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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

Book #1 (January 9, 2010): Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester

I discovered the Horatio Hornblower novels when I was in my late 20s and still occasionally waxed nostalgic for an era of high adventure writing that I had not, technically, been around to see. In C.S. Forester’s time a serious novelist was still allowed to write about naval battles with the sort of boyish enthusiasm that today is found mostly in fantasy novelists trying their earnest best to sound like J.R.R. Tolkien. (I suppose one could argue that Patrick O’Brian was still writing this sort of thing several decades later, but O’Brian’s writing has never struck me as having the sheer boyishness of Forester’s.)

The first Hornblowers I read were Forester’s original trilogy from 1937 and 1938 — The Happy Return (AKA Beat to Quarters), Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. I no longer remember what these were about, except that the stories took place in the early 19th century, there was some kind of naval war going on and Hornblower (whose career is modeled on that of Admiral Horatio Nelson) was fighting on the side of the British. And there were lots of very large sailing ships. Lots of them.

What I liked about the books was not so much the sailing ships, though they were fun, as the character of Hornblower himself. For a leading figure in this sort of boys’ adventure series (and please understand that by “boys” I mean boys of all ages, sexes and eras), Hornblower was surprisingly complex. He suffered from self doubt. The factors that made him a great leader were, as often as not, workarounds for his own sense of inadequacy. He barked curt orders in a commanding tone because he knew that if he gave them any other way his subordinates would hear his voice tremble. His greatest strength was the almost supernatural ability to become icily calm at moments when all about him were panicking and to switch on a kind of berserker rage when he saw a battle coming on. He was a fascinating character.

This time I decided to approach the series in the chronological order of Hornblower’s career rather than the order in which Forester wrote them. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, originally published in 1950 and cobbled together, I’m pretty sure, from a series of short stories published in the slick magazines of the period, finds the 17-year-old Horatio joining the navy as a gawky kid, intimidated by the roughneck rank-and-file sailors that he finds himself thrown in with. But he’s smart and he leverages his intelligence, including sharp skills at gameplaying, into a series of adventures and promotions. By the end of the book he’s reached the rank of lieutenant, which presages the title of the next chronological volume, Lieutenant Hornblower.

Although the book is generally brisk and enjoyable, I have two complaints about it. The first is that when Hornblower achieves his berserker state he becomes, well, boring. His insecurities go away and the callow, self-doubting boy turns into an action hero. And he’s not even a conflicted Harrison Ford action hero; he’s a 17-year-old smirking Arnold Schwarzenegger action hero, fearless in the face of impossible odds, laughing in the teeth of certain death — and therefore not all that interesting to read about. My second complaint — and please don’t smirk at this — is that there’s too much naval action here. The old ships and their peculiar ways have a definite charm, but too much of the reader’s time gets spent trying to puzzle out little nautical details like why it’s dangerous to bring a sailing ship close to a lee shore. It’s possible to regard things like this as a kind of literary acrostic, mental exercises that keep the brain stimulated when the fiction becomes less than fascinating, but this isn’t what I signed on to this voyage for. I’d prefer that Forester step back from the action occasionally and explain to me how these things work, the way that John Fowles explained the workings of the Victorian mind in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. That would be both fun and educational, and would keep the book moving briskly where it otherwise tends to lag. On the other hand, it’s probably unfair to expect any writer who isn’t John Fowles to write like John Fowles; his was a hard standard to live up to.

Nonetheless, the Hornblower books have their charms and I’ll probably return to the series before the year is out. Next week, though, I plan to read something completely different.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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