Comfort reading. We all have it. For a long time now I’ve resorted to Georgette Heyer when things got tough, but I think I might have worn her out, the way a small child finally chews through his blankie. (First the Velveteen Rabbit comes alive, then it disintegrates. Ouch.) Recently I got that “anywhere but here” craving again, and this time I reached for Patrick O’Brian, to my deep satisfaction.
I think that by definition comfort reading is re-reading, right? Surprises don’t normally console. We’re looking for the fuzzy-slippers, mac-and-cheese sensation and familiarity seems essential. So when I opened Master and Commander to find Jack Aubrey sitting in a music room in Port Mahon, Menorca, next to a cranky and disagreeable Stephen Maturin, I settled into the tale with relish and recognition. I may or may not get through the O’Brian canon on this re-reading (it would be the fourth time through, I think), but however many I read, I will especially cherish O’Brian’s remarkable portrait of a friendship developing over time. There’s a weird mirroring act going on here, if you think about it: O’Brian creates, calls into being, Jack and Stephen. As the series develops over time in our reading, it must also have developed over time in the novelist’s writing. He got to know the men better as time went on, as we do. Reading the first volume now, I recognized the foundations of the bonds that will form, the liking that will turn into deep loyalty, the quirks that will turn sanguine Jack and bilious Stephen into complex, deeply human characters.
Another pleasure is the charm of the familiar episode: the time when Stephen first falls overboard, the subplot involving Irish rebel James Dillon. And every time I read the Aubrey/Maturin books I discover more deadpan humor, like this: “James Mowett was a tubular young man, getting on for twenty; he was dressed in old sailcloth trousers and a striped Guernsey shirt, a knitted garment that gave him very much the look of a caterpillar.”
Two more quotations to set up the series. In the first, Stephen wakens from a dream, having slept outdoors on a hillside because he is too broke to pay his inn bill. He is dreaming of a girl:
Her touch was still firm upon his arm and even her scent was there:… His face reflected the most piercing unhappiness, and his eyes misted over. He had been exceedingly attached; and she was so bound up with that time…
He had been quite unprepared for this particular blow, striking under every conceivable kind of armour, and for some minutes he could hardly bear the pain, but sat there blinking in the sun.
‘Christ,’ he said at last. ‘Another day.’
And a little pen portrait of Jack, to complete the diptych:
In times of stress Jack Aubrey had two main reactions: he either became aggressive or he became amorous; he longed either for the violent catharsis of action or for that of making love. He loved a battle: he loved a wench.
‘I quite understand that some commanders take a girl to sea with them,’ he reflected. ‘Apart from the pleasure, think of the refuge of sinking into a warm, lively, affectionate…’
Peace. ‘I wish there were a girl in this cabin,’ he added, after a pause.