Friday, December 9, 2011

Some favorite phrases from the books of Patrick O'Brian.

I am deeply enjoying reading the books of Patrick O'Brian, the English author whose series of novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic era are sometimes called "the Aubrey and Maturin books", named for his two protagonists.  My friend Mike Strickland has said that this is the greatest heterosexual bromance in 20th Century literature, and even an irascible mathematician such as myself can find no counter-example.

The stories center around Jack Aubrey, who begins the series as a lieutenant but soon rises to the post of captain, and Stephen Maturin, a man of many talents, surgeon, naturalist and British intelligence operative.  Aubrey and Maturin are as different as chalk and cheese, but they are the best of friends through good times and bad, each of them willing and capable of risking life, limb and property to aid the other should he be in distress.

O'Brian is a great stylist as well as a fine writer of good old stirring naval action in the tradition of the Horatio Hornblower series.  He has many phrases he repeats often, and I have come to look upon these phrases as old friends.  Here are ten off the top of my head.

Popery. The most commonly used word in the books for Catholicism. Usually used by non-Catholics, but Maturin, Irish born and half Catalan by blood, is Catholic and even he uses the phrase when talking to his many non-Catholic friends.

Topgallantmasts. O'Brian is a remarkable researcher, and he loves the details of the rigging of the ship.  There are often paragraphs full of the precise sails being used at a given point in a voyage.  I've learned these paragraphs can usually be replaced by the phrase "They were sailing very fast", but where's the style in that?

Carronades and nine pounders. Remember what I wrote about O'Brian and his love of the sails?  He loves the guns aboard ship, too, and researched them just as carefully.

Coffee and toasted cheese.  Food plays a major part in the books, and coffee and toasted cheese is a common breakfast for both Aubrey and Maturin when they are aboard ship.

"Shall we play some music tonight, brother?"  Perhaps the most important thing Aubrey and Maturin have in common is a love for music.  Aubrey plays the violin and Maturin the cello, and while they may not be the best of musicians, the hours together playing and improvising are among the best times for both of them.

The happy Surprise. Many of the books take place aboard the H.M.S. Surprise, almost always under the command of Aubrey.  He is a just captain and not given to lots of flogging.  He likes the ship clean but he is not obsessed with it.  The one point of naval order he is obsessive about is getting the guns to fire quickly and accurately, so there are many drills with the guns.  The men like the smoke and noise and they like sailing with Lucky Jack Aubrey, who wins many battles that he easily could have lost.  When the Surprise is commissioned, it's an average sized boat, but both the French and the British start building bigger boats with more guns.  The Surprise is considered fit for mothballs for many a book in the series, but Aubrey still commands her and wins battles with her, capturing prizes that increase the pay of the crew, yet another reason the ship is called "the happy Surprise".

Testudo aubreii.  Maturin discovers a previously unidentified species of tortoise and names it for his friend Jack Aubrey, Testudo aubreii.  A lot of characters in the books are naturalists, and you can tell how keen they are by whether or not the Testudo aubreii is known to them.

"Like smoke and oakum". This is Jack Aubrey's favorite phrase for "we were going really fast".

"Never in life." This is Stephen Maturin's favorite phrase for "No, I would not."

"I give you joy". This is everyone's favorite for congratulations on some good news.  If either Aubrey or Maturin is saying it to the other, it is "I give you joy, brother".  Their true friendship is one of the great treasures of the books.

If you are already a reader of Aubrey and Maturin books, let me give you joy, brother, or if it is the case, let me give you joy, dear lady.  If you are not a reader, I give them my highest recommendation. Many fans say you must start with the first book and read all the way through, but impatient lubber that I am, I wanted to read about Maturin seeing the Galapagos, so I started with The Far Side of the World, one of the later novels, and now have gone through the next four after that, The Reverse of the Medal, The Letter of Marque, The Thirteen Gun Salute and The Nutmeg of Consolation.  I will likely read until the end and then start over at the beginning.


Matty Boy said...

In the post, I did not mention that a movie was made from a bastardization of the books. It was give me joy if none of the commenters mention this aberration either.

sfmike said...

I think I was the one who was shocked that you started with "The Far Side of the World" rather than the first in the series, "Master and Commander," but you may have been unintentionally serendipitous in your choice, brother. "The Far Side of the World" and its around-the-world adventure that stretches for a number of subsequent volumes is where the series really comes into its own. So, having read to the end, the opening books will have a whole different and more powerful resonance for you having already read the later ones. By the way, the meeting of Aubrey and Maturin in the opening pages is one of the great meet-cute's in the history of literature so you also have that to look forward to. And the movie wasn't THAT bad.

Really happy you're enjoying the series. I couldn't even read the last one because I was too depressed that they were at an end before the author had a chance to wrap up the long narrative properly.

Matty Boy said...

You were not the only person to chastise me for not starting at the beginning, brother. The clerk at my local little bookshop was also shocked.

Her name is Renee, a charmingly flirtatious woman, 6'1" and cute as a button. She has quite the effect on most of her customers and possibly just a little more so on me, as you well might imagine.