The first, ‘Master and Commander’ was a gift, the second ‘Post Captain’ I bought in a secondhand shop, the third ‘HMS Surprise’ I clicked-on in the middle of the night. The next day I went back to the secondhand bookshop and bought the next four books because I was worried someone else might buy them first and also because I’d decided not to get any more of the novels in digital format. (Kindle backlighting: the insomniac’s friend and the considerate way to read in bed without disturbing your bedfellow but I read ‘HMS Surprise’ till the small hours and ought to try to pace myself.) Sticking to actual books to have and to hold and not just the ethereal digital licence to read them is a good idea because should civilisation collapse next week, I wouldn’t be able to re-read ‘HMS Surprise’ and I know that under those circumstances I would particularly want to.
I wish I could work out why I love these books. I mean, I had no interest in the Royal Navy or the Napoleonic Wars. I have a friend who has read them all, but he’s a man, and I reckoned these were men’s books, full of men, being matey or fighting, a bit like Lord of the Rings but on ships. The concept didn’t attract me at all.
So why did I start reading? I was in Waterstone’s with a friend – different friend, woman friend. She saw me idly pick up ‘Master and Commander. (I’d enjoyed the film.) I read the quote from The Times, “The greatest historical novelist of all time.” I read the blurb on the back, from the New York Times: “There is nothing in this century that rivals Patrick O’Brian’s achievement.” Oh, yeah? I thought. And I wondered about film adaptations of novels and how this book had fared in the process. I read the first sentence: “The music-room in the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.” I read the rest of that very long paragraph with its many parentheses and decided here was an over-descriptive, old-fashioned, formal style and I didn’t think I had the patience for it. I was looking for something gripping, I wanted the furious pace of a upfront bestseller. I wanted something that was more like the opening of a James Bond movie – you know, in that famous quote about if you’re writing a screenplay you’re supposed to start with an earthquake and work up to a climax? I thought that kind of plot might help me because I couldn’t seem to be able to get into a book anymore. I couldn’t seem to concentrate properly to read a novel. I could read an article on the internet – even a ‘long read’ – but I couldn’t lose myself in that lovely light trance of reading a novel. And books had always been my refuge, my safe place.
I knew that in looking for a really gripping book, I was seeking some kind of respite from the deep sadness of bereavement I felt after losing my father last year. I thought that if I could bury my head in a book then maybe I could capture that sense of being somewhere else, but no book I tried could draw me in and hold me in its world. I tried Helen Macdonald’s beautiful ‘H is for Hawk’ which is about training a goshawk as well as being a memoir of her father but I had to keeping putting it aside. It was too much. My attempted solution to all this was to re-read reliably gripping books but the trouble with that is you always know what’s coming. The great spellbinding power of suspense is completely absent. It’s not gripping enough, I thought. The grip is gone. I am losing my grip. Must get a grip. What re-reading does offer, however, is the consolation of the familiar authorial voice and I was glad I re-read ‘Station Eleven’, Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful dystopic novel. Maybe I also read it to glimpse hope despite the apocalypse.
I had confessed all this to my friend before we went into Waterstone’s and when she saw me browsing she said, “If you haven’t read Patrick O’Brian yet, then I envy you that pleasure.” (It was on this same friend’s recommendation that I read Game of Thrones, ages ago, before the TV version. I read it because she said it was the sort of book that’s so gripping you forget to eat your lunch. If you knew me or my friend or even just how much we like lunch, you would understand this is the very highest level of book recommendation. You think five stars is a good read? I’ll match your five stars and I’ll raise you a Forgotten Lunch.)
She bought me ‘Master & Commander’. At first I was a little disappointed. Lieutenant Aubrey was on shore in Minorca and I thought he was a bit bluff, a bit of a boor. I too, would have yearned to shoot him after that concert where he irritated the hell out of Stephen Maturin by tapping away in time to the music – or not quite in time to the music. Ok, so I was pleased for Aubrey when he got his promotion, his ‘step’, but what about all this dusky maiden nonsense with the busty barmaid? There’s a bad attitude to women summed up right there I thought. But at that point I hadn’t met avenging angel, Diana Villiers and neither had Jack Aubrey, nor had Stephen Maturin.
I was sadly nurturing my prejudice when, somehow – still don’t understand how – my opinion of the author and his characters began to change. I can’t say when exactly but I know we were definitely at sea, flying along in page after page after page of breathtakingly impenetrable eighteenth century jargon about sails and wind and tide and God knows what as Captain Aubrey takes his ship, his first command to sea for the first time, and suddenly without knowing quite when or why it happened, I’m IN. By God, I’m in the book, absorbed, spellbound, and astonished as to how I’ve succumbed. Part of my mind is still registering my total incomprehension about maintopgallants and futtock shrouds and yet I’ve just read an awful lot about them and even enjoyed the experience, perhaps because I now trust the author. But why? Why? The part of my mind trained in literary criticism rises to the surface thinking: how the hell is he making me read this stuff? How is he so easily pulling me along, through all this jargon? I have no idea. Could it be he’s a genius? Then I float back into that wonderful light reading trance and there I am in reader-spirit, on the quarterdeck. I’m looking up at the sails and out to sea and it’s a magical thing that Patrick O’Brian achieves, a magical, magical thing. I am beguiled.