As much as he created Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, Patrick O'Brian invented himself. Since his death four years ago in Dublin, O'Brian and his biography have been exposed as fiction every bit as inventive and complex as the written stories he composed. Turns out, he wasn't Irish, he abandoned his first wife and family before the Second World War, and he wasn't named O'Brian. Now, according to a story by BBC News, it turns out that O'Brian may have exagerrated his nautical experience as well:
It appears that the man who wrote so brilliantly and so accurately about naval warfare and life aboard ship during the Napoleonic wars did not actually know how to sail. The claim is made in an article by a wealthy American businessman called Tom Perkins in the current edition of the sailing magazine Yachting World.
No matter. Patrick O'Brian was no more a nautical writer than Jane Austen was a society writer. Like Austen, his literary hero, O'Brian worked in human relationships. That those relationshops are set amid a constrained, regimented social order - British warships in the age of sail - was his greatest homage to Austen, who also set her stories within a tight social order. At their heart, O'Brian's volumes in the 20-part Aubrey-Maturin series chronicle a deep friendship, one that is not the cartoonish type usually found in historical series, but a detailed, nuanced, portrait - to my mind, one of the finest in English literature.
O'Brian's rapidly-expanding popularity in the last decade of his life, and the posthumous depiction of his characters in a terrific Hollywood epic, may lead the unitiated to relegate his work to that of the pulp paperback writer or the creator of historical pageantry. It is not to insult those genres to say he was neither. Indeed, when I briefly met O'Brian before his last public appearance in New York, browsing quietly amidst the ground-floor shelves of the Union Square Barnes and Noble before a reading, it felt to make like greeting someone of the eminence of Charles Dickens.
O'Brian was a great writer. His writing is both spare and richly descriptive; it is also filled with humor. He tells a story with dialogue. And his characters are anything but thin and simple. The surgeon-spy Maturin is obviously complex, an unlikely Irish-Catalan rebel siding with Imperial Britain against Napoleon; Maturin is a philosopher, naturalist, and a cold-blooded killer. Aubrey is, on the surface, the bluff, straightforward British frigate captain of Hornbloweresque tradition. But he too is more complicated than he seems at first glance, particularly in assessing the quality of loyalty in himself and in others.
It's not surprising to discover that O'Brian was no Irishman, but an Englishman raised outside London, and one who felt with particular keenness the differences in class, according to his biographer, Dean King. In the Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian clearly prizes an orderly social system and takes pains to note that only when that system functions well, does the ship and its occupants succeed. He portrays characters from the lower decks who are content with their lot; indeed, the man-o-war is nearly a self-policing community where every man knows his place. No republican was monarchist O'Brian.
This can be forgiven for the richness of his gift, which was not limited to his fictional series; O'Brian translated from the French the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biographies of Charles de Gaulle, and he wrote rich biographies of Pablo Picasso (for a time his neighbor in Spain) and British naturalist Joseph Banks, both well worth the reading. A year before O'Brian died at age 86, he'd announced that the 20th book in the naval series, Blue at the Mizzen, would be the last of Captain Aubrey and surgeon Maturin. But the old writer couldn't resist; he was early into a 21st volume when he died in Dublin.
Now his publisher is bringing forth the unfinished fragment, wisely forgoing hiring a ghost, famous or otherwise, to attempt to finish it up. I have already been through the Aubrey-Maturin series twice, and don't anticipate taking it up again, at least for a few years. I'm not sure how I feel about the fragment. I thought O'Brian's literary voice had grown a bit thin in the last few volumes; still evocative, of course, but ploughing well-trod ground, anyone is likely to retrace their steps. The new volume is called simply 21. According to the publisher:
This short volume juxtaposes a facsimile of O'Brian's handwritten manuscript of the untitled novel with a printed version of the text, which corresponds to O'Brian's loosely edited, typed pages. As the tale opens, our heroes are off the coast of South America, trying to find a friendly place to put the Surprise in for victuals and water. Jack Aubrey has received the happy news that he has been given the rank of rear admiral of the Blue, and all is well for the time being...
The typescript ended mid-sentence, says the publisher, but the handwritten draft contains a final duel for Stephen Maturin, then no more. The legion of O'Brian fans sails on, of course, in clubs and bulletin boards. And there's to be a handsome omnibus edition of the series, including the last fragment. Hmmm. My old paperbacks are creased and crumbling - and a classic study of friendship beckons.