Master and Commander
The Mauritius Command
The Fortune of War
The Surgeon’s Mate
The Ionian Mission
The Far Side of the World
The Reverse of the Medal
The Letter of Marque
The Thirteen-Gun Salute
The Nutmeg of Consolation
In Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, a man of action recounts an escapade of his youth, and comments that such things are only really agreeable to look back on after the event. Nothing is exciting as it happens. Warriors in heroic times only knew what they had been through when they heard about it from the bard in the mead-hall. Armchair warriors who have never performed such feats can nonetheless become connoisseurs of them at second hand. In the same way, it is possible to become an expert on the apparatus of the old-time naval world—backstays and top-gallants, twenty-four pounders and hardtack—without having the faintest idea how to fire a gun, reef a sail, or fother a ship’s bottom. Naval novels today are unique among the genre in this engaging respect: author and reader are alike innocent of the experience graphically conveyed by the one and eagerly appreciated by the other.
This may seem a good reason for not taking such books very seriously. The Marryat who wrote Mr. Midshipman Easy and the Melville who wrote Moby-Dick had themselves been to sea, as frigate officer and as a whaling hand: they knew what they were talking about. So too with Joseph Conrad. But that is scarcely relevant to the genre of nautical fiction today, which can seem more like the genre of science fiction or fantasy, even of “magic realism.” The fashionable thing in the theory of the novel at the present time is to do it, so to speak, without hands; to recognize the totality of fiction, its arbitrariness, its success not in relation to “life” but in purely literary terms. On the other side the new historicism has created a genuinely authoritative style of fiction—Gore Vidal and Simon Schama are formidable exponents of it—which researches the legend of the past while demonstrating the seductive unknowability of the real thing. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a special and incontrovertible masterpiece of such a kind.
Like his compatriots J. G. Farrell and John Banville, Patrick O’Brian does not really fit into any of these more up-to-date categories. In their own different ways they are at once too traditional and too idiosyncratic. Loosely linked by the theme of an empire in its decline, the novels of Farrell’s trilogy—Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, The Singapore Grip—were a great success from the fashion in which they combined fantasy and erudition with an original imagination of how a particular culture saw itself, spoke, and showed off to itself. They made something new, fresh and hilarious, out of being bookish. In his own subtle and leisurely style Patrick O’Brian does something of the same sort, making extensive use of the pleasure that fiction addicts find in feeling at home, recognizing old faces, old jokes, the same social occasions and regimes, the same sort of exciting situation. His most time-honored ploy is the two-man partnership, the accidental coming together of a dissimilar pair—Don …
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