Patrick O'Brian: History on the high seas Author rides wave of new popularity in the United States


Perhaps it's the way Patrick O'Brian defines his novels about ships and the men who sailed them during the age of Napoleon that explains the almost religious devotion of his fans.

"I call them tales," smiles Mr. O'Brian during a recent chat in Washington on his first visit to America in 20 years. "E. M. Forster said readers are invariably drawn by the basic desire to know what happens next. So a tale is the vehicle for drawing the reader in. And my vehicle is preeminently the ship."

But, oh, what a ship. Under the command of the Royal Navy's Jack Aubrey and his colleague Dr. Stephen Maturin, the Good Ship O'Brian has sailed delighted readers through 16 novels in the past 24 years. Adventure on the high seas, though, is only a pleasant sideshow for fans of the highly complex main characters in the series.

For Aubrey and Maturin are two men so opposite in nature that they nearly come to blows at their first meeting in "Master and Commander," the initial book in the saga. Yet before long, the robust, heroic Aubrey -- a natural leader in war but something of a disaster in matters of the heart -- becomes fast friends with Maturin, a smallish loner, addicted to nature, and possessed of a philosopher's soul but also a spy's cunning.

In book after book Mr. O'Brian, writing in a much praised literary style, probes the hidden depths of these two men, using their conflicts and those of their various ships as metaphor for a grander statement about life in the early 1800s.

While British readers have long been familiar with Mr. O'Brian, it's only been in the past three years that his work became widely available in the United States. When it did, the New York Times quickly labeled Mr. O'Brian's work "the best historical novels ever written," turning the obscure author into an overnight success at the precocious age of 79.

But it took a little persuading to get the notoriously publicity-shy author to come to the United States from his home in the South of France to promote "The Wine-Dark Sea," the latest Aubrey/Maturin title.

"He was reluctant to go through all the hullabaloo of interviews," says Hilary Hinzmann, spokesman for W. W. Norton, Mr. O'Brian's American publisher. "But he's been awfully gratified to have so many people say that the books had touched them and given them pleasure."

In Washington last week, so many people showed up at the National Archives for his first-ever public address, many, including a U.S. senator, were turned away. Another avid reader, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, invited Mr. O'Brian to meet him in chambers.

And yet little is known about the writer because of his insistence on privacy. Interviewers are warned beforehand not to ask him "personal" questions -- such as where he was born or why he chooses to live in the South of France -- lest he fix them with an icy stare and withdraw.

"The first interviews I gave were entirely unpleasant," he explains during a conversation that took place only with the proviso that its location not be divulged. "You have people trying to trip you up with impolite questions that have nothing to do with the books. It's simply vulgar curiosity and I won't have it."

But when probed about his personal thoughts on writing, Mr. O'Brian seemed more than willing to respond, beginning with his reasons for choosing such an arcane period in which to write.

"The [French] Revolution and Napoleon have been the driving tales for many English-speaking people," he says in an accent definitely Irish but softened by nearly 50 years living in the shadow of the Pyrenees in the Rousillon region of southern France. "In my case I write in the past because I'm not really part of the present. I have nothing valid to say about anything current, though I have something to say about what existed then."

Even so, he admits to dismay at discovering how popular interest in the historical novel has faded.

"I never knew it was such a despised genre," he says, trying to explain why his novels never before took hold in the United States. "To think that what had pleased Horace and Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare and up to Tolstoy -- that these could belong to a despised form . . ."

Mr. O'Brian is halfway through his newest Aubrey/Maturin novel, and says future episodes will involve the middle, unexplored years of the captain's career. A sailor most of his life, the author says he can think of no better setting for a novel than a ship.

"On a ship, everything is enclosed, the people are right on top of each other and can't get up and walk away," he says with a wide smile. "The function of the novel is the exploration of the human condition. Really, that's what it's all about. The ship is like a hothouse: you raise the temperature -- especially in war -- and everything grows faster."

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