In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists, I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but my reading tastes were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.
Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester, Melville’s Moby Dick and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.
So last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.
By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.
For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).
Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.
Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go, fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.