Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stray Notes (Patrick O’Brian, Thomas Pynchon, &c.)

Patrick O’Brian, 1914-2000

Reading, of late, with something akin to preternatural joy and astonishment, the “Yarn-Spinner” Patrick O’Brian. The epithet is Pynchon’s, out of Mason & Dixon (1997):
      “Cheerly. Cheerly, then, Lads. . . .”
      “Excuse me, Captain, problem with the Euphroes again.”
      “Get O’Brian up here, then, if it’s about Euphroes, he’s the one to see.”
      “Hey t’en, Pat. Scribblin’ again, are ye? More Sea Stories?” Not only does O’Brian know all there is to know and more ’pon the Topick of Euphroes, and Rigging even more obscure,—he’s also acknowledg’d as the best Yarn-Spinner in all the Fleets. “Euphroe Detail again.”
      They are in the southern Latitudes at last, hence the need for Awnings . . .
I love it. Anachronistickal kudos by a tar. Slipped into another yarn’s interstices. (Euphroe, Uphroe, Uvrou: out of the Dutch juffrouw, also juffer dead-eye, literally, “maiden.” Crowfeet dead-eyes. “Uphroe, an oblong block made of ash . . . used to suspend the awnings.”)

Out of O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970):
      On his knees, and with his chin level with the top of the table, Stephen watched the male mantis step cautiously towards the female mantis. She was a fine strapping green specimen, and she stood upright on her four back legs, her front pair dangling devoutly; from time to time a tremor caused her heavy body to oscillate over the thin suspending limbs, and each time the brown male shot back. He advanced lengthways, with his body parallel to the table-top, his long, toothed, predatory front legs stretching out tentatively and his antennae trained forwards: even in this strong light Stephen could see the curious inner glow of his big oval eyes.
      The female deliberately turned her head through forty-five degrees, as though looking at him. ‘Is this recognition?’ asked Stephen, raising his magnifying glass to detect some possible movement in her feelers. ‘Consent?’
      The brown male certainly thought it was, and in three strides he was upon her; his legs gripped her wing-covers; his antennae found hers and began to stroke them. Apart from a vibratory, well-sprung quiver at the additional weight, she made no apparent response, no resistance; and in a little while the strong orthopterous copulation began. Stephen set his watch and noted down the time in a book, open upon the floor.
      Minutes passed. The male shifted his hold a little. The female moved her triangular head, pivoting it slightly from left to right. Through his glass Stephen could see her sideways jaws open and close; then there was a blur of movements so rapid that for all his care and extreme attention he could not follow them, and the male’s head was off, clamped there, a detached lemon, under the crook of her green praying arms. She bit into it, and the eye’s glow went out; on her back the headless male continued to copulate rather more strongly than before, all his inhibitions having been removed. ‘Ah,’ said Stephen with intense satisfaction, and noted down the time again.
      Ten minutes later the female took off three pieces of her mate’s long thorax, above the upper coxal joint, and ate them with every appearance of appetite, dropping crumbs of chitinous shell in front of her. The male copulated on, still firmly anchored by his back legs.
Stephen Maturin, amateur naturalist (and ’cellist), surgeon aboard the Sophie. “Strong orthopterous copulation”* is simply a delight, and so, too, “a detached lemon.” The whole rather unparalleled—funny, precise, euphonious. One thinks of Jean-Henri Fabre’s numerous Souvenirs entomologiques and other writings about insects. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall, out of Social Life in the Insect World (1911):
      We are near the end of August. The male Mantis, a slender and elegant lover, judges the time to be propitious. He makes eyes at his powerful companion; he turns his head towards her; he bows his neck and raises his thorax. His little pointed face almost seems to wear an expression. For a long time he stands thus motionless, in contemplation of the desired one. The latter, as though indifferent, does not stir. Yet the lover has seized upon a sign of consent: a sign of which I do not know the secret. He approaches: suddenly he erects his wings, which are shaken with a convulsive tremor.
      This is his declaration. He throws himself timidly on the back of his corpulent companion; he clings to her desperately, and steadies himself. The prelude to the embrace is generally lengthy, and the embrace will sometimes last for five or six hours.
      Nothing worthy of notice occurs during this time. Finally the two separate, but they are soon to be made one flesh in a much more intimate fashion. If the poor lover is loved by his mistress as the giver of fertility, she also loves him as the choicest of game. During the day, or at latest on the morrow, he is seized by his companion, who first gnaws through the back of his neck, according to use and wont, and then methodically devours him, mouthful by mouthful, leaving only the wings. Here we have no case of jealousy, but simply a depraved taste.
And: “I once surprised a male, apparently in the performance of his vital functions, holding the female tightly embraced—but he had no head, no neck, scarcely any thorax! The female, her head turned over her shoulder, was peacefully browsing on the remains of her lover! And the masculine remnant, firmly anchored, continued its duty!” Source material for O’Brian? Because of the way “consent” seemingly makes a pivot-point in both Fabre and O’Brian, I reckon so.
* I note a little sadly that in the endless lumping and splitting continuum of systematics, mantises no longer belong to the order Orthoptera, now being classified amongst the Dictyoptera.