Friday, December 12, 2014

Patrick O’Brian at 100 – Remembering His Remarkable Aubrey-Maturin Series of Historical Fiction

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Patrick O'Brian, author of a remarkable feat of historical fiction – a story spanning 20 and one-half books of the particular friendship and adventures of English naval captain, expert navigator, and amateur mathematician Jack Aubrey and Irish/Catalan noted physician, spy, and naturalist Stephen Maturin.  At first drawn together by their love of music, they become fast and somewhat improbable friends and serve together in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, through battles and intrigue, loves and losses, sickness and injury, and wealth and impoverishment, all while fighting the French, their allies, and their spies across the globe on both land and sea.   

O’Brian was not only a great storyteller but was as well a meticulous researcher.  The series is a treasure for its complexity of plot, depth of characterizations, and fascinating period detail about flora, fauna, food, drink, and sailing ships.  His use of authentic language and nautical terms is impressive, though it takes some getting used to (but I now know quite a bit about the weather gauge, slipping one’s anchor, and the danger of a lee shore).  And there’s plenty of history and geography, music and mores, and of course battle strategy and tactics. 

Patrick O'Brian
Humor abounds, usually subtle and dry but sometimes broad (the dog watches being curtailed and choosing the lesser of two weevils come quickly to mind).  The writing style, the depth of slowly-drawn detail, takes no small measure of perseverance at first.  In that regard the story is like a fine tawny port – strong and an acquired taste, but once hooked, exquisite and sublime. 

Fame and fortune came late to O’Brian, when he was more than half-way through the series whose first volume, Master and Commander, was published in 1969.  Living modestly and reclusively with his beloved wife, he wrote for decades in a small house in a French Catalan village on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border.  When he passed away in January of 2000 he was partway through the 21st book, which has been published as-is up to the point he left off the last time at his desk, with alternating pages of a photocopy of a single hand-written page paired with a typed transcription. 

In 2003, director Peter Weir premiered a beautiful, richly-layered film which drew on a number of story elements from different parts of the series – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”  And of note, the handwritten manuscripts for eighteen of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, as well some first editions and other pieces from O’Brian’s body of work, were acquired by the special collections Lilly Library at Indiana University, where I was fortunate to see them all displayed at the 2008 exhibition “Blue at the Mizzen” (which is the title of the last full volume in the series).

For well over 15 years I have been enjoying this long tale; whenever I get through the last volume I just start all over at the beginning.  I always have a book going, and I find I read it sporadically in fits and starts, daily for stretches, and then maybe not at all for a few weeks while consumed by other books; but I am never very long away from the story.  If the joy has not yet been yours, by all means get the helpful lexicon and the geography guide, start at the beginning, and stick with it in the first three volumes and let O'Brian hit his stride.  As Lucky Jack Aubrey is wont to say, there is not a moment to lose.

R Balsamo

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