FICTION: Waves of feeling

Patrick O'Brian's sea stories should be better known, argues David Papineau, a serious fan
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The Independent Culture
THERE cannot be many contemporary authors whose admirers include Charlton Heston, Iris Murdoch and A S Byatt. Even more surprising is to win these followers with sea-going adventures. When Patrick O'Brian started his sequence of Nap- oleonic nava l stories with Master and Commander in 1971, connoisseurs of the genre soon noted that he was offering something more than conventional sea fare. The Commodore (HarperCollins £14.99) is the 17th in the series, and by now the word has spread to a large bo dy of readers, most of whom cannot tell a hawse from a halyard.

Those who start with the later volumes in the series are often bemused. They find themselves in a strange and largely sea-borne world, peopled by characters who seem to know each other well, but who have exceedingly curious manners. These characters clearly live rich and exciting lives, full of adventure and camaraderie, but their attitudes and behaviour are as foreign to most of us as the unspoilt oceans through which they voyage.

Reading O'Brian is like stepping back 200 years. The rhythms of his prose and the set of his mind entirely match his subject matter. O'Brian confesses in his prefaces that many of his naval campaigns and sea actions are drawn straight from the Naval Chronicle and Admiralty papers of the period. These archives have also provided him with a distant way of life, no doubt strange even to the land-dwellers of the time, but infinitely more so two centuries later. At one level O'Brian books are stirring adventure stories. But they are also a kind of historical anthropology, and together these two elements add up to something with no real parallel in contemporary literature.

Our entry into O'Brian's world is eased by the contrast between his two central characters. Jack Aubrey is the bluff, up-and-at-'em naval officer, at sea since a boy, whose generous loyalties and Tory values have never been diluted by abstract thought. Stephen Maturin is a spiky, ill-made fellow, half Irish and half Catalan, with a medical training and a passion for natural history.

Each novel contains a voyage with Jack in command and Stephen as ship's surgeon, interspersed by land-based interludes during which the two heroes suffer varying fortunes in the worlds of Georgian finance, politics and matrimony. Jack lives in a simple world of naval tradition and land-owning patronage. Stephen, though scarcely modern by 20th-century lights, is aware of the fragility of order and importance of freedom.

O'Brian's earlier novels hinted at higher ambitions. The start of Master and Commander contains echoes of Joyce's Ulysses, and much of the plot hinges on the secret nationalist past Stephen shares with an Irish shipmate. Other early novels attempt passages of social comedy in Austenesque style, as Jack and Stephen are assessed as suitors by the matrons and daughters of the county.

But the ambitions have been trimmed by the constraints of the genre. Regular voyaging makes it difficult to sustain the land-based plots, and there is very little of Irish nationalism or domestic arrangements in the later novels. Special contrivances have increasingly been needed: by rights Aubrey ought long ago to have become an Admiral and retired from adventuring, and only regular scandals and misfortunes have held him at sea-roving level. Worse, by the tenth novel O'Brian found himself running out of history, having started his heroes off in 1801, and the last few volumes have resorted to a slow South Seas cruise to stall European time and keep Napoleon in power.

It is good that The Commodore finally returns Aubrey and Maturin to more familiar waters. Jack is in command of his own squadron, and after routing the slave-traders of West Africa, he foils a dangerous (if historically mislocated) attempt by the French to land in West Cork and raise up the Irish. Neither Jack's nor Stephen's marital lives run smoothly, but established readers will be glad at least to see them picking up the traces. Anybody new to O'Brian's magnificent series, however, shoul d go right back to the beginning and read the other 16 novels before this one.