I Try to Read 20 Master & Commander Novels
I will finish Patrick O'Brian's oeuvre in 2022 or die trying.
It is well documented that men like their little military histories. You may be able to name some of these men in your own life; you may be one yourself. The World War II guy, the Roman Empire buff, the Hiroshima knower: I’m talking to you.
For military and other obsessives, one great joy is finding one’s fellow crazies. C.S. Lewis says the difference between being lovers and being friends is one of orientation: while lovers face each other, friends both look outward toward a third, shared thing they love. For many guys, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is that third, shared thing, a movie tailor-made for us. For those unfamiliar, it mashes up various episodes from the British naval novels of Patrick O'Brian. It’s a cult classic bromance movie, notable for being the canonical screen version of Napoleonic naval warfare, and for failing the Bechdel Test as completely as it’s possible to do.
O'Brian’s novels are purportedly excellent, transcending the genre. After watching the movie again over 2021 Christmas, I made an obsessive’s decision: I would read all 20 novels. It seemed simultaneously ridiculous and totally feasible: I’m a fast reader and I like the genre. How hard could it be? I kept a meticulous log, which I present below.
#1. Master and Commander
This is not my first unhealthy relationship with British Napoleonic naval fiction. As a preteen, I devoured all thirteen books in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower oeuvre (made into a forgettable BBC series with the guy who played Mr. Fantastic). I’d adored Hornblower, a brilliant naval mind beset by crippling insecurity. But I’d never tried O'Brian’s books. Powering through the first novel, I wonder what took me so long.
Here’s a synopsis of basically all the novels: Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor/Naturalist/Spy Steven Maturin have adventures on ships, through the Napoleonic War and beyond. Aubrey and Maturin are a lovely pair, well balanced on land and sea: Maturin is out of his element on a ship, while Aubrey is pleasantly incompetent in cities and normal social situations. Movie fans tend to agree that Russell Crowe was perfectly cast as Jack Aubrey, all brawn and ruddy good cheer. He’s the most popular boy on the playground, in an aging body. Maturin is lean, neurotic, and bookish, but comes fully alive when investigating new flora and fauna.
Their friendship is O'Brian’s great literary achievement. Maturin mothers Aubrey occasionally, and Aubrey can be overbearing in his role as captain, but like Lewis’s friends they become completely free with each other when at their shared love, playing music. Fans of the movie often find the musical duet scenes especially moving. They present a version of authentic male friendship that feels true.
The novel itself is jaunty and quick. For several months, Aubrey noodles around the south coasts of France and Spain, pulling off daring attacks on the French. He and Maturin become pals. Next please!
#2. Post Captain
The O'Brian model rapidly appears: 400 pages, give or take, of which the first fifty are dedicated to recap, character sketches, and nautical explanation. O'Brian shares the genre-fiction habit of using a confused character as an opportunity to practice heavy exposition on the reader. “Jack, pray tell me the present state of the world,” says Aubrey’s wife (this is a direct quote), and we promptly receive five pages unpacking contemporary geopolitics. You ask “And which are the forejibs?” and some midshipman patiently explicates some aspect of sails and rigging. To O'Brian’s credit, half the drama in the novels is rooted in the science and engineering of ships: how quickly they can turn, with what weather conditions they can battle, and so on. Every mechanical explanation is Chekov’s gun in the making.
In 1802, peace is declared, putting Aubrey out of a job. He and Maturin proceed to have more silly adventures. They sail to Toulon to have dinner with a French naval captain and frenemy, then do some botany and surreptitious spying. When war breaks out again, Aubrey puts on a bear skin, and Maturin pretends to be his handler, and together they hike over the Pyrenees and arrive in the relative safety of neutral Spain. O'Brian pushes reader suspension of disbelief a bit much throughout this journey (it turns out Maturin has a family castle?), but it’s great fun.
Then they get back to England, Aubrey gets a ship, more naval adventures. O'Brian writes an all-time terrible boss in Admiral Harte, a “malevolent cuckold.” I tear through this one.
#3. H.M.S. Surprise
A revelation. Aubrey and Maturin do some world traveling, hitting the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Rio, Cape Town, Bombay, Calcutta, and Java in a wild romp involving some Borneo rubies and colonial love interests. The martial drama revolves around the escorting of a valuable fleet of merchantmen back from India to England, laden with spices, jewels, and so on. Waylaid by French frigates, Aubrey pulls off some neatly coordinated maneuvers with his ragged flock of fat little ships. I fancy I’m hitting my stride: 400 pages glide by in a day and a half. Aubrey builds an ugly but effective reinforcement to his mast to get an extra half-knot of speed out of HMS Surprise, his beloved little ship - satisfying engineering hacks are O'Brian’s bread and butter. I download the next three novels at once to save time. We move.
#4. The Mauritius Command
Readers with similar brainworms to mine will note a structural similarity between this installment and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Aubrey leads an expeditionary force to Mauritius, off the eastern coast of Madagascar. Aubrey’s force encounters a hefty French fleet, and a series of brutal brawls ensues, complete with amputations and related surgical dramas. Aubrey somehow recaptures multiple ships and carries the day. Although the story feels fantastical, I browse Wikipedia and find it’s actually pulled directly from a real expedition in the South Indian ocean: even the ships are the same. I tell myself I’m learning history and stay up till 3 AM finishing this one. Onward!
#5. Desolation Island
O’Brian is a better prose stylist than Forester confirmed. For complicated reasons, our heroes are headed to Australia. O'Brian writes a superbly original, desperate slow-motion chase in the doldrums of the lower forties, as the 50-gun Leopard is stalked by the massive (74-gun) Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. It’s painfully tense: O'Brian manages to conjure the sensation of being stalked by a relentless, very large creature.
The second half reads like existentialist fiction: one can imagine Maturin thumbing through Sartre’s Nausea as they drift through hundreds of miles of empty water. After many dangers and a mutiny, our heroes arrive at a tiny island. Maturin meets some seals and penguins. The novel is marred slightly by a convoluted subplot involving American counterintelligence.
#6. The Fortune of War
Things happen. Our heroes end up under house arrest in Boston, of all places, bystanders to the War of 1812. A plotline from several books ago returns, to pleasant effect: Maturin has a French spy nemesis, in league with the Americans and plotting to murder him. Nicole is begging me to come to bed. I can’t hear her, I’m busy following a shootout in a dense New England bank of fog.
Overwhelmed by both nautical and geographical references, I pick up a classic O'Brian reference guide (there are multiple reference texts available for the maniacal reader). Harbors and High Seas, economically subtitled An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian, has been through three editions, and its author claims to have written the bulk of it while on a square-rigged sailing ship. I can feel myself slipping further below the surface of this subculture, and the reach of my loved ones.
#7. The Surgeon’s Mate
There are only so many plots one can leverage and locations one can travel in a given genre. O'Brian sends our boys on a James Bond-ey diplomatic mission to the Baltic. Again, true lovers of the canon will remember that Horatio Hornblower traversed the same narrow channels on his own diplomatic mission in Commodore Hornblower, and also led a siege breaking mission across the ice. The parallels grate slightly. No one listens to me when I tell them this.
Moreover, I don’t have anyone to share this project with - no fellow hobbyists on this journey. Maybe this was a tactical error. Should I be live-tweeting?
#8. The Ionian Mission
Another requirement of the micro-genre: you must blockade a port regularly. Harbors and High Seas informs me that Toulon was the single French naval arsenal on the Mediterranean, which explains why the Brits are constantly saying things like “we must not let the frogs squirm their way out of Toulon.”
“How are your little novels?” asks a friend. They’re going great. Mission has all O’Brian’s usual virtues, and possibly the funniest installment so far to boot. I’ve crossed the 3,000 page mark, thanks largely to a rigorous practice of subway commute reading. But this one is a bit disjointed, with a North African side plot and more palace intrigue at the Admiralty, and I wonder when my strength will start to fade.
#9. Treason’s Harbor
Aubrey and Maturin are posted up in Malta, which sounds lovely - but my energy is fading. Even the intricate spycraft in this one (sinister figures are constantly watching our heroes from nearby buildings) can’t give me back the strength or speed I had five books ago. O'Brian digs deep in the old Naval Logs (religiously maintained by the British National Archives) to source material for a tactical maneuver. Apparently the real-life Captain William Hoste hauled two long 18-pounders up a cliff to force the Adriatic town of Cattaro to surrender, much like Aubrey does to the city of Marga. Neat. There’s also a funny, mordant scene where an Armenian guide is eaten by sharks, and some cross-cultural negotiation with the Mamelukes.
#10. The Far Side of the World
Devotees of the Russell Crowe movie will recognize the title, as well as some of the key plot points. Aubrey is chasing a ship harassing British commerce in the Pacific, although in this book it’s an American vessel, not French. In the foreword to a later novel, O'Brian bemoans the fact that he started the stories relatively late in the Napoleonic Wars, limiting his runway and forcing him to bring the Americans in as antagonists.
Still, I notice with horror that I’m growing immune to O'Brian’s techniques. The beats aren’t landing. I struggle to maintain interest, and several scenes feel like rehashes. When our heroes lose precious time in the doldrums, I don’t bat an eye.
#11. The Reverse of the Medal
I can’t do it anymore. I make it forty pages in, and my eyes glaze over. I’m tired of rejecting other book recommendations, tired of the bit. Like the bedraggled Surprise, my top speed is second to none, but I’m an old model, headed for the shipyards. How is it possible to read ten more of these? My hubris astounds me.
I will come back to O'Brian novels, inshallah, when a sign is given: perhaps an eye-watering sea breeze will strike, or a stranger at a bar will ask how to land cannon shot below the waterline. Until that day I am not touching the damned things.
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