Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

PATRICK O’BRIAN

A Life Revealed

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The more I spent time in the world of Patrick O’Brian, the more I realized—at least subconsciously—that there was something funny going on. To justify his reticence to talk about himself, O’Brian argued that readers didn’t need to know anything about Homer to appreciate Homer. I did not buy this argument. (Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to know

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more about Homer! And look at our fascination with the identity of Shakespeare.) If Homer lived today and particularly if he toured America promoting his books, we would know plenty about him. But O’Brian insisted that no one ask personal questions and no one look into his background.

I thought that it would be something of a travesty if the author—who I consider one of the best fiction writers and great men of letters of the last half century—died without our knowing anything about him and the background that produced the profoundly moving Aubrey-Maturin novels. So, I flew to Ireland

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to learn about Patrick O’Brian.

At that time, I had no idea that he was not who he said he was. But I soon found out. In a teashop in the village of Balinasloe, in western Ireland, I met a woman who was of the O’Brian clan. She steered me to a brother-in-law. “Patrick O’Brian?” he said. “You’ve come to the right place. I buried him myself.” At the tombstone of the only possible Patrick O’Brian who fit the details the author had given, I realized that the author, who was alive and writing in the south of France, was not who he claimed to be. For the better part of three years, I would chase down the details of the life of this enigmatic author. The fascinating and tortuous trail took me not just to Ireland, but England, Wales, France, Germany, Canada, and Australia in search of the truth.

Born Richard Russ, O’Brian changed his name in 1945 after serving in British intelligence during WW II, thus burying a failed marriage and abandoning a precocious career as a novelist. O’Brian went on to write arguably the most profound fiction about male friendship in the English language. He was also a biographer of Picasso and Joseph Banks and the translator of Simone de Beauvoir’s later work.

Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed details the life of one of the more fascinating literary figures of the twentieth century. Published in the United States by

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Henry Holt and in the United Kingdom by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder Headline, 2000; serialized in the Daily Telegraph. Published in Germany by Ullstein Maritim, 2004.

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“Dean King’s biography reveals in fascinating detail that the private man behind the novels was no less of a magician than the author who created them. This is a truly remarkable book which

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uncovers the secrets of a professionally secretive man.” – John Bayley

“King has performed a prodigy of detective research in tracking down the details of Patrick O’Brian’s

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real life. Much more to the point, however, Mr. King has painted a fascinating, compassionate, honest portrait of a complex and difficult man who was also a consummate writer.” – Wolcott Gibbs Jr.

“Dean King has done a magnificent job here, proving himself an able sleuth, putting real flesh on this immensely gifted, complex–difficult, even–storyteller. [An] absorbing biography.” – Jay Parini.

“A model of how these things should be: sceptical, generous and almost as well informed as the master himself.” – Daily Telegraph , Books of the Year

“King casts a sober eye but not a cold heart on this secretive writer whose … devotees should rejoice at this account of his life, written with appreciative balance, rich with literary insight…. His analysis is crisp and engaging…. O’Brian endures and captivates readers for reasons this biography sets forth lucidly…. King does his memory justice.” – L.A. Times

“A worthy…. generous portrait by a true believer that sets much of the record straight.” – New York Times Book Review

“King’s diligent research yields pleasing details … O’Brian addicts will be grateful for King’s efforts.” – The New Yorker

“The full story…brought out with finesse.” – Smithsonian

“[In] this well-written and researched book … King has

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been conscientious, providing just the right balance of detail. King is well qualified to act the biographer to O’Brian, and has, despite the lack of help from his subject, written an excellent book. It will stand for some time as the source for the life of this talented, complex man.” – T.L.S.

“It is a tribute to King’s pertinacity and the admirable fairness of his approach that he has succeeded in producing a fascinating and rewarding study of a uniquely complex man.” –

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Nikolai Tolstoy, Literary Review

“A model enquiry into a life concealed…. Among King’s many biographical triumphs is to have firmly anchored the central characters of that series in O’Brian’s life.” – Sunday Telegraph

“King’s telling of [O’Brian’s] puzzling tale is decent, fair and extremely thorough.” – Jan Morris, The Observer

“Diligently researched, informative, and … persuasive.” – Spectator

“Peter’s Picks”: “Absorbing, fascinating.” – Peter Guttridge, BBC1 Amazon Editors’ Selection.

“Illuminating, A-” – Entertainment Weekly , Editor’s Choice

“King’s writing is really first-rate.” (four out of four stars) – Detroit Free Press

Barry Forshaw, Amazon UK: “A superlative celebration of one of the most amazing bodies of fiction produced in the 20th century. Again and again, King performs the key function of a literary biographer: he inspires in the reader an intense desire to return to his subject’s work, armed with a host of new insights… Most of all, though, it’s the communication of the biographer’s enthusiasm for his subject that leaps off the page:

Suddenly, it became apparent that while O’Brian may or may not have surpassed Forester in sea action, he had created great novels that did not look quite like anything that had come before. His evocation of Nelson’s Royal Navy was an escapist world as appealing as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as culturally rich as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and as intriguingly ritualistic as Umberto Eco’s medieval monastery in

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The Name of the Rose. In this setting, almost flawlessly sustained in the more than five-thousand-page opus, O’Brian had examined his two primary themes, love and friendship, from myriad angles, with extraordinary lucidity and a stylistic range to rival the best novelists. Critics no longer compared him to C. S. Forester but to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust and Homer.”

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