November 25, 1996 in Features

High Seas Fiction Patrick O’Brian Brings Readers On Board With The Royal Navy In His Historical, Painfully True-To-Life Naval Adventures

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Next time you’re at Auntie’s Bookstore, take a look at which fiction author takes up more shelf space than Stephen King, more shelf space than Danielle Steel, more shelf space than Tom Clancy, more shelf space than anyone.

There, in the O’s, you’ll find two full shelves worth of novels by Patrick O’Brian, better known to many as Patrick Who? O’Brian isn’t exactly a complete unknown. This 81-year-old British author has written 18 volumes in his popular Aubrey-Maturin series since the ‘60s. His fanatical readers will find two full shelves of O’Brian to be mere justice. Most people, however, will find it a complete bafflement.

A series of novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War? Novels that make absolutely no concession to modern language? Novels that are loaded with lines like, “the foretopsail was braced to”? Novels that have some buckle, some swash, but whole chapters of doldrums?

O’Brian’s books follow the career of Jack Aubrey, a bluff, vigorous Royal Navy officer, as he makes his way from lieutenant to captain to admiral; and his best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, a ship’s surgeon and also an intelligence agent for the British.

The uninitiated can’t possibly understand the appeal, but the ranks of the initiated keep growing and growing. Today, O’Brian no longer has a cult readership in America, he has a mass readership.

Here’s the proof: “The Yellow Admiral,” the 18th and most recent O’Brian book, debuted three weeks ago at No. 6 on the Los Angeles Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.

It wasn’t always this way. O’Brian has long been well-known in Britain, but he didn’t become a force in America until the early 1990s, when W.W. Norton began re-issuing the series in paperback. The O’Brian phenomenon probably dates from Richard Snow’s review in the New York Times Book Review in 1991, in which he called the Aubrey-Maturin books “the best historical novels ever written.”

“All the marine hardware is in place and functioning; the battles are stirring without being romanticized (this author never romanticizes); the portrayal of life aboard a ship is vivid and authoritative,” wrote Snow. “But in the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power: the fretful play of mood that can irrationally darken the edges of the brightest triumph, and can feed a trickle of merriment into the midst of terror and tragedy. Mr. O’Brian manages to express, with the grace of economy and poetry, familiar things that never get written down.”

This review, and other adoring reviews like it, encouraged people to try one book.

“And once they read one,” said Lois Hughes, editor of Auntie’s newsletter, “they have to read them all.”

Describing O’Brian’s readership is not too complicated: It is mostly male, mostly older and mostly interested in history or boats or both. But describing the appeal of the books is not so simple, because the appeal lies on so many levels:

Escapism - A reader immersed in an O’Brian book is a reader who can forget that the 20th century ever happened, or even most of the 19th. The food is plum duff, the drink is grog, the energy source is wind and most pressing concern is containing the scourge of Napoleon.

O’Brian studies naval logs and journals to ensure complete authenticity, even to the point of describing long stretches of routine. That’s reality.

Humor - The Royal Navy wasn’t exactly known for madcap hijinks, but the human comedy is ever-present in O’Brian’s writing. He has a wry way of capturing it, as in the scene in “The Ionian Mission,” in which Capt. Aubrey’s little boy, George, suddenly whispers urgently in a seaman’s hairy ear.

“‘Can’t you wait?’ asked the seaman. George shook his head; the seaman whipped off the pantaloons, held the little boy well out over the leeward rail and called for a handful of tow.”

Erudition - Aubrey and Maturin aren’t your stereotypical sailors. They while away many a night by playing string duets of Handel, Vivaldi and Bach.

Maturin, in particular, has an all-encompassing intellect, in the best Enlightenment tradition. He is fascinated by nature and readers can learn a lot about birds in these books. He is also remarkably learned in philosophy, religion, chemistry and all of the sciences.

Geography - Aubrey’s voyages range over the entire world. Readers will put into port in Malta, Peru, Sicily, Boston, Hawaii and Batavia (now called Jakarta, a fact you will never learn in these books).

Literary quality - O’Brian’s use of language is far more poetic than one might expect in a “genre” novel.

Written in the style in which it is set, the words have the elegance of Austen and the richness of Dickens. The formality of the language is hard to get accustomed to, yet eventually it makes the mass of contemporary writing seem coarse by comparison.

O’Brian has written many other books besides the Aubrey-Maturin series. He wrote critically acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks, and he has translated the works of Simone de Beauvoir.

His seafaring books, however, he writes for fun. He once said he wrote “The Golden Ocean” (a precursor to the Aubrey-Maturin books) “in about six weeks, laughing most of the time.”

O’Brian, who lives in a fishing village in the south of France, didn’t see these books hit the best-seller list until 1995, with the 17th novel, “The Commodore.” Sales were boosted by O’Brian’s first tour of America.

Now “The Yellow Admiral” finds itself even higher on the best-seller list. With O’Brian, every new book serves only to create more demand for the entire series. Which is why Auntie’s and bookstores all over the country devote so much shelf space to the O’Brian phenomenon.

“He takes up a lot more space than Stephen King, for instance, because with King, people are mostly interested in his latest books,” said Hughes. “With O’Brian, they all sell.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. A MOMENT FROM PATRICK O’BRIAN’S SHIPBOARD ADVENTURES The following excerpt is from Patrick O’Brian’s “The Ionian Mission,” the eighth book in the series. Here, Dr. Stephen Maturin is racing toward the Worcester in a small boat, desperately trying to catch it before it sails without him. He is inexcusably late, and Capt. Jack Aubrey is in a rage: As (the Worcester) rolled back again, vigorous, impatient hands seized his ankles and he found himself propelled up the side. “I must remember to pay the proper compliments to the quarterdeck,” he reflected, when he was very nearly there. “This may attenuate my fault.” But in his agitation, he forgot that he had earlier pinned his hat to his wig, to preserve it from the wind, and when on reaching the holy space he pulled it off - when both rose together - his gesture had more the appearance of ill-timed jocularity than of respect, so much so that some of the young gentlemen, two ship’s boys, and a Marine, who did not know him, dissolved in honest mirth, while those who did know him did not seem mollified at all.

2. COMPANION VOLUMES INTERPRET O’BRIAN ARGOT The novels of Patrick O’Brian have inspired a cottage industry in another kind of book: Patrick O’Brian companions. O’Brian makes little effort to explain his language or geography to landlubbers, leaving the field open to two recently published books. The first, 1995’s “A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales” by Dean King with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes (Henry Holt), serves mainly as a vast dictionary. There, you can decipher the following typical phrase, “her best bower catted.” It means, roughly, “her starboard anchor was raised and secured.” Besides the glossary, this book also contains charts of ships, sails and rigging, as well as two excellent historical chapters about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War and about naval medicine of the time. The latter chapter makes you wonder how anybody survived the medicine practiced at the time. The second book, just published this year by King and Hattendorf, is titled “Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian” (Henry Holt). This book contains maps for each novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series, showing the routes of the various ships. How else can you follow a voyage through the Cattegat and Skagerrack? Meanwhile, O’Brian’s own publisher, W.W. Norton, is working on what it calls the official Patrick O’Brian companion. Norton says, “Beware of imitations.” Jim Kershner

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. A MOMENT FROM PATRICK O’BRIAN’S SHIPBOARD ADVENTURES The following excerpt is from Patrick O’Brian’s “The Ionian Mission,” the eighth book in the series. Here, Dr. Stephen Maturin is racing toward the Worcester in a small boat, desperately trying to catch it before it sails without him. He is inexcusably late, and Capt. Jack Aubrey is in a rage: As (the Worcester) rolled back again, vigorous, impatient hands seized his ankles and he found himself propelled up the side. “I must remember to pay the proper compliments to the quarterdeck,” he reflected, when he was very nearly there. “This may attenuate my fault.” But in his agitation, he forgot that he had earlier pinned his hat to his wig, to preserve it from the wind, and when on reaching the holy space he pulled it off - when both rose together - his gesture had more the appearance of ill-timed jocularity than of respect, so much so that some of the young gentlemen, two ship’s boys, and a Marine, who did not know him, dissolved in honest mirth, while those who did know him did not seem mollified at all.

2. COMPANION VOLUMES INTERPRET O’BRIAN ARGOT The novels of Patrick O’Brian have inspired a cottage industry in another kind of book: Patrick O’Brian companions. O’Brian makes little effort to explain his language or geography to landlubbers, leaving the field open to two recently published books. The first, 1995’s “A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales” by Dean King with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes (Henry Holt), serves mainly as a vast dictionary. There, you can decipher the following typical phrase, “her best bower catted.” It means, roughly, “her starboard anchor was raised and secured.” Besides the glossary, this book also contains charts of ships, sails and rigging, as well as two excellent historical chapters about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War and about naval medicine of the time. The latter chapter makes you wonder how anybody survived the medicine practiced at the time. The second book, just published this year by King and Hattendorf, is titled “Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian” (Henry Holt). This book contains maps for each novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series, showing the routes of the various ships. How else can you follow a voyage through the Cattegat and Skagerrack? Meanwhile, O’Brian’s own publisher, W.W. Norton, is working on what it calls the official Patrick O’Brian companion. Norton says, “Beware of imitations.” Jim Kershner


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