Patrick O'Brian: decoding the yarns


"Men-of-War: Life in Nelson's Navy," by Patrick O'Brian. W. W. Norton. Illustrated. 96 pages. $23 Patrick O'Brian is a first-rate literary phenom. His racket? Highly acclaimed historical novels that are also terrific page-turners. O'Brian spins a cracking good yarn, and he's a superb action writer. Best of all, the critics have proclaimed his work to be Literature. So you can feel virtuous while you mainline this stuff.

Those not yet addicted shouldn't be put off by the subject matter: life in Britain's Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The saga of O'Brian's swashbuckling, fictional hero, Jack Aubrey, is every bit as hypnotic as anything Ian Fleming or Dick Francis ever wrote.

It is also much more. There's a depth and richness to O'Brian that has led him to be compared quite aptly, in these pages, to Anthony Trollope. In Captain Aubrey and his shipmate, the Irish surgeon Stephen Maturin, he's created two of the more memorable characters in recent English fiction. And then there are the bits of lore scattered throughout the series (17 volumes and counting), such as the Royal Navy lexicon, which has become so much a part of our modern language (Example: "first rate" refers to the largest of the six categories, or rates, of British naval vessels).

Mr. O'Brian, an octogenerian recluse, has received a good deal of attention in recent years. Nearly as much has been said about his cult-like following, especially in America. Attempts have been made to psychoanalyze his (mainly male) audience, to discover what it is about Mr. O'Brian's waterborne world of early-19th-century warships that resonates so deeply with the landlocked late-20th-century mind.

Indeed, it is the hardcore O'Brian fan who is the presumed target of this slender new book, "Men-of-War" (actually a re-release). It first appeared in England in 1974, shortly after publication of the initial volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series, "Master and Commander," the obligatory starting point for all who would follow Jack's lifelong adventure.

A historical essay on the origins of the modern British Navy, "Men-of-War" is billed as a companion piece to the Aubrey novels. As such, it is somewhat disappointing. Much of the information it conveys can be found in the Aubrey/Maturin books. The illustrations might come in handy, especially for someone starting out on the series who might be confused by all the sailing jargon. But most non-sailors either read over those terms or gradually put the pieces together in their mind.

Still, there are answers to be found here, to mysteries that baffle the most devoted O'Brian followers and to questions they never thought to ask. It turns out, for instance, that it took 2,000 oak trees - 57 acres of forest - to put together a typical three-masted warship in the late 1700s. And that figgy-dowdy, a dinner treat regularly served to Aubrey's crew, is concocted by putting "ships biscuits into a canvas bag, pounding them with a marlinspike, adding bits of fat, figs and raisins, and boiling the whole in cloth."

Only Patrick O'Brian could write, as he did long ago in "Men-of-War," that building a ship was a "long and complicated business that I could not describe in less than ten volumes." This brief sketch of life in Lord Nelson's navy is, like the great oaken ribs of an 18th-century first-rate, the bare framework of what has become, over the last quarter of a century, the superstructure of his majestic creation.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and the Dallas Times Herald.

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