Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist
poliphilo

A Singular Gift

C.S. Forester's books are full of technical information. He loves his nuggety little historical facts and wants you to love them too. The opening chapters of The Happy Return- for example- are all about the lay-out and fittings of an early 19th century man o'war- dreary stuff, you'd think- but he makes it interesting by humanising it. The facts matter because they matter to his characters. And so we get to care about the stores she carries because her captain is worrying about them running out before they reach their destination- and if that happens there could be a mutiny. We learn that the mainmast is a dizzying 140 feet high because the captain (who is Hornblower, of course) has to climb it in order to spy out approaching land- and he's not in his first youth and it's a trial to him but he mustn't pause for breath because he can't show any weakness in front of his men. Want to know the exact proportions of a deck? He'll give you the feet and inches- and exactly how much space the guns take up- while ostensibly telling you about the constitutional Hornblower takes every morning- up and down, up and down- because he's worried about his figure. It's all done with such a light touch you hardly realise that what you're being fed is the literary equivalent of one of those cutaway schematics with all the parts labelled. In other hands this would be intolerable but Forester somehow manages to make it fun- and lively- and exciting. I can't think of any other writer past or present who has quite this gift for breathing life into the dry-as-dust.
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