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Patrick O'Brian: A Life
by Dean King
ISBN 0805059776 / 9780805059779 / 0-8050-5977-6
Publisher Holt Paperbacks
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It is a story as fascinating as anything in one of Patrick O'Brian's much-acclaimed nautical adventures. Who was the man himself? Those who have avidly consumed such superb novels as Master and Commander and Treason's Harbour will find Dean King's Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed not only an authoritative guide to his work, but a tale of intrigue quite as beguiling as anything in the master's oeuvre. Initially commissioned as a modern-day successor to CS Forester (with a brief to inaugurate a series to rival the Hornblower books), O'Brian's chronicles of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars steadily grew into a saga far richer and more ambitious than its inspiration, and the author became a source of intense interest. O'Brian, though, was highly secretive (his editor warned "Patrick will make you feel odious and wormlike if you look into his private life"), and the terse version of his CV that he produced for public consumption intrigued King (an established authority on nautical literature and history, as well as on O'Brian himself), and he began to dig beneath the carefully constructed public persona. What he found went far beyond such discoveries as the fact that O'Brian was not Irish (as most readers believed) and that his career had taken a considerably different trajectory from that he had presented his interviewers with. And just how much of the author was in his heroes?
It's surprising that this is the first biography of this enigmatic talent--and as well as King's assiduous piercing of O'Brian's mysteries, this is a superlative celebration of one of the most amazing bodies of fiction produced in the 20th century. Again and again, King performs the key function of a literary biographer: he inspires in the reader an intense desire to return to his subject's work, armed with a host of new insights. King is particularly acute on the development of such characters as Captain Jack Aubrey (one of the most complex creations in all adventure fiction), and the illumination of how much of the author may be found in his most celebrated creations is one of the key pleasures of the book. Most of all, though, it's the communication of the biographer's enthusiasm for his subject that leaps off the page:
Suddenly, it became apparent that while O'Brian may or may not have surpassed Forester in sea action, he had created great novels that did not look quite like anything that had come before. His evocation of Nelson's Royal Navy was an escapist world as appealing as J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, as culturally rich as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and as intriguingly ritualistic as Umberto Eco's medieval monastery in The Name of the Rose. In this setting, almost flawlessly sustained in the more than five-thousand-page opus, O'Brian had examined his two primary themes, love and friendship, from myriad angles, with extraordinary lucidity and a stylistic range to rival the best novelists. Critics no longer compared him to CS Forester but to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust and Homer.--Barry Forshaw [via]