Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The best fiction of the Twentieth Century?

The Folio Society Edition
Over the last three years, I've been re-reading the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian. The Folio Society reissued them as a beautiful run of illustrated hardbacks, and despite owning the set already (twice...), the new editions were too good to miss. The books have sustained me through many a long-haul flight. Coincidentally, I stumbled across some first editions of the books recently, and had to restrain myself from bankruptcy. 

These are astonishingly good books: fantastic works of prose, meticulous in the detail of the period, and simply some of the best works of fiction ever written. Don't just take my word for it.

The books are set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars, and follow the fortunes of Jack Aubrey, a naval Captain, and his friend Stephen Maturin, a surgeon and spy. The range of storytelling that O'Brian wraps into that framework is amazing, from the obligatory naval battles to prison breaks in Paris to a trial for Stock Exchange fraud. Many of the stories are based on or set around historical events.

O'Brian published 20 Aubrey/Maturin books in his life. The twenty-first, untitled and unfinished book was published after his death: three Chapters that he had typewritten, and some pages of handwritten drafts. Because the books have a continuous narrative running through each of the individual tales, it's better to have these pages than not at all, though it makes for a greater poignancy than if book 20 had been the end of the story.

Buy from Amazon: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
One of the things about the presentation of the two versions of the text in the volume I have of 21 is seeing O'Brian at work as a writer. The words change from his handwritten draft to the typewritten version (and it's observed that he would almost certainly have revised and re-revised even further), always for the better. It's a real lesson to budding writers about the need to rewrite and revise and polish and polish and polish in order to make a text the best it can be.

O'Brian's works will outlive most of the fiction of the last century, because it's as near to perfection as he could make it. If you haven't experienced one of his books, now is the time to change that.

For me, it's back to the start with Master and Commander for my next trip away. Can't wait!

Buy from Amazon: The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels

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