So I think I'm done rereading the Aubrey/Maturin books. I finished No. 18 today, The Yellow Admiral, and I don't think I'm going any farther. In fact, this blog post is meant as a warning to my future self, more than anything: stop with #17.
I more or less agree with the idea that these books are one long novel told in installments. That's more true of the continuous later volumes than the earlier, which are more self-contained; and if that's true then one must conclude that it's an unfinished novel. Patrick O'Brian died early in the writing of the 21st, and nothing about what he left behind resolves the story. It just ends. Ends with (as others have pointed out) the characters at sea, on a voyage - not a bad place to leave them, allowing Aubrey and Maturin to sail the oceans of our imaginations forever. Yeah, I buy that. Beautiful.
But that last fragment left me with another impression, which I would be lying if I didn't own. In it I could clearly see a great author's powers failing him, failing rapidly. So in rereading I had always intended to stop with #20; but then I suspected I wouldn't be able to. The temptation to go just a little farther with these characters I love in this world I love would be just too great.
I don't remember feeling that about any of the earlier novels, but now, the second time through, I felt it strongly with The Yellow Admiral. It's here, I think, that O'Brian reaches a point in his advancing age (he was 82 when it was published) where he can no longer do what he's trying to do. Not even close.
Up through #17 the hallmarks of his work had been carefully composed, piquantly antiquarian prose; plots so carefully contrived that they kept you riveted even when nothing was happening; a narrative organization that alternated between the finest of fine-grained detail and shocking but well-timed lacunae; and of course exquisitely realized characters. All of that disintegrates in this book. The plot is sketchy and the way it's presented sketchier still - it reads in places, particularly toward the end, like a mere outline for a book. Except for a wonderful long early description of the common near Aubrey's manor, the details are sparse and at times nonexistent. And the characterizations are bafflingly inconsistent with earlier books. Examples? He makes Stephen the owner of the Surprise again, forgetting that he'd sold her to Jack somewhere in the Pacific. Out of absolutely nowhere he makes Sophie jealous of an affair Jack had ten books before, bringing their marriage to the brink of dissolution, only to resolve it just as unexpectedly, and with just as little effort. Jack and Stephen's relationship, heretofore characterized as much by tense and careful silences as much as by verbal communication, turns prolix and downright confessional. Even that long early description of the common is really only there as a 20-page (!) bit of exposition, with Stephen playing the naif so that O'Brian can explain to the reader what was at stake in the inclosure movement.
If you're reading the series for the first time, of course, you'll want to read it straight through to the end. But, future Tanuki, if you're rereading it and want to end on a high note, stop with The Commodore. It ties up everything that had been left hanging at the end of the previous book, doesn't leave much hanging itself, and its ending, though abrupt, is not an inappropriate one for the series: Stephen and Diana finally reunited, and Diana imploring Stephen never to go to sea again.