Friday, October 02, 2009

On Marryat, Patrick O'Brian, and yellow underpants with purple spots

I was reading and walking, as I'm in the habit of doing. I almost always read and walk. It is true that once a few weeks ago I didn't have a book or magazine to read while I was walking, and the experience was most alarming. I thought I might bump into something, or fall over, or get run over by a tram, or be attacked by a wall. You need a book to help yourself ignore the perils of everyday life.

Well, as I say, I was reading and walking, in no particular order, from the train station to work, and as I read and walked my way up to the door, I was interrupted by a woman - let's call her Z* - who also works there.

"What are you reading?" she asked.

Now I like to think when I'm reading that I'm having a conversation with the author. They've gone to all that trouble to put words down on the page, to get the book published, and to make that writing interesting and engaging, for you. Books ask you questions, and answer questions you may or may not have asked: they are portable conversations. But there are some allowances that a book cannot make for in a conversation - as in, for instance, another person charging in in the middle of the conversation and asking, 'what are you reading'. You will not find the book sitting up, and saying to the person who interrupts you in the reading, 'why hello, I haven't seen you in a while', will you? A book doesn't have the capacity to say to you, 'oh look at that, here comes Podger' mid narrative. Podger has the ability to barge in mid-conversation, but the book has no ability to answer back. Not as far as I'm aware, anyway.

For all I know, I could be sitting about in the house wearing my pair of yellow underpants with purple spots (I do not own a pair of yellow underpants with purple spots, they are purely hypothetical) and the book will unexpectedly make passing reference to 'that embarassing pair of yellow underpants with purple spots you are currently wearing', but I haven't come across that book yet**. So when someone comes along, while you are in the middle of a conversation with an author, and asks you what you're reading, I'm just a little bit inclined to treat it as a simple interruption. I'm grumpy that way.

As to the question, 'what was I reading', well, this particular book was Newton Forster, by Marryat, but my first instinct was to go for a rhetorical strategy taught to me by my father. I stated the obvious:

"A book!"

Well, she let it hang there and I let it hang there, but it started to feel a bit unsporting of me. Instead of repairing again to my little chat with Marryat, I elaborated. "Captain Marryat," I said.
"Oh," she said. And then she dropped her bombshell: "Is he anything like Patrick O'Brian?"

I stiffened. Quite possibly, my hackles raised (what are hackles, anyway?) I may even have glowered (not sure how that's done, either.) You see, for the past few weeks I have been subjected to numerous spurious comparisons between Marryat and Patrick O'Brian. Here's one. And it's reproduced on the back of my book, too. Oh, the sheer indignity of it all! Quite aside from anything else, I haven't read any Patrick O'Brian, so why should I care if Marryat is anything like Patrick O'Brian? The question 'is Patrick O'Brian anything like Patrick O'Brian' would make as much sense to me as what Z asked***.

However, one author I have read a lot of is Marryat. He's great! I didn't like Masterman Ready or Frank Mildmay so much, but Mr Midshipman Easy, Jacob Faithful, Peter Simple, and The Children of the New Forest are all quite wonderful. Modern readers might be a bit off put by the slapstick humour (he gets laughs out of the hero Jack being, er, slapped with a stick in Midshipman Easy), or the wit (he has great fun with his introductions - the start of Newton Forster is a good example, where he imagines himself being confronted in a room, following the publication of one of his books, by "a tall, long-chinned, short-sighted blue, dressed in yellow, peering into my face, as if her eyes were magnifying glasses").

The plots have a wonderful blend of invention, formula, romance, and development. Jacob Faithful opens, quite unexpectedly, with the hero's father expiring due to internal combustion, and it's not for another several hundred pages that the hero earns a large fortune. Newton Forster has a ripping opening, with a ship crashing upon the rocks of the English shore, and a child being rescued from the wrecks with nothing but a box of linen once belonging to her family. In short order, the hero of the title is press ganged into the navy, taken prisoner by the French, marooned on a boat with a deadly enemy, taken prisoner by slaves, and returned home to England penniless and destitute.

All of this - disaster, murder, theft on the high seas, slavery, and so on - is merely incidental for Marryat, who has that novelists' gift of being able to hold his real plot punches until the end. His characters change, become disillusioned, and mature, as the story progresses: they aren't just immobile, expressionless caricatures. Sometimes they will suffer extraordinarily: Peter Simple, from the novel of that name, has his identity stolen from him and ends up in an insane asylum for several months before receiving his liberty. Jack Easy, from Mr Midshipman Easy, comes to disbelieve in his early philosophy (a simplified version of the romantic ideals about the equality and liberty of man); it's true that his philosophy at the end of the novel is suspiciously close to Marryat's own Tory thought, but then, young idealists do have an annoying habit of doing just that. (Also, the novel ends with a pitched gun battle over the tables of Jack's recently-inherited estate, if you're not the sort to get hung up over character development.)

Perhaps what Z meant is that O'Brian and Marryat wrote books that had ships in them. Well I suppose that is so. There are ships in Newton Forster, amongst other things. I'm not sure about O'Brian, but Marryat really was writing about a world he knew about, as the 'Captain' that precedes his other names indicates. And the affairs that he writes about - wars, the abolishment of slavery - were real, and present, and current, just as the Afghanistan war or terrorism is real and present and current to us. (I think Lord Nelson actually plays a small part in the plot Peter Simple.)

The ship on the cover of my book, and the reference to O'Brian on the back, really, is misleading: it lets you think that you are getting a work of historical fiction. (By the way, never judge a cover by its cover: on the back of my book Newton Forster is described as a 'troubled' young man, though he's not particularly troubled in the sense that I think they mean it. He's rather self-assured, actually. I recently read a copy of The Prisoner of Zenda, the cover of which says that the hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, becomes involved 'in a desperate plot': which is utterly wrong - the plot is ridiculous, not desperate.)

All this, I suppose, I should have said to Z, as we stood on the stairs, and Marryat sat in my hand, patiently waiting for the conversation to finish. Though, gormlessly, what I did say was something more along the lines of, "No." Or possibly "maybe."

And we pretty much left it at that, since right at that moment Podger came up and demanded I tell him about the yellow underpants with purple spots that were lying on the photocopier.

So, as they say in the classics, that went well.

*'... let's call her Z': a useful literary device for protecting the identity of people whose names you don't actually know.

** Nor the underpants, though I did once see a white tie with large pink spots on it.

*** You never know. Some authors are so unique that they are like no-one else on the earth, including themselves. For instance, I'd say S J Perelman is so original that he is not even like himself, but he can do a stunningly good impression from time to time.


nailpolishblues said...

I regularly encounter the 'what are you reading question' and it usually ends in one of two conversations - the questioner telling me about what they've been reading and trying to sound terribly intellectual with it (even if I've been interrupted whilst reading something aimed at people some decades my junior) or the questioner seeming to perceive my choice of lunchtime occupation as some kind of personal insult and starting one of those long and boring start-stop-start conversations with me that mean that I spend five minutes trying to finish one sentence. I have no idea why they do this.

And then, of course, there are those who thrust books on you. I am trying to make myself read The Life of Pi because of this. I really must finish it and give it back.

w/v redinglo

TimT said...

Possibly a side effect of them asking the question and thus interrupting you mid-book - they've committed themselves to an awkward and uncomfortable conversation and, by god, they're going to continue that awkward and uncomfortable conversation!

nailpolishblues said...

A surprising number of my conversations wind up in awkward and uncomfortable places. I'm glad we agree that it's always the fault of other people.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

I have read some of Marryat - Midshipman Easy and Master Something - and I have also read Patrick O'Brian. I have read the entire Aubry-Maturin series of 20 books four times. I think you would enjoy them, they are just as authoritative and much more humourous than Marryat or Forrester. I wrote a post about O'Brian on my blog: Let me know how you find them.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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