Patrick O'Brian

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 2:51 am

Eddie wrote:

I vaguely remember discussing O'Brian over on ER. The general consensus was that it's best to start the Aubrey/Maturin novels by reading the second book in the series, "Post Captain" rather than the first "Master and Commander", the latter forming part of the title of the Russell Crowe movie of a few years ago in which Crowe played Aubrey reasonably well.

The full post-Jane Austen effect of O'Brian's writing emerges more clearly in "Post Captain", which also introduces the series' principal female characters for the first time.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 2:54 am

Eddie wrote:

Review by Sue Arnold in the "Audio" column of last Saturday's Guardian (27/06/09) of THE AUBREY-MATURIN CHRONICLES VOLS 1-3 by Patrick O'Brian, read by Robert Hardy (14 hours abridged, Harper Collins. £19.99):

"Aficionados of O'Brian's epic naval series- 21 full-length novels, written between 1969 and 2000, that follow the mixed fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Doctor Stephen Maturin in the Royal Navy circa 1800- may have reservations about these new "chronicle" editions. Three volumes have just been released, covering the first nine books (three per volume) from MASTER AND COMMANDER to TREASON's HARBOUR. That works out at less than five hours a book. Unabridged, they're 16. Trouble is, unless you can afford the full-length novels (Soundings, £32.99) you can really only find them in libraries on ropey old cassettes.

Let me confess right away that I'm an O'Brian devotee. I have read the entire canon unabridged not once but twice, including the half-finished book he was working on when he died. It's a vaiation of OCD, I suppose- O'Brian Compulsive Devotion. It took a while, I admit, to come to terms with paragraphs that begin "Jack saw the ship's mizzen tops laid to the mast and the main and fore yards square so that the wind should thrust the stern away to leewards..." but surprising quickly you get into the ship-of-the-line mode.

O'Brian's descriptions of ships being cleared for battle at breakneck speed, the roar of cannon, masts shattering, dying men shrieking and, in the midst of it, the captain cooly issuing orders are unforgettable. Adventure, romance, espionage, treachery- no one does them better. But it's the relationship between the two protagonists- brash, brave Aubrey and sensitive, intellectual, gauche Maturin playing violin and cello duets in their cabin after a skirmish- that holds it together. Nothing of that is lost in this brilliantly edited omnibus edition, which remains consistently true to the spirit of the original. As for the reading, I've heard some splendid actors read these epics but Robert Hardy is in a different league."




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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 2:56 am

Hosni wrote: Didn't he write "Fightin' Around the World with Russell Crowe" ?

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 2:58 am

Eddie wrote:

The Russell Crowe movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" takes its rather clumsy title from a combination of two books in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series.

The film is an attempt by screenwriter and director Peter Weir to distill the essence of the books into a single movie. Impossible task, but an honorable attempt.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:00 am

Eddie wrote:

O'Brian very nearly pulled off one of the greatest disappearing tricks in literary history.

Here's the opening of Nikolai Totstoy's "Patrick O'Brian: the Making of the Novelist:

"For much of his life Patrick O'Brian was widely reputed to be of Irish ancestry and brought up and educated in that country. In fact he was born and educated in England, possessed not a drop of Irish blood, did not visit Ireland before his early twenties, and assumed the surname O'Brian by deed poll in 1945.... Patrick's paternal ancestry was in reality German. His grandfather, Karl Russ, was born in 1842 at Braudis, near Leipzig near Saxony..."

O'Brian took advantage of post-WWII administrative chaos to conceal the fact of his disastrous first marriage (which produced a son and a disabled daughter who died, aged 3) and his adulterous liason with Mary Tolstoy, the woman who eventually became his second wife. Divorce was regarded as infra dig in those days and O'Brian/Russ had aspirations to gentility.

He constructed an entirely fictional alternative biography for himself, not unlike that of his Stephen Maturin character: an Irish Intelligence agent. O'Brian claimed to have worked for Allied Military Intelligence during WWII. Whenever anyone questioned him too closely, he claimed that he couldn't discuss his past activities because the IRA might try to assassinate him.

And he very nearly got away with it. Nemesis arrived in the shape of a 1985? TV documentary about the author of the immensely popular Aubrey/Maturin series, in which he unwisely agreed to participate. The programme's researchers discovered that much of what he was telling them- the fact that his Jack Aubrey character was based on an elder brother who had been killed in the war, and so on- was all baloney. The inventions of a creator of historical (and personal) fiction couldn't survive the scrutiny of a Media age.

O'Brian died, in circumstances as anonymous as he was able to contrive, in a Dublin hotel room, the manuscript of the latest Aubrey/Maturin tale unfinished.

Dean King's ground-breaking biography "Patrick O'Brian: a Life Revealed" is more impartial but less accomplished than Tolstoy's biography, which is necessarily partisan because of the family connection. The latter book does have the advantage of access to family papers and diaries, though.

I think O'Brian was something of a bastard- that was certainly the verdict of the wife and child he abandoned. A terrible snob, certainly.

It just goes to show that horrible men can write great literature.


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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:02 am

Eddie wrote:

A peculiar literary consequence of O'Brian's abandonment of his first wife and their two children is that the Aubrey/Maturin series contains several instances of O'Brian's fictional alter ego Maturin actually adopting children in order to save them from horrible circumstances, e.g.:

1. The two little South Sea Island girls whose tribe has been wiped out by the smallpox bought by a European whaler.

2. The low-caste Indian girl for whom (fatally) Maturin buys some silver bangles.

3. The two Irish children he rescues from Barbary pirates.

It's as though O'Brian is trying to atone in his fiction for parental failings in real life.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:04 am

Eddie wrote:

O'Brian's fictional alter ego Stephen Maturin is a ship's surgeon who self-medicates with the alcoholic tincture of laudanum- to which he becomes seriously addicted at one point in the series- and with coca leaves and, briefly, with cannabis.

In a heavy-drinking age (his friend Jack Aubrey is a great boozer), Stephen is comparatively abstemious as far as alcoholic is concerned, though. O'Brian, interestingly, owned his own vinyard and pressed his own grapes.

We'll probably never know, but it's fascinating to speculate how much O'Brian's great imaginative powers were enhanced by the use of such substances.

Of course, as an intensely private man- and he had every reason to be (see above)- he would have regarded such a question as an impertinence.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:06 am

Leopardi wrote:

I have his biography of Picasso in my "to read" book pile and hope to read it soon as it has been there for awhile.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:08 am

Eddie wrote:

Leopardi wrote:
I have his biography of Picasso in my "to read" book pile and hope to read it soon as it has been there for awhile.


It's superb.

Patrick and Mary O'Brian were near neighbours of Picasso in Collioure, France: 15 miles south-east of Perpignan on a spit of land jutting into the gulf of Lions. So they were quite good friends. For a biography of an artist entirely without illustrations of the work, it's a remarkable achievement.

He also wrote a biography of the botanist/naturalist Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. Botany and Natural History are two of Maturin's absorbing passions.

O'Brian (again, like Maturin) was a multilingual polymath and earned his living for a while as a translator.

He translated Simone de Beauvoir into English.

But his most popular work of translation was "Papillon", the autobiography of Henri Charriere, the convict who (uniquely, I think) escaped from the French penal colony of Devil's Island to become a citizen of Venezuela. The book was later made into a (not especially good) Dustin Hoffman movie.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:10 am

Eddie wrote:

Keith Richards is a big fan:

"When it comes to fiction, it's...Patrick O'Brian. I fell in love with his writing straightaway, at first with Master and Commander. It wasn't primarily the Nelson and Napoleonic period, more the human relationships. He just happened to have that backdrop. And of course having characters isolated in the middle of the goddam sea gives more scope. Just great characterizations, which I still cherish. It's all about friendship, cameraderie. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin always remind me a bit of Mick and me. History, in particular the British Navy during that period, is my subject. The army wasn't up to much then. It was the navy and the guys that got roped into it against their will, the press-gang. And to make the machine work, you had to weld this bunch of unwilling material into a functioning team, which reminds me of the Rolling Stones..."
(Keith Richards' "Life").

I don't know what the appeal is to guitarists, but Mark Knoffler is also a POB fan.

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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:12 am

Eddie wrote:

^

Well, I suppose that adds an extra dimension to Keef's invovement in the last "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie- but I'm intrigued about the comparison between the Aubrey/Maturin relationship and that between him and Mick.

Who does he see as the sanguine rosbif Captain, and who is the saturnine surgeon/ Intelligence agent? scratch


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Re: Patrick O'Brian

Post  eddie on Fri Jun 24, 2011 7:54 pm

Patrick O'Brian

Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters

The Guardian, Saturday 8 January 2000 11.37 GMT

The case of the novelist Patrick O'Brian, who has died in Dublin aged 85, is extraordinary in every way; remarkable for the art and historical craft of his score of stories of Nelson's navy, and for a life and reputation which was itself in many ways a work of fiction.

More profoundly than John Le Carré's rewriting of the spy story, O'Brian's great Aubrey-Maturin novel sequence, as it grew, transcended the conventions of historical adventure stories like CS Forester's Hornblower tales, and used the perspective of history to reinvent the realist narrative. His intense absorption, not just in the detail of the wooden world of an early 19th-century ship of the line, but in the language, habits, beliefs, medicine, politics, science - in short, the inner and outer worlds of his period - make him seem not so much an ardent researcher as a revenant, and their digestion into the images, summonings and characters of fine narrative fiction, revived, late in the 20th century, the power of the imagined real on the page.

Much of this accomplishment is embodied in the realisation of a pair of friends - Jack Aubrey, the burly, quintessentially English naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, the slight, complex polymath of mixed Irish and Spanish descent who is his ship's doctor.

It is not surprising that John Bayley wants us to think of O'Brian as another Jane Austen in his gifts for dialogue and character, or at least a naval brother of similar literary gifts, and that he makes others think of Anthony Trollope. But even less conservative and eclectic critics are made thoughtful by the nature of his achievement.

As to his life, in so far as that complex story has yet been traced in public, it certainly has elements of the fabulous. We know that he had lived and written in a village on the southwest coast of France for the last half century, spoke French and Spanish fluently, and translated much from French, including most of Simone de Beauvoir. But "fluent in Gaelic", as one report has it? With a grandfather "whose furs had been worn by members of the royal family"? And was he a spy during the second world war, on active service perhaps so secret that he refused to enlarge further?

That particular fluency seems improbable, as does the extent of the Irish connections which O'Brian gave himself in a rare autobiographical sketch. Even the Irish surname was assumed, while his war service seems to have been, first, as an ambulance driver, then chiefly as a black propagandist in the political intelligence department.

On the other hand, his paternal grandfather was a furrier, Carl Gottfried Russ, arriving as an immigrant from Leipzig in the 1860s, and setting up shop - very successfully - in New Bond Street, and his Anglicised father, Charles, became a doctor who invented a successful treatment for a variety of the pox that gives Stephen Maturin so much professional trouble in his travels.

The literary son, Richard Patrick Russ, changed his name by deed poll in 1945 after his marriage to his second wife, Frieda Mary Wicksteed (the mother of Count Nikolai Tolstoy by an earlier marriage). Russ/O'Brian's own earlier pre-war marriage had ended not long after his second child, Jane, was born with spina bifida, an event which is said to have disturbed him profoundly, though no more, probably, than his consequent abandonment of this first family, a separation so complete that by the time Jane died three years later, he was barely in touch with them. No doubt this episode was a large part of the reason for his later editing and revising his life story.

But this is not the only account suggesting a certain ruthlessness, rather beyond the often daunting single-mindedness that betrayed an element of something like the obsessive, or pathological, in the make-up of so many successful followers of the lonely trade of writing.

The keys to much of this tangled tale, with some salient facts, are embedded in the nature of O'Brian's key characters. It seems established now that the admired and loved - by Maturin - character of Jack Aubrey, is based on that of the author's older brother Michael, who Patrick also greatly admired, and that the adoption of the name O'Brian followed Michael's, undertaken to get him into aircrew service with the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, when he was over the stipulated cut-off age of 30. (A notable mathematician and navigator, this Michael was killed in a bombing raid on Dortmund.)

Maturin certainly contains elements of self-portraiture - a German lineage exchanged for a Spanish-Irish one, a bastardy that reflected O'Brian's own unease with his identity, and perhaps even physical nature. He is also equipped with O'Brian's considerable, even scholarly, knowledge of, and fascination with, the natural world. (His first books, published in adolescence, were curious bestiaries, the first involving the mating of a leopard and a giant panda. O'Brian also wrote a biography of the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who appears in the novels partly in propria persona but also as Maturin's spymaster, which perhaps goes beyond the factual evidence of Banks's influence with the first lord of the admiralty of the time.)

They are a wonderfully drawn pair of something like opposites, but tuned to each other even more finely than the fiddle and cello on which they play their favourite pieces by Handel, Mozart, Locatelli, even the puzzling "old Bach" in the grand cabin on quiet evenings. O'Brian's English publisher actually offers fans a CD containing some of the music that sounds in the novels.

Some of the success of this great sequence comes from the conviction and huge enthusiasm which O'Brian had for his history. Everything changed with Master And Commander (1970), born of the moment he realised that the Napoleonic wars were the Englishman's Troy tale, as historically and mythically rich, and imaginatively exploitable as the story that produced The Iliad and all its heirs.

Crucial before that was a childhood, which, however its detail might have been embroidered, contained the writer's classic formative materials of long illness (probably asthma with complications) and a passion for reading, not least volume after volume of the 18th century Gentleman's Magazine, which made the voices and habits of that world his own. The range of geographical territory imaginatively and factually mastered, and so confidently covered and delivered - from Peru to Batavia, to the blue wastes of ice and terrifying storms of the Antarctic in the Far Side Of The World - speak of a later vast appetite for research and imaginative transformation, no doubt born of that time.

Alison Lurie was wondering the other day in the New York Review Of Books why the English-speaking world seemed so particularly prolific in good writing for children, and concluded that elements of the childish world remained peculiarly potent in the Anglo imagination. I think that that, with what Christopher Wordsworth once called O'Brian's feeling for "the tenderness of rough men", is probably a clue to his fascination for many readers in Britain and America. Among them, as well as some sort of critical gamut - from Iris Murdoch to Charlton Heston - there was many an old boy in the admiralty and its American equivalent (whose admirals feted him on visits to America), and every other member of all the little yacht clubs of both countries, who will bring their guns to bear at once at the slightest printed error of reference to their near sacred texts.

O'Brian was generous with his gifts and hard work, producing a new novel, Blue At The Mizzen, showing small signs of failing inventive energies, only last year, with the help of an Irish connection whose authenticity is beyond question: he had spent the last year of the century in residence at Trinity College, Dublin, which has no record of his attendance as an undergraduate, but which had given him an honorary doctorate in the previous year.

Even so, it will be hard to think that we can never set out again on a dirty night, through thick weather in the chops of the Channel, "Ushant somewhere away on the starboard bow, the Scillies to larboard, never a star to be seen," bound for heaven knows where, but sure of great sailing, good talk, and yet unimagined adventures.

WL Webb

Patrick O'Brian (Richard Patrick Russ), writer, born December 12 1914; died January 4 2000

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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