Saturday, July 20, 2013

Treason's Harbour

So here we are again.  Reading each successive Aubrey/Maturin novel is a source of extreme pleasure, but it also marks the passing of another year. I am about halfway through the books, and while I have much to look forward to, I have fond memories of every single book.  It’s difficult to believe I deserve the joy of experiencing this each year, or that a genius like O’Brian could consistently produce these books one after another.  It boggles the mind and makes me eternally grateful that I lived after O’Brian rather than before. 
Treason’s Harbour is very enjoyable, perhaps not in my top two or three in the series, but extremely pleasurable and full of all the elements that endear the series to me.  As is often the case, the book opens on shore.  Jack and his crew, after the hair-raising adventures of The Ionian Mission, are waiting for the repair of Surprise in Malta, the men getting dissolute and idle, and the officers not much better.  Living vicariously through them, however, sunny Valletta sounds good to me.  Pullings has at last achieved captaincy (something the film fudged a bit, by offering it to him at the end of The Far Side of the World), though he is soon to find its bittersweet nature.  Stephen is reunited with linguist, naturalist, and chaplain, Mr Martin.  Now, each of the books opens magnificently, with both Jack and Stephen written as tour-de-forces, but what Treason’s Harbour offers is the most cinematic openings of the books thus far, and something whose tension belongs in the category of Vertigo:

‘Some of my best friends are Englishmen,’ continued Maturin.  ‘Yet even the most valuable have this same vicious inclination to make a confused bellowing when they are happy.  It is harmless enough in their own country, where the diet deadens the sensibilities, but it travels badly:  it is perceived as a superabundancy of arrogance, and is resented more than many worse crimes.  The Spaniard is a vile colonist, murderous, rapacious, and cruel; but he is not heard to laugh.  His arrogance is of a common, universal kind, and his presence is not resented in the same way as the Englishman’s.’ 

Unbeknownst to him, a pair of spies, bent on Stephen’s destruction, are echoing the same sentiments from their bell-tower vantage point (hence my Vertigo reference)  which adds a time-bomb type quality to the whole novel, especially given that Stephen is unaware of the nature of the pursuit (his instinct proves infallible but not quick enough).  Meanwhile, Jack is indeed making a semi-intoxicated spectacle of himself by flashing his chelengk, a mechanical diamond bauble for his hat given by the Sultan of Turkey in thanks for services rendered.  ‘Ain’t I elegant?’  Much as I love Stephen, a love that is to you now well-known, I do love Jack, too, and feel great affection for his human foibles as much as for his strengths.  Although one of the spies describes Jack as ‘the great fat yellow-haired post-captain with that sparkling thing in his hat? . . . That red-faced ox of a man?’, the other is more perceptive and picks up on Jack’s love for music and opera (if not anticipating his hobby of star-gazing).  And the more perceptive of the spies, in fact a most dangerous opponent of Stephen’s back from The Fortune of War, has the snare that will appeal to both Jack and Stephen.

Stephen, it must be said, has a type.  And the type is Diana-lookalike.  Not just lookalikes, though; that’s unfair.  They must be well-bred, cultured women, and Laura Fielding is no exception.  In fact, she far better fits this pedigree than her counterpart, the rather vulgar Mrs Wogan in Desolation Island. Stephen seems particularly susceptible on Malta, at least according to him, as he was sexually starved and  that recently his amorous propensities had been stirred, having been separated from his recently-wed wife Diana in the last book.  Laura Fielding is a Sicilian woman who has married Charles Fielding of the Navy, who is at this point in prison; Stephen’s spymaster rivals have a hold on her, getting her to spy for them, and now with a particularly evil goal in mind:  to seduce Stephen and gain information from him.  Although O’Brian has written Sophie and Diana very well in the past, neither of them appear in this book.  The reader might therefore come away with a first impression of Laura’s depiction with a whiff of chauvinism.  Like the heroine in Notorious, because she is a woman and because she is honorable, she is made to do dishonorable things.  Yet the book is told from Stephen and Jack’s points of view, which make her seem decidedly less heroic than she would if she had been telling the story herself.  By the end of Treason’s Harbour, however, I decided that Laura was much more complex than she initially seemed and that O’Brian had been deliberately holding back on us in order to build her character up slowly. 

A gifted music teacher, Laura is also beautiful and worldly, but in a quite different sense than Diana.  The reason O’Brian perhaps belittles her virtues at first is because we are seeing her through the lens of Stephen Maturin.   He sees friendliness and the flirtation that comes from being admired, her childish delight when the chelengk was put through its paces and her frank greed when she had it in her hands.  He also notices her particular regard of him, and is under no self-illusion.  He knew that no one could possibly admire him for his looks; he had no illusions about his social charms or his conversation; and although he felt that his best books, Remarks on Pezophaps Solitarious and Modest Proposals for the Preservation of Health in the Navy, were not without merit, he did not believe that either would set any female bosom in a blaze[1].  Even his wife had not been able to get through more than a few pages, in spite of her very real good will.  So while as an intelligence-agent tended to see spies everywhere, rather as certain lunatics saw references to themselves in every newspaper, Stephen feels pretty certain that Laura is favoring him falsely, and while this is true, it is not presented as a quality for which he admires her. 

When Laura makes a desperate move to seduce Stephen, and fortunately for the both of them succeeds only as far as getting to the door of the bedroom, he behaves like a friend and a gentleman.  However, at the party beforehand he rather chauvinistically disapproves of her low-cut gown—he thought it cruelly unfair in a woman to excite desires that she had no intention of satisfying.  As Stephen finds out exactly what Laura has to deal with, and as we get to know her better, he struggles with a very real regard for her—we would say he fancies her like mad—despite the fact he of course wants to be true to Diana and furthermore because Jack to a degree also fancies Laura (I’m sorry to say women are a source of potential conflict between these two friends).  In fact, an unknowing public in Malta believe, due to Laura’s dog Ponto’s friendliness to Jack and because of Jack’s obvious regard for Laura, that the two are lovers.  A part of Jack would certainly like this to be true; he proved himself quite an ass back in The Surgeon’s Mate (a fantastic book), though a crafty but not altogether unkind Laura nips this in the bud[2].   

But Stephen fears Laura’s husband—whom she deeply loves and talks about way too much for Stephen to ever believe he has a chance with her—is already dead and his notes to her are being forged.  If this is true and Laura finds out, she will become worthless to the spies.  Things become even more complicated when, away from Malta, Stephen and Jack meet Charles Fielding. There are also hints that there may be trouble at home.    Stephen said in HMS Surprise, after Diana had rejected him, that he did not wish to people the world with ill-favored bastards (or words to that effect); the silence of Diana in this book suggests, perhaps, that there is either discord over this self-regulation or that Diana is pregnant and hasn’t seen fit to tell him yet. Stephen cannot believe that Diana is having an affair with Jagiello from the previous book and hopes the events that bring Laura aboard the Surprise—too delightful to spoil for you, so I won’t—will not cause Diana to think he’s been untrue.  It also remains to be seen whether the gossip about Jack and Laura in Malta will reach Sophie (although on a basis of reciprocity he deserved a whole hall-full of antlers); certainly Sophie and the children remained on Jack’s mind even when he was with Laura.  Yet his own daughters were not outstandingly meek:  he thought of their shrill bawling ‘Oh Papa, Papa, do come on, Papa.  We shall never get up the hill at this rate.  Pray, Papa, do not be such a slug.’  Early it would have been ‘goddamn slug,’ they having caught a free way of speaking from the seamen who formed part of the household.
There is more than just the beginning which recommends this book to the seriously cinematic; once Jack and the Surprise are off on their mission to the Red Sea[3], Stephen decides to bring along his Halley’s diving bell, at first to Jack’s chagrin.  But Stephen is obviously anticipating Chekhov as this is one gun on the mantelpiece that is going to go off in a big way.  I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful scene.  Stephen takes his friend Martin with them, and they make a wonderful double act—the return of Martin also means the return of choral music to the Surprise, though Martin’s longed-for sermon is not necessarily what is desired.    There is a heated sea battle when the Surprise finally catches up with the galley they’ve been chasing to the harbour of Mubara (no idea where this is).  While Stephen has been well-served in the book by his instinct if not always his intellect, Jack also proves that his nautical instinct is sound in both his battles aboard ship and his not always subtle but usually quite sound diplomacy with Britain’s Eastern allies.  Furthermore, while Jack and Stephen have had hair-raising adventures on land (climes exotic and more familiar) before, nothing quite prepared me for the Surprises trekking through what I think is the Tunisian desert, barely making it back alive, though Jack and Stephen are able to enjoy cups of tea, wine and water with lemon juice, and pints of sherbet on their return.  I appreciate now, more than ever, what a great job the film Master and Commander did of taking elements from (probably) all of the books and ensuring a true-spirited panoramic impression of the books; one could call it a collage, given what elements are arranged around the loose plot taken from The Far Side of the World, but that wouldn’t really do it justice.

Patrick O’Brian had immense and genuine affection for the British tar, despite the sailor’s very real faults, and in this book he highlights the ships’ crews more than any of the officers (though Mowett and Rowan’s lyric wars are very funny).  The ordinary sailor (I should say able seaman, as Jack makes clear the company of the Surprise are almost all rated men) often is personified in Jack’s steward, Preserved Killick, or the coxswain, Barrett Bonden[4].  Killick has a rather eventful book, trying to preserve Jack’s “best scraper” (his hat) along with the chelengk, at last fainting from heat-stroke in the attempt when the ship’s company is stranded in the desert, and later smoking Jack’s hookah in anticipation of receiving Turkish guests.  The sailors on Surprise are also remarkably bashful, despite their notorious language, one of the youngsters blushing to say the word “drawers” and the sailors too embarrassed to relieve themselves in the middle of the desert during the day when they can all be seen. Although a Dragoman on board on the Surprise makes an interesting mess-mate, the most charming episode among the men is when they meet the odabashi, who turns out to have a Cockney mother though he is a janissary and born in Smyrna!  ‘Well, this is a hairy bugger, and no mistake,’ said the bosun, surveying him.  ‘Such a ugly cove I never seen:  more like a hape than what you might call a human.’  ‘Hape!’ cried  the odabashi, stung out of his shyness, ‘You can put that where the monkey put the nuts.  You’re no oil-painting yourself, neither.’ . . . ‘did the obadashi speak English?’  ‘Not a f*cking word,’ said the odabashi.  ‘No offense intended, mate,’ said the bosun, holding out his hand.  ‘And none taken,’ said the odabashi, shaking it.  Unfortunately, this meeting of mutual minds precipitates a rash of worries about djinn in the desert for, as O’Brian notes, sailors were often superstitious.    

Though there are obvious moments of high adventure in this book, as described above, much of it is given over to the spy game (as in The Fortune of War) which suits me fine, except it puts me on tenterhooks.  Would Wray the Admiralty staff traitor learn that Stephen was helping Laura and not being tricked by her?  Would Stephen, thinking Wray merely a slightly annoying fellow but not a duplicitous agent, accidentally give him vital information?  Would Leseur’s men succeed in killing (or worse) Laura before Stephen could intervene?    

There are odd interludes in this book, as well, whose meaning is not to me completely clear; for example, when Jack has to dive into a flooded cistern to save the life of Ponto, and later when he walks along the island of Gozo to meet his former nemesis Admiral Harte, now father-in-law to the dastardly Andrew Wray.  On the way there, he plans to intervene when he sees one tortoise attacking another but eventually realizes they are mating.  However, on his way back after this decidedly depressing meeting, he sees the same tortoises picked up and smashed by predatory hawks.   I hope this is not foreshadowing for Jack and Sophie’s, or Stephen and Diana’s, relationships.  Certainly Jack fears the orders that will have Surprise retired, as she is an “old” ship, and this informs the rather whimsical and joyous arrival of Laura on board—the most hilarious moment is when the bosun shouts “Oh you . . . unskilful fellow” when someone drops a marlin-spike in Laura’s presence, instead of what is the normal obscene turn of phrase. 

It is five months until 2014, when I can pick up the next book in the series.  Woo hoo!

[1] Except me, darling Stephen.
[2] Jack exacts hilarious if not really fair revenge when she asks him to take dictation and write a letter to her husband for her.  Captain Aubrey knew very well that she could not ply the oar.  ‘Ply the oar, ma’am?’ said Jack, looking up from his paper, his pen poised.  ‘Is it not right?  I was so proud of it.’  ‘Oh yes,’ said Jack. ‘Only the word is spelt rather odd, you know,’ and he wrote she would not play the whore very carefully, so that the letters could not be mistaken, smiling secretly as he did so, his frustration and disappointment entirely overcome by his sense of the ridiculous.
[3] This book really needed a map.  I had no idea where they were half the time.
[4] While I think David Threfall who plays Killick in the film is probably exactly what O’Brian had in mind, and the wonderful James D’Arcy, who plays Pullings, a bit less so, I believe he would have been neutral about Billy Boyd.  However, I love Billy Boyd and so he shall forever be Bonden to me.

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