The books are quite a bit funnier than I had thought - a lot of the exchanges between Jack Aubrey (fighting captain extraordinaire) and Stephen Maturist (naturalist, doctor, spy, deadly old file) are rife with subtle facetioiusness I'd missed the first time around. Partily because it's obscured by a lot of nautical jargon; jargon that I've become more familiar due to research and other reading. But also because it's just very dry, and very droll - but still I laugh out loud. And just as much the first time around, I realize what a literary triumph the complicated, nuanced but very real friendship is between Maturin and Aubrey - to very dissimilar men who are much attached to each other. Over the course of 21 books and many more years, their relationship grows and stretches - suffers and increases with circumstances and life. It's something rarely done in literature - a truly nuanced relationship that changes over time. Sure there are some famous friendships in literature - Holmes and Watson, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the various Musketeers - but it's rare that the dynamic of a relationship would change over time. Holmes is always Watson's intellectual superior, and Watson will always be playing Euthyphro to Holmes' Socrates. Not so with Aubrey and Maturin, where the esteem of both men for each other grows and changes as they accomplish great things, or are laid low by their losses.
and O'Briian is a fine writer indeed, turning the occasionally heart-breakingly lovely phrase - the kind that makes my breath catch (half with wonder, half with envy!) and my eyes glaze as I picture it in my mind. He's quick, too - he doesn't hand anything to the reader on a platter, and he expects you to keep up. Very key events are underplayed, more evident by the reaction of the characters than by his exposition. When Maturin is again abandoned and rejected by Diana Villiers for yet another callow but wealthy man, we never see or hear the fact of her refusal - we just know that Stephen felt the ring he had given her through the envelope she left for him. He wanders higher and higher up the mountain until the night and cold make him stop, and he melts snow to drink. With those few words, we know - he's been climbing for a long time indeed, because he's in India. You'e got to go pretty high up a mountain in India to find snow.
Later, back on ship, Jack is also convinced that Sophie has rebuffed him - no letters have come from her, despite his hope that she meet him in Minorca and they be married. Both men are devastated, and both constrained by civility and friendship from really showing it. Never the less, the mind of each is perfectly clear to the other - it's just that nothing need be said. Nothing that is, but - "Shall we have some music, Stephen?"
"With all my heart."
And there it is - just a few words, but volume upon volume spoken about this splendid friendship. In reading the series the first time, I felt the greatest kinship with Jack Aubrey - a bluff adventurer, a cheerful soul, a thorough-going expert in his field. But in re-reading, I find I have far more sympathy for Maturin; a man of infinite parts, of deep losses, and both a piercing intellect in understanding others, but great blindspots despite his lengthy brooding. He's a scientist and a medical man, but also an idealist who will suffer greatly for what he feels is right, or for honor. But in his dealings with Diana, he is cruelly used, and yet can never seem to see his own culpability in returning again and again to allow her to do so. He's not good looking, and not particularly charming except to those who understand the depth of his passions, or admire his philosophical bent. He's a classic introvert - quiet at dinner parties but always friendly. Aubrey is a classic extrovert - most alive in company, and with little time or capacity for self reflection. The two, though so very dissimilar, complement each other entirely - where Jack needs the company of others but is estranged from them due to his station - Maturin is required to keep the company of many but prefers a small circile of intimates. The two, then, meet each other's needs handsomely. But Maturin is more complicated - he's every bit as brave as Aubrey, but without the promise of reward or social approbation that the captain gets for his victories. He's just as dedicated, just as handy in a confrontation, but far more mentally adroit. He thinks more, feels more - but also suffers more.
I've gone on longer than I should have, i suppose - but I've been very absorbed in these books all over again, if not more than the first time, then just as much. If you haven't read 'em, you should. If you have read 'em, you should re-read!