Wednesday Book: Home on the rolling deep

THE HUNDRED DAYS BY PATRICK O'BRIAN, HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 16.99

IF C S FORESTER was the Navy's Mozart, Patrick O'Brian is its Beethoven. Better or worse are irrelevant comparatives. Nor is there any need to deprive oneself of the pleasure of the latter out of a misplaced loyalty to the former. Certainly, the dozens of British and American admirals, ambassadors, novelists, musicians and secret service agents who recently toasted O'Brian at a 370-strong celebration dinner in the Painted Hall at Greenwich saw no reason to qualify their adulation.

O'Brian's hugely celebrated epic of the British Navy between 1800 and 1815 has brought together perhaps the most unlikely combination of admirers in the annals of reading. At the dinner, William Waldegrave compared him to Homer, Mark Knopfler rubbed shoulders with the heads of MI5 and MI6, Danielle Steele and Rose Tremain tapped feet to the Beating of the Retreat. Go into any bookshop come publication day and the queue panting for their copy of The Hundred Days will include young and old, male and female, dreamers and sportsmen, philosophers and explorers.

Some have grown up with O'Brian - the first in the series was written in 1970. Others, myself included, came upon him more recently and read them in a tidal wave of energy. Most have returned to read them all through again. What we're talking about with a new O'Brian is a kind of Father Christmas letter about a much-loved and ever-growing family of characters in an unerringly authentic and gloriously patriotic setting. High endeavours alternate with everyday grinds, subtle dilemmas with love affairs, tragedy with comedy. Why wouldn't we like them?

But if you are an O'Brian virgin, beware of trying to jump aboard in mid-voyage. The Hundred Days is better described as the 19th chapter than the 19th book in his 6,300-page long series. Although its publishers insist that it can stand alone, to start here would be like listening to a cello with a duster stuffed in its sound-box. You will miss the echoes and resonances, the variations on a host of themes, that stretch back through the last 18 books. Worst of all, you will fail to understand why, on arrival at page four of The Hundred Days, there will be all over the O'Brian world great wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a general donning of sackcloth and ashes, as his hundreds of thousands of fans absorb the most unjust literary shock since Part VI of Jude the Obscure. Go and buy the first in the series (Master and Commander) and leave me to commiserate with the converted.

How can I soften the blow (the nature of which I have no intention of revealing, although crasser critics will do so)? I could tell you that it is, for all that initial shock, worth reading on. That we are back in the vessel Surprise and in the Mediterranean. That this is a much meatier book than The Yellow Admiral. That Aubrey fights some splendid actions and teeters between glory and ruin. That Maturin almost meets his match among the wily Arabs, but also adds to his formidable collection of natural phenomena. That there is promise in the book's sunset of a new dawn.

And finally, having lured you thus far, I can, sadly, promise that its recurring leitmotif is one of the subtlest sketchings of deep, deep grief in literature.

Now for comfits. How about a CD of Musical Evenings with the Captain (Morr Music, 13 Bank Square, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 1AN), a compilation of the sort of pieces that Aubrey and Maturin played together in their cabin, complete with an essay by the Master on the music in ordinary people's lives at the time? Or you could get stuck into recipes for Drowned Baby, Archipel Flottant and Soused Hog's Face from Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Liza Grossman Thomas's Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, "Which is a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels" (Norton). Never mind "first catch your hare", we're talking syllabubs in which you milk the cow into the bowl and fritters made from the swordfish which happened to pierce the True-love's hull.

Or you could buy the recently reprinted The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore (both HarperCollins), the first two books O'Brian wrote. Both about Anson's circumnavigation of the world in 1740, they star a couple of midshipmen who, by all accounts, bear a striking resemblance to Aubrey and Maturin in youth. Or you could go down to "Woolcombe, or Woolhampton as some say", and leave a bunch of lilies at Maiden Oscott bridge.

Christina Hardyment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future