Monday, September 24, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Master and Commander
Patrick O'Brian, 1970

I had been saving O'Brian for later in this series, but David Isaak's comments on my last post make this the opportune moment to consider him. Master and Commander is the first of a series of twenty novels treating the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's physician, naturalist and sometime spy, Stephen Maturin. Why should you read Master and Commander first? Well, it's the first in the series, and they demand to be read in order.

There are two broad approaches to historical fiction: one uses language modelled on that of the period, the other more contemporary with the author. Both are illusory, of course, but the former method aims for verisimilitude through immersion in the language of the time, the latter through the immediacy of modernity. There is no "right" way (although in general I prefer the less modern approach) and each school carries its own risks.

O'Brian is perhaps the exemplar of the "total immersion" school. Not only the characters' dialogue but O'Brian's authorial voice drip Napoleonic period. O'Brian can write seamlessly in the Austen manner (witness the first half of Post Captain, the second novel in the series) but he has a much broader range. The drama of battle on the high seas (and the agonising tension of waiting for it), subtle verbal humour, coarse seaman's humour, the range of human emotion: O'Brian can do it all, and make it look effortless--although on close examination the scope of his research is awe-inspiring.

From a technical point of view, O'Brian is austere in the way he conveys information to the reader. The books employ jargon from the Age of Sail without any direct authorial explanation: there are no concessions to the 20th century reader. Luckily--although it is not luck, of course--the co-protagonist Maturin knows as little of ships as we do, and as he learns, so do we. But this info-dumping is not crude and mechanical: Maturin's ineptitude is a comic feature of the series, and while we laugh, we learn. And because Maturin is so accomplished in so many other fields, he does not appear a buffoon.

The Aubrey-Maturin series is also remarkable for retaining its freshness over 20 volumes. It is hard to maintain interest in a small group of characters over the long haul, but--partly because Aubrey and Maturin are so different--O'Brian is always able to till new ground. Both characters develop significantly, although this is not a prerequisite of series novels (Richard Stark's Parker, for instance, is much the same in 2007 as in 1961, and the reader wouldn't have it any other way).

How has it influenced me?
I discovered O'Brian comparatively recently, and much of my voice as a writer was already shaped, but he does something that I have long been trying to achieve: to take the narrative coolness of Jane Austen and deploy it in an action novel. O'Brian never belabours his effects, never nudges you to make sure you notice: he can kill off a sympathetic character we've known for ten novels in a single sentence and let you make what you will of it (and in this situation, if the author has to tell you how to react, either he or you is doing something badly wrong).

Dragonchaser also owes several explicit debts to O'Brian. The strong nautical theme--albeit racing galleys rather than square-riggers--came from my admiration for O'Brian, and the protagonist's naivety when not on his galley comes straight from Jack Aubrey.

I also admire--and try to replicate--the way in which O'Brian is able to juxtapose the comic and serious in a way which enhances both (a characteristic we also see in Jack Vance).

If my two greatest literary influences are Austen and Vance, then in O'Brian we see a writer who embodies the best of both. Writers are always learning and always absorbing new influences: I am sure O'Brian's over me is not yet complete.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
You can trust the reader to make sense of your world without explaining everything up-front.

Having a character as ignorant as the reader is helpful way of conveying information.

You can have two major characters without setting up a protagonist/antagonist relationship.

Using period diction need not alienate the reader.

Make sure you know far more about your fictional world than the reader--but don't feel compelled to tell them more than a fraction.

If you love the world that you are creating, it will be apparent to the reader.


David Isaak said...

As a prose stylist, I don't think O'Brian can be topped.

Me, I'm grateful that he gave me back my colons and semicolons.

Tim Stretton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Stretton said...

For me the Holy Trinty of prose stylists are Vance, Austen and O'Brian. Although in another part of the forest altogether I am always rocked on my heels by James Ellroy - a challenging read for a Brit!