By Ken Ringle
Patrick O'Brian entered my life in 1989. By that time the prickly, hawk-eyed polymath, who died Sunday in Dublin at 85, had written 21 books, plus countless short stories, reviews and translations.
Critics had compared his wordsmithing skill to that of Keats (they would later mention Homer and Proust), but like most Americans, I had no idea who he was.
After all, he was British (or was it Irish?) and lived in France (or was it Spain?) and was fiercely protective of his personal life. Moreover, few of his books had been published in this country and those that had didn't sell. He was simply off almost everyone's radar. But in 1989, an extraordinarily far-sighted editor named Starling Lawrence (and what a debt we owe him) persuaded W.W. Norton to give O'Brian's books another try on these shores. They brought over the 12th, and then latest, book in a series of novels dealing with the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars.
Having been raised on C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels and needing a 12-step program to cure an addiction to sailing, I stumbled on a copy of "The Letter of Marque" and plunged into the world of Patrick O'Brian. What a strange trip it was. This wasn't Forester. It was more like Fielding, Smollett or Austen under square-rig.
Here were these two curious characters, a bluff-hearted naval captain, Jack Aubrey, who apparently had been cashiered from the service, and an opium-eating surgeon named Stephen Maturin, who appeared to be Aubrey's closest friend. They were mucking around in Scandinavia on a privateer in search of things like "poldavy" (what was that?). The book ends with everyone on deck singing an aria from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti."
This was like no maritime novel anywhere. It felt a little like arriving late to a cocktail party where everyone else knew the others and was two drinks ahead. But still there was something enthralling about the book. Reading in the frontispiece that it was the 12th in a series, I decided to start from the beginning.
This wasn't easy. Nobody else seemed to be reading O'Brian. Bookstores didn't stock his works. They eventually turned up in yachting chandleries, where I was picking up supplies for my boat. "Master and Commander," the first in the series, was a great tale but seemed a little strange. I wasn't really hooked until "Post Captain," the second book in the series, wherein O'Brian lays out with dazzling skill the whole Dickensian landscape of early 18th-century England--introducing his female characters and setting the shoreside cultural and political context for the naval adventures offshore. I also began to appreciate the hilarious O'Brian wit, which can be sly and dry, or bawdy and raucous. Who was this fellow? Nobody seemed to know.
By 1991, I was in a hell of a fix. Norton was bringing out the old books a few at a time (a mother lode turned up at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut) as well as the new ones after "Letter of Marque." I was reading them in both directions, totally obsessed, but had run upon a rocky shoal: I had followed Aubrey up to where he had been cashiered from the Royal Navy; I had read his adventures after he was cashiered. But I couldn't find out why he was cashiered. The book that dealt with that incident, "The Reverse of the Medal," could not be found.
So being a typical arrogant journalist, I rang up Norton and demanded to know just what was going on. There, like a drunk stumbling into an AA meeting, I discovered I was not alone. Norton had been besieged by calls. Thousands of similar O'Brian addicts had been baying at the moon and demanding satisfaction. There was a Patrick O'Brian newsletter. Norton sent me a press kit filled with the sort of reviews writers fantasize about. Richard Snow in the New York Times had called the Aubrey-Maturin books "the greatest historical novels ever written."
The Washington Post, it seemed, had missed the emergence of a cult, so partly in an effort to explain the weird and obsessive appeal of these books, I sat down and wrote an article headlined "Is This the Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of?" In the process, I rang up O'Brian at his home in France. Lawrence had warned me this was a perilous undertaking. "He's a man of 18th-century manners who believes question-and-answer is no proper form of conversation," Lawrence said. What to do? Eventually, I reached him at tea time. His replies were arch in the extreme. Once, when I absently replied "right," he said. " 'Right'? Oh, I see. That's your American way of suggesting I may not be completely in error."
In an effort to learn the extent of his local research resources, I stupidly asked him if he was able to double-check the staggering wealth of detail in the books--everything from seamanship to natural science and 18th-century medicine. He replied: "Yes, I do like to check a fact if it's going into print. Of course, if I'm just conversing at dinner, I merely assert that it is true."
Well, the article came out and O'Brian sent me a charming little note of appreciation.
But as fellow O'Brian addicts will understand, I felt a continuing need to tell him how much the books meant to me. The opportunity came around Christmas 1992. In our phone conversation, I had asked him if Jack Aubrey would ever encounter a Baltimore clipper, one of the fleet-footed topsail schooners that wreaked such havoc on British shipping in the War of 1812. To my astonishment, he had never heard of a Baltimore clipper--this from a man who, his readers would attest, appears to know everything under the sun. So when I happened on a new book on Baltimore clippers, I picked up a copy to send him. As I was slipping it into an envelope, I received a letter from a new O'Brian convert, an old Virginia friend named Frank Delano. He poured out his heart with great eloquence about what a "banquet for the mind" O'Brian's books had been for him. On impulse, I enclosed a copy of the note with the book and wrote O'Brian: "I think Delano's letter says it all."
As I was later to learn, the book and letter reached O'Brian at the end of a very bad week. He was being hassled by his agent and his publisher, by his tax man and some local French officials. He was finding it impossible to finish "The Wine-Dark Sea," 16th in the Aubrey-Maturin series and, at the age of 79, beginning to wonder whether his creative powers had ebbed. "There is nothing, NOTHING, like intelligent and informed critical appreciation to set one up," he later told me about Delano's letter. "That and the revelation of the Baltimore Clipper completely reversed my tide of fortune."
O'Brian's gratitude, and the gestures it spawned, were as humbling as they were touching. At this point he still had little understanding of the sensation his books were finally making in the United States, but on his first visit to what he called "the colonies" in 1993, I felt the least I could do was feed the man dinner.
This was fraught, because as O'Brian fans know, his knowledge and appreciation of cuisine is one of the hallmarks of the books. I fed him venison, which he liked ("A white-tailed deer, you say? Very good.") as he did two of the four wines, including--to both my surprise and his--a midnight cuvee pink champagne from California.
But the party cannot, in retrospect, be called a success. He was stooped and frail, straining to be polite in a noisy dining room. His silver head was bowed and his hooded eyes looked weary. He only came to life the next day in an appearance at the National Archives, where he seemed staggered by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd and their intimate knowledge of, and passion for, each of his books.
Asked why he had never before come to the United States, he replied testily: "Penury."
When he found I would be in France the following summer, he urged me to stop by Collioure, the gemlike Mediterranean village where he lived most of his writing life. O'Brian picked us up in his car, looking tanned and vigorous in his slacks and open shirt. We drove to his house for champagne with his wife, Mary, then to a small waterfront restaurant nearby where he knew the owner. There O'Brian turned into Jack Aubrey the convivial host, ordering an immense, freshly caught turbot, calling for wine after wine, and port when the wine was finished, bantering and spouting poetry and puns.
When a chocolate-smeared 2-year-old at a nearby table began shrieking, O'Brian shot a hawklike look in her direction and leered conspiratorially: "Do you think the chef here serves l'enfantroti?"
Later, as we stood in his vineyard in the moonlight, I told him he looked 40 years younger on his own turf. He thanked me but spoke of fleeting years and whether the Aubrey-Maturin series, which he thought of as a single multivolume work, would ever see its end.
"I want to write 20 books, and I know exactly what I want to say," he said. "But I have no idea whether God will grant me the time." He walked the vineyard at night for inspiration, he said, and drew much of the geographic detail in his books from a mammoth compilation of the early voyages of exploration put together by Abbe Prevost, author of "Manon." "It's an irreplaceable resource," he said, "but it's never been translated into English, so few people know it exists."
In November we had a similarly convivial lunch in New York--so convivial, O'Brian completely forgot he had a dinner that night at the New York Yacht Club and couldn't just go home and go to bed.
He wasn't entirely certain whether he was in London or New York ("Does it really matter?"), but his memory for what mattered to him was flawless ("You served me white-tail deer") and his wit was as quick and wicked as ever ("Organic baby lettuce? Where do they get these organic babies?").
The occasion was publication of his 20th Aubrey-Maturin book, "Blue at the Mizzen," which was already on the bestseller lists. (Two million of his books have been sold in the United States.) But he was already at work on No. 21.
"Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world," he once wrote, ". . . and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene. Yet I do have some . . . observations to offer on the condition humaine . . . and it seems to me they are best made in the context of a world I know as well as the reader does, a valid world so long as it is inhabited by human beings rather than by lay figures in period clothing.
"The historical novel, as I learnt with some concern after I had written two or three, belongs in a despised genre. But the tale of narrative set in the past may have its particular, time-free value; and the candid reader will not misunderstand me, will not suppose I intend any preposterous comparison, when I observe that Homer was further removed in time from Troy than I am from the Napoleonic wars; yet he spoke to the Greeks for two thousand years."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company