Patrick O'Brian's nautical adventure series is an exhausting, wonderful grind of literature. Meticulously researched, almost overpoweringly rooted in the dialect and context of the time, his prose can become as convoluted and dense as his byzantine plots and his bewildering array of secondary characters. Halfway through the twenty volumes, one begins to pine for the clean, straightforward narrative of Forester's Hornblower.
And yet it is a singular achievement, not just of storytelling but of history. Each time I venture forth with Lucky Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Stephen Maturin, I'm taken to school on botany, class struggle, music, navigation, espionage, and a host of other subjects. It can almost be too much. And yet what brings me back is the compelling characters, most notably Aubrey and Maturin. By most accounts, Maturin is the more fascinating animal - doctor, scientist, secret agent, musician - but he's a bit too fascinating for me, too complex a machine, too brilliant and talented and adept to truly identify with. For me, Jack Aubrey is far easier to understand, his mind much simpler to crawl inside of and sympathize with.
Maybe it's Kirk and Spock all over again - Aubrey is a man of brawny boldness, a kinetic creature of courage who craves the center of the action, while Maturin prowls the fringes, a shadowy apostle of secrets and intellect. There are three main drives to Aubrey's life: patriotism, lust, and distinction, and he pursues all three with an untrammeled appetite. He loves England, adores Nelson, and swallows whole the strong tea of King and country. Women are a weakness, and such a one that his pursuit of them often endangers his career and prospects. And yet he does long for success, for advancement, to earn his flag.
His men call him Goldilocks, for the long yellow hair that streams out from beneath his cocked hat. It's a fitting sobriquet - for Jack Aubrey, life is a heedless pursuit of exactly what he wants, and neither too hot nor too cold, too soft or too hard, will satisfy him. I found the 2003 film adaptation to be excellent, with a great score I still use for writing, and a subtle, raw performance by Russell Crowe in the role of Aubrey. The books themselves remain precious source material in my own work, as I endeavor with mixed success to replicate the experience of the Age of Sail in a colder, less swashbuckling future.