Openings: “Master and Commander”


The overriding crafting decision for the lead-off pages of a genre novel is how to establish a style that is consistent with content and structure of the whole book. Patrick O’Brian accomplished this by writing not one but two variations on his main theme for the opening of his sea adventure, Master and Commander, featuring Jack Aubrey, a naval officer with ambitions, and Stephen Maturin, a  Darwinesque ships-surgeon with many agendas common to spies during the Napoleonic War.  

Before O’Brian other writers, most notably C.S. Forester in his Hornblower series, had fictionalized the exploits of Napoleonic war heroes particularly those of the famous but fractious Lord Thomas Cochrane. At the heart of these earlier novels were ships, battles, and naval bureaucracy. O’Brian leads off his story by revealing that his own interests include the nature of his characters. In those first few pages he also extensively demonstrates how he will craft his words so that their meaning and focus shift back and forth inside sentences, paragraphs, etc. in such a way as to not break into the attention of his readers.

Stories of naval battles almost always begin with, on, or about ships. Master and Commander launches with the description of a beautiful room where people are sitting on tiny gold chairs and listening to beautiful music. Surprisingly Jack Aubrey is not here grudgingly at the behest of some addle-brained female.  He’s here to listen as a musician does — comparing this interpretation to others in his memory. Hardly the makings of a manly man who’ll win impossible battles by the sheer force of his personal magnetism, bottomless ingenuity, and reckless courage.

Again and again, just when we think we’ve categorized Aubrey, O’Brian replaces our surety with puzzlement by resolutely writing to his own rules in sentences like this one where he uses punctuation primarily to mark the beats of his shifting attention: 

The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, were playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo, towards the tremendous pause and the deep, liberating final chord. And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with an equal intensity: there were two in the third row, on the left-hand side; and they happened to be setting next to one another.

Inside these long sentences that become even longer paragraphs there are a steady series of fulcrum points where he shifts even such critical things as the point-of view from a decidedly external narrator toward one that is much more internal. O’Brian crafts many variations of this structural tactic in order to move the story forward without intrusive writing craft. This tactic works particularly well to show how Jack’s generally labile moods shift again and again and again. 

In the first four and a half paragraphs (what I consider the first of the openings) Jack alternates between feelings of intense pleasure, anger, and shame. An example of this shifting is in the second paragraph which begins with an experience of pleasure, “The ruminative ‘cello uttered two phrases of its own and then began a dialogue with the viola.” but this triggers Jack to begin ruminating on the ‘white-faced creature in a rusty black coat’ whose criticism had shamed him, and then the shame turns into anger at the “ill-looking son of bitch” who gave ‘himself such airs.”  These emotions of pleasure, anger, and shame revolve again and again but with growing intensity until Mrs. Harte appears on stage and Jack’s emotions threaten to breach good manners. At this point he looks to nature for soothing. “Saturn was rising in the south-south-east, a glowing ball in the Minorcan sky.” but that balm is denied him by a jab from the little man beside him. Thus denied “any outward expression, his anger took on the form of melancholy.” So the full pattern is rotating states of worry, shame, and then anger that escalate until he seeks to ground himself in nature but if this fails he yields to depression. 

And here, mid-sentence and mid-paragraph, is where the first opening ends and the second begins. OK, I’ll admit that claiming that this lowly colon is the major demarcation could simply be over-reading on my part. I base my position on two crafting elements. It would be characteristic of O’Brian’s already established style of making transitions at unlikely moments and it would split the first pages into two nicely parallel variations on the same theme. 

The second is a more conventional opening to a sailing adventure—the lieutenant is worried about the causes of his shipless state, has to shamefully socialize with men junior to him who have already been assigned ships, and is forced to smile at the man who had promised him a ship and then reneged. He becomes angry that he hadn’t immediately retaliated against these men as well as that little man who had ruined his enjoyment of the music. Then because it is a social setting he can’t attempt to set anything to rights. 

Once more Jack rotates through conflicting moods except now worry has replaced pleasure. Worry, anger, shame, worry, anger, and shame etc.  All this climaxes with his realization that the evening has been fatally poisoned by his failure to have paid due attention during Mrs. Harte’s solo. 

Then just as Jack’s emotions threaten to erupt into actions that he’ll regret he turns without conscious thought to the soothing power of nature:

He was profoundly dissatisfied with himself, and with the man in the black coat, and with the service. And with the velvet softness of the April night and the choir of nightingales in the orange-trees, and the host of stars hanging so low as almost to touch the palms. 

Within this last sentence O’Brian shifts mood, intension, narrator’s viewpoint, and even Aubrey’s character upon the fulcrum of a period that by strictest rules should have been a comma.

So why didn’t O’Brian simply begin with the second opening when they both reveal the same basic information about Jack’s character and position but very little about plot? Certainly the first section implies that this will not be a typical sailing adventure and the second section implies that this will have all the standard elements of a typical sailing adventure. What I really think, however, was that O’Brian wanted to demonstrate how though Jack will be constantly buffeted by passionate and roiling emotions he will also be able to reach out to the furnishings of nature in order protect himself from all the humiliating, enraging, terrifying, and triumphant moments ahead of him in what will become the well-beloved twenty+ book series about the adventures of Jack Aubrey on violin and Stephen Maturin on cello.



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