In Memoriam: Patrick O’Brian
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The author Patrick O’Brian died at age 85 in Dublin last week. He wrote 20 novels of the sea, beginning with “Master and Commander” in 1969 and ending with “Blue at the Mizzen” last year. The books chronicle the lives, loves, and wartime battles of British naval officer Jack Aubry and his friend, a ship’s surgeon and spy, Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.
O’Brian was little known in this country until 1989, when W.W. Norton began publishing his works, including the older ones. To date, more than two million copies have been sold. They seem to evoke strong passions in their fans, one of whom is Richard Snow, editor in chief of “American Heritage” Magazine, and an author of two historical novels himself. Mr. Snow, you wrote in the “New York Times” Review about the sea novels, that O’Brian “reconstructed a civilization on the foundations of the Aubry-Maturin friendship.” Explain that.
RICHARD SNOW: His two great characters are a British sea captain in the Napoleonic wars and the British sea captain’s surgeon, best friend named Stephen Maturin. These two men could not be more different in temperament. Jack Aubry is gruff, burly, powerful, sort of a buffoon ashore, totally capable at sea and Stephen Maturin, whom he meets in the very first moments of the first book when, in fact, he gets in a quarrel and almost a duel with him in a concert, is shy, slightly shabby, quiet, absolutely brilliant, and a, as it turns out, a dedicated and effective counterrevolutionary spy against Napoleon, who of course at this time, Britain is fighting alone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell me what you meant when you said that the author reconstructed a civilization on their friendship.
RICHARD SNOW: Well, the novels are quite extraordinary, I think, in that they work on every level. On the first level, they are terrific sea stories, adventure stories, but he manages, O’Brian, very skillfully and fully to summon up an entire world. He has his characters fall in love. He has his characters make friends. And over the course of 20 books, the women, the men, everybody, everyone who inhabits this becomes very real to us, even though they’re living in a civilization far beyond the memory of any of us. It is a very different world. It is the world of early 19th century Britain. It is the world before steam power. It is the world before anything we associate with our world. And, yet, these people are entirely familiar to us because of their feelings vibrating with ours. And everyone I know who has gotten absorbed into these books believes in these people, they’re every bit as alive and immediate as their own friends and in-laws.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He creates this role partly by using the language of the times, doesn’t he?
RICHARD SNOW: Yes. He. It takes a little… I think it takes a little while to get into it. He makes no concessions to the modern ear. These people speak the way he feels that people spoke then. And it takes some getting used to. There are different cadences. There are arcane expressions. But once you’re into it, it flows right along. It feels almost as though you’re extremely fluent in a second language. And I find myself embarrassing myself – you know — by suddenly popping out with suddenly popping out with some archaism like – you know — give you joy of it when a friend has had some good fortune.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read one of your favorite passages please.
RICHARD SNOW: Yes. This is how he introduces… it gets a little sensitive — how O’Brian introduces his two characters in “The Hundred Days,” which is next to the last of the books in the sequence. We are watching the British fleet come into Gibraltar. “The leading ships were close now, enough for people to be seen. The young lady gently took her father’s telescope. ‘Is that the famous Captain Aubry, she asked? Why, he’s short, fat and red-faced. I am disappointed.’ ‘No, booby,’ said her father. ‘Come, child. Don’t you see the broad pennant?’ ‘Oh, yes, sir,’ she replied, training her glass on the Pamone’s quarter deck. ‘Pray, who is that very tall, fair-haired man in a rear admiral’s uniform?’ ‘Why, Lizzie, that is your famous Jack Aubry.’ ‘Oh, isn’t he beautiful? Who is that little man beside him in the black coat and drab britches?’ ‘ Oh, that will be his surgeon, Dr. Maturin. They all sail together. He can clip off an arm or a leg faster than any man in the service, and it is a joy to see him carve a saddle of mutton.’”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about O’Brian as a person. You knew him.
RICHARD SNOW: Well, I did. I met him several times. He is almost as… I felt almost as much a magnificent creations in these series, a figure of the early 19th century. He is a man of the most extreme courtesy, although I was quite terrified of him most of the time I was with him. In one of the books he has Stephen say to his love, Diana, that he does not consider question and answer a civil form of conversation. And I think it was quite clear that O’Brian did not consider it that way either. Now for me this seems like sort of the only form of conversation. So, I dealt with him with great caution. He dealt with me with great courtesy. But it was always as though you were in the presence of someone who might well have been born while Lord Nelson was still alive.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He didn’t like questions about his personal life partly because he was not what he seemed to be, isn’t that right?
RICHARD SNOW: This just began to come out after he achieved his stateside celebrity. And as his fame grew, people began to dig into his background. And, yes, they found he had basically invented a life for himself, including a change of name. I was sort of shocked and fascinated and also kind of shied away from the story. I thought, here is a guy who’s given me like 20 years of pure pleasure. If he doesn’t want me to know about who he is, I’ll back off.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Snow, why do you think… Why do you and why do other people love his books so much? You’ve told us about them, but what really grabs you so much?
RICHARD SNOW: I think, as I think I said earlier, they work on every level. It’s a hell of a good story. You also encounter… But he is a very shrewd psychological observer. You encounter people feeling exactly the way you do about your own humiliations and triumphs. And there is… You understand and respond to so many people in these books that you actually do begin to feel, as all great literature does, that it’s not a fictional exercise at all this – that this is a real place in the world that you can visit and find comfort and entertainment and indeed amusement there. He’s very funny.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who would you compare him to? What other author has created a whole world and this many books?
RICHARD SNOW: These are 20 books. And they are really distant. I mean, we really are setting them in the arcane world of the 19th century navy. I can’t think of another author who has done something like this. And I can also not think of – I can’t think of anybody else who has begun to have a success like this starting in basically his 80′s. As of today, Norton has sold just in America over three million of these books.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Richard Snow, thank you very much for being with us.
RICHARD SNOW: Well thank you.