Do you remember, in Sappho, the 'deduke men a selenna...' " Patrick O'Brian asks, and then, trance-like, he recites in sing-song Greek a fragment to dignify late-life solitude: "The moon has set and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time goes by, and I lie alone." There is an authenticity to his absorption; the room, in the old cliché, seems to disappear around him. Gone the ever colder piece of swordfish and the watery Martini, very dry. Gone the baffled Spanish waiter, more used, by now, to hearing O'Brian address him in his native tongue. Gone the model boats, the heavy paneled walls, the thick red rug, the stack of O'Brian's books to be signed and left here -- at the New York Yacht Club -- for an evening publicity event. "If that isn't poetry . . . ," he muses before his voice trails off, his gaze returning to its customary angle of polite disengagement.

As it turns out, polite disengagement is the order of the day. We have agreed not to ask O'Brian about aspects of his disputed past -- was he born in Ireland or England? Is he from a family of admirals or the son of a bacteriologist? Was he born Richard Patrick Russ, of mixed German heritage, rather than Irish or Anglo-Irish? How much of his life story is fabrication and if some of it is, why? -- questions that an upcoming biography by Dean King (Holt) promises to address. The truth, whatever it is, is unlikely to matter to the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who buy O'Brian's historical maritime novels each year.The demands of the Aubrey/Maturin series must leave little enough time for the 85-year-old O'Brian to concern himself with the controversy, first raised in the British press. Rather, he is New York City for a week of interviews in support of his latest book, Blue at the Mizzen (Norton), the 20th novel documenting the adventures of ruddy Captain Jack Aubrey and his restrained, ironic ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin. And O'Brian observes that he is already three chapters into his 21st. "I don't think I could rest easy unless I had a book on the go, you know," he says.

The first book of the series, Master and Commander, was commissioned by Lippincott and published in 1970, when O'Brian was 55 years old and already the author of several novels, translations of Simone de Beauvoir and Colette, and a collection of short stories -- none of which had earned him the recognition he hoped for. In Master and Commander, O'Brian introduced Aubrey and Maturin, whose improbable friendship and alliance through the years of the Napoleonic Wars holds up through thousands of pages of O'Brian's meticulously crafted historical prose.

Dr. Maturin is a distinguished man of Irish extraction (as O'Brian has claimed for himself) whose want of funds and lack of attachments lead him to accept Aubrey's offer of a position as surgeon on the Sophie -- the first ship to be commanded by Aubrey, recently risen from the position of Lieutenant in the Royal Navy -- when the men meet in Minorca, in 1800. "I am sure you will like it," Aubrey says of ship life. "For it is amazingly philosophical." Maturin replies, "Certainly. For a philosopher, a student of human nature, what could be better? The subjects of his inquiry shut up together, unable to escape his gaze, their passions heightened by the dangers of war, the hazards of their calling, their isolation from women and their curious, but uniform, diet. And the glow of patriot fervor, no doubt. It is true that for some time I have taken more interest in the cryptograms than in my fellow-men; but even so, a ship must be a most instructive theater for an inquiring mind." Here, as elsewhere, Maturin serves as O'Brian's proxy, winkingly uncovering the novelist's aim and art.

O'Brian and Maturin have much in common -- both are, in addition to being circumspect observers of their fellow men, encyclopedic naturalists and accomplished linguists. But a comparison of Aubrey and O'Brian is equally suggestive, though their similarities may not be as immediately evident. Aubrey -- sometimes "Lucky Jack" in the series -- is fortune's fool. He is headstrong and ambitious, often in the right place at the right time but always extremely anxious about his career (an anxiety that, incidentally, Blue at the Mizzen finally resolves, when Aubrey attains the highest rank in the Admiralty). O'Brian's series, now certain to be printed and reprinted, has attained the publishing equivalent of Aubrey's legitimacy. But the series, which has always enjoyed moderate success in England and in Ireland, did not fare well at first in America, and was discontinued after five books.

In 1989 Starling Lawrence, now the editor-in-chief of Norton, was prompted by a relative to read O'Brian's books. Lawrence persuaded others at Norton that historical fiction was less musty a genre than they thought, and the publisher reissued the series in 1990. "It took careful encouragement," Lawrence remembers. "From the sales manager's point of view, the books were a disaster in the making. We were raising a corpse from the dead. (Now he pretends that he invented O'Brian!) I was subsequently told by sheepish colleagues that Norton had turned the books down twice already."

Slowly at first, and then with greater enthusiasm, critics and the public embraced O'Brian. Lawrence can't entirely explain the delayed reaction. "There was more of a body of work when we brought it back, and somehow the times had changed. I'm not sure whether it was chicken or egg -- whether O'Brian brought historical writing back or whether historical fiction was of more interest, and the reading public was more receptive. Nowadays, everybody is writing historical fiction in a way that they weren't before." A prominent review by Richard Snow in the New York Times Book Review in January 1991 helped. And John Bayley wrote a comprehensive review of O'Brian's historical fiction for the New York Review of Books. However satisfying, and lucrative, it has been for O'Brian to come into his own, he would, he asserts, have "very, very willingly been a quarter as well known when I was in my 20s."

O'Brian's ambition was once to enter the Navy, in the footsteps of numerous relatives, among them admirals, he says, who told him that it was "the only life." Born in Galway, Ireland, in 1914 -- or was it in Buckinghamshire? -- and educated largely in England, illness confined him to bed for much of his youth, allowing him to read "an immense amount -- well, a very considerable amount." He developed a taste for the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, and particularly valued Pope's translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. Along the way, O'Brian picked up a little Irish, and learned Latin and Greek as a matter of course. He also is now fluent in Spanish -- he uses it every day in the "Spanish frontier" town in southern France, where he and his wife, who died several years ago, moved after World War II. Studying in Torino and Milan, he picked up Italian. He learned German during a year in Austria.

O'Brian has a way of guiding conversation through reminiscence. Recalling his inability to master written German, he g s on to say that his Austrian hosts "had lots and lots of land but very little money, and lived in a splendid house, in which the chapel was a true Romanesque. And so we ate a very great deal of venison, you see. They were r deer. And the castle's cook knew only one sauce, and that was bitter chocolate. I can't tell you how disagreeable it was." An ambiguous impulse governs his use of the first-person plural pronoun -- it is at once generous and formal, and possibly nostalgic for some other more comradely or domestic time.

In the Great Tradition
The only thing that reconciles O'Brian to the task of signing books -- to which he attends, ambidextrously, after lunch -- is the thought of Jane Austen. "Had she seen fit to write 'Jane Austen' on the fly page of her books," he says reverently, "Oh, how I should value it! It should give me such pleasure." O'Brian has a collection of many early editions of Austen, all published in her lifetime. Pride and Prejudice is his favorite. "'Do you remember its very opening?" he asks. " ˜It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' She phrases that with extraordinary felicity. And there are many other delightful things that she says in it."

O'Brian remarks that it is Austen's unsuccessful attempt at the epistolary novel that has kept him from trying that form in earnest himself, though Blue at the Mizzen contains lengthy letters from Dr. Maturin, who writes to his would-be wife about his and Aubrey's role in the Chilean War of Independence. O'Brian himself is no great letter-writer. "I find it takes away from my very meager amount of what I can write," he says, "which on a good day doesn't very much exceed 500 or 1000 words" -- longhand, in pen, of course.

In addition to the 20 novels that O'Brian has written over the past 30 years, he has also produced two biographies: one of Picasso, and the other of Joseph Banks, an 18th-century naturalist. He may well try his hand at another, possibly about the Elizabethan poet and playwright Thomas Lodge. "He was a dear man," O'Brian says, "who, by way of a lark, set out with one of Cavendish's buccaneering voyages, which took him into the Straits of Magellan at the wrong time of the year.

"They had a perfectly shocking time of it," he continues, "very many starving to death, and the others eating partially preserved smoked penguins. So he retired from the sea and he translated Josephus, who, as you'll recall, wrote, in Alexandrian Greek, a history of the Jews -- which I have -- and he says with some pride that he wrote the entirety of that book, and it's that thick" -- O'Brian spreads his index finger and his thumb wide apart -- "with one goose quill."

O'Brian's best novel, in his own estimation, has nothing to do with the sea. Testimonies, which was published in 1952, and reprinted by Norton in 1993, is the story of a disenchanted academic who leaves Oxford for the simplicity of Wales and falls chastely in love with a local woman. O'Brian wrote the book when he was "comparatively young -- that is to say, I was less aged than I am now," after living for a time in North Wales. He remembers clearly the night that he finished writing it, in a little house in rural France. "I was writing very hard that evening, and at three in the morning I went like so on my desk," he says, folding himself over his elbows in an exhausted swoon. "When I knew it was done I had the feeling of achievement and loss simultaneously." Delmore Schwartz wrote of Testimonies in the Partisan Review -- in an essay that also considered, unfavorably, new novels by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Waugh and Angus Wilson -- that it "makes one think of a great ballad or a Biblical story." Schwartz went on to observe, "the book is remarkable enough for a beauty and exactness of phrasing and rhythm... but the reader soon forgets the style as such -- a forgetting which is the greatest accomplishment of prose -- in the enchantment and vividness of the story." Schwartz was, O'Brian said, the first person in America to write seriously about his work.

There is a poignance to this. To allow that the Aubrey/Maturin series, for all its commercial success, has kept him from writing novels more like Testimonies would be, he says, with tart melancholy, a confession of failure. "Testimonies was immediately connected with the present life," he explains. "The others are connected with a potential life that has been led, and in a period that is done. I'm not writing about the world, the modern world, at all. I don't know enough about the modern world. I can't. I've lived right outside it. I do know a lot about the world that I write about at present -- very, very much more than I knew about the world I was writing about when I wrote Testimonies." He sets himself to signing yet another copy of Blue at the Mizzen, presumably still preoccupied by the thought of Testimonies and Delmore Schwartz. "O dear O dear! Patty O'Delmore! What a slave one's hand is." He picks up the next book, and looks up, delighted. "I nearly wrote 'Picasso!' "

We do not ask O'Brian if he ever nearly signs his name "Richard Patrick Russ."