Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blue at the Mizzen!

Our book today is an inadvertently sad one, Patrick O'Brian's Blue at the Mizzen from 2000 – sad because it's the last of the great Aubrey/Maturin novels. I scorn utterly the pathetic fragment that was pulled from the author's dead hand by his greedy publishers, and I say further that despite the implications of that fragment, O'Brian was very consciously ending his long series with this book, which accounts for its sadness even though the actual events of the book itself are both happy and, paradoxically, cheering.

The story is populated by so many of our old friends: bluff, enormous Commodore Jack Aubrey, grizzled and hyper-intelligent doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, many tried and familiar hands aboard the Surprise (now ostensibly a privately-commissioned hydrographical survey vessel, but a mighty well-armed one), and in fact the Surprise herself, a trifle long in the tooth but wonderfully spry. There's a voyage to South America, and there are doldrums, and there are the terrors of rounding the Horn, and there's Jack cuckolding an admiral, and there are long, interminable letters being written to loved ones on the other side of the world, and there are lovely interludes ashore both at home in England and in far-off marshes and swamps where Maturin (and the new object of his awkward affection) goes exploring. There are action sequences of superb excitement, and there are wonderful character bits and routines that practically glow with our long-standing affection.

And yet, there's a sadness that permeates the book, and perhaps it's not all inadvertent. O'Brian takes many opportunities to let readers know that even in his Napoleonic Lothlorien, time touches his characters. Not only are all of them older and scarred from their various adventures, but some of them are absent, dead, and keenly missed (not only Bonden, Jack's stalwart subordinate, but also Stephen's endearing potto, the sight of whose carefully-preserved bones briefly chokes him up at one point in the book). And there's a young new generation springing up all around them – in this book most winningly portrayed in the form of engagingly deferential ensign Horatio Hanson, who might just be the bastard son of the Duke of Clarence, the future idiot-king William IV.

Despite the numerous fantasy elements of his huge epic, O'Brian was enamored of a certain realism, and he periodically spruces up his various chapters by slowly advancing Jack Aubrey through the chain of command in the British Navy. Since the one thing we're guaranteed from the very first book is that our two main characters will prosper in the end, there's only one real destination for all those assignments and promotions of Jack's: the admiralty (and unlike in the case of James T. Kirk, there'll be no going back from that august rank). And there's something even a grass-combing swab can intuit about the admiralty: its members (again, not including Jim Kirk) don't go haring off on wild adventures. They're august and well-salaried bureaucrats, especially when there's no Napoleon to fight.

So when in Blue at the Mizzen we see Jack fretting over whether or not he'll ever become a 'blue' admiral, we know, even without the assurance of the book's title, that he shall become exactly that, and soon. And such knowledge can't help but cast everything in the book in a valedictory light. When Stephen Maturin is briefly at Jack Aubrey's home in England, touring the neighboring fields with his daughter, the beauty of it all is the beauty of a long, lingering sunset:
What pleasant days they were – an English summer at its best, and English countryside at its best, enough night-rain in the hills to keep the trout-streams fine and brisk, and there were reports of a hoopoe seen three times at Chiddingfold parsonage. This year was happy in unusual numbers of birds (nesting-time had been particularly favourable) and Stephen and Brigid wandered along the smooth hay-meadows, by the standing corn, and along the banks, he telling her the names of countless insects,l many birds – kingfishers, dippers, dabchicks, and the occasional teal: coots and moorhens, of course – as well as his particular favourites, hen-harrier, sparrowhawk and kestrel and once a single splendid peregrine, a falcon clipping her way not much above head-height with effortless speed. A hare in her form: two dormice: an infant weasel, unalarmed: and such quantities of butterflies.

“The sea,” we're told, “if it teaches nothing else, does at least compel a submission to the inevitable which resembles patience.” And certainly the last six or seven Aubrey/Maturin books at times required patience – shot and incident became distinctly rarer, and more and more pages were given over to O'Brian's sharp and lilting but occasionally stultifying social comedy. Whole books would elapse without anything in the way of exciting happening, which can be a trial no matter how entertaining the author is. Blue at the Mizzen, fortunately, doesn't suffer from that – hell, it opens with the nautical equivalent of a hit-and-run, and it seldom slows down after that. There's political intrigue, romantic interludes, and plenty of action to keep the reader engrossed. And as always there's the O'Brian humor:
Jack Aubrey pushed back his chair, loosened his waistcoat, and said, “I had no idea I was so hungry: I am afraid I must have eaten like an ogre.”

Killick could be seen to smile: Jack's appetite always pleased him – his one deviation into amiability.

But even while you're reading along, pleased beyond measure at seeing the thing done so supremely well, there's that persistent melancholy. The book's last paragraph runs like this:
After the last salute Jack glanced aloft – still the sweet west wind – an then he looked fore and aft: a fine clear deck, hands all at their stations and all beaming with pleasure; and turning to the master he said, 'Mr. Hanson, pray lay ma course for Cape Pilar and Magellan's Strait.'

All that's missing is a 'and they lived happily ever after' to choke you up a bit yourself.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Wonderful post. I've still only read the first five, which are all action-packed. But Jack Aubrey is a happily married man--I don't know why you would suggest he's sleeping around!