Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Patrick O’Brian and His Salty Hero

MY ELDER DAUGHTER should take some of the credit, or blame, for getting me to start reading again as if there might be a tomorrow, when I was ready to settle down on my deathbed and read nothing but the Bible. She had all of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels in her house and urged me to try the first one, Master and Commander, with a promise that it was even better than the movie. She was like a drug dealer handing out a free sample. Within a few days I was back for the next one, Post Captain, and in the course of remarkably little time—the excitement of reading stopped me reminding myself that it was time I didn’t really have—I had read all twenty volumes. I found that my mental image of Jack Aubrey’s physical appearance never shifted. To my mind, he looked exactly like Russell Crowe. But Aubrey’s abilities and ambitions fascinated me, to the point where I started wondering whether I might have been a better man if I had gone to sea. Very early in my life, while I was still an adolescent who read voraciously but not seriously, Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous had had the same effect: an effect only reinforced by C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books. But now here I was, at the other end of life, and once again I was hero-worshiping an example of leadership, discipline, and carelessness of danger. My admiration for Aubrey would have been absurd if I had not detected that O’Brian was daydreaming on his own account. He was escaping from the pettiness of today into the supposed high values of yesterday. His hero was a time traveler.

Nevertheless, Aubrey brooks no belittling, even as a musician. He plays his violin on the night before battle, but the author assures us that his musicianship is enthusiastically workmanlike at best. He is good with the strings but better at climbing ropes. O’Brian does not do the usual thing and give his hero a whole range of talents at the genius level. When Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes, he showered the sleuth with extra gifts: the infallible detective was an expert in many fields, seemingly without ever having studied them. This best-selling tendency to make the man of action a uomo universale went all the way down to James Bond, who, were he not a spy, could be a linguist. O’Brian doesn’t suggest that Aubrey, were he not the captain of a frigate, could be Isaac Stern. O’Brian’s restraint in this matter was an important act of self-discipline, because the temptation is always there to turn the superior character into superman. John le Carré had something going with George Smiley but should have abandoned him earlier. When, in The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley revealed a hitherto unsuspected knowledge of ancient Chinese naval architecture, it was high time to toss him over the Reichenbach Falls. It might not have worked, however. It didn’t work with Sherlock, who refused to be eliminated, and came back because the public couldn’t get enough of him.

The public never got enough of Jack Aubrey, but eventually O’Brian was caught by death after having made a start on the twenty-first volume, so a twenty-volume series is all we have. My own theory is that Aubrey could have ended up as First Sea Lord and still have been interesting, but that there was an automatic terminus to our interest in Aubrey’s buddy, Stephen Maturin. Increasingly as the sequence goes on, Stephen’s chief function is to fall through hatches or off the back of the ship. A greatly talented physician, everyone’s dream of a ship’s doctor, he is still a stooge: like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, Stephen can’t stay coordinated for five minutes, except when he unexpectedly turns out to be a crack shot. But even then, he can’t shoot as accurately as he can fall headfirst down a companionway. It makes you wonder about what kind of surgery he is doing down there belowdecks when the ship is reeling under the impact of massed French cannon.

O’Brian doesn’t really know what to do with an interesting female character. The only woman on a par with the leading men gets killed off in a coach accident. No, these are boys’ books, and the lesser for it. I try to remember that most of the fans of O’Brian that I have met are women, but I suspect that they want a holiday from feminism, just as his male fans want a holiday from inertia. (I should leave room at this point for the possibility that some of the female Aubrey experts in my vicinity see no contradiction between feminism and their allegiance to the age of sail, and quite fancy the picture of themselves dressed as commodores with epaulettes.) But if the Jack Aubrey books are merely entertaining, they are that at a high level. Part of the charm of O’Brian’s magnificently decorated sequence—it makes me think of the bowsprit on HMS Victory—is the continuous and lavish deployment of seafaring terminology. Scuttle the larboard strakes! Every sheet and cleat is named. It doesn’t matter much if you don’t know what he is talking about. Aubrey has to tell Stephen what a “cunt splice” is. I didn’t know either, and still don’t; and even Google was too shy to speak on the subject; but I was ensnared by yet another example of the salt-sprayed vocabulary. It really does help to learn the names of all the sails; but then, the same thing helped when one was reading the Hornblower books, all those years ago.

Today, I should perhaps read Forester again. Here again, the screen images are so powerful they almost convince you that you don’t need to open the books. In the movies, Gregory Peck was an ideal Hornblower. (Imagine Burt Lancaster in the same role: with bared teeth and somersaulting through the spars, he would have been the Crimson Pirate in a different hat.) And I have several times each seen all the Hornblower stories well done on television. Ioan Gruffudd is excellent casting in the title role, because he looks pensive; just as Russell Crowe is well cast as Aubrey, because Crowe, while always looking to be on the verge of converting himself into Oliver Hardy, is a thick-necked ball of energy; and O’Brian, though he gives Aubrey a fine practical mind, has made him as much of a man of action as Forester made Hornblower a sensitive thinker. On being drawn into the comparison, however, I have to say that the Aubrey fans who surround me—there are several people within a hundred yards of my house who own the complete set of novels, neatly lined up—enrage me when they praise Aubrey at Hornblower’s expense. Yes, I must read the Hornblower books again soon, if only to confirm my memories of them as a brilliant sequential creation. According to my recollection, Hornblower is at least as good a portrait as Aubrey of a man rising through the navy because his talent is seen to be more forceful than the system of seniority that would like to keep him down. And isn’t Forester’s technical vocabulary just as detailed and poetic, even though there are no cunt splices in it? Other times, other customs.