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Prodigies

Patrick O’Brian, 10 May 1990

The Travels of Mendes Pinto 
by Fernao Mendes Pinto, translated by Rebecca Catz.
Chicago, 663 pp., £39.95, October 1989, 0 226 66951 3
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The Grand Peregrination 
by Maurice Collis.
Carcanet, 313 pp., £12.95, February 1990, 0 85635 850 9
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... Anyone who has travelled even as far as Paris, threading with more or less success the Kafkaesque corridors of Heathrow or God preserve us Gatwick, will agree that a man’s soul has to be riveted to his body to survive it. What then are we to say to Fernao Mendes Pinto, who travelled with scarcely a pause except for being captured 13 times and 17 times sold into slavery, going from the Ethiopia of Prester John to the Japan of the Daimyos and St Francis Xavier? Some say that he was a prodigy, as well as one of the great Portuguese classics, the prose equivalent of Camoens; others say that he was a liar ...

Some More Sea

Patrick O’Brian, 10 September 1992

The Oxford Book of the Sea 
edited by Jonathan Raban.
Oxford, 524 pp., £17.95, April 1992, 9780192141972
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... The last few years​  have been rich in Oxford Books, and I have read three of them: 18th-Century Verse and 18th-Century Women Poets, both edited with great skill and erudition by Roger Lonsdale, and Travel Verse, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. When I say ‘read them’ I mean I have dipped copiously, as one usually does with anthologies, sometimes taking years to digest the whole ...

He lyeth in his teeth

Patrick O’Brian, 18 April 1996

Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero 
by John Cummins.
Weidenfeld, 348 pp., £20, September 1995, 0 297 81566 0
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... One of this book’s chief virtues is candour. If John Cummins first saw Drake as the knightly figure sans peur et sans reproche who had been held up for admiration to so many generations, it must have grieved him to find how far upwards the feet of clay could reach. But he states the facts with a fine impartiality. This account will have nothing to do with myths such as Drake’s drum (a 19th-century invention, it appears) or the game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe or Drake as the conquering hero in the battle against the Armada; yet even so it is by no means that dreary thing, a debunking book ...

Das Boot

Patrick O’Brian, 30 August 1990

The U-Boat War in the Atlantic 1939-1945 
by Günter Hessler and introduced by Andrew Withers.
HMSO, 396 pp., £30, October 1989, 0 11 772603 6
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Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars, 1916-1945 
by John Terraine.
Leo Cooper, 841 pp., £19.50, September 1989, 0 85052 760 0
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... The first of these books is of a kind that rarely comes into the hands of a general reader: it is a highly-detailed account of the submarine war seen from the German side and it was written by a Kriegsmarine officer after the war at the request of the Admiralty and the United States Navy Department. Fregatenkapitän Hessler commanded a U-boat in 1940 and 1941; he then served on the staff of the Flag Officer, Submarines; and for the purpose of writing this book he and the German naval officers who helped him were given access to the War Diaries and the primary sources of the Kriegsmarine ...

Half a pirate

Patrick O’Brian, 22 January 1987

Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates 
by Robert Ritchie.
Harvard, 306 pp., £16.95, November 1986, 0 674 09501 4
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Richard Knight’s Treasure! The True Story of his Extraordinary Quest for Captain Kidd’s Cache 
by Glenys Roberts.
Viking, 198 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 670 80761 3
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... Captain Kidd, though by no means the most successful of the pirates, was certainly the best-known. His name means piracy to this day, and it is a little strange to see it used in the title of the present book as though he took part in this war on the virtuous side. Yet such is the case. Robert Kidd appeared on the recorded scene in 1689 at the age of about 44, as one of the crew of a buccaneering ship in the West Indies ...

Great Encounters

Patrick O’Brian, 11 January 1990

The Price of Admiralty 
by John Keegan.
Hutchinson, 292 pp., £14.95, November 1988, 0 09 173771 0
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... John Keegan’s book is about the principles, strategy and tactics of warfare at sea and their evolution as it is exemplified in four great battles, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and a critical period in that long struggle the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a strangely mixed book, some parts being quite remarkably good and quite unhackneyed, others dealing with matters that have been handled again and again, and doing so with no great originality ...

Happy in Heaven

Patrick O’Brian, 10 February 1994

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Life and Death of the Little Prince 
by Paul Webster.
Macmillan, 276 pp., £17.99, September 1993, 0 333 54872 8
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... In France there have been many studies of Saint-Exupéry since his death in 1944; the five books he published are continually kept in print; and Le Petit Prince is to be found everywhere. In England his following was never so great, and although he remains a very well-known name he has not attracted anything like as much critical or biographical attention: this book, however, provides a full account of his life, with a good deal of information that is not to be found elsewhere ...

Dirty Linen

Patrick O’Brian, 4 August 1994

Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the ‘Bounty’ 
by Greg Dening.
Canto, 445 pp., £7.95, April 1994, 0 521 46718 7
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Admiral Satan: The Life and Campaigns of Suffren 
by Roderick Cavaliero.
Tauris, 312 pp., £29.95, May 1994, 9781850436867
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... Both these books are concerned with the sea in the days of the sailing Navy and with the nature of command, so much enhanced in distant waters when communication with government might take half a year rather than half a minute. Drake executed Doughty in Patagonia without a qualm; or at least without being disturbed for doing so when he came home. Mr Bligh’s Bad Language deals primarily with the mutiny of the Bounty, weaving the account in and out of an ethnographical discussion of life aboard men-of-war and of the political and spiritual life of the Polynesians, with great emphasis on their ideas of the sacred and of sacrifice ...

Battle of Britain

Patrick O’Brian, 7 July 1988

The Spanish Armada 
by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker.
Hamish Hamilton, 296 pp., £15, April 1988, 0 241 12125 6
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Armada 1588-1988 
by M.J. Rodriguez-Salgado.
Penguin and the National Maritime Museum, 295 pp., £12.95, April 1988, 0 14 010301 5
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Armada: A Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588-1988 
by Peter Padfield.
Gollancz, 208 pp., £14.95, April 1988, 0 575 03729 6
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Froude’s ‘Spanish Story of the Armada’, and Other Essays 
edited by A.L. Rowse.
Sutton, 262 pp., £5.95, May 1988, 0 86299 500 0
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Ireland’s Armada Legacy 
by Laurence Flanagan.
Sutton, 210 pp., £9.95, April 1988, 9780862994730
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The Armada in the Public Records 
by N.A.M. Rodger.
HMSO, 76 pp., £5.95, April 1988, 0 11 440215 9
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The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588 
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.
Oxford, 300 pp., £14.95, June 1988, 0 19 822926 7
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... All these books are concerned with what the Spaniards once called the Felicissima Armada and what the English still, with a quiet smile, call the Invincible Armada (apparently it was Burleigh who first thought of the word, shortly after the event). They differ very much in approach, in emphasis, and even in conclusion – Mia Rodrigues-Salgado, for example, feels that the enterprise increased Philip II’s reputation, particularly in the north – but they all of course agree in trying to place the disastrous voyage in its context ...

Fire and Ice

Patrick O’Brian, 20 April 1989

Fire Down Below 
by William Golding.
Faber, 313 pp., £11.95, March 1989, 0 571 15203 1
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... William Golding’s new novel, Fire Down Below is the third volume of a trilogy, the other parts being Rites of Passage and Close Quarters. The trilogy is about a voyage to Sydney in 1813, and a bald, merely literal account might run like this ... On the first page the hero appears, Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, an unformed young man of good family who is going out to help govern New South Wales in an aged line-of-battle ship, Captain Anderson commander, and who has been given a book in which to record his journey by his godfather, an influential peer ...

Fourteen Thousand Dried Penguins

Patrick O’Brian, 9 November 1989

Last Voyages. Cavendish, Hudson, Ralegh: The Original Narratives 
edited by Philip Edwards.
Oxford, 268 pp., £25, November 1988, 0 19 812894 0
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The Nagle Journal: A Diary for the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841 
edited by John Dann.
Weidenfeld, 402 pp., £18.95, March 1989, 1 55584 223 2
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Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 
by Georg Wilhelm Steller, edited by O.W. Frost, translated by Margritt Engel and O.W. Frost.
Stanford, 252 pp., $35, September 1988, 0 8047 1446 0
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... In his introduction to Last Voyages Professor Edwards almost apologises for voyages as a form of literature, partly because the New Criticism ignored them; yet he may be battering at an open door, for surely the great mass of readers, who do not give a damn for the New Criticism, have never ceased to agree that ‘these narratives ... are a special kind of writing with distinctive values of its own ...

Toad-Kisser

Peter Campbell, 7 May 1987

Joseph Banks: A Life 
by Patrick O’Brian.
Collins Harvill, 328 pp., £15, April 1987, 0 00 217350 6
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... That Patrick O’Brian would write a good book about the early life of Joseph Banks was to be expected. Banks combined the enthusiasm and practical competence of one of O’Brian’s fictional heroes, Jack Aubrey, with the passion for natural history of another, Stephen Maturin ...

The Matter of India

John Bayley, 19 March 1987

... its heroisms, weaknesses and absurdities – excited Farrell’s fantasy. In the same way, Patrick O’Brian, a similar and at least as great a talent, though not specifically an Oriental specialist, has to have a ship and the sea for his marvellously delicate and humorous fantasies set in Napoleon’s day. These are emphatically not adventure ...
An Awfully Big Adventure 
by Beryl Bainbridge.
Duckworth, 193 pp., £10.95, December 1989, 0 7156 2204 8
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The Thirteen-Gun Salute 
by Patrick O’Brian.
Collins, 319 pp., £11.95, November 1989, 0 00 223460 2
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Family Sins, and Other Stories 
by William Trevor.
Bodley Head, 251 pp., £11.95, January 1990, 0 370 31374 7
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... then died raggedly away, replaced by a tumult of weeping. W.C. Fields would be proud of her. Patrick O’Brian’s 13th story about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin – appropriately called The Thirteen-Gun Salute – is as entertaining as its predecessors. O’Brian is a master of the narrative of action, but he ...

Crow

Peter Campbell, 5 January 1989

The Letter of Marque 
by Patrick O’Brian.
Collins, 284 pp., £10.95, August 1988, 9780241125434
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Klara 
by Hugh Thomas.
Hamish Hamilton, 347 pp., £12.95, October 1988, 0 241 12527 8
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From Rockaway 
by Jill Eisenstadt.
Penguin, 214 pp., £3.99, September 1988, 0 14 010347 3
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The High Road 
by Edna O’Brien.
Weidenfeld, 180 pp., £10.95, October 1988, 0 297 79493 0
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Loving and Giving 
by Molly Keane.
Deutsch, 226 pp., £10.95, September 1988, 0 223 98346 2
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Tracks 
by Louise Erdrich.
Hamish Hamilton, 226 pp., £11.95, October 1988, 9780241125434
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... ability to use smart writing to make a teen plot seem a true account of the place she grew up in. Patrick O’Brian’s stories of Napoleonic sea war have a vivacity which Hugh Thomas’s more fitfully imaginative book lacks, but both have virtues which come directly from the fact that the substantial historical scaffolds which they have erected give ...

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