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I had the chance recently to read Richard Temple, Patrick O'Brian's third novel, published in 1962, now out of print, and, since I know that many of you are interested in obscure O'Briania, I thought I'd give a report:
The novel concerns a young Welshman named Richard Temple, painter and son of a rector, who has become involved with British intelligence during World War II. At the beginning of the novel, he has been captured by the German occupiers of France and has been subjected to a daily ritual of interrogation. To avoid saying anything, he has created a whole new identity in his mind, pseudo-Temple as he calls it, a dumb, unlucky semi-criminal who was caught smuggling along the French-Spanish border. To avoid giving anything away, he does not even allow himself to think of his true identity.
In the first chapter, he appears to have triumphed over his captors; they appear to have accepted his story. As he lies on the floor recovering from his latest interrogation, he celebrates by letting down his guard and allowing himself to remember the true Temple. Most of the book is his memories of his previous life. The book returns to the present a few times, most notably at the very end, which is very well done, although not exactly a surprise (and, no, I'm not going to give it away).
The book is somewhat like Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in that it mainly traces a character's mental and spiritual development. Like Portrait, RT has the air of a semi-autobiographical novel. Note: I'm not saying that RT actually is semi-autobiographical -- I'm not familiar enough with POB's life to say one way or the other (though I believe he was involved with British intelligence himself during WWII) -- just that it reads as if it were.
Recurring themes in RT are hope and disappointment, fidelity and betrayal, and true identity versus roles people assume. Temple himself is a complex character, by no means entirely sympathetic. He is a talented artist and shows loyalty and genuine love to many, but he is also willing to deceive and betray cold-bloodedly, women most especially, and willingly becomes involved in the schemes of real criminals. The novel is by no means pornographic, but there's quite a lot of sex in it, certainly more than we're used to in POB's works.
Like all of POB's works, RT has an assortment of gems tossed here and there, such as the following: "No one likes to be accused of ignorance, still less of purity" (p. 103). Here's a longer quote: "Not that idleness was necessary: she was beautiful, and beautiful in a way that would at any time have moved his heart -- dark hair, pale blue eyes, and she held her small fine head magnificently -- but idleness contributed, if only because it allowed him to lie there all day, watching the door to see her walk in with her high-heeled grace and to see the friendly and almost boyish smile operate its incredible change: the difference between Philippa in repose and Philippa smiling was the difference between the moon and the sun -- Galatea many times a day. And if any additions to beauty and grace were wanted she had them nearly all, poise and style, an agreably cynical hardness of mind and if not exactly wit at least a great capacity for being amused; and wealth, position and family were far from indifferent to him, very far, poor soul, but he was far too earnest and besotted to reckon with the force of these considerations." (p.222)
Parts of the book introduce ideas that are further developed in the Aubrey-Maturin series (the intelligence agent, the interrogation scene, even the marthambles make an appearance on p. 39). A few other interesting points: This is the last of POB's novels set in modern times. Along with Clarissa Oakes, this is the only book named after a character. This book ends POB's short-lived Welsh theme (in RT and Testomonies). Wales is a distinct country within a country (Great Britain), with interesting tensions of subculture vs. superculture, assimilation vs. separatism. POB introduces much the same theme with Catalonia (inside Spain and France), beginning with -- you guessed it -- The Catalans and Ireland, beginning with The Golden Ocean. The Irish-Catalan theme is, of course, prominent in the A-M series.
All in all, RT is worth the effort of tracking down (remember the wonders of inter-library loans). Now if only I can find The Road to Samarkand...