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An Eye for Detail That Commands a Sea of Respect : Books: Patrick O'Brian sets his tales in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars--and he stays faithful to the dialogue of the time.

June 02, 1995|ANTHONY DAY | TIMES SENIOR CORRESPONDENT

"It has, then, no zygomatic arch?" asks the 81-year-old writer as he contemplates the fossil skeleton of a Smilodon fatalis , the saber-toothed cat, in the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits.

Is it the lack of the cheekbone arch that permits it partially to unhinge its jaw, the better to use its two terrible ripping fangs?

No, the curator explains that it does have one, indeed, and presently hands him an S . fatalis skull so he can examine its hinge.

Patrick O'Brian, the Irish English author (and amateur naturalist) whose books sell 300,000 to 400,000 a year in this country, flashes a bright smile of delight. He has again learned something new, which just might, someday, find a spot in the continuing series of novels, now numbering 17, he has published since 1970.

The books are set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and written in dialogue, vocabulary and rhythm that are remarkably faithful to the English of that time. Slow to catch on at first, they have become so popular that the publishing world speaks of "the O'Brian phenomenon" when describing the surge of fame and presumably fortune that have lifted this small, frail-looking writer.

There is an O'Brian newsletter. An O'Brian guidebook has been commissioned. There will soon be an O'Brian CD. And the first O'Brian movie is in the works.

And there are increasing numbers of passionate O'Brian fans, whom he encountered on a monthlong tour of the United States on publication of his latest novel, "The Commodore" (W.W. Norton, 1995).

In San Francisco he spoke to a sold-out audience of 900, nearly all of whom appeared to have read each of his novels. At UCLA a standing-room-only audience of 400 listened as Charlton Heston, a fan of years standing, interviewed O'Brian and read a passage from one of his books.

The series has two principal characters. One is Jack Aubrey, a straightforward, skillful, rather bluff but immensely likable English commander. The other is Stephen Maturin (pronounced MAT-uh-rin), an Irish Catalonian who is an enthusiastic naturalist, a physician and a part-time spy for the English against the hated Napoleon.

Maturin becomes the doctor on Aubrey's ship, the two become fast friends, and so remain through thrilling and suspenseful battles and other dramatic sea adventures, love affairs, marriages, financial reversals and good fortune.

Aubrey is a strong, brave leader at sea, less successful on his land legs. Maturin still, after all these years, has not learned the nautical names for things and falls down and sometimes overboard, but he is the more subtle.

A reader at the San Francisco event, at which O'Brian was skillfully interviewed by poet and UC Berkeley English professor Robert Hass, who has since been named poet laureate of the United States, wondered if Aubrey and Maturin were two aspects of the same person, as has been said of King Lear and the Fool.

"No," O'Brian replied, "I look upon them rather as positive and negative, the exchange between which expresses what I wish to say."

The obvious comparison for O'Brian's books is C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series about the Royal Navy. "He did brilliant descriptions of action, which I can't match, but his characters are a little flat," O'Brian said in San Francisco with an elfin smile of playful disingenuousness.

O'Brian deprecates himself too much. His sea actions, which he plots with rulers to get the sailing just right, are among the finest in all literature. His portrayal of the sea brings it alive.

O'Brian's study of character, in his two principals and in their wives and others, is both sympathetic and complex. In the San Francisco audience, teacher Rick Risbrough said he finds the understanding Aubrey and Maturin have of each other one of the most attractive aspects of the series.

"Their mutual respect and civility is most impressive," he said.

Francis Kent, a former Times foreign correspondent and editor who has read the whole series, is more direct: "To me it may be absolutely the best fiction I've read. So knowledgeable, so beautifully written, so gentle. None of that trite, vile roughhouse stuff you see everywhere you turn."

O'Brian's appearance at UCLA was appropriately sponsored by the Friends of English. He explained there and in San Francisco that in his youth, when he was sickly, he read deeply and widely in English prose of the 18th Century: Smollett, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, Gibbon. . . .

"That was the reading of my youth. What you read before you are 20 or 23 you read with an astonishing intensity. . . . Gibbon wrote a most noble English . . . it has a roll and a splendor."

These writers, with Jane Austen, made the forceful, rolling English that O'Brian has recreated in his novels. These are the first two paragraphs of "The Commodore":

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