cover image Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

Dean King. Henry Holt & Company, $27.5 (488pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5976-2

After navigating the bestselling Aubrey-Maturin novels' far-flung geography and obscure terminology (in Harbors and High Seas, etc.), King discovered in 1997 that the reclusive O'Brian had invented his own life story as well as his characters'--beginning with changing his name from Richard Patrick Russ and concocting a patrician Irish-Catholic lineage. King's biography, though sometimes patchy, portrays a complex, unhappy family history, a multifarious artistic career and a flawed, indomitable personality. Born in England into the large family of a bankrupt doctor of German origin, the sickly Richard (known as ""Pat"") began writing boys' adventure stories when only a boy himself. This early literary phase was halted by WWII, during which O'Brian worked in the Foreign Office's shadowy Political Intelligence Division, where he met Mary Wicksteed Tolstoy. After the war, they divorced their spouses and married, O'Brian legally changing his name from Russ. Although his subsequent serious fiction was well received, the O'Brians lived in obscurity, at times near poverty, in Wales and southern France, while O'Brian translated Simone de Beauvoir and lesser writers to get by. King's retelling of the origin of Master and Commander and the following 19 Aubrey-Maturin novels depicts how O'Brian transformed an editor's idea for a C. S. Forester replacement into a genre-busting sea-going roman-fleuve. The glimpses into O'Brian's personal life that King salvages from the author's secrecy include estrangement from his surviving siblings and his son from his first marriage. Steering just clear of judging O'Brian's shortcomings, King's charting of this stormy life makes it clear that O'Brian (who died earlier this year at 85) saved his best for his beloved Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. (Apr.)