The graceful and contrarian British novelist Patrick O'Brian, who surprised the literary world--and himself--by luring legions of readers away from the onslaught of the Information Age and back to the slower epoch of sailing ships and discovery, has died.
A pathfinder who defied trend by resurrecting the long-ago form of the serial novel, O'Brian turned 85 just a month ago. His London agent and New York publisher said the writer took ill in Dublin on Saturday and died Sunday in a hospital. In accord with his wishes, no announcement of his death was made, pending the return of his body to his longtime home in France for burial.
O'Brian's quiet country life and his remarkable books turned a shoulder to the scatter and commercialism of modern society. Retreat to the past, he beckoned. With a precise and fertile imagination, he provided readers with sanctuary in the improbable world of high-seas adventure in the British Royal Navy of the early 1800s.
His Aubrey-Maturin series of 20 books was gauged by critics in the United States and Britain as some of the finest historical fiction ever. It might be admitted that the books also had elements of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for well-read grown-ups.
Although frail, O'Brian had disclosed recently that he had completed three chapters of Volume 21. A friend said he was busy writing until his final weekend.
Fans who otherwise had no interest in the British battles with Napoleon were swept with rare intensity into the arcane realm of men-of-war, dinners of soused pig's face, the roar of evening cannon practice, sunsets aloft in a cloud of square-rigged sail, and nighttime string duets with Capt. Jack Aubrey on the violin and surgeon Stephen Maturin on the cello as the moon shimmered over strange oceans long ago.
One of the most formidable friendships in English literature, the duo had kinship with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, with "Lucky Jack" Aubrey the fearless and good-natured English warrior who often lost his footing ashore, and the lovelorn, unkempt Maturin, a moody and complex Irish-Catalan naturalist, medical doctor, intelligence agent and friend--and, it should be added, a personality drawn from the author's own.
Readers Felt a Bond to Characters
Those who mourn O'Brian's passing now grieve the loss of characters whose lives they followed in intimate detail for years, through romance, marriage, moral dilemma, storm, shipwreck, adventure and any number of fortunes and misfortunes.
To read O'Brian's seafaring tales is to be invited into a club. A nod from one O'Brian reader upon the acquaintance of another says, literally, volumes. Just the mention of a character like Diana conjures a whole life of elegance, mystery, longing and frustration.
Some followers went farther, and in recent years publishers fed the O'Brian craze with supplemental titles that explained the lexicon and geography and food of his novels--parenthetical details that he wasted little ink elucidating himself. CDs were recorded so that readers could enjoy the music of the time.
Although his genre would ordinarily appeal to men, O'Brian's elegance as a storyteller, his unhurried explorations into the nuances of life at the dawn of a new century nearly 200 years ago, plus his flowing exactness with mood and place attracted an equally steadfast following of women. Entire books in the series passed without a single naval battle, usually the staple of this kind of fiction. His own favorite writer was Jane Austen.
One New Jersey woman wrote O'Brian and said she named her son Jack after the captain and would have picked Aubrey for a girl.
In one of the last interviews of his life, O'Brian told The Times in November that he was feeling "quite ancient, you know." But he playfully agreed to divulge his secrets of writing:
"May I start at the beginning? I take a blank sheet of paper and I take a pen and I write Page 1. And I go on to about Page 365, and at that point I write, 'The End,' " he said, grinning.
Asked in 1998 to guess why more serious writers did not employ history as a backdrop for their stories, O'Brian replied: "I think probably you have to be terribly good to bring it off."
Writing slowly in his one-bedroom vineyard overlooking the sea in southern France, and then, after the death of his second wife, Mary, in 1998, working in a room at Trinity College in Dublin, O'Brian created stories that crackled with the tension and forward motion of the best of contemporary action novels.
Bringing a Long-Past Era Back to Life
But, with his near perfect re-creation of period language and perceptions, readers enjoyed the soothing, and illuminating, perspective of life as it unwound at a less bewildering pace--when a letter might not be delivered for six months so one had time to compose it properly, and when an insult was judged not by the size of its exclamation point but by how carefully it was composed to resemble a flowery compliment with a razor blade buried in the tail end.