The first six chapters of Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. Surprise read a lot like Post Captain; they largely carry on the story from that book, the humorous plot threads as well as the poignant. Jack and Stephen contrast so fittingly, there is no neutral, passionless moment. Jack continues to be central to splendid action scenes; the sea-battle against Linois at the end is breathtakingly vivid and evocative—the moreso as Stephen is playing his cello, a single melodic voice, through the relentlessly accelerating threat of violent action.
There is a significant deepening of the Stephen-as-intelligence-agent subthread; the rescue at Mahon in the early chapters is counterbalanced with the scene with Canning and its consequence at the other end of the book.
As for that intense action at Port Mahon, what is shown, what is left to the imagination—the knife-thrust transitions—and most particularly how and where it ends quicken the pacing to an astonishing degree, which (I find, on my reread) begins to build tension not only through fast action, but on every level.
By chapter seven I began to think that a really good book had become a great book.
Most of this chapter concerns Stephen. It cannot be said that it is from his POV, for O’Brian’s narrator is omniscient, but here we enter Stephen’s Weltanshauung for a protracted time.
Before the partners of the mainmast were renewed he came home with a wreath of marigolds round his bare dusty shoulders, an offering from a company of whores: he hung the wreath on the right-hand knob of his blackwood chair and sat down to his journal.
One sinks deeply into Stephen’s view of the universe, grounded in classical learning, the distinctive eye of the Jesuit-trained thinker, tolerant of all the vagaries of human life save deliberate intention of evil, while constantly wrestling with just how to define what evil really is.
The unruffled acceptance of homosexuality, for example, was, in fact, characteristic of the time; the ability to stand outside a culture and examine its boundaries was just beginning, and is comfortable to the reader now, but does not (at least to me) read as anachronistic because of the language O’Brian uses to describe it: past, both that of the fictive world and when it was written, blend seamlessly with the perceptions and expectations of the contemporary reader, thus smiting time.
But moral considerations were irrelevant to Diana: in her, physical grace and dash took the place of virtue. The whole context was so different that an unchastity odious in another woman had what he could only call a purity in her: another purity: pagan, obviously—a purity from another code altogether.
I tried to find a quote from the brilliant segment where the little girl Dil accompanies Stephen to the parade before the fort, at which he sees Diana again, but I ended up wanting to type up page after page.
That’s a high point. The background, the transitions show the same care, if not the same high pitch of emotional engagement. No minor character is left faceless and still, a mere spear-carrier:
From a distance he was surprised to see a light burning in their house; and he was more surprised, on walking in, to find Bonden there fast asleep: he was leaning over the table with his head on his bandaged arms; and both arms and head were covered with an ashy snow – the innumerable flying creatures that had been drawn to the lamp. A troop of geckoes stood on the table to eat the dazzled moths.
The end of the chapter is nearly unbearable as it brings one brief but profoundly poignant story thread to a close.
After a moment he stood up. [Her] face was infinitely calm; the wavering flame made it seem to smile mysteriously at times, but the steady light showed a face as far from emotion as the sea: contained and utterly detached . . .
. . .Prayers, lustration, chanting, lustration: he laid her on the pyre. Pale flames in the sunlight, the fierce rush of blazing sandalwood, and the column of smoke rising, rising, inclining gently away as the breeze from the sea set in.
“…nunc et in hora mortis nostrae,” he repeated yet again, and felt the lap of water on his foot. He looked up. The people had gone; the pyre was no more than a dark patch with the sea hissing in its embers; and he was alone. The tide was rising fast.
For many, that would be a profoundly effective end to a book, but that is not even the midpoint of this one. It goes on, the stakes rising steadily.
My great books can, no, must be revisited repeatedly. It’s become a truism how as we grow older and our perceptions change, so too does our perspective on a given book. Only through many readings can one so know a book that the entirety takes shape in the mind, and yet each reading furnishes new insights.
I love to read other readers’ writings on reading, but I get extra pleasure seeing my favorite books, the ones I know well, through others’ eyes. I enjoy writers and readers on their reading, I must admit, far more than formal criticism. This is not to say that I find literary criticism dull or without value, because I do not. At worst some critics use their tools of theory and analysis to fit a story into a preconceived hierarchy, but that I find as much a part of meta-narrative (by which I mean the stories a culture tells itself about itself) as I do the stories that are written in homage to this or that writer, whether consciously or un.
When I know a book well enough, my interest is drawn beyond the story to the author. I read what the author wrote outside of fiction, if I can; I read what others have written about the writer’s life. Sometimes, discovering events or concerns that were integral to the author’s life can radically alter my perception of the story-landscape that I’d once thought so familiar: this happened with Patrick O’Brian as it had happened with Jane Austen.
So imagine my delight when I discovered their connection.
That is, I discovered that O’Brian valued Austen to the extent of seeking, and paying major bux for, first editions of her works that had conceivably rested in the hands of her contemporaries, had pleased the minds of people she might even have met. It was interesting to discover how closely O’Brian tried to engage with Austen, whose brothers had had naval careers, which were followed closely by the family. And when I reread her novels the naval matters took on a new significance. I discovered I could understand the mild nautical idiom she employs; the sea-going culture took on verisimilitude that had slid right under my radar in previous readings.
I can understand why people spend entire lifetimes playing the Shakespeare game, that is trying to descry the human being behind the scintillant words: the densest exegesis is a passionate argument, to another Shakespeare lover, with the ghostly form on the other side of the curtain of time.
Shakespeare—Jane Austen—Patrick O’Brian—were once living, breathing human beings, who sat down with paper and pen to entertain, to banish for a short while the boundaries of their world by creating a new one.
I can walk on stones where they once walked, touch a cushion or a piece of clothing their hands once handled, but their skulls lie locked in vaults. They are gone, they cannot speak. What remains are their worlds, which I will continue to circumnavigate as long as I live, discovering new things every visit, and talking about them with other wayfarers I meet on the way. And so the worlds, at least, will propagate.
This is why I sometimes think of Vergil when I contemplate rereading, when he said: Non canimus surdis, respondent omnia silvae, or Not to deaf ears I sing, for the woods echo my singing.