Let us pause in the day’s labors to raise a glass, preferably containing Madeira or a rich, full-bodied port, to the centenary of the greatest historical novelist ever, and one of the best novelists of our era.
Patrick O’Brian was born Dec. 12, 1914—or, rather, Richard Patrick Russ was born on that date in Chalfont St. Peter, England, and grew up to become a novelist of middling success. O’Brian was technically born in 1946, when Russ adopted that pen name and went on to develop a new persona as an elusive Irish writer ensconced in the south of France.
Although O’Brian would produce much estimable fiction and nonfiction under his nom de plume, his signal achievement was the series of 20 novels set during the Napoleonic Wars and informed by O’Brian’s encyclopedic knowledge of nautical matters from that era. The heart of the novels is the friendship between the charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the British navy and the Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin.
For those unfamiliar with the books, the two men meet cute. On the opening page of “Master and Commander,” the 1969 debut of what would become a fiction series with devotees around the world, Aubrey is attending a musical performance at the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, Minorca. A large man—his “big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there”—the young lieutenant loses himself in the music and starts to keep time with gusto. This causes the small, dark man next to him, Dr. Maturin, to whisper, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”
Aubrey broods on the rebuke and decides to challenge the man to a duel, though this is entirely a case of misplaced anger: He is far less bothered by the remark than by the dismal state of his career. Aubrey’s mood soars, though, when he receives unexpected word that he has been given command of a sloop. “There you are, sir,’’ says Aubrey when he sees Maturin the next day. “I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music—are so little used to genteel company—that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.”
The novel continues: “ ‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life.’ ”
And with that exchange, a great literary friendship begins. Aubrey persuades Maturin to become his ship’s doctor, and off they go, to jungles and South Sea isles, around the Mediterranean and to the Galapagos, to an Algerian palace and a Parisian prison and the admiralty offices in London. They sink and get sunk, get captured and escape, enjoy splendid triumphs and more than a few reverses.
At first, the two have little in common except music, which is perhaps why they are such a perfect fit: Aubrey is jovial, confident, intrepid, a master of the human and seafaring complexities of the war machine he commands on the water, and rather inept in the family and business issues he confronts on terra firma. Maturin is ironical, sarcastic and skeptical, viewing his enemies with a “dangerous, pale, reptilian eye.” Along with his medical knowledge, he is a linguist and a natural philosopher who subsumes his Irish resentment of the British to join the fight against the despot Napoleon.
Aubrey is an apostle of duty, an advocate of order, and yet he knows that leading his men depends less on his power to punish them than on his power to inspire. Maturin has a far greater appreciation of freedom, rebelliousness, even anarchy, and yet possesses a fierce sense of right and wrong. Together they embody the values of freedom and democracy that allowed Britain to lead the world.
A significant source of the Aubrey-Maturin series’s appeal is O’Brian’s brilliant depiction of heroic characters who could be sadly unheroic. Aubrey is terrible with money; his bankruptcy lands him in the stocks. He has a poor relationship with his father. Despite his years in the navy, Maturin is eye-rollingly awkward—“lubbery”—when at sea.
O’Brian died in 2000, leaving a 21st novel partially completed. Many fans, this one included, moaned for a series finale that would have revealed how the lives of these characters played out. But the author seems unlikely ever to have provided that satisfaction.
“The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up,” says Maturin in “The Nutmeg of Consolation,” the 14th book in the series, “is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.” As always, O’Brian knew best—with their stories unfinished, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin live on.
Originally published in The American Interest, December 9, 2014
In October, when I began reading Bill Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker, the 77-year-old comedian was enjoying a bit of a boom: a new television series in the works, a new special set to get the Netflix treatment, an exhibition at the Smithsonian of 62 works of African-American art collected by Cosby and his wife Camille, not to mention this grand review of the man’s long and eventful life, written by an esteemed journalist who had been managing editor of CNN and the top editor of Newsweek.
Now, Cosby’s reputation has plummeted with terminal velocity. During a performance on October 15th, a comedian named Hannibal Burress said that Cosby had the “smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse onstage.’ Well, yeah, you’re rapist.” Burress was referring to allegations made by several women that Cosby had drugged and raped them, accusations that had been public for several years but that were nevertheless not well known. But in the uproar that followed, more women stepped forward, bringing the number of accusers to 19. No criminal charges were ever filed, and the one accuser who sued Cosby settled out of court. But in their staggering number and incriminating similarity, in the emotional strength behind the stories told, the accusations have a cold credibility. Perhaps under cross-examination all these stories would blow away like fairy dust. But in this era of media-accelerated justice, where Donald Sterling lost his business in a week because comments made in the privacy of his home were surreptitiously recorded, the presumption of innocence is a flimsy thing. Cosby has been judged guilty in the court of public opinion of being a serial rapist. Any comeback that he might achieve at this point would rival the Resurrection.
To read the entire review, click here.
“Democrats don’t like Wall Street bailouts. Republicans don’t like Wall Street bailouts. The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts
“And yet here we are, five years after Dodd-Frank with Congress on the verge of ramming through a provision that would do nothing for the middle class, do nothing for community banks, do nothing but raise the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the biggest banks once again…
“So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi[group]. I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!
“If this Congress is going to open up Dodd-Frank in the months ahead, then let’s open it up to get tougher, not to create more bailout opportunities. If we’re going to open up Dodd-Frank, let’s open it up so that once and for all we end too big to fail and I mean really end it, not just say that we did.
“Instead of passing laws that create new bailout opportunities for too big to fail banks, let’s pass…something…that would help break up these giant banks.
“A century ago Teddy Roosevelt was America’s Trust-Buster. He went after the giant trusts and monopolies in this country, and a lot of people talk about how those trust deserved to be broken up because they had too much economic power. But Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too much political power. Teddy Roosevelt said break them up because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations up our democratic system.
“And now we’re watching as Congress passes yet another provision that was written by lobbyists for the biggest recipient of bailout money in the history of this country. And its attached to a bill that needs to pass or else we entire federal government will grind to a halt.
“Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerfulthat it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up.
“Enough is enough.
“Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough. Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.
“But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just 6 years ago?
“We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!”
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.
“Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored,” the senator added.
“I know, too, that bad things happen in war. I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from,” he said. “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous.
“But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.”
First, on Saturday November 29th, I visited the Village Bookstore in Pleasantville NY, and helped sell books on Small Business Saturday. This is all because last year, the author Sherman Alexie challenged writers to give a hand to their local bookstores, and so when owners Roy Solomon and Yvonne von Cort invited me, I immediately agreed. What a good time! A great group of writers showed up, including Bob Minzesheimer, Marilyn Johnson, Rob Fleder, Ben Cheever, Joe Wallace, Rinku Bhattacharya, and Ben Lieberman. I sold about a dozen books, including about a half dozen Commander Wills, good enough to earn a prominent spot on the store’s bestseller list:
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID #9: THE LONG HAUL by Jeff Kinney
THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan
COMMANDER WILL CUSHING by Jamie Malanowski
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE: A NOVEL by Anthony Doerr
LIVES IN RUINS by Marilyn Johnson
YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
RUSH REVERE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Rush Limbaugh
SMALL VICTORIES by Anne Lamott.
On Friday December 5th, I visited my alma mater, Calvert Hall College High School in Towson MD. Frank Passaro, Chairman of the Social Studies Department and fellow member of the Class of 1971, arranged a whole day for me. I got to speak before two social studies classes, one creative writing class, and the History Club, and got to meet and speak with some very bright young men and with some very dedicated educators. It was great to go back and see all the changes, and to see that much has remained the same. The young men still self-segregate by class in the cafeteria, with freshmen by the windows and seniors at the opposite side, and the lettermen in the corner! I also saw a sight I thought I would never see: a hundred or more teenagers in the cafeteria, not one of whom was looking at a cell phone (the school forbids their use in the school building.)
On Sunday the 7th, the Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough Historical Society and the Briarcliff Library invited me to come talk about Commander Will. A wonderful group of about thirty showed up, and I’m happy to say I was on form and did a good job representing my man Will. Thanks so much to Shelley Glick for helping pull everything together.
(Pictured: Roy Solomon, Bob Minzesheimer, and Ben Lieberman; me at Calvert Hall; photo of me at the Library, courtesy of Gary Cahill.)
Frank Rich interviewed Chris Rock this week in New York magazine. Rock was brilliant–creative, provocative, and enormously perceptive. He said things about race in a way that should change the discussion forever. Here is one comment:
“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. . . . So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”
Take the time to read the whole interview here.