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INK / PAUL D. COLFORD

The Tide Is Changing for an Obscure Novelist

January 06, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday.

For Patrick O'Brian, the writer of sea tales, this was the year his ship came in.

After years of being treasured by a so-called O'Brian underground of fans, the obscure novelist appeared to break through on a surge of critical praise generated by the recent "The Wine-Dark Sea," his 16th novel set in the swashbuckling British Navy of the 19th Century. The ink lavished on the book in publications ranging from the New Yorker to People also gave long-overdue attention to O'Brian's 15 previous titles, which W.W. Norton & Co. has put back into print in recent years.

For the uninitiated--and many of us had left the genre after those last voyages charted by Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville--it was time to catch up on the action-rich adventures of O'Brian's headstrong Capt. Jack Aubrey and his shipboard surgeon-spy, Stephen Maturin.

Here, in "The Wine-Dark Sea," are the two old friends as they puzzle from the quarterdeck at a "strange-coloured" swirling sea:

Aubrey: "I have never seen anything like it."

Maturin: "It is much thicker now than it was when I went below. And now an umber light pervades the whole, like a Claude Lorrain run mad."

It's this kind of passing historical reference (to the 17th-Century landscape artist known for his rendering of light), as well as O'Brian's painstakingly researched details about 19th-Century life aboard ship, that elevates his tales into heady escapism.

When the Irish-born author left his home in the south of France and visited the United States a few weeks ago, fans waiting to meet, lunch and have tea with him included Walter Cronkite, Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who invited O'Brian to attend a session of the high court.

Hollywood also wants a piece of the press-shy storyteller. Publishers Weekly recently reported that the Samuel Goldwyn Co. has optioned O'Brian's first novel in the series, "Master and Commander," in a deal that could lead to a line of films based on the novels.

Norton also plans to keep stoking interest in O'Brian by reissuing all his books in hardcover starting in the spring and by bringing out two additional titles in April.

"The Golden Ocean," published in Britain 37 years ago, is a precursor to the Aubrey-Maturin stories. "Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and Bibliography," edited by Arthur Cunningham, will offer a historical backdrop to his tales.

Not bad for a suddenly hot writer of 79.

*

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