*happy sigh* I love ships. I really do. And I love Regency-era nautical tales. I have ever since I started reading pirate romance novels in high school. That love only grew when I both watched the Horatio Hornblower series that was on A&E in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I read all of those Hornblower books and loved them.
So when I picked up Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (yes, after watching the Russell Crowe/Paul Bettany movie again, but also because this series was on Stephen King’s list of really great books) I already knew I was going to like it.
And yes, I LOVED it!
At the same time, I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of people would be completely turned off by Master and Commander. Why? Because it’s told in a style that is foreign to the vast majority of books that are written these days. O’Brian wrote in the 1960s, but you would think he was writing in 1800, the year that the novel takes place, judging by the style. He writes with long, sweeping paragraphs, sparse punctuation, and uses words that would make an SAT prepper blind with confusion.
But this antiquated prose is as much a character in the novel as Captain Jack Aubrey or Dr. Stephen Maturin. It really is beautiful. It has a certain rhythm and flow that makes it easy to read at the same time as it challenges you. I can understand why Stephen King put these books on his list. There is a richness and depth to the words and phrasings themselves that give you the feeling that O’Brian knew how to work the language the same way that Captain Jack knew how to coax a full performance out of a piddling ship in a paltry breeze. It’s a delicious book to read.
Another thing I think would turn modern readers off is that a lot of the action takes place off-stage, like a Greek drama. You get to hear the characters telling each other about what just happened rather than being in the middle of it as it happens. Not what we’re used to with modern novels. But at the same time, that’s kind of what life on a ship would be like. It’s a lot of swapping yarns and having things get blown out of proportion, complete with non sequitur interjections interspersed.
What really made me love this novel, to the point of laughing out loud and retelling chunks of it to anyone who would listen, is the brilliant clarity with which the characters of Jack and Stephen are portrayed and how wonderful and ridiculous Jack is. These characters are real people. They live and breathe and get into cringe-worthy situations as often as they pull of feats of extreme heroics.
Along those lines, if Horatio Hornblower is a noble sea captain and a model of naval perfection and aspiration for his time, Jack Aubrey is a jovial, loud-mouthed, barely-contained, lucky bastard … who really knows his way around a ship. I don’t know which was funnier, the moment when he got ragingly drunk at a high society party on land and accidentally dropped a completely inappropriate comment into one of those awkward silences that sometime spring up, or the moment when, while visiting Stephen in the midst of his naturalist pursuits, he spotted a snake loose on the floor and jumped up on a chair, squealing like a girl.
After reading the book I’ve come to the conclusion that Russell Crowe played Jack WAY too serious in the film. As written, Jack is overweight, charismatic, not overly bright, and deeply emotional. He’s basically an overgrown child in a position of authority. And I love him! It’s a great exercise in the difference between books and the movies made from them.
Yep, this is definitely a character piece. It works because the characters are so excellently drawn. And the friendship between Jack and Stephen, a friendship that lasts through twenty novels, has got to be the best bromance ever committed to paper.
So yes, I recommend reading Master and Commander, but only if you are prepared to enjoy something radically different from the modern storytelling you’re used to. It’s a lot of fun.
Incidentally, for those who are wondering, the film Master and Commander is an amalgam of bits and pieces from three or four different books in this series. I hope to read the rest of them, but I think I’ll read something light and fluffy first. In fact, the next novel on my list is a Mills and Boon novella sent to me by a friend in Australia.