When people ask me who my favourite author is, I usually say Patrick O'Brian, because it's an impossible question, and because it's basically true. I recently read his 1953 pre-Aubrey-Maturin book Richard Temple
, which is excellent -- if typically abrupt at the end -- a really contemplative and dissociative portrait of the life of a young painter. It has plenty of those delightful O'Brian surprises where really important stuff happens between words in the most overlookable places (for instance, the surprise gay: He and Gay had always got along well together, but it was only in the last year that they had been such close friends, drawn together, it must be admitted, by the abominable vice of sodomy.
Towards the end, and after several periods of greater and lesser moral and financial dissolution, Richard has an encounter with some of his older work. ( Let's read it now. )
I love O'Brian's writing for its ineffable intimacy, this kind of rhythmic stepping through characters' psyches. His writing seems so clinical -- and indeed the above passage is probably the most clinical of the whole book -- but that objectivity, that commonsensical mundanity, is such a lie. His books are entirely bent around his protagonists (slipping sweetly between them, in the case of Aubrey and Maturin). He is such a generous writer, so evidently delighting in their passions and joys, from which he draws terrific humour and pathos.
There is less joy and humour in Richard Temple
, perhaps because Richard is extraordinarily, and unknowingly, lonely, despite the intense attachments he forms with a succession of men and women. He is recounting his life to himself while he is interred in a POW camp, trying to hang on to his identity in the face of torture, but this backward-looking sets up an essential foreignness, a distance, a search that meanders and loses its way. The Richards of school, of France, of London, of Churleigh, even of Germany, are strangers, connected more by a happenstance of space-time, and less by any concrete Richardness. There is something really curiously hollow at the centre of this book and character, a space in which buzzes about the sneaking fear that connection is impossible, that will is empty, that encounters with people and art are never transformative because there is nothing to transform; a terror with which I empathise keenly as I get older, uglier, and boringer. So I love the above passage for how vivid and visual it is and how forgiving about the past, for how Richard is able to pull a kind of shocking, beautiful unity into being, to sit contentedly with himself if only for a moment.
Certainly Richard Temple
is not about any such fucking pablum as "how passive resistance can be a form of courage and what it truly means to be a hero", as the blurb suggests.* It's an excellent book though, if not as comforting as our dear old friends Aubrey and Maturin.
* True heroes, Channel 9 and Telstra have taught me over the last couple of days, are people that can swim really fast, or perhaps do other things fast. Our great nation is currently undergoing the developmental anxiety and trauma of realising that there are other people, who also have heroes, and that our heroes sometimes do not swim as fast as those other heroes. Thus indicating that we have turned five.