December 30, 2005


O'Brian, Sailing Under False Colors: a review of PATRICK O'BRIAN: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949 By Nikolai Tolstoy and THE CATALANS: A Novel By Patrick O'Brian (Gregory Feeley, Washington Post)

For most of the last years of Patrick O'Brian's life, when his novels set during the Napoleonic Wars were gaining increasing acclaim, he appeared to be one of those writers whose command of his subject arises from a lifetime of firsthand acquaintance. Biographical information was fiercely guarded, but O'Brian had at times let out that he was Irish, privately educated, that his nautical expertise was grounded in his own sailing experience, and other details that later proved to be untrue. When journalists discovered in 1998, just two years before he died, that O'Brian had been born Richard Patrick Russ, an Englishman who had published his first novel at 15 and had left his wife and two small children (one of them dying) in an act of self-reinvention that he then sought to hide from the world, the response was not charitable. An early biography by Dean King added more facts, although King's lack of access (O'Brian had instructed friends not to cooperate) proved a serious limitation.

Nikolai Tolstoy, O'Brian's stepson, has set out to correct all this with "Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949," the first of two planned volumes. His portrayal -- based on extensive research, access to O'Brian's personal papers, and more than 40 years' personal acquaintance -- shifts our image of O'Brian still further, though perhaps not in the direction he intended. The author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, so worldly and assured in his self-presentation, was not merely a British eccentric but a profoundly damaged individual, whose psychic scarring and resulting haplessness places him in a class with Malcolm Lowry and T.H. White. Though he wrote with assurance and calm authority from his earliest days, O'Brian was a psychological basket case, so incapable in dealing with other people or managing his business and personal affairs that, were it not for his extraordinary literary gift (which manifested itself early) and -- like Lowry -- good fortune in his second wife, he would likely have proven incapable of supporting himself.

The outlines of O'Brian's early life are largely what Dean King found them to be, although Tolstoy provides immeasurably more detail, is often able to provide answers where King was compelled to speculate and -- as he is quick to note -- corrects a large number of errors. That his portrayal of O'Brian is at least as disturbing as King's, despite Tolstoy's recurrent tone of defensiveness and (sometimes) special pleading, is testimony to his honesty. [...]

The story of Dr. Alain Roig, who returns to his Catalan home town after years of medical research in the Far East to intercede in an imminent family scandal, is drolly observed, beautiful in its evocation of place, and -- like O'Brian's later novels -- often mordantly funny.

Admirers of O'Brian's historical novels will be struck at how much of his skill, verve and humor were evident this early in his career, but they will be sobered by the revelations in Tolstoy's work.

The tie to Tolstoy is fitting though, eh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2005 7:50 AM

Back when I flirted with the study of management, I read a monograph about the psychological characteristics of workers. The authors applied the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Profile to a broad spectrum of occupations, from accountants to oil painters. At one extreme were analytical, rational types like lawyers, engineers, technicians, and truck drivers, at the other conceptual, intuitive ones like painters, sculptors, and musicians. The latter were much more, shall we say, idiosyncratic. Interestingly, architects fell in the middle of the sample.

O'Brian proves once again, that great artists are a bit dotty. WIOIAT.

All best,


Posted by: Ed Bush at December 30, 2005 10:07 AM