THERE cannot be many contemporary authors whose admirers include Charlton Heston, Iris Murdoch and A S Byatt. Even more surprising is to win these followers with sea-going adventures. When Patrick O'Brian started his sequence of Nap- oleonic nava l stories with Master and Commander in 1971, connoisseurs of the genre soon noted that he was offering something more than conventional sea fare. The Commodore (HarperCollins pounds 14.99) is the 17th in the series, and by now the word has spread to a large bo dy of readers, most of whom cannot tell a hawse from a halyard.
Those who start with the later volumes in the series are often bemused. They find themselves in a strange and largely sea-borne world, peopled by characters who seem to know each other well, but who have exceedingly curious manners. These characters clearly live rich and exciting lives, full of adventure and camaraderie, but their attitudes and behaviour are as foreign to most of us as the unspoilt oceans through which they voyage.
Reading O'Brian is like stepping back 200 years. The rhythms of his prose and the set of his mind entirely match his subject matter. O'Brian confesses in his prefaces that many of his naval campaigns and sea actions are drawn straight from the Naval Chronicle and Admiralty papers of the period. These archives have also provided him with a distant way of life, no doubt strange even to the land-dwellers of the time, but infinitely more so two centuries later. At one level O'Brian books are stirring adventure stories. But they are also a kind of historical anthropology, and together these two elements add up to something with no real parallel in contemporary literature.
Our entry into O'Brian's world is eased by the contrast between his two central characters. Jack Aubrey is the bluff, up-and-at-'em naval officer, at sea since a boy, whose generous loyalties and Tory values have never been diluted by abstract thought. Stephen Maturin is a spiky, ill-made fellow, half Irish and half Catalan, with a medical training and a passion for natural history. …