Voyage over, stories sail on

Appreciation: Patrick O'Brian, who died Sunday, enchanted readers for 31 years with his high-seas historical novels filled with complicated characters and rich detail.

January 08, 2000|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,SUN STAFF

Thirty-one years ago, Patrick O'Brian brought out a historical novel, "Master and Commander," that introduced Jack Aubrey, an officer in the Royal Navy of the Nelson era, and his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

When O'Brian died Sunday in Dublin at the age of 85, his Aubrey-Maturin novels had grown into a series of 20 volumes and, according to his publishers, had sold more than 2 million copies. In 1995, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

To have made such a success with a series of historical novels is a stunning accomplishment in publishing, but O'Brian's achievement goes well beyond sales. O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin appear to generate the enthusiasm and loyalty associated with the fans of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson or of J. R. R. Tolkien's hobbits.

There has always been an appetite among the reading public for sea stories of the Napoleonic era. C. S. Forester's novels featuring Horatio Hornblower, with which O'Brian's are inevitably compared, also generated popularity and enduring loyalty in the 1950s, and Dudley Pope's novels about British naval officer Nicholas Ramage began appearing in the mid-1960s.

All these novels appeal to those who love to go messing about with boats. They appeal to the readers of adventure novels. And like the techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy, they impress with a grasp of arcane terminology that the average reader can only dimly comprehend.

The progressive nature of a series also draws the reader in. The youthful hero starts with a small command, displays pluck and seamanship, moves on to bigger ships and bigger battles, encounters envy and adversity, and ultimately gets to fly an admiral's flag. Along the way, the reader sighs at every reverse and glories vicariously at every triumph. Good stuff.

O'Brian, however, was a much more ambitious author, and his books are far more sophisticated than the give-'em-a-broadside thump of Pope and even the higher-grade Forester.

Some of the greatest satisfactions of the Aubrey-Maturin series lie in the complexity of the two principal characters and their relationship.

Jack Aubrey is a bluff Englishman, tall, confident, commanding, given to hearty meals and venery. He is brave to the point of recklessness in battle, and he is also lucky. But there is something more here than the hearty, extrovert jock such a description could imply. Aubrey has a gift and enthusiasm for mathematics, an intellectual pursuit he fosters among his midshipmen, and he plays the violin ably. Though not given to introspection, he has moments of profound empathy.

Stephen Maturin is strange in as many ways as a reader can count.

He is Irish-Catalan, with political sympathies favoring liberation movements. He is at the same time an accomplished spy in the British secret service -- diplomatic intrigues and espionage play a prominent role in several of the novels. He is a hopeless lubber, always in danger of falling into the water. His enthusiasm for natural science (principally bird watching) leads to longer catalogs of exotic species than most readers would have thought possible. He is an introvert and melancholic, treating himself with measured doses of morphine and dried coca leaves (the source of cocaine). He is a musician, an able cellist. And even in Dr. Maturin, he of the dirty coat, torn stockings and distressing wig, there is romance.

The world that these two create for themselves is like the world of Holmes and Watson, two men of opposed temperament but the deepest friendship, comfortable in a masculine and ordered world (whether in Baker Street or aboard one of His Britannic Majesty's warships), and moving confidently together to deal with dark forces (crime in London or the French on the high seas).

Patrick O'Brian was the author of a number of other books: novels, biographies of Picasso and the British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and translations of the work of Simone de Beauvoir. An extremely private man, he had lived for the past half-century in Collioure in France. A biography by Dean King is scheduled to be published this spring; it will describe how O'Brian, born Richard Patrick Russ, changed his name in the 1940s and crossed off his family and his past.

Over time, of course, little about the life will matter. What will survive is the work. It will because readers know that after the carnage is over -- the cannon fire that Aubrey has ordered and the amputations that Maturin has performed -- the two will be together once again in the great cabin, Britain supreme once more, with a pot of coffee to share, attempting a duet on violin and cello, the music resounding throughout the ship.

The novels

The 20 novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series and their dates of publication

"Master and Commander," 1969

"Post Captain," 1972

"H.M.S. Surprise," 1973

"The Mauritius Command," 1977

"Desolation Island," 1978

"The Fortune of War," 1979

"The Surgeon's Mate," 1980

"The Ionian Mission," 1981

"Treason's Harbour," 1983

"The Far Side of the World," 1984

"The Reverse of the Medal," 1986

"The Letter of Marque," 1988

"The Thirteen Gun Salute," 1989

"The Nutmeg of Consolation," 1991

"The Truelove," 1992

"The Wine-Dark Sea," 1993

"The Commodore," 1994

"The Yellow Admiral," 1997

"The Hundred Days," 1998

"Blue at the Mizzen," 1999

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