The Diegetic Achievement of Patrick O'Brian

By Farrell, Thomas J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Diegetic Achievement of Patrick O'Brian

Farrell, Thomas J., Papers on Language & Literature

To date, criticism of Patrick O'Brian's fiction, never extending beyond the "Aubrey-Maturin" novels that form the bulk of his oeuvre, has emphasized the first part of their classification as "historical function," the mimetic accuracy of his depictions of life and writing, ashore and asea, in the early nineteenth century. Legitimate, but wholly insufficient comparisons of his subject matter and style to those of Jane Austen (Simmons), studies of the historical learning that reifies his narratives (West), and explorations of the idea that "his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit, and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life" (Bayley 36) constitute most of what has been written. Once pigeonholed in this way, O'Brian dwindles into a marvelous researcher and imitator whose noteworthy qualities in those contexts render him of necessarily limited interest in other terms, one appropriately appreciated by encyclopedic reference works detailing every ship commanded (Lavery), every injury suffered (Schuyler), every port of call visited (King with Hattendorf). (1) He becomes--the damnation of faint praise--a much better spinner of sea-yarns than C. S. Forester, a curiosity whose twenty-novel series can be appreciated, apparently adequately, as "a five thousand-plus page homage to Austen's novels" (Simmons, "Did Willoughby" 171).

The best extant criticism reveals the limits of emphasizing O'Brian's historicity. Even while demonstrating the careful delineation in the novels of scientific debates at the turn of the nineteenth century, Wayne Glausser has remarked that discussions of biology omit the formidable figure of Lamarck in order to fend off the "looming corrective presence of evolution" (76): the suggestion is that O'Brian deliberately violates historical accuracy to prevent our misconstruction of Stephen Maturin's convictions. That authorial behavior fulfills well Mark Currie's dictum that "narrative constructs a version of events rather than describing them in their true state, that it is performative rather than constative, or inventive not descriptive" (118). Thus, any novel's attempt to recreate a period as it "actually" was also inevitably entails its interference with, or rhetorical re-invention of, the world being depicted. A prominent exponent of a very different approach to narratology, F. K. Stanzel also downplays imitative elements in fiction. Since "mediation" of the story is "the generic characteristic which distinguishes narration from other forms of literary art" (4), Stanzel rates novels that do not attend carefully to their non-mimetic construction unworthy of notice (6). If with Glausser we want to think of O'Brian as a serious novelist (70), we need to look beyond the faithful recreation Stanzel casts as trivial and Currie as impossible, to question John Bayley's claim that O'Brian "never obtrudes his own personality, is himself never present in the role of author at all" (40), to subordinate the adjective "historical" to the noun "fiction" (Cohn, Distinction 162).

David Lodge suggests a starting point for analyzing the forms of narrative mediation:

  Novelists are and always have been split between, on the one hand,
  the desireto claim an imaginative and representative truth for their
  stories, and on the other the wish to guarantee and defend that
  truth-claim by reference to empirical facts: a contradiction they
  seek to disguise by elaborate mystifications and metafictional ploys
  such as framing narratives, parody and other kinds of
  intertextuality and self-reflexivity or what the Russian formalists
  called "baring of the device." (18)

Since O'Brian, too, makes a truth claim--"I do have some comments, some observations to offer on the condition humaine that may be sound or at least of some interest" ("Black" 21)--the importance of examining his responses to the schizophrenia articulated by Lodge should be clear. Gerard Genette's terminology will be helpful in laying bare O'Brian's narrative strategies by highlighting the degrees to which his novels emphasize either mimesis--that is, a strategy emphasizing (especially in historical fiction) the internal coherence of the "reality" being depicted, its correspondence to observed or experienced life--or diegesis--that is, a strategy willing to subordinate that fictional reality to what Genette calls the "function of [. …

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