O'Pinions & O'Bservations O' O'Bscure O'Briania

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The Catalans (The Frozen Flame)

Date: Fri, 3 Apr 1998 00:42:32 -0500 (EST)
From: jfinnera@concentric.net (John Finneran)

I had the chance recently to read The Catalans, Patrick O'Brian's 2nd novel, long out of print, and I thought the Gunroom might be interested in a report. (Minor spoilers ahead).

The novel is from 1953 and is set more or less in the then present in French Catalonia. The main character, Dr. Alain Roig, returns from bacteriological research in the Far East to the town of Saint-Feliu, to find that his cousin, Xavier, a middle-aged widower as well as the town's mayor, is involved in a relationship with, and perhaps plans to marry, a beautiful but poor young girl named Madeleine, whose own husband had abandoned her. Xavier's evident folly (so most of the town thinks it), besides being scandalous in the abstract, also potentially endangers the family wealth. The rest of the family view Xavier's wealth as their own common property, and certainly do not want another claimant, especially not a mere grocer's daughter. Alain, as you might have guessed, is caught in the middle.

The story is interesting in its own right, with hidden treasures sprinkled throughout, notably some wonderfully drawn minor characters, such as Aunt Margot, who has obstinately not learned Catalan, but demands that the family speak in proper French, and, more memorably, a hack writer with a most bizarre fixation and a deluded, self-obsessed painter, convinced of his own sensitivity.

To those of us familiar with POB's later works, there is even more of interest.

O'Brian's writing style here is closer to the clear, elegant, and sometimes elaborate stlyle displayed in the Aubrey-Maturin series, than to his sometimes baffling earlier writing (as shown in his short stories, and even Testamonies, to some extent). Here's a sample sentence from the very first page of writing (p.7) (remember, this is only one sentence): "They wished him a good journey, and he bade them farewell; and when the train pulled out he sank luxuriously into the corner seat: it was the first time he had climbed into the train that he had been able to sit easy, spread out, uncramped, and he promised himself a quiet doze for an hour at least." The book uses double quotation marks throughout for dialogue, rather than the single quotes we've all come to expect (though this is probably more the editor's decision than the author's)

. Although the style is relatively straightforward most of the time, POB does use some experimental literary techniques in places. At one point, he presents dialogue in the manner of a play, with just the character's name in capital letters, a colon, and then the dialogue. At another point, when he is describing the sardana, a traditional Catalan dance, he abruptly, and without explanation, switches from prose to a sort of free-verse poetry for a few pages. Here's a sample (all italicized in the original)(pp.226-227):

Now the harsh tense vibrant screaming of the single pipe
before the music
and then the music. Loud discordancy
barbarous to an unaccustomed earv unnatural intervals and time
a harsh, high braying, crude, unripe.
No easy sweetness -- here no dulcet chime
and thump, the nagging beat, irregular, unmeaning
but not to them.

The overall effect works rather well at showing the dream-like quality of the dance that I believe POB is trying to convey.

This book also contains perhaps POB's best and most sustained example of a literary technique he uses several times in the A-M series: that of showing layered, simeultaneous thought. Perhaps other lissuns can provide citations, but I recall sentences to the effect of: Stephen was thinking of x, but only with the very surface of his mind, with another part of his mind, he was thinking of y, and with a third part of his mind, he was thinking of z. When I came across this technique in the A-M series, I was dazzled by it. People's thoughts do often follow several lines at one time, and to convey separate but simeultaneous thought is no easy feat even for the best of writers. James Joyce's method of shoving a bunch of words together shows the unity of time, but O'Brian's method I believe brilliantly captures the holding of several linear patterns of thought (each easy to see separately, but a mess if shown together at once) simeultaneously.

As I say, in The Catalans, POB uses this technique of showing simeultaneous layers of thought masterfully in a scene beginning on p.103, where Alain is half listening to Xavier. Here is a small bit of it: "Alain was no longer listening with the top of his mind. All that was said he heard and understood.. But he was not listening, listening to catch each word; now the sense flew in at his ears -- he could reconstruct the whole -- but now his easier mind could also run to and fro, combining what Xavier had said with what he knew, assessing the knowledge he had and the continual stream of addition to it; and now his half-concious observing faculty was free again."

POB also works on themes that he will revisit in the A-M series. There is one scene in particular that prefigures one of the most famous episodes in the series in the most unexpected way. I hate to spoil it, but it's unfair for me to leave a hint like this, so I'll reveal what it is way down at the bottom of this post. I advise you to skip my spoiler if you haven't read The Catalans, but it's your decision.

I want to mention another notable passagethat has possible relevance to the series. I should point out first that the characters of Alain and Xavier both seem to have certain characterics in common with Stephen and that Madeleine seems to have certain commonalities with Diane. Xavier is speaking (p.96): "I will tell you what I mean by the death of the soul. When you no longer have the power to love, when there is no stir of affection anywhere in your being, then your soul is dead. That is the death of your soul. Your soul is dead, and you are damned: you are dead walking, and you are in hell in your own body." (This idea is developed at much greater length in the book.) I couldn't read the passage without being reminded of the time in the series when Stephen finds that his love for Diane has vanished. Has he suffered a death of the soul? Does the fate of Xavier (or Alain or both) foretell the fate of Stephen, or perhaps uneventuated possibilities that could have occurred given the right conditions?

I hate to end on such a somber note, so I'll give one more passage, a part of a conversation between Xavier and Alain on various professions (p.94):

"In spite of everything that can be said against doctors, nobody has ever felt called upon to elaborate any long, sophistical argument to prove that medicine is an honorable calling: nor do they trouble to show that rich men have a better time than poor men. But it has been demonstrated over and over again, logically and conclusively, that the lawyer is all that is admirable and that poverty is in every way preferable to wealth. Yet the world's mind is unaltered: men still flee poverty and loathe lawyers."

"The concept of justice is very noble, surely?"

"Justice? Oh yes. The concept of cleanliness is very fine, too; but we do not cherish the emptiers of dustbins or the men who look after the sewers."

John Finneran

(scroll down if you wish to see the spoiler I mentioned above)


The A-M episode that is foreshadowed is Jack's journey across France in a bear costume in Post Captain. If I remember the scene correctly, we first see the bear and the bear trainer and then the bear gets up on two feet and begins talking (at which point we may begin to suspect that he is smarter than the av-e-rage bear).

In The Catalans, we see the feast of Saint Feliu in which "the inhabitants of Saint Feliu wore masks, as though it were the Carnival, and the more cheerful souls would change their dress, disguising themselves as pig, apes, and bears -- most often bears." (pp.219-220.) One of the bears in particular, whose human identity is never revealed, walks around, sips a lemonade through his costume, and reveals some significant information to Xavier. It's fairly obvious that this is the origin of the bear episode in Post Captain. I don't know about you, but this is exactly what I didn't expect to see in The Catalans.

From: Faith mus
Date: Sat, 4 Apr 1998 23:19:05 EST

Just had a chance to read through John's comments and found them most interesting.. Has anyone else read this early novel by O'Brian? With the interest in his work, one would think that a reprint would be in order. Any suggestions as to where I might get a copy of this?

Faith hungry for anything I can get written by the Master
40*37'27"N 75*25'43"W

Date: Mon, 06 Apr 1998 21:24:38 -0400
From: Jeffrey Brock

At 11:19 PM 4/4/98 EST, Faith mus wrote:
Has anyone else read this early novel by O'Brian? With the interest in his work, one would think that a reprint would be in order. Any suggestions as to where I might get a copy of this?

I have, many times, and find it each time an amazing book. I hope that jfinnera's excellent selection of quotes prompt all of you to seek out this book. If POB's command and beautiful usage of the language are what (even partly) attract you to his books, then you should read this one. I found it first at the Boston Public Library, and then found a copy at www.eastbaybooks.com.

Jeff Brock
42:22:04N 71:06:49W

Date: Mon, 21 Sep 98 16:17:18 -0700
From: sdwilson

With Michael Trick's help, I have found John Finneran's excellent review of this in the archives, so I don't need to inflict on you my own semi-literate analysis. I enjoyed it immensely.

I will just add to John's comments that TC/TFF is much brighter and more humorous than the other early work (Testimonies, short stories), so please do not be put off by the 1950s publication date. I agree with John that it is a kind of non-naval precursor for the Maturin series.

But can anyone explain the end of chapter 8? A bit of a spoiler; I quote it below so that the Reluctant May Avert Their Eyes.









Alain is harvesting grapes, very aware of Madelaine working nearby. "...Alain did not attend, for he had seen before him in the next row to his a whole vine with every grape untouched. It was Madelaine who had done that. Setting his lips he whistled loud, the whistle he had not made since he was nineteen. They stopped and stared; she stopped and turned. With a quick pace he was up to her. He knocked her to the ground. She fell on her knees, and crouching over her he gripped her hair and ears, pressed his teeth hard against her forehead, and in the surrounding cries and laughter he crowed three times, loud like a cock."

Is this simply a common expression of affection in that part of the world?

Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 01:33:00 -0400 (EDT)
From: jfinnera@concentric.net (John Finneran)

The crowing three times like a cock seems a pretty clear expression by POB that a betrayal has just taken place. (For those of you who haven't read the book, I won't explain who has been betrayed; those of you who have read it will know whom I'm referring to.) The last sentence echos the passage in the New Testament where Peter denies being a follower of Christ three times before the cock crows; I think POB means this signicance to be clear to the average reader, unlike some of his hidden literary references (such as the one recently smoked by Andrew Midkiff of Chaucer's lousy Adam Scrivner). As for whether pressing one's teeth against one's sweetheart's forehead and then crowing loudly is a common expression of affection in French Catalonia: it doesn't sound probable, but I'm speaking out of ignorance, and I'd be glad to hear from anyone more learned on this subject.

Now, what I want to know is: what does the title The Frozen Flame (alternate title for The Catalans) refer to? It's not an expression used anywhere in the book that I remember. I imagine it's meant to suggest a paradox of some sort (permanence and impermanence?). Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

John Finneran

From: Faithmus@aol.com
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 09:09:50 EDT

In a message dated 9/22/98 1:34:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time, jfinnera@concentric.net writes:

Now, what I want to know is: what does the title The Frozen Flame (alternate title for The Catalans) refer to?

I assumed it would be referring to Xavier brought to life but then dead again: when he is looking for Alain and Madeleine we read: "But still the jet of fire might light again. When he saw them face to face, then it might blaze again and prove that he was still alive." but when he sees them: "He felt...only this immeasurable weariness, and emptiness and cold. All passion far, far away and dead. but he did not care:... he could feel nothing very strongly any more." I had been afraid he would kill them or her at least but that would have meant passion and he no longer had any passion.

Date: Tue, 22 Sep 98 08:57:19 -0700
From: sdwilson

John Finneran wrote:

Peter denies being a follower of Christ three times before the cock crows;

Sounds reasonable to me, except for the very public context. I suppose the whole thing was a playful announcement. One of the great things about O'Brian is that it takes me a few readings to work out the motivation behind some of the events.

Now, what I want to know is: what does the title The Frozen Flame (alternate title for The Catalans) refer to?

I think Faith had this right: I might extend the metaphor, though, to include Alain. Madelaine seems to have thawed his flame.


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