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Enigmatic writer of fighting sail era dies

Jan 1, 2003

Patrick O'Brian, the writer who created the much loved Aubrey/ Maturin series of maritime novels, died in Dublin, Ireland, on the second of January. He was 85 years old.

O'Brian died much as he lived: privately, a touch enigmatically. Reports of his passing did not filter out to the press until five days later. Stories differed concerning when it had happened and how and when his body had been transported back to his adoptive home in Southern France. Even in death Patrick O'Brian resisted attempts to get at the truth about himself.

Indeed, O'Brian had elevated the art of resisting inquiry into his personal life to a new level, stopping just short of a J.D. Salinger type of isolationism. Interviewers were informed that no kind of personal questions would be tolerated, and were often surprised to find what, to O'Brian, constituted such a question. I recall his telling a reporter once, in shocked tones, that someone had actually asked him where he had been born, "and this in fairly decent company!" Secretiveness became O'Brian's trademark, like Hemingway's beard or Tom Wolfe's white suit.

In 1998 this all began to make more sense. In that year it began to come out that Patrick O'Brian was not, in fact, Patrick O'Brian, at least not from birth. The story has been reprinted so often now that it hardly bears repeating, but for those who do not log on to Patrick O'Brian chat rooms or faithfully read The New York Times, here is a rundown:

Patrick O'Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ, the son of a London doctor of German extraction. He was not Irish, not Catholic, as he had led people to believe. He published two novels under the name Patrick Russ, the first soon after turning fifteen. He married at 21 and had two children, a son who survives him, and a daughter who died at the age of three. Russ soon left the family, divorcing his wife, and moved to London where he drove ambulances during World War II. There he met and later married his second wife, Mary. In 1945 he changed his name to O'Brian. He and Mary lived for most of their lives in southern France, where O'Brian wrote and translated French literature to support himself and his wife. Mary passed away a little more than a year ago.

O'Brian was 38 when he wrote Testimonies, a quiet novel set in Wales, and the book that he himself considered to be his finest. It was very well received critically, but sold little. In 1969, at he age of 54, he wrote Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey/Maturin series. This and subsequent books in the series sold fairly well, though not spectacularly, in England. Three efforts to launch the series in the United States all eventually failed. (The covers of those early editions, published by Lippencott, are a hoot, with bold men and lusty, big-breasted women in the heat of battle. I would have loved to hear Mr. O'Brian's opinion of them.)

In the early 90s, after 60 years of writing, O'Brian became an overnight success. That was when American publisher W.W. Norton began to reissue the series, and finally, for reasons known to no one, it began to catch on. After that, sales climbed higher and higher, until at last each new novel had a place reserved for it on The New York Times bestseller's list.

O'Brian himself seemed to find this late success both mysterious and somewhat annoying. The books that were hailed as brilliant were the same books that were earlier ignored, he pointed out on more than one occasion. In a recent interview with Publisher's Weekly, perhaps his last, O'Brian said he would have "very, very willingly been a quarter as well known when I was in my twenties." I never had the chance to meet Patrick O'Brian, though we corresponded a few times. I wrote to him when I was first contemplating a career in historical maritime fiction, telling him how much his books were enjoyed in the community of traditional sailors (I was third mate aboard the replica Rose at the time) and asking about his sources for contemporary dialogue. A few weeks later came a very kind letter from O'Brian, written in his crabbed hand with fountain pen, wishing me luck and suggesting sources that I might pursue to acquire a taste for 18th century dialogue. In response to my words concerning his popularity within the sailing community he wrote "no praise is more gratifying than that which comes from those who really know what they are talking about." Indeed.

In the following years, as my own writing career took its first halting steps, Mr. O'Brian was always generous about providing me with some kind words with which my publisher could adorn my books' covers, pressed though he was for time. There have been other authors, not a fraction as talented, and now all but forgotten, who were never so kind as O'Brian. Now that I am in a position to be asked to "blurb" books, I have never refused, in part to honor Patrick O'Brian's thoughtfulness (and I am fortunate to never have been given a book that I could not recommend!).

There is something terribly sad about fame and recognition that comes posthumously, at least for those left behind (what it means to those who receive it we cannot know, though some day we all might). O'Brian at least avoided that. His passing is a great loss, but he has left the world with a body of work that will be read and enjoyed for many generations. In doing so he's come as close to immortality as any man could hope.