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Master And Commander: On history and the sea

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Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, Patrick O'Brian's  Master And Commander, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Donna Bowman: We can't really deal properly with this book unless we talk about the looming influence of its setting and its genre. I didn't start there for the first post just because I was loath to set up a division between readers who generally go for historical novels or seafaring adventure, and those who don't. But there's no doubt that one's reaction is going to have something to do with how one feels about the genres in which Master And Commander so exuberantly situates itself.


I don't consider myself a fan of historical fiction. I like quite a bit of it, and I count some of its practitioners among my favorite authors. (Cecelia Holland springs to mind.) Some of the most celebrated authors in the genre, though, have always left me cold, to my shame. (Dorothy Dunnett springs to mind.) It's certainly true, though, that part of the reason I'm so taken with the Aubrey-Maturin series is that its historical setting is so detailed, so particular, and so lively. Some historical fiction seems to feel obliged to convince you of the epic sweep and pivotal significance of its setting; other books take an opposite tack, examining the minutiae of everyday lives. (For the record, I much prefer the latter; I'm averse to the hubris involved in trying to make accessible through imagination the motivations and emotions of singular moments.) Master And Commander seems to me to fall somewhere in the middle. The Napoleonic wars are an epic backdrop, but we readers are not positioned to see its sweep. Instead, we are treated to a small part of it, but an uncommonly exciting one. O'Brian doesn't claim, though, that Aubrey is turning the tide or affecting the outcome. And that's fascinating in itself; that what he's claiming is that there are pockets of the larger action that were largely disconnected from the overall mission, left to carve out ways of getting along that had only the most tenuous relationship to any larger goals.

As for boats and rigging and the wine-dark sea, well, I have no special affinity for such stories; I've never read any of the other series sometimes mentioned in the same breath with O'Brian's, like Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. Maybe it's just the rhythms of that life that attract me: days of numbing tedium, strictly regimented, broken by long hours of intense crisis, all while criss-crossing to various foreign ports of call. There's adventure there, but also the crassest and most mundane bits of human nature and enterprise. Yet underneath it all is a palpable sense of escape, a sense of freedom that comes from being wrenched away from all other institutions and left alone to adopt and adapt whatever ways of forming and maintaining society might work. There's autonomy in Jack's decision-making that I envy—even though he has to pay the piper eventually—and there's pride in the misfit crew that stirs my heart without relying on empty expressions of patriotism.  This is a story of people who are good at their jobs, many of 'em, and getting better, all of 'em. More than the sailing or the Navy, that's why I like being in their company.


Leonard Pierce: Your last paragraph touches on something I mentioned in our discussion of James Dickey's To The White Sea—the way it reminded me of the films of Howard Hawks, and his obsession with (and valorization of) professional men whose entire identity was wrapped up in being efficient and excellent at their work.  O'Brian doesn't push that angle as much as Hawks (or Dickey), probably because he's a bit less cynical of an artist, but you're right to notice that element of people in an isolated situation taking pride in their work, both out of maturity and out of necessity.

I, too, am not a huge fan of historical fiction (though I'm actually indescribably interested in actual history), and as I mentioned earlier, I don't have much interest in seagoing adventure tales.  Though Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books of all time, that has as much to do with its transcendent philosophical power and its mind-boggling attendance to minutiae as it does the seafaring elements of the book.  Going through Master And Commander, I was much more interested in the historical details of colonialist times and the unfolding relationship between Aubrey and Maturin than the story itself; I wanted to see how the two of them were going to come together and what they were going to discover about one another, and I didn't much care what actually happened to them.  In fact, I was sorry to see them ship out of port and get out onto the open seas; while most people would say that's where the book actually started to get on with it, I missed the crazy little details of everyday life in Port Mahon (a fascinating place in real life, by the way).  The setting did a lot more for me than the actual plot.

It's interesting, though, that you conclude with a mention of the sense of liberation and freedom contained in a sea-story; to me, it's a sense of escape, to be sure, and one of disruption, but the sea has never resonated for me as a symbol of freedom.  It's a symbol of death, of vastness, of the implacability of nature; politically, it's an extension of the political chessboard, and any true liberation it represents is instantly tagged (by people like our Jack Aubrey!) as piracy.  I definitely see your points about the rhythms of life, and the isolation from society, but what does a captain do but recreate his society in miniature, from its class elements to its patterns of punishment and reward?  How do the men who have been pressed feel about the liberation offered by the sea?  I give credit to O'Brian for not entirely avoiding these issues, but in the end he seems, like his captain, too in love with the romance of the sea; it falls to people like B. Traven, in The Death Ship, to tell the story from the other side.

Zack Handlen: I don't read much historical fiction, but that's not because of any aversion to it. I have read a lot of Beryl Bainbridge, a tremendous author who writes these wonderfully bitter novels dealing with the past; I mention her here because one of her books, According To Queeney, actually focuses on the relationship between Samuel Johnson and the Queeney who helps get Jack his job in Master And Commander. Definitely check it out, if you get a chance.


I can understand Leonard's political concerns, and maybe I should've been thinking more along those lines, but I'm a sucker for extended-family type stories that present environments (probably illusory) in which anyone can become an accepted member of the group so long as he pulls his weight. Obviously there are limitations here; if you're a woman, you're out of luck, and if you aren't as educated as Maturin and lack the physical discipline to keep up to Aubrey's standards, you're not going to have a fun time of it. But there is something comforting about a situation where everyone knows their place, even if they can't always live up to it. I thought O'Brian did a tremendous job of making us understand why these sailors would embrace life on the sea, while not shortchanging the men's inadequacies, or the dangers and hardships of the water.

As for the larger conflict, probably one of the reasons I don't read more historical novels is that I don't really have a head for history. I understood in a vague sense that there was a war going on here, and that the Sophie's part in it wasn't a decisive one, and that was enough for me. The ideological conflict between Dillon and Aubrey over the nature of their duty—Dillon believed Aubrey was just a "treasure hunter"—made a solid dynamic, but it wasn't very difficult to come down on Aubrey's side, even disregarding Dillon's eventual fate. If nothing else, that was most likely my main appreciate for this setting: It was the ideal place for a man like Aubrey to thrive in, and I wanted to see him succeed. I mean, can you imagine how he'd handle middle management?


Keith Phipps: Beyond its place in the historical fiction genre, I appreciated Master And Commander’s detailed attention to the British naval tradition. And by that I mean both the fullness with which it dealt with, in the words attributed to Winston Churchill, “rum, sodomy, and the lash” and the way it bettered my understanding of how the British Navy differed from other branches of the military. Though I agree with Leonard that O’Brian elides over the feelings of those serving on the lower decks, he doesn’t exactly shy away from some of the less savory aspects of navel life. William Marshall is accused of being a pederast, or maybe just a “sodomite,” behind his back (accusations to which Jack takes a fairly enlightened attitude). The men misbehave badly at sea and worse in port. (Getting convicted of rape, it would seem, is a fairly common source of attrition on board.) And punishment gets meted out with a casual, expected brutality.

Yet for all that, I can now see why serving in the Navy was considered such a distinguished calling in the novels of Jane Austen. Against this gritty backdrop, there’s the potential for much nobility, even for characters with less-than-noble instincts, like our Jack. Naval life uses rules to keep chaos at bay. Battles at sea involved a prescribed set of rules, and the interactions with the enemy all reminded me of Grand Illusion, in which men on opposing sides discovered that the shared aristocratic values of military life united them more than their nation’s ideologies divided them. It falls apart—there’s a reason for the film’s title—but it feels real for the men. Similarly, O’Brian deals with men for whom life at sea becomes a world unto itself with rules of its own, and by the novel’s end, I felt like I understood those rules a little better.


Todd VanDerWerff: First of all, hi, everyone! I'm thrilled to be joining you guys, and I'm thrilled I could slam through this novel to be able to discuss it with you, even if I missed day one of the discussion.

I'm not a big reader of historical fiction. I enjoy some of it (Hillary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall is a recent favorite), but too much of it seems to get tripped up in the word describing the fiction. Unlike science fiction, where there's a rich tradition of "hard" SF (which tends to be more focused on the science) and "soft" SF (which tends to be more focused on the fiction), there's very little "soft" historical fiction. Too much of it, I think, gets tripped up in straining to evoke the sense of what it must have been like to be a pioneer or a knight or a master and commander, but it's all always filtered through a modern lens, which ends up unfortunately distancing us from the action, making it almost impossible to really focus on who the characters are and how their actions drive the story. There's also an unfortunate tendency to write novels about people who tend to be around for the biggest events of history. Perhaps the biggest historical-fiction seller of all time—Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur—is pretty much just a Forrest Gump of the New Testament.


But for better or worse, O'Brian is able to push past the pitfalls of the genre, and I think that's almost entirely due to his authorial voice. O'Brian really writes like a novel of the period might have sounded, and the fact that he spends almost no time explaining what, exactly, is up with the ship, or what each sail is, beyond cursory explanations to Maturin (who, let's remember, is probably already more familiar with these giant ships than the reader will be) is distancing at first, but also has the effect of something like a foreign-language total-immersion class. O'Brian so obviously knows his stuff and is somehow able to write about it as though he is of the era and somehow traveled through time to relay his tale that all of it eventually washes over the reader. It feels less like historical fiction and more like fiction that just happens to be set 200 years ago, if you catch my drift.

And I must admit I'm not very much of a fan of stories of the sea (like Donna), but I can get the sense of the sea as something that's somehow wild, elusive, and freeing. I think O'Brian gets at this dual quality of men wanting mastery over the sea and being in awe of its mastery over them throughout the novel. (In particular, I'm reminded of when the sailors quibble over why so many sailors can't swim.) But he rarely does so in such a way that you feel just how dangerous the place can be. I live by the Pacific, and I frequently go for walks along the shore in the early morning before work, and I sometimes fear that O'Brian never leaves the position of someone who stands on shore—like me—looking out over the waves and thinking, "Man, it would be great to be on a boat." He's keenly aware of the harshness of life on a ship or of the life of a sailor, but he seems almost too excited by romantic notions of the sea for me.


Ellen Wernecke: I agree with Leonard to some extent that the texture of Aubrey and Maturin’s world is enriched by their port stops and diminished a little out in the open sea air.

It’s the historical details, not the naval battles, that drew me in, and none more so than the watery bureaucracy in which the British Navy exists. As much as Captain Jack cuts a heroic figure, his other hat is that of a fussy middle manager measuring how much he can get away with when his bosses aren’t looking, while determining to strike the exact right pose in front of the sailors he’s inherited so they will respect and fear him. I’ll never forget how he pauses mid-battle to calculate how much his share of the Norwegian ship the Sophie hopes to tow in will be worth (a fruitless math problem, as it turns out, since the Norwegians survive). It’s a system that cuts both ways—willing to overlook major classes of crimes and meting out almost unbearable punishment for others.


But just when you’d expect this seafaring world to get most barbaric, it flattens out again. Jack’s stay as a prisoner of war above the Desaix seems more like an unanticipated detour than a close encounter with a long-standing enemy, though we don’t see how the crew is doing below decks. Loath as I was to see Aubrey killed, and knowing by virtue of the series that he wouldn’t be, I wondered how the captains could be so placid with each other. They didn’t even fight a duel! Aubrey may be shaping up to be a dangerous man on the water, but he left his real enemies—the captains who outrank him and thus can control his rise within the Navy, including cuckolded Harte—back on shore.