Friday, December 1, 2006

Cleared for Action!

This past spring I discovered C.S. Forester’s books about Napoleonic-era naval officer Horatio Hornblower. It began when we watched the BBC miniseries about young H.H., which is quite good, but the books are far better. As is often the case, there are so many details about the inner thoughts and lives of characters that are impossible to translate to film.

I began by reading the first book Forester wrote in the series, Beat to Quarters. This book features a middle-aged Captain Hornblower. Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours are Forester’s original trilogy, and while all the other H.H. books are very good, these three are the best. H.H. is a brilliant but painfully self-critical character, and he feels very real.

A lot of folks start by reading Mr. Midshipman Hornblower first, which features H.H. in his youth, and progress through the series according to H.H.’s age. I don’t see a problem with this, but I’m just telling you, the original trilogy is by far the best, and personally, I like reading books in the order an author has written them because I can watch his creative progress.

Flying Colours gave a particularly poignant account of camaraderie among three characters of different rank and different personality, and it has one of the best endings of any book I’ve read (you’ll hear me say again and again that the ending is the trickiest part of a good book). Forester’s writing is always exciting and never conventional. Conflicts are solved in astounding ways. The man was an incredibly creative writer.

Some female friends were incredulous that I was so captivated by military fiction with primarily male characters. But my response to that is the same as my response to men who think they won’t enjoy Jane Austen: A good book is just a good book, whether it features men or women, war or courtship. If you can’t appreciate Forester or Austen, it’s not because you’re the wrong gender.

This week I also read The African Queen by Forester. It was gripping—a story about a missionary’s sister (Rose) and a mechanic (Alnutt) on an adventure in central Africa during WWI. The hero is clearly Rose. As soon as she steps onto Alnutt’s boat, she is undeniably the captain. She’s the stubborn idealist with a plan, and Forester often describes her strong physical presence as overwhelming “that little man” (the practical, pusillanimous Alnutt). It’s a credit to Forester that his heroines are just as spectacular as his heroes. The African Queen has an inscrutable but excellent ending, which I won’t give away here.

For me, the most personal element of Forester’s books is that after I discovered them, my dad told me that my grandfather (who died before I was born and whom I’ve always wished I could have known) loved them too.

4 comments:

Randall said...

Forester was a lubberly landsman in comparison to the able-bodied fighting captain that was Patrick O'Brian. The latter's Aubrey/Maturin novels are to the Hornblower series what Lord of the Rings is to the Chronicles of Narnia.

O'Brian is more technical, more realistic, more period-specific, and based more closely on real naval actions.

Oh, but keep reading. No, really.

blakbuzzrd said...

BTW, I am elated that you started a blog. I'm not sure if that came through in the above comment.

Watoosa said...

oh yeah? well, you're a SCURVY DOG!
but seriously, i'm going to read the aubrey/maturin novels, esp. after your recommendation.

Jennifer said...

I LOVE that you prefer to read author's book in the order written. When reading in that order I find that I have a lot more "a-ha" moments, connecting important events and characters to one another rather than having a "ho-hum" attitude while reading and saying to myself "I already knew that." There's no magic in that for me.