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Ed Kemmick CITY LIGHTS

Would you believe me if I said I recently finished a 6,000-page novel that didn't have an ending? Would you think I was crazy if I said I enjoyed it as much as anything I've ever read?

Technically, what I read was not a novel, but a series of 20 separate books of roughly 300 pages each. The books are meant to stand alone, so you could read any one of them by itself, but in parts or as a whole, it's a magnificent read. I don't think there's an uninteresting page in the whole series. There might not be a poorly written sentence.

Some of you will already have figured out that I'm referring to what is known as the Aubrey-Maturin series (after the names of the two main characters), written by Patrick O'Brian. Some of you will be in the same sad condition as me, having finished the entire series and with nothing to look forward to but starting over again, as many people have done.

The books are set during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and much of the action takes place at sea in the company of Jack Aubrey, an officer with the British Navy, and Stephen Maturin, a naval surgeon and naturalist who is also engaged in espionage on behalf of the British government.

You might be inclined to dismiss these works as mere "sea novels" or "historical fiction," as I did when I first heard of Patrick O'Brian. But when he died two years ago, and eulogies and retrospective essays on his work began to appear, he quickly rose to the top of my must-read list.

Homer and Austen Reputable critics compare him to Homer and Jane Austen, surely the only time both of those names have ever been invoked in praise of a single author. There is no comparison when it comes to the intellectual and geographical range of O'Brian's works.

Aubrey and the various ships under his command sail to virtually every corner of the globe, so the books are crammed with details about climate and topography, history, politics, customs and natural history. O'Brian seems to have known everything worth knowing about dozens of subjects, and more intimately acquainted with the turn of the 19th century than most authors are with their own times.

More than anything, he knew about sailing a ship. I wouldn't be surprised if fully a quarter of the 6,000 pages are devoted to descriptions of sailing, in every type of weather in every kind of sea.

Somehow, O'Brian makes it all interesting. You might feel lost at times, but that's part of the experience. Maturin himself, a master of natural history, medicine and most of the liberal arts, never really comes to understand naval customs or the operation of a ship.

Clearly, we are meant to identify with him. At one point, Maturin can't grasp some arcane point Aubrey is trying to make, and Aubrey turns to look at him "with something like awe, at so magnificent a prodigy, at an ignorance so very far beyond anything that even his wide-ranging mind had yet conceived."

After reading the first couple of volumes in the series, I picked up a companion book, "A Sea of Words" by Dean King, a lexicon listing hundreds of obscure and archaic terms found in O'Brian. It was nice to have, but not indispensable. I could no more sail a ship than pilot a steamboat, but when O'Brian and Twain tell me how both things are done, it's inexpressibly thrilling.

Time for his characters It is also a great advantage for O'Brian that he has the leisure to develop his characters over the course of 20 books, so that they seem to change and age in something close to real time. They seem not only to live, as great fictional characters always do, but to live right alongside the reader.

In addition to Aubrey and Maturin, the books are populated by hundreds of supporting characters, some of whom appear throughout the series, some just once, but all memorably.

In one book, a new member of Aubrey's crew is described as a "sheet-anchor man, starboard watch, elderly, deeply stupid, but reliable when sober, and a wonderful hand at a variant of the Matthew Walker knot, sober or speechless." Another hand is described simply as "a monoglot Finn."

The books are completely free of anachronism. O'Brian never lets go of the illusion that he lives in the times he is writing about. Still, the series is far more than an attempt to re-create an 18th- or 19th-century novel. O'Brian stays true to the times but manages to inject a modern sensibility into the old form, giving the reader the best of both worlds. He employs an elegant, profuse, old-fashioned kind of storytelling but one that is not restrained by squeamishness or Puritanism.

As a result, we have all the familiar trappings of the English novel, but no shying away from the vulgarity, crude violence and bawdiness that were so much a part of the life of the times.

There is something else worth noting about the books. In sailing all over the world, Aubrey and the men (and sometimes women) under his command become acquainted with people of all races, dozens of religions and people of every color. They encounter strange customs, incomprehensible ideas and unheard-of sexual practices. But the English sailors of that era were the most cosmopolitan people in the history of the world, and nothing disturbed or shocked them.

Their outlook had nothing to do with the earnest multiculturalism our schools are so eager to impose on our children. The English still blithely believed in the superiority of all things English, but they were, in their rough-and-ready, anything-for-a-shilling way, beyond judging anyone.

I begin to sense that this is a hopeless task. I want to spread the gospel of Patrick O'Brian, solely for the satisfaction of introducing other people to the pleasure of reading him, but how can I condense 6,000 pages of brilliance into a single column - which is already longer than usual?

I can't. All I can do is recommend that you pick up "Master and Commander," the first book in the series, and see whether or not you get hooked.

About the lack of an ending. I don't know if O'Brian intended to keep writing about Aubrey and Maturin until he died, but that's what happened, and at the conclusion of the 20th and last volume, they are on their way to new adventures. I suspect O'Brian wanted it that way. In "The Nutmeg of Consolation," the 14th volume, Maturin is talking with another man about novels, and how novelists traditionally bring them to a conclusion.

"The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up," Maturin says, "is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome."

O'Brian never wrote that cool, brief statement. He left us wanting more, the perfect way not to end his great life's work.

Ed Kemmick can be reached at 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com

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