Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Reverse of the Medal

By Patrick O'Brian
Davis, with his four uglier brothers and a dumb Negro bosun's mate, went straight to them and in a thick voice, choking with fury, said 'Bugger off.'

Jack Aubrey's fortunes drop to their lowest ebb in this book, as treachery, misfortune and misplaced loyalties combine to reduce them. Returning from the far side of the world with a cheerful optimism, Jack is an easy target for the traitor Wray and his accomplices and as the story progresses so Jack's world is slowly pulled apart. Stephen fares little better, as his wife Diane has run off with their mutual Swedish friend Jagiello, but this book is more or less about the downfall of Lucky Jack Aubrey and though Stephen is often the primary character, as he rushes back and forth, his story takes a break.

Quite why it is about the downfall of Lucky Jack Aubrey is a curious question, except in as much as the down fall of a person is a story unto itself, but think I spy some perverse iconoclasm at work in O'Brian here. Given how often Stephen Maturin's luck out weighs those about him, including the so called 'Lucky Jack', I don't wonder if perhaps inside Partick O'Brian there was a curious struggle going on between his adopted Irish character and the English character he really was. It really doesn't matter because the story is still good, but for some reason, this book, and to some extent the next one, feel like O'Brian took a step outside his ever expanding fantasy world and dealt it a frightful blow.

I know he faced many troubles in his life, and I don't doubt that the Aubrey Maturin books were his escape from the mundane horrors of life, just as they have often proven to be mine. I know no better place to hide than aboard a fictious frigate on the high sea's with a crew of amiable ship mates and friends, fully loaded, stocked and armed to the teeth!

The Letter of Marque

By Patrick O'Brian
He could be heard muttering in the sleeping-cabin. - God-damned blunt needle - if he had a shilling for every button that fat arsed slut at Ashgrove had put on loose, he would be a rich man - no notion of seating a shank man-of-war fashion - and the twist was the wrong shade of green.

Having 'deconstructed' Jack Aubrey in the previous book, to the point of stripping away his very raison d'ĂȘtre, O'Brian now sets about rebuilding him, and doing so in such a fashion that demonstrates the underlying power of his both primary characters. Jack grows, leaner, tougher and his luck returns, whilst Stephen, now a rich man, sets about recovering his wife, and paying for his many years as a laudanum addict. The end product of this process is not just a good read, which it is, but also provides us with an insight into O'Brian's skill as a story teller in the Napoleonic period as he literally bends time past the breaking point to squeeze in an extra decade of life, and to do so in a manner which allows a man passing up the Post Captain's list to enjoy a great many adventures whilst avoiding any form of inconvenient promotion.

At this point in the saga, O'Brian has taken us from crystal clear realism, to pure escapism, and we don't care one jot! The story is just too good.

Jack and the Surprise, now a private war ship (a so called Letter of Marque) owned by Stephen are free to pursue their own goals, which is good both for Jack and and for us the readers. Jack gets to snatch up a string of prizes (to restore his fortune) and then in a dashing expedition against a French home base, to 'cut out' a rival French ship (and restore his sense of honour). Things go from good, to even better, but will it be enough to restore Jack to the navy list and will Stephen win back Diane?

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