JANE AUSTEN FOR BOYS?: ENJOYING MALE INTIMACY IN THE AUBREY-MATURIN SERIES BY PATRICK O’BRIAN

An important function of film adaptations is calling the attention of potential readers to works they would have missed otherwise. I am one of the many readers who became familiarized with the world of the Aubrey-Maturin series by English writer Patrick O’Brian thanks to Peter Weir’s excellent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Supposing I saw the film in 2004 this means that it has taken me 12 long years to finally come round and start reading the novel series. Why? The obvious reason: there are 20 volumes (1969-2004). And I was busy in the meantime going through a similar number of volumes by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin in his series on rebellious Detective Inspector John Rebus. This led, incidentally, to an article, “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus” (Clues: A Journal of Detection, 29:2, 2011, 73-82, http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052), which might now be obsolete depending on events in Even Dogs in the Wild, which I have not read yet. Since O’Brian died in 2000 there is no danger, sorry to be so callous, of yet another Aubrey-Maturin novel unless, that is, someone decides to continue the series, left unfinished at the author’s death.

Sooner or later English Literature specialists come across O’Brian’s name as this is often coupled with that of Jane Austen. Even though two centuries separate both authors, O’Brian’s saga is placed in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which are also the background of much of Austen’s fiction. As every specialist knows, there is now an ongoing academic operation to claim that despite the scant references to historical and political events, Austen’s novels are perfectly grounded in the public national reality of her time meaning that they are much more than just domestic fiction. I am personally quite irritated by this stance since it suggests that domestic fiction needs to be muscled up to be really ‘serious’ literature and, to be honest, I find the whole operation quite sexist. Austen is perfect at what she does and I see no need to distort it by pretending it is something else, whether political or feminist fiction. O’Brian does not have at all the kind of reputation that Austen enjoys, suffering from the opposite condition: his novels are too often seen as ‘just’ genre fiction, whether this is adventure or historical fiction and, even worse, as just pap aimed at unsophisticated male readers. Both opinions are quite wrong as a) O’Brian’s work is the product of impressive philological research on the language of the early 19th century, which makes them, at least in my view, literary enough, b) check GoodReads and you will see that I’m far from being the only woman addicted to them.

Did I say addicted? Yes. I’m writing this post to try to explain to myself what on Earth I am doing devouring fiction dominated by naval battles of which I only understand a tiny part, as O’Brian’s nautical vocabulary is colossal. Before I forget, let me say that the Aubrey-Maturin series deals primarily with the friendship between English Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon Stephen Maturin, an illegitimate child born to an Irish father and a Catalan mother who grows up to be a physician, keen naturalist and sly spy. If I recall correctly, the compound Irish-Catalan is never mentioned in the film, in which Paul Bettany plays an English-accented, much prettier version of Maturin. So, yes, here’s one reason for my being hooked: Maturin is a fierce independentist in his two national identities and Catalan is one of his mother tongues. O’Brian was a resident of Colliure in Southern France (or Northern Catalonia) which is why he’s very well informed about our tongue. Yet, the ones who are not paying attention are Catalans themselves, as I have found no article, academic or otherwise, analyzing ‘Esteva’ Maturin. He is, after all, the most prominent Catalan character at an international level so far.

However, I know that this is not the main reason behind my addiction. Let me backtrack. I have read so far three volumes and I’m into the fourth one. When I started Master and Commander (1969) I was so dismayed by the vocabulary that I decided to keep my cell phone at hand to check on the bits and pieces of each ship. I must have looked pretty desperate because this led my husband, concerned that I would spoil my eyesight, to buying me a tablet… I did the corresponding MLA search, found a few articles on O’Brian and Austen (an issue to which I’ll return), and on the novels’ genre but nothing on the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, nor a book covering the whole series. Asking around, I found out that there is indeed a dissertation written by none other that a dear colleague at URV, John Style: Patrick O’Brian, Questions of Genre (1998). I contacted John at once but, oh my!, he has no computer files of his thesis. A print copy is now waiting on my desk for me to read. There is here some kind of lesson about our undervaluing our own research…

So, anyway, I read Post Captain (1972) and that was it. HMS Surprise (1973) followed and seeing that I’m running the risk of losing track of any other fiction I should be reading, I told myself that I would alternate O’Brian with other books. The result was that I found myself rushing through Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice to return to Jack and Stephen. I’m now sailing towards the Pacific Ocean in The Mauritius Command (1977).

Leckie’s space opera made me see that there is somehow little difference between the spaceships of the future and the tall ships of the past, which might be an advantage for me as a reader of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I’m used to coping with all kinds of weird neologisms in SF which is possibly why I’m quite patient with O’Brian’s nautical lingo (more or less). Austen might also be a factor as, particularly in Post Captain, O’Brian does a wonderful job of showing the men’s side in her time. In this novel Jack is the new neighbour in want of a wife soon beset by a widow with five marriageable daughters, a harpy who puts Mrs Bennett’s feeble efforts to shame. In O’Brian’s intensely masculine world men are very imperfect and, as captain, Jack struggles to discipline his unruly men taking it for granted that turning them into decent fellows must be his priority (he loves a ‘happy ship’). He himself and Stephen are far from being Darcys in public and go to odd lengths in private that would scare away many women. I’m sure, though, that Austen would have enjoyed the humour: O’Brian puzzles Mrs Williams tremendously by having Jack employ his own seamen to run his house –she can’t understand why there are no women there. Nor what role Stephen plays.

So here we go: the main attraction of the novels is the intimacy between the two friends. This is a word which O’Brian uses himself whenever he needs to explain how Jack and Stephen are friends and on what implicit rules their intimate bond relies. A female friend who disliked Weir’s film told me she was annoyed they didn’t clearly say that Jack and Stephen are gay. Well, they are not. As I have argued in my most recent publication (“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”, http://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war) paradoxically the unmasking by Gay and Queer Studies of male affection as repressed desire has negatively affected the representation of male friendship. I have no doubt that O’Brian was a homophobe as ‘sodomites’ are mocked in the novels but I simply do not think that we reach a deeper understanding of friendship by claiming that Jack and Stephen secretly desire each other. They do not. One can insist that Jack’s paramour Sophie and Stephen’s femme fatale Diana are inserted in the text precisely to dispel any hints of homosexuality. Again: this is missing the point, which is that (asexual) friendship (probably) is a far more important bond in the lives of many people than overrated love, not to mention extremely overrated sex. I wrote the article amazed by how the male characters in both novels express downright love for each other and although I still jump every time Stephen calls Jack ‘joy’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and I don’t know what else, and Jack reciprocates in his own away, I’m getting used to the idea that not all human affection needs sex as an outlet.

This, in the end, is the reason why men and women love the Aubrey-Maturin series: as happened in WWI, which provided men with an excuse to express affection beyond the usual homophobic restrictions of ordinary life, the Napoleonic War sea battles provide male readers with an excuse to enjoy this extraordinary intimacy between these two disinhibited men. As for women, everyone knows we’ll go to any lengths for a drop of intimacy –including having to read about extremely violent but also extremely boring naval engagements. Also, after Austen, I enjoy reading about men who are less than perfect, not at all good-looking, even coarse and, yet, good company to each other… and to the reader. Jack and Stpehen are both extraordinary and incredibly real, and I think this is why I must praise O’Brian.

Um… 16 novels to enjoy…

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FROM MECANOSCRIT TO TYPESCRIPT: TRANSLATING PEDROLO (AND THE QUIRKS OF INTERNATIONAL CULTURAL COMMUNICATION)

Allow me to take Manuel de Pedrolo (1918-1990) as the centre of the argumentation I want to develop here. Pedrolo is a key author of Catalan literature, to which he contributed about 100 works in all genres (poetry, drama, novel, journalism) and also his translations of first-rank international work by American and European novelists. He was also the author, as I explained in my previous post, of the best-selling Catalan novel ever, Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). He worked, in addition, at all literary levels: from the popular (he made significant contributions to detective fiction and to science-fiction) to the post-modern experimental.

Now, if you check the very useful data base TRAC (Traduccions del català) available from the website of the Institut Ramon Lull (http://www.llull.cat/catala/quiesqui/trac_traduccions.cfm), you will see that his name appears only 46 times –mostly translations of Mecanoscrit. This is the only book of his translated into French. Pedrolo has been translated into German only four times and in all cases within short story anthologies; once, in identical circumstances, into Russian. In English the only translations of Pedrolo’s works are Final trajectory (trans. Albert M. Forcadas & Selley Quinn, New York, Carlton Press, 1985) and Touched by fire (trans. Peter Griffin, New York, Peter Lang, 1993). Mecanoscrit, by the way, has been translated into Castilian, Galician and Basque within Spain, and abroad into Dutch, French, Rumanian, Portuguese, Italian, Bulgarian, Estonian, and Macedonian.

As it is obvious from my previous post, I’m extremely happy to have had the chance to translate Mecanoscrit into English for the first time ever. Luckily for me, this is a shortish novel (45,000 words only), otherwise the task would have been absolutely daunting. Translating from one’s own language into a second language one does not speak as a native is a complete nightmare, as you can never be sure of what you’re doing in the same way natives are. Of course, native speakers also need to have a very deep knowledge of their own language but at least they have a clearer sense of what sounds ‘correct’. I did consider working in tandem with a native speaker but finally decided to face the translation alone and rely on a good number of English readers for corrections and suggestions. I have only translated one book –the collection Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla, which I myself edited, see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) – and I must say that I have great admiration for translators, for their task is incredibly difficult. In the case of Mecanoscrit the main obstacle for me turned out to be the most common words, those instances in which a second-language speaker is lost in a sea of get, have, do… I’m certainly happy that the work is done and that my translation will reach the 800 Eurocon participants, hopefully also American readers through Wesleyan UP. And, no, I have not received any fees yet; besides, I am embarrassed to apply for grants as, after all, I’m an tenured academic with a regular salary and not a self-employed translator. I would be actually happier to find a sponsor for Wesleyan.

Apart from the translation itself, and the edition of the trilingual volume this summer, I have produced a good number of shorter documents about Pedrolo and Mecanoscrit, including an entry for the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. It just turns out that the ESF does not have an entry on Catalan SF, and so I asked Antoni Munné-Jordà to write one, which I translated (our two entries are currently being edited by John Clute, who welcomed very warmly my offer to write them). To my infinite surprise, Antoni sent me an article longer than the corresponding ESF entry for Spanish SF, which opens up the chance to expand the Catalan presence in ESF with many other entries. The question is where I am going to find the contributors among the Catalan Literature specialists… I happen to be the board member in charge of academic contacts of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia and, well, that should be my main task. I’m also editing for the online academic journal Alambique the first monographic volume in any language on Mecanoscrit (to be published in August in 2017 in English, and then to be followed by the Catalan version).

But, wait a minute, you must be thinking: aren’t you an English Studies specialist? Yep! Will all this work on Catalan fiction count for your CV? Nope! So… why do it? The obvious answer is that this is an academic labour of love, the kind you do because you love a certain book. The situation is, however, much more complicated than it seems at first sight.

To begin with, translations of any kind are not considered as proper academic work in Spain and, so, do not count for research assessment –even when they are critical editions. We, academics, produce them anyway because we think they are a relevant part of our jobs, particularly in the case of those of us working in second-language areas. ‘English Literature’, supposing you can imagine it as a single entity, can trust that we’ll do the job of transferring to our languages its most relevant works. Nonetheless, as we know very well, not even the immensely important Anglophone Literature can be certain that it is fully represented in other languages. Think now of minor language Literatures, like Catalan, with a very restricted circle of academics preaching its beauties abroad and you’ll see the problem. We, Catalan speakers, need to cross our fingers and hope that someone will choose to put their energy into doing us the favour of translating our works. And the money, of course.

Literary translation is, I’m trying to say, an extremely haphazard process. It would make perfect sense for each language to have a body of experts whose job would be to ensure that an agreed-upon list of works received translations into the major languages. No such body exists, as far as I know. In Catalonia the Institut Ramon Llull offers grants to translators and for the promotion of Catalan culture abroad but these depend on the applicants. I might be wrong but, apparently, no Catalan organism is checking that our most prominent authors are indeed translated. The problem, as it is obvious, is that many relevant authors in one language are completely unknown in another. This, by the way, affects both the classics and the contemporary works for the root of the problem is finding a readership big enough to guarantee business.

After all, translations are published by companies that expect to make a profit and there is no way around this hurdle. Unless, that is, official institutions decide to invest money in making these translations available themselves (perhaps as ebooks). This might be expensive but, even so, relatively cheap thinking of the authors whose copyright has expired. In the case of writers whose copyright needs to be respected the problem, of course, is that local publishing houses expect to get foreign rights fees. There is, nonetheless, a world of difference between the benefits that a first-rank living author may bring and the very limited market open to someone living but less prominent or someone dead and little known abroad.

So, back to Mecanoscrit: no native English-speaking Catalan Studies specialist has offered to translate this book. Local native Catalan specialists may translate foreign works into Catalan but they do not translate Catalan literature into other languages; hence, nobody has volunteered, either. This is how I have found myself at this strange crossroads: I’m a Catalan native speaker with an English solid enough (excuse me!) to attempt the translation. The rules of the translation game, however, are limited as regards the circulation of the translation: we, the Eurocon team, are very lucky that we have permission from Planeta, who owns the rights on Mecanoscrit, to publish the trilingual volume, and, most crucially, a sponsor, the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdence. Planeta is willing enough to have Wesleyan UP publish the translation but, logically, Wesleyan worries that there are not enough potential readers in the USA to cover the expenses. Since the commercial publishing houses I have contacted have not even replied to my emails, if Wesleyan rejects the translation Typescript of the Second Origin risks remaining in a limbo. I could try to convince somehow Planeta to let me find a public online platform to publish Typescript –like my university’s repository or others– but, of course, they’ll demand a fee. And who is to pay for that? So you see the conundrum. Now apply this to any other case you might know about and if you find a brilliant solution, do let me know.

To be continued…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TYPESCRIPT OF THE SECOND ORIGIN: THE MASTERPIECE OF CATALAN SCIENCE FICTION

[Please, note: This is the prologue I have written for the trilingual edition of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). The text explains why and how it has been produced.]

When I joined the team in charge of organizing the Barcelona Eurocon, back in the autumn of 2015, little could I imagine that I would fulfil one of my dreams as a reader turned into English Studies specialist: translating into English the extremely popular novel by Manuel de Pedrolo Mecanoscrit del segon origen (hereafter, Typescript of the Second Origin). Someone—apparently Cristina Macía—had come up with the brilliant idea of commemorating our Eurocon with a trilingual edition of the book (Catalan / Spanish / English); this would be given to the 800 participants of the event, thus helping to place Pedrolo on the map of the best European science fiction. When I learned about the project through fellow organizers Hugo Camacho and David Alcoy—with I whom I have collaborated in the task of producing it—I naively asked who would take care of the translation into English. This was one of those questions that one asks despite knowing that they will lead to unpredictable consequences (and much hard work). Of course, had I been given the name of another translator my disappointment would have been immense. I was fortunate, therefore, to be in the right place and at the right moment to fulfil, as I say, one of my dreams.

As Antoni Munné-Jordà explains [in his own foreword about Pedrolo] Typescript (1974) appeared just at the time when Catalan literature could finally be made part of secondary education (from 1976 onwards). I myself am one of the beneficiaries of this new breath of wind and of the collective decision by Catalan Literature teachers to trust Pedrolo to interest us, young students, in reading. The copy of Typescript that I have been using as the basis for the translation into English is the one I bought in 1980 for my first year in secondary school—already the ninth edition of the 1976 book in the series ‘El cangur’ of Edicions 62. The cover shows an image iconic for my entire generation: that of a young woman, her face half-covered by her black hair, riding a huge tractor and staring at the horizon. Alba starts on the road towards survival aged only 14, the age I myself was when my teachers invited us to read the book—I cannot vouch for the impact which Pedrolo’s story had among the boys but I can declare with no hesitation that brave Alba became for us 1980s Catalan girls a simply wonderful role model. This felt, at the same time, very natural. We were then so young that we just did not know about the many restrictions limiting girls in post-Franco Spain and Catalonia (and that still apply…). Alba was definitely what we needed as women: a born survivor. Hence my dream to share with the world her story in English.

Alba’s example still persists: just a few weeks ago one of my students, thirty years younger than me, told the class that Typescript is her favourite book. Quite perplexed, she also confessed that she had not realized that Pedrolo’s novel is science-fiction. This statement in turn caused great perplexity among the SF fans in class: after all, Pedrolo narrates a post-apocalyptic story of survival, prompted by the destruction by extraterrestrials of all mammals (both human and animal), with very few exceptions. The terrifying vision of Barcelona devastated by the lethal vibrations used by the visitors, and with most of its buildings collapsed, is unforgettable. At this point, however, I can only speculate about why the teachers who aroused such passion for Typescript in us young readers chose not to teach this novel as science fiction but as… literature. Perhaps this decision—if a decision was ever made, maybe our teachers simply were not aware of the codes of SF—was, after all, a wise one; at the time Typescript was too close for comfort to the still very popular pulp SF novelettes sold by newsagents.

Typescript of the Second Origin is the most widely read work in Catalan literature; however, since it is not read mainly as SF, this may have prevented Catalonia from becoming a powerful generator of works in this genre. This statement may seem very unfair in view of the extensive bibliography compiled by Munné-Jordà himself (see the Archive of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Catalan Society at http://www.sccff.cat/) and the SF series he directs (for Pagès Editors). There is no doubt at all that Catalan SF is plentiful and of good quality but in no way can it be said to be popular, as Typescript certainly is. If we asked the thousands and thousands who have read Pedrolo’s novel to name another SF Catalan author, only a tiny minority would pass the test.

I confess that one of my fears when undertaking the translation of Typescript was that it would not measure up to my powerful memory of the book. I had actually re-read it at least twice in the past, finding it still as satisfactory as any other classic read in adolescence. However, my biggest fear was that the intense reading which translation requires would reveal all its defects. In part this has been indeed the case: Pedrolo wrote very hurriedly and without many revisions, and I must confess that a couple of sentences have been absolutely impossible to understand. Typescript, in short, is not a literary masterpiece of the same rank as the perfect The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson; yet it has the kind of imperfect charm that has turned other novels, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into universal classics. That Typescript endures well the passage of time was for me proven by the capacity of its final segment still to move readers very deeply (at least those of us who love the book). Despite being concerned about the linguistic precision required to translate the book, Alba and Dídac’s fate once more touched me to the core. I hope its new readers will be likewise moved.

Although the ideal age to read Typescript, as I have said, is 14, I would insist that Pedrolo’s novel can find new readers among all ages. Adelais de Pedrolo, the author’s daughter—possibly the inspiration for Alba, though she denies it—confirms that her father never intended Typescript to be fiction just for young readers. The novel did certainly find a large young readership, but, then, in 1974 when Typescript was published, there were no boundaries between young and adult fiction. The label ‘young adult’ (YA), so popular today, arose precisely in the 1970s and in the English-speaking world partly to appeal to those adolescents less interested in reading, selling them products mostly designed to accommodate their preferences. Today it might seem that Typescript is part of this trend, simply because it is a very accessible book that has very often been read in a school context. I think, however, that reducing Typescript to the any specific age readership is doing it a disservice.

One last word on the volume now in the hands of the reader: this book is a labour of love, a long-deserved homage to Manuel Pedrolo and to his Typescript of the Second Origin. The initial impulse could not have materialized without the generosity of the Fundació Pedrolo headed by Ms. Adelais de Pedrolo and of Group 62, which have allowed us to reproduce the Catalan original. Planeta has also given kind permission for the reproduction of the Spanish translation made by Domingo Santos in 1975. The inclusion of Santos’s translation in our volume is also part of the homage that Barcelona’s Eurocon wishes to pay to one of the main personalities of Spanish SF. On my side, I must explain that since English is not my native language I would not have dared to publish the translation of Typescript without first having it pass through the careful scrutiny of several English readers. I would like to express here my deepest gratitude to Josie Swarbrick, Felicity Hand, David Owen, Donna Scott, and especially to Ian Watson, who has taught me that the art of translation is the art of good writing (at least, the art of doing one’s best). Of course, the mistakes—and I hope they are few—are my own responsibility.

Finally, on behalf of the whole Eurocon team and of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, I would like to thank the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs of the Diputació de Lleida for the warmth, kindness and generosity with which they have supported our project. There was a time when the endeavour of publishing our dream trilingual volume seemed even more fantastic than the story Pedrolo narrates in Typescript. It is impossible to convey fully the joy we feel at the chance of making available to all European readers Pedrolo’s novel in this first English translation. We do hope that Typescript will soon be recognized as a universal classic.

[PS: my manuscript is currently in the hands of an American university press, Wesleyan, which hopefully will publish it. Please, keep your fingers crossed for me and, above all, for Pedrolo. And if you can in any way help, I’ll be very, very grateful.]

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/