Saturday, June 30, 2012

Books That Grab Me: C.S. Forester's Lieutenant Hornblower

Let’s talk about how shallow I can be, shall we? For years, more than a decade, probably closer to two, I put off people who recommended the Hornblower novels to me...because the title character’s name sounded stupid. I never admitted that was the reason, but I just didn’t see how a title character with that name could make much of a good novel. People would rave about the writing, about the action sequences, about the characters and the tricky situations they get themselves into. But the stupid name made me hesitate and never start.

Let me tell you that I was wrong.

I should have read the entire Hornblower series a long time ago. I’m glad I’ve finally dipped in and begun to enjoy them. (The book jacket of more than one of the Hornblower novels included this blurb from Ernest Hemingway: “I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know.” Not sure if that helps or hurts my case given the way Hemingway’s stock has plunged in the last few decades. I remain a fan of The Old Man and the Sea.)

Based on my (as yet incomplete) reading of the series, I recommend starting with Lieutenant Hornblower. It was not the first book Forester wrote nor the first of the stories chronologically. But it is the strongest of the books set early in Hornblower’s career.

During the later portion of the French Revolution when Great Britain is fighting two major sea powers, France and her ally Spain, young Lieutenant Hornblower is put on a ship with a captain who sees every smile from one officer to another as plotting against himself. In those days, a captain could make the accusation of mutiny and that was about all it took to kill a career or, at the extreme, hang the officer in question. This paranoia and the increasing brutality of this less-than-sane captain is the start of a tantalizing mystery at the heart of what is a wonderful naval action novel.

Because this captain will take a great fall into his ship’s hold after he’s mustered his Marines with orders to arrest ‘traitors.’ He’s rendered unable to hold command any longer. Starting then, it falls to the ship’s five lieutenants to manage the ship in his absence. The tale is told from the view of the third lieutenant, Bush, who reappears in several subsequent novels, and tracks the enigma of the fifth lieutenant, the youngest by date of commission, Horatio Hornblower. Not so incidentally, Hornblower was one of two people who could have helped the captain to his very convenient fall, the other a young man put aboard the boat at a young age in order to learn the arts needed for sailing but suspected by the captain and legally tortured.

Bush, the central character of this book, is very curious about Hornblower, the youngest but not shy about offering advice to his elders. Advice the shell-shocked lieutenants usually take. The ship heads off to handle the captain’s secrets orders, namely to disrupt a nest of Spanish privateers (pirates who have papers giving them official backing by a government to prey on the country’s enemies).

On board ship, every time the older lieutenants make a hash of something, Hornblower responds with a quiet suggestion. In the end, their near defeat at the hands of the privateers turns into a daring nighttime raid, along with captured prizes. Too easy? Not so. Keep reading.

Every time you think the action is settled, something comes along to create a new crisis. That’s why the entire series is so good. The good officer in chapter five winds up dying ignobly by the end of the book. The rich rewards Hornblower earns melt away before he can claim them. A nice day for sailing turns into a hurricane...the variations are infinite. It’s a world profoundly affected by fortune, good, bad, and worse. Forester keeps spinning Fortuna’s wheel...and we should thank him for it.

It’s not an easy life for Hornblower...he’ll survive of course. This book was written a decade or more after the first Hornblower novels, so the reader knows that Horatio will continue his climb from lieutenant to commander to captain, but we don’t know how. He’s going to be captured by the French during wartime. He’s going to come down with every deadly disease that Forester could research. He’s going to have the supreme joy of marriage and children...only to watch the worst happen to most of them. Hornblower will face success and battery on every front, personal and professional.

Forester is one of those writers who makes the journey really worth the time. He rewards his characters and tortures them back just as hard. Isn’t that one of the reasons to read thrilling books, even dangerous books, where no one knows what the author might just do to a favored character or plot line?

I find that all of the books in this series that I’ve managed to locate have something good in them. (I’m especially partial to Lord Hornblower and Commodore Hornblower for their ways of tackling the vast wars across Europe launched by Napoleon after the end of the French Revolution.)

That said, a few of the books are, in my reading, inferior to the others. I won’t prejudice you. Try them all. Find the ones you like. (I find that even a great writer is lucky to ‘miss’ about fifty percent of the time with the books he or she writes. There are plenty of writers I know, very good ones, who have one book in ten that I admire. Still, the one good book is more than enough to overlook the failed experiments.)

I still think the name Hornblower is stupid. (I’m surprised it’s not spawned an entire sub-genre of nautical-themed porn films.) But the books are worth your attention. Don’t wait a decade or two to pick one up and enjoy.

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