Caught in the act of greatness–rereading Master and Commander

Master and CommanderWhen I first read a great book I am no longer I, but ego dissolves away into an eye, absorbed completely into the world of the story.

Rereading overlays the text with a palimpsest of memory: the first time I read it, I sat down in my reading chair, curious, disengaged, the warm summer air wafting through my open window the distant cries of children running on the grass.  Another rereading, during the bleakness of a winter day, the sweet spice of cinnamon-laced hot chocolate at my side; a third image, just a flash, splashing across the deep green lawns of Mount Vernon, the book tucked firmly under my arm to protect it, at least, as I cannot protect my clothing, for I had no idea that a storm was coming.  I took the book along in case I had to wait in line to see Washington’s home, and indeed, while standing in line, I reread favorite bits in snatches.

When I first read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander I had no expectations, few images beyond brief flickers of remembered Hornblower and Smollett’s Roderick Random.

Now when I commence a reread I am equipped with images from both the Hornblower and the Master and Commander film; I have located and listened to Locatelli’s C major quartet so I can hear its strains, I have at hand a map of Port Mahon, and it is easy enough to recollect the briny smell of the sea.

I open the book.  The memories dissolve into image.

The music-room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet. . .

 I know what is going to happen.  So I read the opening chapter to discover the progress of my addiction.

There are no neutral moments in that first chapter; Jack is at first delighted with the music, embarrassed at the studied animosity of the little pale man in the next chair, then angered by the elbow in the ribs when he starts “Pom pom pomming” to the music, conducting with his fist in the air.

Molly Harte is watching him covertly,and  realizes Jack is not happy.

Jack returns to his lodging, contemplating whether or not he has to fight a duel with that pale little man—and there is the letter that changes his life.

The narrator reaches outward with such skill that I was not aware of the omni POV at first. I am just happy to touch everyone’s thoughts, to look at the world of 1801 through their eyes.  How different they all are! From James Dillon with his strictly concealed secrets, as he gets ready to report to his new captain, to Jack, high up on the masthead of his first command, watching the new sunlight touch the tips of the masts, come down over the sails until it reaches the deck, while he sits there weeping silently.

Jack and Stephen complement so well, each masterly where the other is ignorant.  Stephen’s “downstairs” when referring to going below is the more humorous because of his subtlety when at last he has private converse with James, and they retrace what happened since their last meeting, touching on the disaster of the ’98 uprising—and the emotional toll.  Jack’s “flings at the Pope” are buffoonish after that, a fine contrast to his skill at command.

Each character is so memorable, even those briefly seen. Did Joselito survive when the French retook Mahon?  Did the young lieutenant who looked so longingly at Jack’s new epaulette get his promotion?

In this book, the most complex character besides Jack and Stephen is James Dillon.  He could have driven an entire novel on his own. This book is so much more than a sea-going adventure.

Discussions of identity, of music, Stephen’s expressed need to spend a quiet night on land amid the noises and scents of his childhood to recruit himself, all moments of felicity amid the ongoing action  The latter scene can also be construed as a hint of Stephen’s secret vocation, though there is no reference—but then a spy must be secret, says the reader who seeks consistency in what might not have been meant, at first, as a roman fleuve, but turns into one.

Before the battle with the Cacafuego, when everyone is at their most unhappy, Jack reams the midshipmen, exhorting them not to neglect to write home. Babbington, trying to eke out his letter, makes himself homesick by asking about every person, pet, and place in his village, calling to mind this passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion:

He [Dick Musgrove] had been several years at sea, and had, in the course of those removals to which all midshipment are liable, and especially such midshipment as every captain wishes to get rid of, been six months on board Captain Frederick Wentworth’s frigate, the Laconia; and from the Laconia he had, under the influence of his captain, written the only two letters which his father and mother had ever received from him during the whole of his absence; that is to say, the only two disinterested letters; all the rest had been mere applications for money.

A land person reading Jane Austen’s references to the Navy might speed past them, dismissing them as a bit of period color. I discovered that rereading these passages after one has read O’Brian imbues Austen’s novels with a new layer of meaning.  Babbington’s experience makes midshipmen real. So the comic moment when we realize “Dear Richard” was nothing but a rowdy and annoying Dick Musgrove shipped off to keep him out of trouble, gives us a glimpse of the boy’s life and death; Wentworth’s bald accounting of the Asp’s brush with a French privateer evokes Aubrey and his crew fighting madly for possession of a prize, the scuttles running with blood—and then forbearing to write any details home lest they upset their wives and families. And teenage boys were there to be shot at along with the men.

The Cacafuego sequence is as tight and vivid as I remembered, and all the more remarkable because it does not end with protracted victory gloating, but with grief first, intense and vivid grief, visceral reminders of the terrible cost of such an encounter, no matter who wins.

Like a minor key transition to major in an old folk song Jack is finally permitted his glory, but then he’s removed off-stage, and we see the reflected glory in the extremely funny conversation his young clerk, David Richards, has with his family:

As everyone knows, the captain’s clerk’s position is the most dangerous there is in a man-of-war: he is up there all the time on the quarter-deck with his slate and his watch, to take remarks, next to the captain, and all the small-arms and a good many of the great guns concentrate their fire on him.  Still, there he must stay, supporting the captain with his countenance and his advice . . .

After Davy tells them how he advised Aubrey how to attack, he adds with mendacious brag, I very nearly said to him, ‘I tell you what, Goldilocks’—for we call him Goldilocks in the service, you know, in much the same way they call me Hellfire Davy, or Thundering Richards—‘just you rate me midshipman aboard the Cacafuego’…for I feel I have the genius of command…

It’s a very funny scene, but with a frisson of the real. How many times have we heard people talk after an intense experience, re-inventing it consciously or unconsciously with themselves as the heroes of it? And much as we might laugh at Davy’s brag, we reflect that this kid really was on deck under fire, even if he wasn’t exactly telling Jack how to fight.

Unusual structure, fascinating shifts in tone, vivid detail given to every character no matter how briefly seen, afford a glimpse of the greatness to come; there’s a strong correlation between these books and readers of SF and F that I don’t think is an accident, but that is another post.



Caught in the act of greatness–rereading Master and Commander — 15 Comments

  1. Sherwood, thanks for a terrific essay.

    I had to be talked into reading O’Brian. I’d read Hornblower, what did I need with another boy’s sailing adventure series?



    Amazing, amazing set of novels. After the first one I devoured the rest and waited anxiously for the next and bought each one in hardcover. Shared them with housemates and friends. Persuaded people to read them.

    I’m fond of Jack, but Stephen is my favorite character. I feel for him every time the ship gets blown out from under him or burned up around him or sinks beneath him, and his carefully collected specimens and notebooks are lost again. (We, in our world, are lucky this didn’t happen to Charles Darwin, who is clearly a real-world influence on the fictional character.)

    “Jack, you have debauched my sloth!”

    The audiobooks with Patrick Tull as narrator are great. In the middle of the series another narrator appeared (I didn’t realize more than one production existed) and I felt that a pod person had taken over the characters. Fortunately I was able to get back to the Tull versions.

    I don’t often reread books but I think it’s about time for a rereading of these.

    • Oh, so many great moments! I haven’t listened to any of the audio book, but people say it’s a wonderful experience. I may yet do it, though at this point I think I’ve reread the series four or five times.

      • I’ve listened to several of the audio book editions of the series while doing my workouts. They are excellent audio books — not every book is.

        For one thing the readers really understand the author, it seems. There is much more comedy and comic wit obvious to the listener than may be obvious to a first-time reader in particular.

        Love, C.

  2. Reading O’Brien is an amazing experience. I’d heard of him, but it’s not something I would have picked up on my own. I needed a trip book and a friend recommended the series.
    Brilliant, vivid writing, an exciting story, and compelling characters all combined–how rare is that? And yet how satisfying when one finds them.

  3. For purposes of your future essay: the friend who gave me Master and Commander and the other friend who encouraged me to read all the books (a task I finally finished after I moved to Austin and could put the books on hold in order from the library) were both people I knew through science fiction and fantasy.

    • I was really surprised to discover fandom discovering O’Brian not long after I did. (I felt the same in 1966, when I discovered Tolkien just ahead of the curve.) I’m usually behind the eight ball, not ahead of it!

  4. Pingback: Caught in the act of greatness, part three: the author as creator | Book View Cafe Blog