What are you reading in 2015? With the first draft of my new book finished and cutting for the second draft well under way, I’ve got a stack of books waiting to be devoured. In fact, I’ve already launched myself into the first of them: Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, volume one of the famous Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels from the Napoleonic wars.
I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those writers who find it almost impossible to read other people’s books – apart from those necessary for the current research – when I’m composing my own.
Editing is different. It's generally easy enough to cut, revise and rework a manuscript when reading somebody else's book, for it's a rather mechanical exercise. Patrick White called it 'oxy-welding'. But original composition must be for me an essentially solitary and undistracted business – however unlettered it might sometimes make me feel in company discussing the latest literary success.
For one thing, the risk of being influenced, even unconsciously, by other writers’ ideas and imagery is acute. Plagiarism is a fear that stalks all of us.
And for another, with a splendid writer like O’Brian – or Helen Garner, Richard Flanagan, Dickens, White, Jane Austen, Mark Twain and those dozens of others waiting to be read or re-read on the bookshelf – I become so engrossed in their stories that the impetus for writing my own can go out the window.
So they have to wait, I’m afraid, until the present composition is finished. Hence the Happy New Year’s pile awaiting me.
The Folio Society has been publishing a fine edition of the Aubrey/Maturin books over the past few years – beautifully illustrated with original prints and paintings. I’ve been buying and saving them up to open when I’d written 'The End' on the new typescript.
There were 20 volumes in the series – O'Brian died writing the 21st – and I read several of them at a gulp after finishing Captain Cook's Apprentice, about the historic Endeavour voyage. I dared not read them during the composition for reasons given above – wisely – though I watched countless times Peter's Weir great film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World based on the Aubrey/Maturin books.
Like me, Weir sailed on the Endeavour replica as part of his research – which is how he got the nautical details so right: the creak of the timbers ... the low, cramped mess deck ... the ritual, 'feel' and salt smell of life aboard ... the very voice of the ship as it sang in the rigging ... all was as it should be. I thought it a wonderful and authentic recreation. And in this he very much followed Patrick O'Brian's artistic intent.
We can savour the author's marvellous prose ... 'the milk-warm sea' – 'the pyramid of tightly drawing canvas' – the 'frail, beautiful edifice' of the ship' – 'days when the perfection of dawn was so great, the emptiness so entire, that men were almost afraid to speak.'
But what gives such drama and power to O'Brian's absorbing descriptions of naval battles is the fact they are based on real events. Even the most 'derring do' actions are taken from contemporary reports published in The Naval Chronicle, the letters and diaries of the men who fought them. While they are presented as fiction, his sources in truth are immaculate.
Patrick O'Brian made this very clear in his preface to Master & Commander, where he wrote of his belief that the great seamen on whom he compounded his characters 'are best celebrated in their own splendid actions rather than in imaginary contests.' And of his belief, too, 'that authenticity is a jewel.'
The 'jewel' of authenticity. Can there be any better advice for a writer of historical novels? Or more encouraging dockside words for myself? Who, having laid these books aside when I began my most recent project, pick up the first volume again to re-embark on the entire 20 voyages of fabulous self-discovery.