just one condescending comparison between him and someone else before ending this blog entry.
About eighteen years ago or so my little sister became very enamored with horses. She took horseback riding lessons religiously and decorated her room with posters, statues and books featuring horse imagery. This phase lasted a surprisingly long time and even now I'd bet money that- as a UC Berkeley PhD candidate in linguistics- my sister still secretly stashes a few copies of "Saddle Club" in her room for when she occasionally tires of more high-minded pursuits. At the age of eight, however, my sister was even more enthusiastic. She wrote stories too, stories which would always feature a young adolescent protagonist with a horse. The stories would inevitably get bogged down two pages in with hilariously uninteresting descriptions of how said protagonist would train the horse, get the horse comfortable with saddles, bridles, stirrups, etc. .... things that only an eight-year-old girl who loves horses would love. Of course this entire scenario loses its adorability once you replace my sister with a middle-aged British man with more than a passing hatred for all things modern and a disturbingly thorough knowledge for early nineteenth-century ocean-going warfare. So I will now close this blog entry with a thank you to Mr. Patrick O'Brian for quickly outgrowing the early, annoying stages of his "Master and Commander" literary style and moving on to regularly writing beautiful passages like this:
"'The carrier has brought you an ape.'
'What sort of an ape?' asked Stephen.
'A damned ill-conditioned sort of an ape. It had a can of ale at every pot-house on the road, and is reeling drunk. It has been offering itself to Babbington.'"
Now, that is genuinely funny! But if you are of a more delicate type of temperament then I will simply offer this paragraph as a small taste of what you find in 95% of all of Patrick O'Brian's novels.
"An hour later they were in the narrows, with the town and its evil smells sunk in the haze behind them and the brilliant open water out in front. The Sophie's bowsprit was pointing almost exactly at the white blaze in the horizon that showed the coming of the sun, and the breeze was turning northerly, freshening as it veered."
Aaah. But that sort of heady stuff only really starts after page 200 or so in "Master and Commander"... when Patrick O'Brian (and NOT the reader) adapted his prose to the needs of good authorship and cut the rest of us a break. So please, Patrick O'Brian fans, the next time a befuddled newcomer to the Aubrey/Maturin series comes up to you with a wrinkled brow and says "I heard these books were awesome but I just can't get through all this damned jargon," do not wave aside his objections with an airy, patronizing "Oh, you'll get used to it".... as if all the new reader has to look forward to is sixteen more volumes of "'More like a cro'jack than a mainyard,'" and should just shut up and pretend that reading such passages is the height of literary pleasure. Instead, say "Yeah, the first half of the first book has a lot of crap but I assure you that the rest of the books are GREAT!"
Because that is the truth.