Volume Two, The Mauritius CCommand / Desolation Island / The
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|HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHERS|
the guardian Fri 26 June 2009
Aficionados of O'Brian's epic naval series - 21 full-length novels, written between 1969 and 2000, that follow the mixed fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Doctor Stephen Maturin in the Royal Navy circa 1800 - may have reservations about these new "chronicle" editions. Three volumes have just been released, covering the first nine books (three per volume), from Master and Commander to Treason's Harbour. That works out at less than five hours a book. Unabridged, they're 16. Trouble is, unless you can afford the full-length novels (Soundings, £32.99) you can really only find them in libraries on ropey old cassettes.
Let me confess right away that I'm an O'Brian devotee. I have read the entire canon unabridged not once but twice, including the half-finished book he was working on when he died. It's a variation of OCD, I suppose - O'Brian Compulsive Devotion. It took a while, I admit, to come to terms with paragraphs that begin "Jack saw the ship's mizzen tops laid to the mast and the main and fore yards square so that the wind should thrust the stern away to leewards ... " but surprisingly quickly you get into ship-of-the-line mode. O'Brian's descriptions of decks being cleared for battle at breakneck speed, the roar of cannon, masts shattering, dying men shrieking and, in the midst of it, the captain coolly issuing orders are unforgettable. Adventure, romance, espionage, treachery - no one does them better. But it's the relationship between the two protagonists - brash, brave Aubrey and sensitive, intellectual, gauche Maturin playing violin and cello duets in their cabin after a skirmish - that holds it together. Nothing of that is lost in this brilliantly edited omnibus edition, which remains consistently true to the spirit of the original. As for the reading, I've heard some splendid actors read these epics but Robert Hardy is in a different league.