The Nutmeg of Consolation
July 16, 2018 9:26 PM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the fourteenth book of the Aubrey-Maturin series the stranded Dianes repel an invasion of their cricket field by a fresh double fanged lady pirate, Kesegaran, with the assistance of the resurrected Beelzebub; they are saved at last by the bird's nest soup industrial complex; Stephen is immortalized with a fetid insectivorous parasite on the glabrous bugwort; the Cornélie is kited; Gelijkheid becomes Nutmeg after a long baptism, and the Surprise is similarly by the sweetening-cock freed of tons and tons of vile cable slime in the bilge, to say nothing of the cess-pit filth of furtive below-decks micturations; Sweeting's Island survivors Sarah and Emily are disappointingly not named Thursday and Behemoth; they befriend the plague of cokehead rats; to everyone's amazement a cross-jack is bent; Stephen considers the destructive effects of moral advantage in marriage and physick; Martin and Maturin are reunited, and for the first time they eschew the lubbers hole for the futtock shrouds, but Jack is not invited to their tête à têtes and wishes Martin at the Devil; and at long last, in the disgusting British Empire's horrific New and very South Wales, a platypus murders Dr. Stephen Maturin RIP.

For some while Macmillan did not reply, being occupied with putting their pills, plaster, draughts and bandages away with his usual obsessive neatness, but when he did speak it was as though he had already made a comprehensive answer, his present words being a continuation. ‘I had thocht a wife was a pairson a mon could tell his dreams to; but then one day she flung the collops in my face straight from the skillet, cried “The Hell with your faukit dreamings,” whipped out of the door and locked it fast behind her.’ He closed the medicine-chest, making the same movement with the key, and said, ‘I never saw her more.’ They lived at the very top of a lofty house in Canongate, he added in parenthesis before going on in a different voice, ‘But I never was a good husband to a canty young woman like her. Even as a boy I had dreams of tall candles bending over in the sun, right down to touch the shelf; and when I was a man it was much the same – I would be there pointing a pistol with a certain triumph, you understand; and the barrel would droop, droop.’
• Jo Walton's re-read on tor dot com.
• So Google tells me "Kesegaran" means freshness, and it's in Fox's praise to the Sultan where the Nutmeg gets its name too. Listserv people were on it.
• This one is really full of Aubreyisms that seem to creep into the text itself from Jack's thoughts as e.g. he ponders that a wish can so easily be farther than the thought.
• There's a fair bit of rescuing/recovering in the book, and things being given new life. Also a 'plethory' of daughters, none of whom Stephen does especially well by.
• For other links see The Surgeon's Mate post.

The news from home is that Diana has given birth to a daughter and Stephen is not poor after all, neither of which he shares with anyone.

Many of the Dianes perish in the camp assault. Jack's clerk Elijah Butcher, given life and a name in the previous book, dies invisibly along with midshipman Harper in the charge. The other midshipman, Reade, loses his arm at the shoulder then becomes much caressed. The carpenter and his mate are killed and beheaded by the raiding party. Warren, the purser, dies of heart failure when a gun blows up near him. Bennet is nearly disemboweled but survives somehow. Lt. Fielding's leg is injured, I'm not sure how. Ahmed makes the wise choice to stay in Java and gives Stephen a box for his coca leaves and a new wig as a parting gift.

There is a mini-"story" of pimple-faced mids Oakes and Miller who were left behind at Java, and are brought back briefly before the mast before being made along with Conway on the Nutmeg. Miller is killed by a cannon ball while standing next to Aubrey the same ball killing the master and three others. Oakes becomes a lookout and transfers to the Surprirse. Conway stays on Nutmeg with Fielding.

Adams is back as the captain's clerk. Macmillan is a weird one as the quote above demonstrates. Above all Martin is back and he's been bit by a tapir and is bitten by a funereal cockatoo.

Killick has several good quotes and moments, like being very excited about getting to use Jack's silver, or the promise of getting an extra day's pay when they cross the date line. I can't make ALL the quotes Killick.
    ‘As for an end,’ said Martin, ‘are endings really so very important? Sterne did quite well without one; and often an unfinished picture is all the more interesting for the bare canvas. I remember Bourville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end. And there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it.’
    Stephen said, ‘There is another Frenchman whose name escapes me but who is even more to the point: La bêtise c’est de vouloir conclure. The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.’
posted by fleacircus (13 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The post didn't look that long on my preview screen.

From the "listserv people" link above, it sounds like someone has read the notes of P'OB where the initial plan was for Jack and Stephen to have another deep falling out over the rescue of Padeen, and have it occur as a raid by the sailors, with Awkward Davies breaking chains with his hands. I am fine with the deus ex monotreme ending though.

Also I just kinda love Martin. I love when he thinks that "east" means something different in the southern hemisphere, I love when Stephen tells him van Buren's interests spread far beyond the spleen and Martin asks, "To the pancreas, the thyroid?"
posted by fleacircus at 1:11 AM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

this is one of my favourites of the series, there are so many excellent little moments and asides that are so comfortably and ridiculously characteristic of various individuals; frex when stephen is hunting babirussa on the island and ends up getting blood and guts all over his coat, and decides to smear pond scum and mud over it as though this will somehow lessen killick's outrage. idk why that delights me so extremely but it DOES and i love it.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:25 AM on July 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, shout out to Fielding's story of the sailors killing a polar bear mother and cubs, great thing to trot out at a dinner party.

There's a criticism of O'Brian's writing in the link mentioned before, which I think is completely fair. One can sense that he wasn't quite sure how much to blow things up in Botany Bay and how to resolve the Padeen thing in a straightforward fashion. On the other hand, haphazard plotting is indistinguishable from realism, which is a bad thing for an accessible story but a good thing for historical fiction I think. Having Jack's clerk pop into existence in a clear paragraph of portrait in one book then die off-screen unnamed and forgotten in the next seems like a Storytelling Don't, but on a man of war it's appropriate.

I'm just now noticing this book was published in 1991, which feels so strange. Irrationally I think of the series as rooted in the 70s and therefore in a pocket universe where it's always the 70s. I don't remember the later books so well but I specifically remember getting this one in the bookstore sometime in the 90s (the clerk was extremely cute and extremely entertained by the title of the book), I had no conception it was so relatively hot off the presses.
posted by fleacircus at 2:06 PM on July 17, 2018

Ha, in the next book, Jack has reduced "the wish is father to the thought", to "the fish is wather to the... nevermind"
posted by fleacircus at 7:15 PM on July 19, 2018

when stephen is hunting babirussa on the island and ends up getting blood and guts all over his coat, and decides to smear pond scum and mud over it as though this will somehow lessen killick's outrage.

And he blames his fever -- the comic vomiting and "imperative looseness" -- on the the false swallows: "My indignation against those birds was quite excessive."

Jack's misquotations exist in his inner dialogue also:
Killick was in many ways a wretched servant, fractious, mean, over-bearing to guests of inferior rank, hopelessly coarse; but in others he was a pearl without a thorn. For a moment Jack passed some other expressions in review, and having reached bricks without price he went to sleep.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:08 PM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maturin will diagnose Jack with dementia, coincidentally at a moment when he is finding Jack to be annoying and he's low on coca leaves.

Something else I meant to mention: We don't often get Jack's observations about Stephen's character, but in this book Jack takes note of Stephen's pridefulness. Boy is he ever though, and very blind to it. (The quote is: "[Stephen is] a man Lucifer could not hold a book, bell, or candle to for pride". I think Jack thinks if a turn of phrase involves a bell, a book, or a candle, you can intensify the meaning by saying all three. I'm never going to say "by the book" again when I could say the much stronger "by the bell, book, and candle.")
posted by fleacircus at 3:02 PM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Ask my pardon, or you are a dead man. Ask my pardon, I say, or you are a dead man, a dead man."
posted by librosegretti at 9:06 PM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just reached the bit about endings and boy yes: it really does feel like O'Brian talking to either himself or his critics.

Also, did he have a bad experience in Australia once? Because Paulton's description of Woolloo-Woolloo is brutal. "I never knew a tree could be ugly until I saw a blue-gum: others of the same kind too, with dull, leathery, discouraged leaves and their bark hanging down in great strips, a vegetable leprosy."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:27 AM on July 22, 2018

I'm just now noticing this book was published in 1991, which feels so strange. Irrationally I think of the series as rooted in the 70s and therefore in a pocket universe where it's always the 70s.

I think maybe this one feels more retrograde because there's more casually-racist colonialism in it than normal. Stephen and Martin mistaking the girls for apes; Paulton and Stephen wondering if Aborigines are intelligent. And sure, yes, it's O'Brian's characters saying these things. But the way he has them say them does feel more like the bad old days of the 1970s, when there were still sitcoms using the term "darkies", than the 90s of its publication.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:01 PM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes. This is the first time the books have looked colonialism in the eye, and I think having Maturin stab one of Macarthur's buddies was showing at least some kind of acknowledgment.
posted by fleacircus at 3:17 AM on July 23, 2018

I really liked the chase of the Cornelie. I think O'Brian's more fond of long tactical chases, full of bluff and counter-bluff and technical sailing, than of short bloody engagements.

Very characteristic of him too that having built all this tension during a long one-on-one chase he then repeatedly punctures it. Welp, made a mistake, can't catch her now. Oh, there's the Surprise, we'll take her easily. Wait, never mind: she foundered.

I liked also the crew being pretty much unanimous about the shittiness of Stephen trying to put the girls into the orphanage, in a "dude, seriously, here?" way. Team Jemmy Ducks forever.

It's odd that Stephen's repeatedly-expressed concern for Jack's liver never goes anywhere. Sure, Stephen's forever fussing over Jack with doses and bleeding and dire warnings about his overindulgent corpulence, but this time around it felt a bit more justified; Jack is several times described -- albeit through Stephen's eyes -- as jaundiced.

I can't make ALL the quotes Killick.

"Fuck you, William Grimshaw."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:48 PM on July 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

And he blames his fever -- the comic vomiting and "imperative looseness" -- on the the false swallows: "My indignation against those birds was quite excessive."

“They are not swallows at all” is a delightful pun on the nature of the bird nests used to make Bird Nest Soup.
posted by cardboard at 8:15 PM on August 8, 2018

Yeah, I was waiting for the reveal that Aubrey had gotten coke-poisoned from (rats in) the gunroom dinner, or for Stephen to extract some wicked tapeworm, but not in this book at least…
posted by sixswitch at 1:40 PM on September 2, 2021

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