Wednesday, January 11, 2006

What ship ahoy?

Just finished Patrick O'Brian's "The Fortunes of War," number seven or eight in the fifteen-or-so-long Aubrey-Maturin series. (I skipped one or two that I didn't have on hand.)

Probably the best one yet.

O'Brian is a master of pulling the atmosphere out of nautical terms by giving them just enough context to let their magic sigh but without overexplaining and cutting the mystery with mere words. Sometimes he writes matter-of-factly so that you are in Jack Aubrey's shoes, where the sea is all you have ever known; and sometimes he almost orientalizes the sea, conflating its murderousness with love or highlighting the barbarity of the navy's ceremony. His characterizations often slip into the personality of the character even in their language, so that Jack is described in simple and joyful but mercurial language, and Stephen is analytically pathetic and brooding even in his passions:
Stephen contemplated Mrs Wogan, and Mrs Wogan's heaving bosom: she might be an inept intelligence-agent, but he admired her dash and courage, he loved her acute, her wonderfully rare sense of humor, he had a real affection for her, and, at present, a distinct carnal inclination for her person.
There are more passages in the comments: the first quote is a stunning use of nautical language to set mood, like one of Whistler's Nocturnes in Black and Gold. If anyone wants to borrow the first couple, I'm glad to loan them. They make good late-night after-studying reading. In fact, they are probably the best such reading besides P.G. Wodehouse or Hemingway or Saki.


Blogger Sean Strasburg said...

[This is my favorite passage:]

He groped his way up ladders to the deck. The watch had been set long
since, and the ship was very quiet: she was slipping along under
topsails alone with the wind one point free, making perhaps a couple
of knots through the long easy swell. The master had the watch, and he
was not one to badger the hands with jib and staysails after a wearing
day hogging and boot-topping the ship's weed-grown sides for some
minute increase in speed. Stephen could see him, as his eyes grew
accustomed to the dark, standing near the quartermaster at the con, in
the glow of the binnacle light. Beyond him, by the taffrail, Jack was
showing his midshipmen the stars, and Forshaw's high young voice could
be heard piping about the Southern Cross. Such stars! The young moon
had set, and they blazed there in a velvet sky, hanging, he would have
sworn, at different heights, with Mars a startling red among them. A
certain refreshment rose from the sea, a damp exhalation almost cool,
and Stephen walked forward across the space amidships where in
ordinary times the boats stood on their chocks and which was now
strewn with sleeping or at least recumbent figures, their heads
enveloped in their jackets. He made his way through them to the bows,
then carefully out along the bowsprit as far as the spritsail
yard. There he turned, and sitting easy, let himself go to the smooth
motion of the ship, gazing now at the ghostly foretopsail, now up at
the masthead describing intricate regular curves among the stars, and
again down at the cutwater, perpetually advancing, never reaching him,
shearing the black sea with a faint white gleam. There was a continual
living sound of blocks heaving, the strain and slight creak of wood
and cordage, the hiss and ripple and surge of the water: he was very
tired, quite why he could not tell, unless it was the effort of
keeping his mind from anxious, fruitless worrying about Diana - she
was very present to his inward eye these days - and the events in
Catalonia. Back there in the ship the bells struck one after another,
and every time the sentinels called 'All's well' from their various
stations. Perhaps it was their reiterated cries that impressed their
sense upon his unreasoning part, perhaps several of a thousand other
causes, but after some time his tiredness was no longer a jaded,
harassed fatigue, but a mild, calm, physical weariness, a comfortable
desire for sleep. He crept back, holding his breath and any rope that
came to hand.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Sean Strasburg said...

He would feel that there was too much indignation mingled with the
benevolence, even though the indignation was undeniably righteous;
that Dr Choate indulged in goodness as some indulged in evil; and that
he was so enamoured of his role that he would make any sacrifice to
sustain it.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Sean Strasburg said...

He was astonished too by her loquacity. Both she and her cousin Sophie
had always talked at a great pace, but now Diana's words tumbled over
one another; few sentences reached their end; and the connecting
association of ideas was at times so tenuous that although he knew her
very well he could scarcely follow. It was as though she had recently
taken some stimulant which so hastened her mental processes that they
outran even her outstanding powers of articulation.
He had known her in a great variety of moods - friendly,
confidential, perhaps even loving for one short period; certainly, and
for much longer periods, indifferent, impatient at his long dumb
importunity, sometimes exasperated, hard, and even (though more
through the force of circumstances than her own volition) very cruel -
but never in this.

3:37 PM  

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