Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review of Post Captain

Post Captain, 1972, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

First things first: I found all of Master and Commander's virtues in this volume as well. The humor is just as dry. You never see any of the jokes coming until the exact moment of their punchlines and, just as importantly, O'Brian never lingers over them past that moment. One's desire to know what happens next to Jack and Stephen never wanes. If only real life could draw one towards most of its characters as well as O'Brian draws you to his. And I never have and probably never will learn this much, about history or anything else, while being so expertly entertained.

There is a flaw here though. Unlike in the first book, Jack and Stephen, especially the latter, are made to fall in love in this one, and unfortunately it's not pretty. Of course love can be as exciting as any human emotion, and in fact O'Brian does compare it to war in its capacity to make one feel life at its fullest. And yet his battle scenes are about a million times more interesting than his courtship and jealousy scenes. It's hard to blame the author's nerdiness for this because his female characters are nothing if not realistic.

One of the biggest problems here is that he refuses to make fun of Jack's and Stephen's love interests. This is especially disastrous because one of them happens to be a raging bitch. Every other consequential character is regularly made fun of in these books, some lovingly, others not so much. But Diana Villiers, a slut by the standards of any age, except perhaps of the present one, is allowed to just be there, almost without authorial comment.

We can be sure that this attitude wasn't caused by a misapplied sense of chivalry. When marine captain McDonald, a positive character throughout, says the following about the weaker sex, we're not meant to withdraw from him in horror:

"I hate women. They are entirely destructive. They drain a man, sap him, take away all his good: and none the better for it themselves."

This is as good as any comment on the senselessness with which Jack and Stephen waste their friendship, their health, and nearly their lives over Diana.

So why does O'Brian never cut her down to size, why are all the passages that involve her so reliably humorless? If Stephen's relationship with Diana was based on anything in O'Brian's own history, then of course those chapters would have been endlessly interesting to him even as they're written. Too bad for the reader then, who's never seen the woman behind Diana, never had any complicated history with her, and who just has to sit there looking at her being predictably selfish for the umpteenth time, while wondering when is the action finally going to move off to sea again.

But I'm being too harsh. A good 90% of this volume is about Jack's and Stephen's professional lives. I'm sure I'm far from being the only reader who would have paid good money for prequels. Jack's story should really have started when he was first sent to sea as a kid. The best literature is frequently about youth, plus we would have had a chance to learn about his mind-bogglingly complicated craft with him and through him. However, to be able to write about the late 18th century with O'Brian's level of confidence a modern writer would have probably had to start his decades-long obsession with it in his childhood too. And how many people do that?

At the end of the novel a British squadron captures some Spanish ships coming from South America with ungodly amounts of money. One comes up on this sort of scenario a lot while reading books set in the age of sail. The Spaniards' lack of organization is mentioned in this volume, as it was in the first one. If they really were that hapless and that rich at the same time, then why didn't the English, the French, and the Dutch simply take away all of their American colonies from them? I don't know the answer to that question, I'm just asking.

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