The Young Hornblower Omnibus by CS Forester, book of a lifetime: A joyous creation and a perfection in words

Young Hornblower is, simply, one of the most complete creations of character in fiction

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The Independent Culture

I grow less tolerant with the passing years. That is not such  a strange thing to say.

I think perfection can be found or known only by the young, because it comes with novelty  and joy and the delicious shock  of empathy, previously unknown. I have wept while reading. I have thrown books across a room with tremendous force – still never enough to express my anger, for all they crash and bat around and tear themselves to pieces.

Sometimes it is the writing, though I can forgive much, as  a sinner always should. Usually  it is because of a lack of understanding, of people, of a time, of the needs and rhythms of a story. It is then that I look back to the moments of perfection in my past, to the bright colours of the grandest tales. And it breaks my heart as I realise: I have never known a better world than those.

Hornblower is one of the great characters. CS Forester understood that type of man – much like my father – who understood contract bridge and mathematics, and had the deep salt sea in his blood. A few days from now,  I will sing “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” at my father’s funeral, with its best known line to end each verse: “For Those in Peril  on the Sea”. My father loved the Hornblower tales. He knew the truth of them, the wild, patriotic, joyous truth, of sea and ships and wood and endurance – all in words created, before the first whisper of plot. It’s well done.  It’s really well done.

Young Hornblower is introspective, morose, self-doubting. He is crippled by the fear that he does not have the qualities to  command other men. He is harder on himself than anyone else would dare to be – and is, simply, one of the most complete creations of character in fiction.

I don’t know how much of Hornblower was taken from Forester’s own life, or whether he observed those qualities in others. I do know that it does  not matter whether it’s passing a canal boat through a tunnel by lying on his back and walking the tunnel ceiling, or raiding French ships, or fighting in smoke and spray at sea – it is all fascinating because of him. That is a joyous creation, a perfection in words. That is enough.

Conn Iggulden’s latest historical fiction, ‘Trinity’ (War of the Roses series), is published by Penguin

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