Monday, December 17, 2012

Read O'Brian and Despair

As for writing a novel, I'd better put a cork on that. I finished Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander yesterday and observed I'd never write as well as he does, not even if I tried for a thousand years.

One thing about O'Brian is he's an artist, not your ordinary sort of writer. That is, he draws scenes, and the words serve as his paintbrush. As artists go, he's an impressionist. The reader must work to shake out what's going on. O'Brian won't pat your hand and say, "Now, now, we're getting up, dear old Sir, so please put your slippers on," none of that, he zips from point to point without very much in the way of transition. The reader's brain must work overtime, sometimes rereading to puzzle out what is going on in the story. One adjusts to this challenging style, because it has the advantage of compactness. O'Brian draws a scene in ten pages that would take another writer fifty, while imparting more nuance. He does not waste the reader's time and is never boring.

Of course O'Brian's a classic nerd, having devoured every single fact and legend concerning the British Navy of the 1700s-1800s, and he flaunts his knowledge until the reader is cowed into accepting the writer's indisputable authority. I don't know one sail from another, it's all Greek to me. I just marvel. I suppose that the gentleman must have spent a good chunk of his life reading naval histories and stories. I don't even like sailing, but I like Patrick O'Brian's novels about sailing. That's the mark of a great author, that he can hook landlubbers like me with his naval stories. I rank O'Brian up there with the best of the best, and I can only wonder why Gore Vidal never reviewed his books, but Vidal preferred dead authors to living competitors and probably found O'Brian reactionary, although I think O'Brian's personal views may be found in the speech of his character Stephen Maturin, who was liberal enough for me.

When I think of the times I wanted to write a historical novel, I blush in shame, because I know good and well my knowledge of times past is not one-tenth O'Brian's. My effort would turn out just like the ones of those historical novelists I read in the library and put down in contempt.

So read O'Brian and despair, ye budding writers!Post a Comment
by igor 04:20 4 replies by igor 09:32 0 comments


Deke Solomon said...

I was in the Marines. I spent about two months at sea aboard one or another troop-transport vessel. For me, the best part about being at sea with the U.S. Navy is the food. Boy! Do them sailors eat good! They eat big, too. On board the USS Manitowok (LST) we used to get all-you-can-eat surf & turf every Friday nite for supper. In fact, all of the meals were all-you-can-eat -- but surf & turf? Mmmmmboy!

The worst part of being at sea with the U.S. Navy is being at sea with the U.S. Navy. Bummer.

I think guys like O'Brien kid themselves more than a bit. The thing that one must remember about wooden-ship, wind-powered navies is the fact that they had to kidnap their manpower. Citizens of seaport communities spent their nights indoors at home because they were terrified of press gangs. Few men went to sea voluntarily. Of those that were kidnapped, three or four years at sea ruined their lives. When they got home, many of them found they had nothing to come back to, so they went back to sea because their former lives had vanished.

igor said...

O'Brian doesn't conceal the press-gangs and the sorry lot of the common sailor. Never once does the reader feel like the common sailors (or for that matter, even the officers) have it good. It's not that I would want to trade places with anyone in O'Brian's books, only that I like stowing aboard and watching what goes on.

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