- by Carol Standish
Patrick O'Brian [A Life Revealed] by Dean King (Henry Holt, 397pp, $27.50) may very well be the best of its genre this year. Not only did O'Brian (1914-2000) participate in interesting times (he survived WWII in London as an ambulance driver and intelligence officer). He then went on to write what the New York Times has called the "best historical novels ever written." He also created a kind of mysterious fiction of his own personal life-of which little was known until this biography was released. Author King "has painted a fascinating, compassionate, honest portrait of a complex and difficult man who was also a consummate writer," says O'Brian's original American editor, Walcott Gibbs, Jr.
The book is organized chronologically and hooks the reader immediately in O'Brian's early, oddly strangled life and bizarre family. Then there are the war years which are as riveting as any piece of fiction. Not until O'Brian marries his second wife and moves to the South of France in 1949 does his life settle into what could be called a nurturing routine-and by then he'd already written several full length novels, collections of short stories and works for the youth market.
In Collioure, O'Brian really settled down and wrote in a highly disciplined way, filling his days not only with his own fiction and accompanying research but with translations (French to English) and biography. Not until 1967 with the publication of Master and Commander did Aubrey and Maturin mature in his mind. From that moment on, however, both O'Brian's life, and thus the biography, become totally immersed in the creation and development of the famous and beloved maritime literary adventure series.
O'Brian was a tenacious researcher and read voraciously in the period in which he was writing. (He even purchased a 1810 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which proved invaluable.) King was not as successful in his two and a half years of research. As he admits in an Author's Note, O'Brian was an unwilling subject. "In attempting to portray a man whose life and literature have so much to say about the world, I encountered gaps and deliberate misinformation. O'Brian consistently dissembled…on the subject of his personal history." This hurdle is never completely mastered. From the date of the publication of the first volume in the series, O'Brian's life is presented primarily through reviews of his work, dealings with various editors and publishing houses and cursory examinations of the works themselves-which leaves the reader to imagine the more personal details.
Under difficult circumstances, however, King is both respectful and thorough. He makes an informed effort to connect various of O'Brian's real-life encounters with incidents and characterizations found in the Aubrey-Maturin novels-just what the publisher claims the biography does. Long a student of Patrick O'Brian and an expert in nautical literature, King is no hack himself. His style is lively and well-paced, his presentation of the facts is enriched with detail less assiduous (or desparate) writers might dismiss. The biography is almost as much of a page-turner as O'Brian's fiction. If you're not already an O'Brian fan, the biography will tease you to read him (or try reading him again).