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Regressive Pleasures : Patrick O'Brian's high-seas adventure series offers refuge from the craziness of modern life.

January 02, 1994|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar is a Times staff writer

Ned Ludd is said to have been an apprentice stocking maker in England 175 years ago. In a fit one day he grabbed a hammer and smashed his newly invented knitting frame to pieces. They called him a half-wit, though you can decide for yourself if this is a fair characterization of the man whose name came to symbolize the idea that technological advancement is not necessarily or always for the good.

Encyclopedia references suggest the Luddite movement was quickly wiped out by the British Army--an example to the billions of us born since that progress is a one-way street and you'll be trampled if you go against traffic.

But Luddite sympathizers have stubbornly hung on all these years, nursing their gripe with the cult of efficiency. You may know them as the people who would like to heave their desktop out the window, but cannot, because their hands are crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome. They ask what is to be gained when dishes must be washed off before inserted in the dishwasher, and recognize each other on the streets by the stains on their fingers from leaky fountain pens.

And in recent years, these American Luddites have bought more than a half-million copies of the eccentric novels of Patrick O'Brian.

If you are not a devotee, a brief introduction: O'Brian writes of the Georgian England of two centuries ago. His novels about Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey and sidekick physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin have been called some of the best historical fiction of our age, his duo the most compelling since Sherlock and Watson, their high-seas adventures spellbinding. With this winter's publication of "The Wine-Dark Sea," the series now numbers 16 volumes and 4,500 pages.

Luddites grasp still another, if only whimsical, appeal to the books: In these works it is wholly plausible to escape the ending spasms of the 20th Century, to forget the great, heralded, chaotic coming of the Information Age and to lose oneself comfortably in the delights of the past, when clocks still ticked and never so fast as to numb us.

In O'Brian's hand, people possess time; it does not propose to possess them. Thus reflection and rumination, those lost joys, lead the mind to the strangest of wonders. Conversation is lifted by eloquence, erudition and subtlety instead of debased by slogan and amplified by volume.

Honor, silly thing, is a virtue; the sharing of a meal an everyday treasured ritual. Friendships last a lifetime; society cherishes its heroes but has not yet invented the celebrity. It is still possible to travel the world and to discover. Specialization has not made the free-ranging mind obsolete. The search for meaning is broader than free-market consumerism.

And, as told through these tales, cynicism has yet to clap onto the spirit.

O'Brian has been described by interviewers as a man lost in history. So surely it must delight him to sprinkle through his tales that absurd old Navy maxim, "Hurry, there's not a minute to loose." As in: Hurry, if you send your letter with that outgoing ship you might get an answer in six months. Or, hurry set that extra topgallant staysail and we can increase speed from four knots to five.

No time to lose? Surely, the Luddite will tell you to much of it is gone already. But contrary to that perverse dictum of progress, Patrick O'Brian allows us to turn the clock back.

Excerpts from "The Wine-Dark Sea":

"A purple ocean, vast under the sky and devoid of all visible life apart from two minute ships racing across its immensity. They were as close-hauled to the somewhat irregular north-east trades as ever they could be, with every sail they could safely carry and even more, their bowlines twanging taut: they had been running like this day after day, sometimes so far apart that each saw only the other's topsails above the horizon, sometimes within gunshot; and when this was the case they fired at one another with their chasers."

"In his role of virtually omnipotent captain Jack could be deaf to a hint, particularly if it reached him indirectly: Stephen was less well placed, and two days later when Dutourd, having wished him a good morning and having spoken of the pleasure it had given him to linger on the quarterdeck all the time they played, went on to say, with an ease that surprised Maturin until he recalled that wealthy men were used to having their wishes regarded, 'It would perhaps be too presumptuous in me to entreat you to let Captain Aubrey know that it would give me even greater pleasure to be admitted to one of your sessions: I am no virtuoso, but I have held my own in quite distinguished company; and if I were allowed to play second fiddle we might embark upon quartets, which have always seemed to me the quintessence of music.' "

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