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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Urbanities

Stefan Kanfer
Good Literature Lives!
Spring 2000

“If you build it, they will come," predicts the haunting off-screen voice in Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner takes the hint, builds an elegant baseball field in back of his farmhouse, and behold!—deceased Hall of Fame players materialize from the ether and a line of patrons stretches to the horizon.

A heartening parable about America's hunger for quality—and one that Hollywood and New York have since forgotten. In a way, the Left Coast can be excused for its maunderings; movie audiences are largely composed of mall rats and adults who move their lips when they look at pictures. Publishers are not so easily let off the hook. Indeed, recent phenomena show that a) consumers still display a ravenous appetite for good literature. And b) those readers can make authors and publishers rich.

Cases in point: J. K. Rowling and Patrick O'Brian, writers not of one-shot successes but of continuing series demonstrating, volume after volume, that excellence is good business. Superficially, these novelists seem oceans apart: Rowling's Harry Potter novels are fantasies shaped for the young reader; O'Brian's realistic sea stories are adult in every sense of the word. Yet the subtexts of both are astonishingly similar. Each writer presents a moral universe with abiding values. There, honor is not obsolete, nor are trust, courage, loyalty, and the dignity of labor. And there, deceit is nothing to snicker at behind the hands; it is something to be reviled

In a strange way, it is this moral conviction that threatens handfuls of yahoos who want to see Rowling's creations taken off the shelves. The South Carolina Board of Education, for example, is considering a classroom ban. "These books have a serious tone of death, hate, and sheer evil," claimed one of the parents who addressed the Board. And in Marietta, Georgia, elementary school principal Jerry Locke commented ungrammatically, "It's questionable whether every parent wants their child to read or be exposed to books having to do with magic or wizardry."

The principal has lost sight of the principle. Yes, the Potter fantasies deal with fictive evil, but not so fictive that it can't be recognized as a metaphor for the threats facing civilization every day. That evil is well armed with the weapons of chaos, violence, ignorance, and, worst of all, indifference. The way to fight it is not with moral relativity but with moral conviction. Granted, some parents raised on seventies bumper stickers that read QUESTION AUTHORITY might not be able to handle certitude of any kind. In that case, J. K. Rowling may be just the tutor to help them grow up.

Appropriately enough, Rowling's life contains aspects of a fairy tale: the graduate of Exeter University in Great Britain started her professional career as a teacher of French. Married and divorced early, she was an impoverished single mother living in Glasgow when she wrote her first children's book, hoping to bring in a few extra quid. The Scottish Arts Council provided a minuscule grant that allowed Rowling to reach the finish line. The rest is publishing history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone appeared in 1997 and promptly elicited lyrical reviews, awards, and cries for more adventures of the remarkable 11-year-old protagonist. Proving Churchill's dictum that England and the U.S. are separated by a common tongue, the story received some minor touchups when it crossed the pond (Scotch tape for cellotape, etc.), ascended the New York Times bestseller list, and stayed there for 30 months. Two more Harry Potter books followed; they have also clung to the crest of that list like eagles in an aerie, season after season, in England and America. The fourth Harry Potter book has not yet been published, but is already a smash—Amazon.com has received more than a quarter million advance orders.

Given the customary pap of the fiction list, this success might seem to indicate a series aimed at the lowest common juvenile. Not so. The Potter books are intelligent, witty, and filled with references to classical myths and English lit. The eponymous Harry has all the requisites of a young hero in those genres: he is parentless, unloved, and unprepossessing. We have run across this sort of individual many times before. He is Arthur, the lost soul with strength enough to pull the sword from the stone. He is the ugly duckling before he becomes a swan, the wooden Pinocchio, the orphaned Oliver Twist, Pip of Great Expectations, the pre-lamp Aladdin, the pre-spinach Popeye.

Like them, Harry is no ordinary soul. As he comes to learn, his late mother was a good witch, his father a gifted wizard. Evil powers did away with them when Harry was a mere infant. Grumbling all the way, his oppressive Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon take the child in. The drab and vile-tempered Dursleys are bad enough, but their son Dudley gives new meaning to the word "lout." Rowling has a word for these miserable wretches and others like them: Muggles. A Muggle is someone without the gifts of magic and high-powered imagination. (As all sensitive children can testify, Muggles constitute a distressingly large part of the population.)

Harry lives at the epicenter of Muggledom, a London suburb. There, at 4 Privet Drive, he is bullied and neglected, until a strange caller arrives from Hogwarts Academy, offering the boy a scholarship. The Dursleys grudgingly allow Harry to go, little suspecting that Hogwarts is the official prep school for wizards.

Installed in his rooms, Harry enters an enchanted parallel world where miracles are common occurrences and natural laws get flouted every day. Owls deliver the morning mail, for example, and rather than toll the hours the clock says, "You're late" and "Time to make tea." In addition, the school teaches such subjects as Potions and Transfiguration. Nevertheless, enchantment has its price. Like every school the world over, this one has its tyrants and snobs. Harry often faces humiliation and learns to survive with an amalgam of craft, courage, and willingness to learn from grayer and wiser heads. One of them is the great good wizard Dumbledore, who advises Harry that the scar on his forehead is not a disfigurement. It is evidence of a lightning bolt hurled at him by the wicked wizard Voldemort. The electricity was meant to kill, but the child's mother intervened—fatally, as it turned out.

With Dumbledore's aid, Harry harkens to the value of valor and the uses of arcane knowledge. Eventually he learns to navigate through time; although Harry can never speak to his late parents he learns to see them, as vivid as dreams and as significant as memory. It would be unsporting to reveal the plots of the first three books; suffice to say that they contain more than mere convolutions of narrative. In essence, Rowling has picked up the baton carried by the great writers of children's literature. Harry's adventures with talking chess pieces, for example, evoke the chapters of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The boy's ability to talk to snakes is not unlike Merlin's interspecies fluency in T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Other influences include Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins, James M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales. Rowling has chosen her ancestors well.

What makes the Harry Potter books even more appealing is the author's refusal to write down to her audience. Many publishers are convinced that prose must be made "accessible" (read "insipid") for a TV-trained generation. J. K. Rowling will have none of this nonsense. Here is Harry staring into a magic looking glass at the images of his deceased parents and other relatives—and possibly of his future self:

They just looked at him, smiling. And slowly, Harry looked into the faces of the other people in the mirror, and saw other pairs of green eyes like his, other noses like his, even a little old man who looked as though he had Harry's knobbly knees—Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life.

The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

Here Harry's reference book delves into the subject of alchemy:

The ancient study is concerned with making the Sorcerer's Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

There have been many reports of the Sorcerer's Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to a Mr. Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera lover. Mr. Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).

If Joseph Campbell is right, if the universal hero has a thousand faces, Harry's is surely one of those visages. And his journey is one of those heroic journeys, buoyed by a sense of humor and driven by youthful discoveries. Among them: that action is character, that morality is not relative, that there is no running away from wickedness, that the values of the material world last about as long as a toy, and that the values of the spirit endure. In Hogwarts, all this is known as magic. In the real world it is known as ethics.

An older group of readers can find such ethics on every page of Patrick O'Brian's exemplary sea stories. O'Brian's career does not have the over-the-rainbow aura of Rowling's; at the time of his death early this year, more than a few British obituary writers commented sourly on his beginnings. The author officially claimed to be an Irishman, born in Galway in 1914 and educated at England's oldest universities. During the war, went his story, he had many daring adventures whilst serving in British intelligence. Demobbed, he and his wife Mary moved to Wales ("Dear people, splendid mountains, but a terrible climate"). In 1949 the O'Brians headed for Collioure, a fishing village in French Catalonia, where they set down roots.

Save for the start and finish, very little in this vita was true. O'Brian was an Englishman of German ancestry, born Richard Patrick Russ in Buckinghamshire. His father, one of 13 children, was a physician specializing in venereal disease. Perhaps seeking to repeat his family history, Dr. Russ fathered nine children, whereupon his wife died, debilitated and old before her time. The doctor was a domestic monster, manipulative, brutal, and cold. He had little use for his most rebellious child, and Richard returned the favor. Restive and angry, the boy left home before he got out of his teens.

He never went to college—or to sea, for that matter; he married young and had two children. Richard Russ's initial literary efforts, a book about animals and a novel, made little impression. Somewhere along the line he broke off relations with his father, his brothers and sisters, and, not long afterward, with his wife, son, and disabled daughter.

But he was not the emotional basket case he appeared to be. Several years later he began seeing the estranged wife of Count Nikolai Tolstoy, whom he had met during the war, when they both had drab desk jobs at MI-6, writing propaganda. When her divorce was made official, the couple wed. This marriage took, and the couple did indeed move to the south of France. There the author became a scholar, immersing himself in maritime museums, analyzing long-forgotten ships' logs, and making regular visits to the Admiralty in London in order to research the smallest details of ocean voyages and historic battles. He attempted a couple of sea stories, each one meticulously true to its period. He supplemented his meager royalties with translations under his now-legal name, Patrick O'Brian.

Several sea novels appeared. And then a few more. Slowly his reputation grew. Iris Murdoch became a fan, as did the playwright Tom Stoppard; in the U.S., praise came from Eudora Welty: "Patrick O'Brian has the power of bringing near to the reader savagery and tenderness, beauty and mystery and boldness and dignity." Eventually the New York Times judged O'Brian's series "the best historical novels ever written." But by that time the author was in his sixties, and privacy meant more to him than royalties. Though O'Brian's tales sold in the millions, he shied away from publicity tours until his hair was white and his reputation secure. O'Brian's idea of a good time was sitting at his desk and writing, with an 1810 Encyclopaedia Britannica at his side to get the facts right. In the hours when he was not creating, the recluse cultivated a vineyard and made his own wine until the week before his death in January at the age of 85.

The notion that an Englishman could pretend to be an Irishman was too much for the British papers. They harped upon the author's deceptions. Unmentioned in the obits was the great tradition of British noms de plume, from Charles Lamb to George Eliot to Rebecca West to George Orwell and beyond.

Yet Patrick O'Brian's greatest fabrications are not himself and his background. They are the ship's captain, Jack Aubrey, and his polymath friend Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, linguist, and secret agent, who sail the seas circa 1800-1815. Like most aquatic creatures, the 225-pound, unkempt, yellow-haired Aubrey is ungainly on land and graceful on the water. His colleague is a landlubber by preference, but curiosity and connivance find him on numerous voyages led, of course, by his compatriot. Aubrey is a Tory, Maturin an Irish-Catalan with a radical streak—no doubt because he attended medical school in Paris during the Revolution. Excepting only Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, they constitute popular literature's most compelling odd couple. It is no accident that these pairs have so much in common. Each friendship contains polar opposites, amiable, admirable archetypes who may be foolish or egotistical at times, but who always come right before the end. Bookstores are littered with overpraised volumes with a shelf life of a generation. Meantime, Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse go on and on and on. O'Brian belongs with them; 100 years hence, his novels—minor classics but classics nonetheless—will still be in print.

For he, too, is a master of the small vignette. But unlike Conan Doyle and Wodehouse, he is also a master of the large canvas. Effortlessly, O'Brian describes the courtships of his protagonists, their wives, their friends, their enthusiasms and loathings. Readers are transported to skirmishes with Napoleon's navy, to the icebergs of the southern oceans, the quiet waters of the South Pacific. (In that gentle clime, the two men enjoy a civilized moment playing passages written by the recently deceased Mozart on their stringed instruments, Aubrey on the violin, Maturin on the cello.)

Inevitably, O'Brian is compared with that other writer of rollicking sea tales, C. S. Forester, whose Captain Horatio Hornblower flourishes in the same period. Splendid and accomplished as those stories are, they belong in a different category from the Aubrey/Maturin books, since they aimed to please boys as well as men. O'Brian sailed for another, wholly adult, shore; the most powerful influence on his prose, and on his wit, was the author whose first editions adorned his study: Jane Austen. Indeed, Post Captain, the second book in the series, is a comedy of manners mainly set in country houses. It stands as a sly tribute to the lady from Bath.

Moreover, O'Brian, unlike Forester, never makes concessions to the reader. His naval terms are often obscure, his dialogue filled with authentic, long-forgotten words of the period, his attention to detail so obsessive that pages upon pages deal with medical difficulties, natural history, and the various courses of long exotic dinners. Rather than discourage his public, these attributes have served to make it more enthusiastic. Dean King's book, A Sea of Words, is devoted to O'Brian's nautical terms; Anne Grossman and Lisa Thomas's Lobscouse & Spotted Dog offers the recipes of meals (one of which includes rats) that Aubrey and Maturin have consumed; and two CDs contain the music that the seagoing violinist and cellist played. In addition, there are relevant atlases and geographical guides, a newsletter, and even a parody of the series, The Port-Wine Sea.

As with the Rowling opus, tergiversations of plots are not the main appeal of O'Brian's books. What makes them distinctive is their Austenic sense of place and period and their unflinching worldview. O'Brian's ships of the line are moral arenas, places where excellence is everywhere, not only because the commander demands it but because the seamen take pleasure in exhibiting their considerable skills. Discipline is demanding but not cruel. The social hierarchy makes for stability rather than resentment, because good manners are general and respect is as much a part of daily life as bread and grog. Everyone knows the forms of etiquette on land as on shipboard, knows how important it is to get them right. Servants and masters recognize the right wig and the proper wardrobe for every occasion. They are comfortably familiar with the structures of deference and authority; they are well aware that each flicker of manners exposes the soul—that the way people are treated, above and below one's station, is a balance sheet of one's own worth as a human being. In this world, the self is not something to be indulged; it is to be contributed to the common weal, whether that self belongs to a crewman or the captain himself.

In a very real sense, Aubrey becomes a nineteenth-century CEO, acutely conscious of his role as a leader responsible for hundreds of men: their harmony or discord, their success or failure. As we watch him work his way up the career ladder, we come to understand and appreciate his much-maligned era. It was a period, O'Brian cannily points out, when exploration and discovery animated every aspect of science, when—at least in parts of the social world—merit and achievement went hand in glove with duty. In O'Brian's world, doing one's best is not a slogan but a way of life.

All this is rendered with color and verisimilitude by a thoroughgoing professional, time-traveling to the early nineteenth century. Having magically arrived there, he seems to sit in a tavern by the water or a snug London club, regaling his listeners with recollections. Here, a ship prepares to weigh anchor:

There was no point in playing the violin or even conversing, for although the capstan on the quarterdeck was not directly overhead, its bars, now in place, swept back almost to the wheel, and once the messenger had been made fast to the cable, once it had taken the strain and the bosun had cried "Stamp and go" and a little wizened old forecastle-hand had leapt onto the capstan-head with his fife and played the tune of "Round and round and round we go, step out my lad and make your feet tell 'em so," the whole space below was filled with a huge confusion of sound dominated by the rhythmic tread of the men at the bars and sound of the great sodden cable coming in, attached by nippers to the messenger, and then, they being cast off, plunging heavily down to the tiers in the orlop where very strong men coiled it and stowed the great coils away.

The frigate glided over the water quite briskly, then slower, slower until the bosun called, "Right up and down, sir," and the officer of the watch replied, "Thick and dry for weighing," a cry instantly echoed from the depths by the extraordinarily penetrating voice of Eddie Soames, the ship's eunuch, always good for a laugh.

Alas, there will be no additions to the shelf of 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels. But the reading of these, and five other full-length O'Brian fictions, plus the author's biographies of Pablo Picasso and eighteenth-century botanist Joseph Banks, should keep enthusiasts busy for many years to come. More than that, they should serve as a high-water mark for publishers. To be sure, saccharine children's books, Harlequin romances, and celebrity exposés jut out from the bestseller list like gargoyles. Worse still are the women's "revenge novels," accusing all males of rage brought on by an excess of testosterone; or the pretentious navel-gazing exhortations of self-improvement; or the Eurobooks produced when literature took a wrong turn, seeking to curry favor with the semiotics professors. These time-killers will always be with us. But never mind. Rowling and O'Brian have proved to publishers and readers that to be a first-rate minor novelist may be the best way to make a major statement: there is a public out there for the so-called reactionary attributes of taste and style and virtue.

And there is more good news from the bookstores. In addition to the popular works of Rowling and O'Brian, a 1,000-year-old monster-filled epic recently became a national bestseller: Beowulf, translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Only a few years back, Homer's Odyssey, beautifully translated by Princeton professor Robert Fagles, enjoyed a similar popularity. The Shakespeare explosion is evidenced in the movie theaters, the bookstores, and the Broadway theater, where even Kelsey Grammer, star of the TV sitcom Frazier, now seeks to legitimize his reputation by appearing on Broadway in an upcoming production of Macbeth. And this explosion occurs in tandem with a renewed enthusiasm for Jane Austen, who seems to have a new film adaptation every year. Indeed, one women's quarterly wonders aloud, "Why All the Buzz About the Lady From Bath?" and goes so far as to picture Miss Austen interviewed by Oprah. Talk about fantasy.

Therefore, readers, take heart. Valuable counter-movements are at work. Giving in to the current cultural backslide would be like Harry Potter surrendering, Captain Aubrey running up the white flag, Ulysses caving to the Cyclops, Beowulf defeated by Grendel. Say no to the Muggles, and carry on. The spyglass is half full.

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