Saturday, March 26, 2005

21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

This morning, I finished the last of the typescript pages in 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. I've been delaying it, savoring every last sentence, not wanting the entire Aubrey/Maturin series to be over. I came late to O'Brian, not starting the series until the early 90s, but I'm convinced he left behind a legacy of one of the best literary series of all time. At his death, he was four chapters in to the 21st book. About three and a half chapters were transcribed and typed by his assistant and he was well into the fourth chapter by hand. American publisher WW Norton worked with his family to publish the remnants of this last book in a unique edition in 2004. Probably appreciated most by fans, the book features the typewritten pages across from the corresponding page of raw manuscript. As you move into the last of the book, the typewritten pages are blank while only the handwritten pages remain. It feels like a memorial with blank pages where text should be. (I once heard an orchestra stop cold after the fourth bar of the Lacrimosa in Mozart's Requiem where he died while composing it. It produced a similarly eerie effect.) But in reading 21, you can't help but be in the middle of an Aubrey/Maturin tale as it abruptly comes to an end. (Like many deaths in the navy, it might be unexpected, maybe just after the last word, the powder magazine blew up, leaving all the characters with similar unfinished narratives.) But visiting their world for a short time was worth it.

For the uninitiated the Patrick O'Brian series, also called the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books, tell the story of a young British Royal Navy lieutenant (Aubrey) who meets a penniless doctor in Spain (Maturin). Together they begin a lifelong personal friendship and professional relationship. We follow both through marriages, romances, deaths, battles, adventures, wars with the French and Americans, operations in the Pacific, shipwrecks and more beginning in the early 1800s and moving through 1820 or so. Maturin, also an intelligence agent, provides a counterpoint to Aubrey's spectacular, flamboyant, and sometimes disastrous naval career. Like many naval officers, he's a brilliant success on the water but a disaster on land, and with brief visits to friends and family ashore, the two spend most of their lives happily at sea. O'Brian, himself a naval historian among other things, painstakingly researched and recreated every detail of daily life aboard these ships and based his battles and many of his characters on real accounts and real actions. The detail of the ships and sailing with naval strategy, sails, rigging, and weather keep even the purists happy and set his work apart from the sentimental children's stories like Horatio Hornblower. Often his most humorous accounts and situations were based on actual events showing the modern reader that in the early 19th century, truth was often stranger -- and funnier -- than fiction.

If you love great writing, complex use of language and rich characters, read O'Brian. Like most real people you meet in life, you don't get the full depth of many of his characters on the first reading or even the second. O'Brian's writing is so rich, complex, and fluid that you instantly find yourself tranported to distant oceans. It's complicated reading at first, but the richness is what makes it so wonderful on the second, third, and even fourth readings. I've now read the entire series four times (it takes about six months) and I am still catching details or subtle humor that I missed the first three times. (In 21, I found myself only just being able to catch a joke of Stephen's on first the read -- he often plays dumb with very deadpan sarcasm. When was the last time you got that from a character in a book without being told?)

Lots of new people were exposed to O'Brian last summer with the movie, Master and Commander. Fan opinion was split (like O'Brian, many fans are purists), but even though it was an amalgam of events from many of the novels, the loose plot was based on Book 10, the Far Side of the World. Director Peter Wier is a huge fan and paid close attention to detail with the ships and characters.

To read the series, start with book 1, Master and Commander. Books 2, 3, and 4 are pretty self-contained stories (book 2 taking place largely on land is most series fans least favorite book). Hang in there for book 3, HMS Surprise, though, as it's one of the best. Books 5 through about 9 are sort of one long adventure, with each pretty much starting where the last left off, as are books 10 through about 15 or so. 21 had our shipmates in Brazil where Jack Aubrey hoisted his flag at last (was made an admiral) and was taking his squadron to the South African station. So, RIP O'Brian. In our imaginations Jack and Stephen sail on.

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