Almost everyone can name at least one author that you would love just ONE more book from. Either because they’re dead, not being published any more, not writing more, not producing new work for whatever reason . . . or they’ve aged and aren’t writing to their old standards any more . . . For whatever reason, there just hasn’t been anything new (or worth reading) of theirs and isn’t likely to be.
If you could have just ONE more book from an author you love . . . a book that would be as good any of their best (while we’re dreaming) . . . something that would round out a series, or finish their last work, or just be something NEW . . . Who would the author be, and why? Jane Austen? Shakespeare? Laurie Colwin? Kurt Vonnegut?
David asked me last night, "Where are your mystery books?" and I pointed to a shelf in the living room. He was gone for some moments, then came back with not a mystery but Master and Commander, the first in the novels by Patrick O'Brian chronicling the adventures of Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin in the early 19th-century English navy, and basis for the brilliantly atmospheric if somewhat hodge-podge movie of the same name. We sat together for a while, David reading and I knitting, but I kept glancing over at his book, and before long put my knitting away and picked up The Nutmeg of Consolation, fourteenth in the series. Why I've left it so long, I can't say -- it's been two years at least since I read the previous book. What was I thinking?
I was rewarded nearly at once by this, as the marooned sailors take a respite, from their hard work of building a schooner from the wreckage of their frigate, in a game of cricket:
"What Stephen did not fully appreciate was the degree of pleasure that Jack took in this particular ceremony. As a captain Aubrey was exceedingly worried by the shortage of food and marine stores, particularly cordage, by the near absence of powder, and by the coming total absence of arrack and tobacco; but as a cricketer he knew that close concentration was necessary on any pitch, above all on one like this, which more closely resembled a stretch of white concrete than any Christian meadow, and when he came in second wicket down, the yeoman of the sheets having been bowled by the sergeant of the Marines for a creditable sixteen, he took centre and looked about him with an eager, piercing, predatory eye, tapping the block-hole with his bat, wholly taken up with the matter at hand." (p.11)
A masterful paragraph. It conveys something of Jack's charisma as a leader, his dedication to his men, his attention to detail (when it concerns his ship, at least) and his sportsmanship and raw energy, with a nice touch of humor, and also something of Stephen's obtuseness when it comes to cricket (shadowed by his even greater denseness when confronted with naval terminology, which despite knowing umpteen languages and impossibly arcane minutiae of medical and zoological terminology, not to mention having spent by this time some dozen years at sea with Jack, remains a blank to him). And it is of course, bar the opening line, all one sentence.
("Nutmeg of Consolation" is an honorific carried by the Sultan of Pulo Prabang (in the South China Sea), who features in the previous book, whose title is borrowed by Jack to christen his newest vessel, "a tight, sweet, newly-coppered, broad-buttocked little ship, a solace to any man's heart" (p.80).)
Patrick O'Brian died, alas, in 2000, and I am reading the fourteenth book in a series of twenty (twenty-one, if you count the one unfinished at his death), but even though I can console myself with the thought that I can certainly read the whole canon over again from the beginning once I've finished, there is a certain wistfulness that there are no more to be had. One of the things I appreciate most about these novels is that despite the nearly-interminable amount of naval jargon, it isn't really necessary to know much of it. One can infer from context that a topgallants are a kind of sail, and so on -- and more information can be found at The Gunroom and the aptly-named Guide for the Perplexed, or in any number of O'Brian lexicons -- and quite a lot is explained to Stephen as things go along! -- but even lubbers such as myself can simply enjoy such passages as this, "Royal masts were sent up and their sails were set upon them, very fine and delicate canvas too; and since the wind, a good steady topgallant breeze, was now abaft the beam, studdingsails too made their charming appearance, four on the weather side of the foremast and two on the main, with a crowd of staysails; spritsail and spritsail topsail, of course, with all the jibs that would stand, a noble array. Presently skysails flashed out above the royals, and all hands watched the water rise high at the bows, sink to the copper abaft the forechains and then race hissing along her side, leaving a broad wake behind, stretching straight and true to the west by south" (p.110), which creates a fine picture in the mind's eye but does not hinder the storyline if rigging is a mystery.
Well, I could go on, but this post is quite long enough already, I suspect! Suffice it to say that I recommend these books highly as brilliant and entertaining historical novels, with great depth of characterization and elegant prose. Cracking good reads, too. Give you joy, as Stephen Maturin might say, if you've yet to discover them!