Hailed as the Irish author of "the greatest historical novels ever written"--the 20 swashbuckling Napoleonic-era adventures starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin--Patrick O'Brian was not such a great guy. In fact, he wasn't really Patrick O'Brian: he was actually the Englishman Richard Patrick Russ, who abandoned his semiliterate Welsh wife and dying, spina bifida-plagued child in 1940 and reinvented himself as a writer and as a human being. He did well as a writer, winning kudos as a biographer (Picasso
), translator (Papillon
), and old literary sea lion. But he was less than humane, as Dean King's A Life Revealed
reveals. The son of a rotten father, Russ/O'Brian became a rotten father himself, cutting off all contact with his son, granddaughters, and even siblings. As he chillingly wrote in his biography, "Parents are supposed to love their children, yet surely there is the implied condition that the children should be reasonably lovable?" Though he was kinder to his second wife, the Countess Mary Tolstoy, whose reckless driving injured both of them, he once wrote that Picasso was "sucked dry and rendered sterile by women, children, routine." For his part, O'Brian preferred poverty and exile in Southern France with Mary--remote from his family origins, penning masterpieces in a house with books but no electricity or running water. Only in his 70s did he become rich and famous.
You can't deny the many striking parallels between O'Brian's life and his work--even though he did. Rotten fathers permeate his fiction, as the fathomless woe must have permeated him upon his mother's death from tuberculosis in 1918, when he was 4. It's great fun to read about his mad-inventor father's machine to cure VD by electrocuting the bladder and compare it to Maturin's practice and devices--and to hear about the future author's salty Uncle Morse telling the lad about encounters with pirates. Captain Aubrey clearly derives partly from Patrick's sociable man-of-action brother Mike (who changed his surname to O'Brien, another family defector). And of course Maturin proves to be in large part a self-portrait.
Fans of Aubrey and Maturin may find King's A Sea of Words (a lexicon of arcane terms that O'Brian uses) more delightful than his exposé of O'Brian's impressive yet appalling life, but it is one thorough and convincing exposé. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
After navigating the bestselling Aubrey-Maturin novels' far-flung geography and obscure terminology (in Harbors and High Seas, etc.), King discovered in 1997 that the reclusive O'Brian had invented his own life story as well as his characters'--beginning with changing his name from Richard Patrick Russ and concocting a patrician Irish-Catholic lineage. King's biography, though sometimes patchy, portrays a complex, unhappy family history, a multifarious artistic career and a flawed, indomitable personality. Born in England into the large family of a bankrupt doctor of German origin, the sickly Richard (known as "Pat") began writing boys' adventure stories when only a boy himself. This early literary phase was halted by WWII, during which O'Brian worked in the Foreign Office's shadowy Political Intelligence Division, where he met Mary Wicksteed Tolstoy. After the war, they divorced their spouses and married, O'Brian legally changing his name from Russ. Although his subsequent serious fiction was well received, the O'Brians lived in obscurity, at times near poverty, in Wales and southern France, while O'Brian translated Simone de Beauvoir and lesser writers to get by. King's retelling of the origin of Master and Commander and the following 19 Aubrey-Maturin novels depicts how O'Brian transformed an editor's idea for a C. S. Forester replacement into a genre-busting sea-going roman-fleuve. The glimpses into O'Brian's personal life that King salvages from the author's secrecy include estrangement from his surviving siblings and his son from his first marriage. Steering just clear of judging O'Brian's shortcomings, King's charting of this stormy life makes it clear that O'Brian (who died earlier this year at 85) saved his best for his beloved Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. (Apr.)
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