Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review of The Surgeon's Mate


The Surgeon's Mate, 1980, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10.

It seems unfair that most of my reviews of these novels are filled with criticisms. I'm having a lot of fun reading this series and have recommended it to real-life friends. Patrick O'Brian was far better at writing novels than I will ever be at anything in my life, so why all this nitpicking?

I agree with those who say that art is entirely to be found in how things are done, never in what those things happen to be. If you're passionate about political ideas, the honest thing is to write them up in some editorials. The value of novels, paintings, songs, etc. is properly judged by a different metric. But just as it's harder to work on the how than on the what of writing, it's also harder to describe it, to praise or criticize it intelligently. The lazy critic (hi there, folks) inevitably falls back on criticizing the what - mostly politics, morals and technicalities. And having neither been on a sailing ship nor read a thousand volumes of primary materials on the Napoleonic period, I can't even nitpick O'Brian's technicalities.

If I could understand what exactly made O'Brian's writing so entertaining, if I knew how it worked internally, and consequently what exactly I should be praising here, then I could probably write as well as he did. But I know that I can't do that. Plus there's the possibility that even he couldn't have talked about his methods cogently, that his gift worked mostly on the intuitive level. Since I don't want to end up typing "man, that was so cool!" next to thousands of page and line references, I find myself falling back on criticizing the politics and commenting on the sociology.

Today I'll start with Maturin's bastardy. At one point in this novel Stephen pleads with Diana to marry him so that her unborn child (by a real man of course - she would have never let someone like Stephen impregnate her) could have a legal father.

"Reflect, my dear, upon the condition of a bastard. His state is in itself an insult. He is born with heavy disadvantages under all the codes of law I know; he is penalized from birth. He is debarred from many callings; if he is admitted to society at all, he is admitted only on sufferance; he meets the reproach at every turn all through his life – any tenth transmitter of a foolish face, any lawfully begotten blockhead can throw it in his teeth, and he has no reply. I speak with full knowledge when I say that it is a cruel, cruel thing to entail upon a child."

What about the cruelty of misinforming the world, innocent bystanders, about who exactly the hijos de putas in it are? If I've learned anything at all in life, if I could impart any sort of wisdom on the younger generation, it is to avoid bastards.

All the legal sanctions and some of the social stigma that Stephen describes have now been laboriously scrubbed, but bastards are still far more likely to murder, steal, cheat and rape than those who come from real families. This implies that the sanctions and the stigma were not the cause of their awfulness. I'm so sure about the differentials in crime, in all categories of it, in all countries, that I'm not even going to look up the relevant statistics - it would be like going to the Wikipedia to find out if night is still darker than day.

By Stephen's "logic" truth in advertising laws are cruel. If bastards weren't indeed bastards, that word would be an honorific, or at least neutral. They themselves, by their behavior, have given it negative connotations.

The shunning Stephen describes is just a shocked, brutalized world's meekly defensive reaction. Didn't he himself institute a quarantine when the Leopard was beset with gaol-fever in Desolation Island? How selfish of him to deny the need for a quarantine in cases of the maladies from which he suffers himself.

I've read that in centuries past bastards were not permitted to attend many universities. I'm a live-and-let-live sort of person, so if they set up a university of their own that did not admit people born within wedlock as either students or professors, it would never occur to me to object. Having dealt with what I suspect is a representative sample of bastards in my life, I can easily imagine what this university would look like, as well as the quality of education it would offer, but if bastards desired to pretend that it was an equal of real universities, I wouldn't much care either.

No woman from any but the most gloomily uncivilized background ever starts out wanting to become a single mother. And no woman of any background that I am aware of starts out wanting to become a fully-realized slut like Diana or an actual prostitute. Even Diana herself vocally disapproves of other sluts in this book. So single motherhood can normally be seen as an utter failure to achieve one's life goals, almost like homelessness in men. Perhaps having been born to a single mother is an even worse sign than having a criminal father because, let's face it, some guys do start out wanting to become criminals.

O'Brian frequently tells us that Diana is extraordinary, and not just in her looks, but in her "spirit", nobility, etc. The reader can't see her face, but her behavior and conversation seem commonplace, petty, selfish, utterly unremarkable to me. She complains about being called a slut many times, in several novels, all the while continuing to behave like one. She complains about others gossiping maliciously about her at a ball while maliciously gossiping about others at the same ball, and having great fun doing it. It's even worse than "tell, not show" because the things we're repeatedly told about her fail to line up with what we're shown.

A reader may think that I'm just being bitter about women here in a typically nerdy fashion. Perhaps there's some of that, but bear in mind that the people who made a big Hollywood movie out of the Aubrey/Maturin novels did not mention her in it at all, even though up till this point (the 7th volume in a 20.5-volume series) she's been the third most important character in the books. Perhaps the screenwriters agreed with me that hers were the weakest storylines in the series.

Everyone who's both read the books and seen the movie will think that Russell Crowe was a better match for his part than Paul Bettany for his. Heath Ledger could have played the younger Jack, which reminds me of how much I liked Bettany in A Knight's Tale. He's a good actor, just not pitiful enough to play Stephen.

Some NFL quarterbacks possess Aubrey-like qualities. When at the end of a victorious action Jack single-mindedly seeks out the other ship's captain, one can think of a QB wading through the post-game mayhem to shake his counterpart's hand. In both cases the default emotion is the desire to show one's respect to a worthy opponent.

It's made clear throughout the series that the Royal Navy experienced a great oversupply of officers and a dearth of sailors. The admiralty had to turn down captains and lieutenants all the time, and a great number of them were unemployed. Sailors had to be pressed (conscripted), even from jails, yet there was never enough of them. I doubt that officers made more money than men of their class would have made as civilians. I'm assuming that sailors' pay wasn't inadequate by lower class standards either. I'd guess that the two classes' different attitudes to military service had to do with the ancient warrior/peasant split, made biological by millenia of selection.

The English proles of that time couldn't have been all that bad though: when Jack comes home after years of absence he doesn't need a key to enter his rather opulent house. It seems that there is no lock. That reminded me of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma clearly enters Rodolphe's house without a key. Rodolphe was a country gentleman, a man of means. These are just two data points: England and Normandy in the first half of the 19th century. Were doors being locked in any other parts of Europe at that time? What were those parts? What about China and Japan?

Are there any places left on Earth now where house keys aren't needed? How about North Korea? Of course I can't think about this issue without being reminded of the evil effects of liberalism, of its hatred of exclusivity, which I mentioned in my previous review.

It's sad for me to report that we did lock our apartment when I was growing up in Moscow, as did everyone we knew. Of course bikes did not have to be locked and were never stolen, and one could enter the Kremlin without as much as showing one's ID or stopping at a checkpoint. I can vouch for the latter because I did it many times myself. In the 1980s we spent some of our summers in the countryside right outside Moscow, in a village house owned by friends of our relatives. I definitely remember that we never needed a key to enter it. When I asked my mom about it recently, she said that perhaps the owners locked up for the night, though that's pure conjecture. Neither of us actually remembers them doing so.

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