O'Brian, Sailing Under False Colors

By Gregory Feeley,
whose most recent novel is "Arabian Wine."
Friday, December 30, 2005


The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949

By Nikolai Tolstoy

Norton. 512 pp. $29.95


A Novel

By Patrick O'Brian

Norton. 224 pp. $23.95

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 eighth of nine children, Patrick Russ was born in 1914 to a downwardly mobile family, in which the love ran out as swiftly as the money. His mother died when he was 3, and his father -- a self-absorbed physician and research scientist -- could not be bothered to provide for his children either emotionally or financially, not even to the degree of educating them. Patrick did not go to school until the age of 10 and attended only four years.

Russ suffered throughout his life from an intense and irrational shame: at his lack of a decent, let alone privileged, education; at his family background (its short-lived prosperity had come from his grandfather's success in trade); at his inability to get into the Royal Naval College or to make it through training in the Royal Air Force (he washed out after three weeks). The fact that he published a children's novel -- a good one -- so young meant little to him, although he published a second book four years later and a third at 23. By then he was married and a father of two, momentous steps that he had undertaken when he was emotionally little more than a child himself. The calamitous marriage -- which ended not because O'Brian could not abide his daughter's dying (although he was appallingly unsympathetic toward small children) but because he had already met Mary Tolstoy -- led to prolonged and embittered litigation and finally resulted in O'Brian's estrangement from his son.

Tolstoy's book ends with O'Brian at the age of 35, married happily at last and, after spending four difficult years living in a cottage in north Wales, removing with Mary to live in southern France. His first novel for adults, "Testimonies" -- based upon his experience in Wales -- would appear in 1952, with "The Catalans," set in the sun-drenched region of Mediterranean France that O'Brian came to love, following a year later. Considering O'Brian's confused and defeated state of mind, his relative inexperience in writing for adults, and his tendency -- never wholly relinquished -- to use his fiction both to settle scores (often with savage vindictiveness) and to probe his psychic wounds, it is astonishing how good the novels are. "Testimonies" has been available in the United States for several years, but "The Catalans" is returned here to print for the first time since its original publication. Both are tales of family-sundering sexual transgression, that of "Testimonies" ultimately tragic, while "The Catalans" is something close to formal comedy.

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. O'Brian's assured and knowing novels had been produced despite a deeply dysfunctional upbringing, a fact that he chose to conceal rather than take pride in. But in the celebrity of his last years, the facts that he had curtly warned journalists away from were dragged into daylight, and it devastated him.

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