Thursday, December 21, 2006

Heavy Weather

In yesterday's post I found myself waxing enthusiastic about Patrick O'Brian's writerly abilities. The Aubrey-Maturin series is a prodigious accomplishment by any measure: twenty-one novels that follow the career of Jack Aubrey, captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and the years beyond. The early novels were meticulously research and based within or in the context of many real historical events, but as the series went on O'Brian ran out of history and wound up moving the tale forward primarliy on the strength of his imagination.

The novels have much to recommend them. No one on this planet today has ever ridden a man-of-war into battle; few of us have been to sea for any extended amount of time. O'Brian brings us there.

O'Brian does many things well. His characters are idiosyncratic and acutely drawn. Aubrey—a man of action and physical impulses—and Maturin—a physician, an amateur naturalist, and most interestingly, a highly accomplished spy for the British government—form a partnership which is dynamic and constantly evolving: at one point they are even both in love with the same woman, but they weather that storm as well as many others.

Within a compelling narrative framework O'Brian manages to convey a great deal of highly specific information about historical events, about the conditions of life on board ship, about politics and biology and geography. But some of my favorite passages are about nothing more profound than the weather. I cannot recall any author I have read in my lifetime who is better at observing and reporting on meteorological events. Here is Aubrey, in Desolation Island, trying to read the weather as his ship faces an oncoming storm:

The swell was increasing, and the wind. He knew very well that once it came on to blow, to blow as the wind could blow in the forties, the clouds in the west would cover the sky with extraordinary speed and this seemingly sweet day would turn into a howling darkness, full of racing water. A visit to the cabin showed him the glass lower still: sickeningly low. And back on the poop he saw that he was by no means the only one to have noticed the mounting sea - an oddly disturbed sea, as if moved by some not very distant force; white water too, and a strange green colour in the curl of the waves and in the water slipping by. He glanced north-west, and there the sun, though shining still, had a halo, with sun-dogs on either side. Ahead, the aurora had gained in strength: streamers of an unearthly splendour. Below him, the pumps churned on and on: but both down there and here on the poop he caught an atmosphere of growing apprehension. Stiff though she was, the Leopard was heeling now so that her larboard cathead plunged deep on the leeward swell. And now the surf was rising higher on the icebergs and on the weather face of the headland on the bow. The howl in the rigging was louder and higher by far, and growing fast: a dangerous, dangerous note.

The broad expanse of water between the Leopard and the cape showed far more white than green; and inshore, where there had been smooth water not half an hour ago, there was the ugly appearance of a tide-rip, a long narrow stretch of pure white that raced eastwards from the headland and that must grow longer, broader, and fiercer by far as the tide reached its full flow.

The situation had changed indeed; but worse was coming, and coming very fast. A grey haze overspread the sky with the speed of a curtain being drawn, and it was followed by tearing cloud: the lightning increased on the starboard beam, much nearer now. And right ahead, a white squall, the forerunner of the full almighty gale, swept over the mile or two of the sea northward of the cape, veiling the land entirely.

It was no longer a question of where and how he should negotiate the tide-race, but of whether he should be able to approach the cape at all, or whether he should be obliged to put the ship before the ever-increasing wind and run before it. Speed was everything: in five or ten minutes at this rate of increase there would be no alternative—he would either have to put before the wind or perish. Or put before the wind and perish: the people could not pump for ever—they were already very near their limit even with this encouragement—and in any case the Leopard would almost surely founder in the kind of seas that would build up before nightfall. (279-80)

Or another example, from The Far Side of the World, as a storm hits:

On deck all hell broke loose as they were striking the maintopmast half an hour later; the preventer top-rope reeved through the fid-hole parted at the very moment a deluge of warm rain beat down on the ship, so thick they could scarcely breathe, much less see. From that time on until full darkness and beyond it was an incessant battle with mad blasts of wind from every direction, thunder and lightning right overhead, unbelievably steep seas that made no sense at all, bursting with such force that they threatened to engulf the ship - bursting as though they were over a reef, although there was no bottom to be found with any line the ship possessed. All this and such freaks as a waterspout that collapsed on their astonished heads, bringing the maindeck level with the surface for several minutes; and without a pause thunder bellowed about them, while St Elmo's fire flickered and blazed on the bowsprit and catheads. It was a time or rather—since ordinary time was gone by the board—a series of instant shifts and expedients, of surviving from one stunning thunderclap and invasion of water to the next and between them making fast such things as the jollyboat, the binnacle itself and the booms that had carried away. And all the while the pumps turned like fury, flinging out tons of water that the sea or the sky flung right back again. Yet even so it was the hands at the pumps who were the least harassed; although they had to work until they could hardly stand, often up to their middles in water, often half-choked with flying spray or still more rain, immeasurable quantities of rain, at least they knew exactly what to do. For the others it was a perpetually renewed state of emergency in which anything might happen—unheard of, shockingly dangerous accidents such as the seventy foot palm trunk that a freakish sea flung bodily aboard so that its far end wedged in the mainshrouds while the rest lashed murderously to and fro, sweeping the gangways and the forecastle just as an equally freakish squall took what little storm-canvas the ship dared show full aback, checking her as though she had run on to a reef and laying her so far over that many thought she was gone at last. Indeed, if a windward gun had broken loose at this point of utmost strain it would certainly have plunged right through her side. (310-11)

These passage give me great pleasure as a reader for the extraordinary grace and precision in the way they create the scene. O'Brian loves and has mastered the 19th-century nautical terminology and deploys it in a way that is both convincingly natural and yet easy for the unitiated reader to pick up on the fly. He's very good at following and rendering the minute shifts and major transformations that occur from one moment to the next. And he knows how to use the single elegant detail—like that palm-trunk wedged in the main-shrouds and lashing murderously about—to sharpen and give substance to our imaginative participation in the action. I could give many more examples. Some of the passages stay with a storm, or a sea battle, or a trek through a jungle, or a politically and psychologically charged conversation, for many pages of equally authoritative exposition. Those of you who have read O'Brian know what I'm talking about, and may have your own passages to put forward. Those of you who have not sat down with O'Brian, you really don't know what you're missing. Try him and see.


Anonymous said...

The "0 comments" makes me feel lonely; I just want to say I read you faithfully and avidly, eagerly and noddingly. So "Hi"; and thanks. Liz

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Liz. You may want to show tomorrow's post, which is all lined up tonight, to George; I'm starting to invade his turf. Or at least trying to catch up. And check out what OJS is up to (the link will be at the bottom). I'm prejudiced, but still impressed... and you know I'm not that easy to impress : )

Happy Holidays...

- B