Friday, December 5, 2008

everything that goes up

‘A grapeshot in the heart is not my idea of bliss, and I shall do my utmost to avoid it.' -Stephen Maturin

As you all know, I read one Master and Commander book by Patrick O’Brian every year (or have done for the last four years) because I love them so much and wish to prolong the pleasure. Master and Commander blew me away, Post Captain rocked my socks because it was even better than its predecessor, and HMS Surprise further astonished me. With expectations so high, I knew eventually we would stop reaching for the meteoric heights and come down to earth—in a way, I guess it’s encouraging that even a super-human writer like O’Brian couldn’t maintain such a level of sheer excellence for four books in a row. The Mauritius Command is very enjoyable, but lacks some of the elements that make its predecessors truly superb.

The book begins, as did Post Captain, on land and in the domestic sphere. But the sphere has changed, as Captain Jack Aubrey has finally wed his bonny lass, Sophie Williams, and they now have two twin daughters. Guileless Jack enjoys his wedded bliss but aches for glory and adventure on the high seas. Plus, he’s only on half-pay. His best friend, Dr Stephen Maturin (darling of my heart), is the one to rescue him from being killed with kindness. O’Brian continues his witty skewering of Mrs Williams, Sophie’s mother, as extremely vapid and self-centered. ‘A handsome clock it is, too,’ said Stephen. ‘A regulator, I believe. Could it not be set a-going?’ ‘Oh, no, sir,’ said Mrs Williams with a pitying look. ‘Was it to be set a-going, the works would instantly start to wear.’ As in Post Captain, I spend pages almost suffocating from laughter as Jack and Stephen make very calm remarks about children—Jack can hardly tell his offspring apart and insists that throwing them up into the air is good for them! As for Stephen, he compares them to larvae! Lest you think Stephen a scrub, however, he next wonders why Jack is so hell-bent on having a boy. Jack and Stephen share a love of music, but I hadn’t realized that Jack—like Donna’s grandfather Wilf!—enjoys stargazing. Because of this we hear of but never meet an interesting character, Miss Herschel the astronomer. We also find out that, for all her good qualities, Sophie can be a jealous wife.

Stephen has used his clout—for he is a spy as well as a medical man—to secure Jack a ship, the Boadicea, and not only that, Jack will be elevated to the temporary post of commodore to guide a fleet of ships to Mauritius to install a new governor and steal it away from the French. Now, from watching Pirates of the Caribbean you may have gotten the wrong impression—Commodore Norrington, much as I love him, fictitiously assumes what that role requires. It is not a promotion as such, but it is an opportunity Jack leaps at. Jack has interesting captains under his command: the authoritarian Corbett, the inept Pym, and the showy, tragic Clonfert, and Stephen drinks away the afternoon with fellow physician McAdams, whom he actually wheelbarrows to the Otter in a drunken state. Surprisingly, though, neither of these relationships ever build to a head. As ever we rely upon Stephen and Jack to make us ponder and laugh; Stephen, bless his heart, is singularly unimpressed by Jack’s commodore pennant, about which Jack has been so excited he is fit to burst. ‘Cannot you see anything that strikes you dumb with awe, the mark of a living commodore, very nearly the most exalted being on the face of the earth?’ ‘The ornamental cloth? Oh, that.’

The weight of command falls heavily upon Jack’s shoulders, as he would rather be in the action rather than strategizing from afar (though obviously he is a good strategist , otherwise he would never have gotten this far). Stephen worries that as his friend grows older, he also loses the essence of his personality: ‘I should be sorry if, in Jack Aubrey’s case, it were to proceed so far as a general cool indifference; for then the man I have known and valued so long would be no more than the walking corpse of himself.’ In fact, Jack may be maturing, but for the better: his reflections on death and all that is done “for the good of the service” are certainly no propagandist’s pander. Stephen sounds curiously like the Doctor here: ‘Bless your innocence, Jack: an Irish peer is not necessarily a man of any consequence at all. I do not wish to make any uncivil reflection on your country—many of my best friends are Englishmen—but you must know that this last hundred years and more it has been the practice of the English ministry to reward their less presentable followers with Irish titles . . .’ (The Irish jokes abound in this book for some reason.) He also finds a friend in Mr Fortesque, and complains bitterly about always being promised shore-leave to examine the natural world, only to be hurried along again (something viewers of the film will know all too well).

In fact, I would be as bold as to suggest that clever, amusing, character-driven dialogues and reflections by our two principal characters form the backbone of this book, which is as it ever was in the series. However, in the past three books, exotic climes, daring action, romance, sea battles, and intrigue also played a large part in making them so enjoyable. Though they sail the east coast of southern Africa, engage in naval and terrestrial battles aplenty, and fight some nasty fights, I never feel really gripped by the conflicts in Mauritius Command. O’Brian’s great gift (well, among many) is making naval battles engaging and exciting, and maybe because I have the pirate pedigree in my past lives, I am particularly susceptible. I found myself skimming over the action sequences and manoeuvres, a definite no-no. While the other characters were interesting, they were not the best flesh-and-blood I feel O’Brian could have thrown at us.

In the end, Jack has lost his pennant—due to politics, not his own abilities—but Sophie, despite all odds, has had a son. Stephen gives hints to the eagle-eyed readers that he may not be as over Diana as he wants everyone to believe. They are both off on their next adventures, and despite coming down to Earth, I am more than ready to join them.

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