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Patrick O'Brian died suddenly in a hotel room in Dublin, January 2, 2000.  There are extracts below from the obits.

The cover artist's drawing of the Surprise in mourning.

Dean King biography of POB
is now out and reviewed in the New York Times.

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The Patrick O'Brian Novels

Patrick O'Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin Series of twenty novels (Norton, 1970-1999).  My appreciation written for WIRED magazine:

"I re-read this extraordinary series of novels because of the depth of portrayal of the major and minor characters, but also because they teach me so much about what science and technology were like two centuries ago. O'Brian shows you the world-that-was through the eyes of a Tory naval captain (Jack Aubrey), at sea since the age of 12, working his way up to admiral, dealing with the height of 18th-century technology (sailing ships and celestial navigation).  I identify more strongly with his liberally-educated, physician-scientist friend (Stephen Maturin), who went to medical school in Paris during the French Revolution. You see natural history turning into a biological science, bleeding-and-purging medicine starting to learn some physiology -- and, because Maturin is also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, you see statecraft at work during the Napoleonic Wars. These books strongly remind you about what scientific ignorance and social conventions can do to your mindset, and how the future will likely judge us as well." -- William H. Calvin

You can get them all at once, so you can:  The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Series (20 volumes).  Depending on amazon.com's current discount, this works out to US$15-20 each (and in hardcover).

If you're not ready for that yet, here they are, in order, complete with amazon.com links (Green is the softcover link, if there is one; the other is the abridged audiotape for the commute).  There are also tape rentals from Booksontape.com:

 1. Master and Commander      Audiotape
 2. Post Captain                       Audiotape
 3. H.M.S. Surprise                 Audiotape 
 4. The Mauritus Command     Audiotape
 5. Desolation Island               Audiotape
 6. The Fortune of War          Audiotape
 7. The Surgeon's Mate
 8. The Ionian Mission
 9. Treason's Harbour
10. The Far Side of the World
11. The Reverse of the Medal
12. The Letter of Marque
13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute
14. The Nutmeg of Consolation
15. The Truelove (AKA Clarissa Oakes in the UK)
16. The Wine-Dark Sea      Audiotape
17. The Commodore          Audiotape
18. The Yellow Admiral      Audiotape (Roger Rees)   Audiotape (eight 90')
19. The Hundred Days in softcover and in large print.
20. Blue at the Mizzen (paperback), Audio Cassette (Abridged), Audio Cassette (Unabridged), Audio CD (Unabridged), Large Print.
21. POB was interviewed on NPR on November 17, 1999, and stated that book #21 was in progress. POB died January 2, 2000.

Want them in "one fell sloop"? The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Series (20 volumes) will allow you to make your friends happy, giving away your existing softcover editions. Remember that you'll want to re-read them all (I've read the series a half-dozen times -- like Joyce, they're very rich -- and the playwright David Mamet admits to "three or four times").

Because they are so often summarized as involving sea-borne warfare, let me give an example for those vary of "sea stories."  Jack is speaking:

'[London Bach] wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young man has set up on his own, having inherited his master's music-library. We searched through the papers - such a disorder you would hardly credit, and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees - we searched for hours, and no uncle's pieces did we find.  But the whole point is this: Bach had a father.'

`Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem to have known other men in much the same case.'

`And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.'

`A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?'

`I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great Passion according to St Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well, and I brought away several pieces, 'cello for you, fiddle for me, and some for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear it played really well - to hear Viotti dashing away.'

Stephen studied the 'cello suite in his hand, booming and humming sotto voce. `Tweedly-tweedly, tweedly tweedly, deedly deedly pom pompom. Oh, this would call for the delicate hand of the world,'  he said. `Otherwise it would sound like boors dancing. Oh, the double-stopping . . . and how to bow it?'

`Shall we make an attempt upon the D minor double sonata?' said Jack, `and knit up the ravelled sleeve of care with sore labour's bath?'

`By all means,' said Stephen. `A better way of dealing with a sleeve cannot be imagined.' 

Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen's departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it.  The opening movements were full off technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything  like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely-argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.

During a pause in his evening letter Jack thought of telling Sophie of a notion that had come to him, a figure that might make the nature of the chaconne more understandable: it was as though he were fox-hunting, mounted on a powerful, spirited horse, and as though on leaping a bank, perfectly in hand, the animal changed foot.  And with the change of foot came a change in its being so that it was no longer a horse he was sitting on but a great rough beast, far more powerful, that was swarming along at great speed over an unknown countryside in pursuit of a quarry - what quarry he could not tell, but it was no longer the simple fox.  But it would be a difficult notion to express, he decided; and in any case Sophie did not really care much for music, while she positively disliked horses. On the other hand she dearly loved a play, so he told her about.... [from pp.47-48, 154-155 of The Ionian Mission).

There are two Patrick O'Brian novels which were "warm-up exercises" for the series (you can spot antecedents to the Aubrey and Maturin characters):

-2. The Golden Ocean
-1. The Unknown Shore Audiotape
And there are two early novels, Caesar and Hussein, from the 1930s, just republished by the British Library.

Danny Yee has an excellent appreciation of the series. A sample:
"The series as a whole encompasses too much to be more than hinted at: battles of all kinds, both against the enemy and against storms, ice, calms, and all the other perils of life afloat; journeys around the world and stopovers in ports on every continent, from New York to Bombay, from Freetown to Port Jackson; romantic entanglements and marriages (and Aubrey's Sophie and Maturin's Diana are worlds in themselves); delicate diplomatic missions and cloak and dagger skullduggery; medical problems and excursions in natural history (Maturin is forever being torn from investigation of taxonomic wonders by the exigencies of naval service); engagements with the often mysterious workings of politics and the law; and a wealth of memorable minor characters, some who appear just once and others who reappear regularly."

And, just as James Joyce inspired a number of books that undertook to explain allusions in his books (I was fortunate enough to have a classics major for a roommate when reading Joyce for the first time), so too have the vocabulary, geography, and recipes in the Patrick O'Brian novels. If you don't have a tall-ship sailor or historian on call, consider the following supplements to your OED:  
  The New York Times has a page of links to their  feature stories and POB book reviews.  The publisher maintains a list of POB websites. You can get those non-English phrases translated, and there's even a web reference site that will help you recall which novel it was in which Stephen cried, "Jack, you have debauched my sloth!"  Or Jack, trying humor on the admiral, mangled the metaphor into "one fell sloop."

Patrick O'Brian

The only surprises in the New York Times obit are:

"O'Brian was something of a recluse. Interviewers were warned away from personal questions, and while he was a paragon of politeness and 18th-century courtliness, he never hesitated to cut short any conversation he felt was edging toward his private life. Interviews were granted rarely and only on the understanding that his hometown, Collioure, would not be disclosed.

The residents of Collioure, a fishing village [in French Catalonia not far from the Spanish border] turned tourist destination, respected his privacy and protected him from the occasional visitor who came to the Roussillon coast to find him. "They say they've never heard of me," he said, "or that I've moved away."

In fact, Patrick O'Brian had his reasons for being an unusually private person. On those occasions when he chose to speak about his life, he claimed that had been born in Galway and grew up a Roman Catholic in genteel circumstances. He had been a sickly child, he said, and was educated mostly at home. A voracious reader, he eventually mastered French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan. He knew some Irish, he said, and read easily in Latin.

After serving as an ambulance driver in London during World War II and serving in some unspecified branch of military intelligence, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Wales. "Dear people, splendid mountains, but a terrible climate," he said. So, in 1949, they came to Collioure, and they stayed.

Or so he said.

Beginning in 1998, British journalists began to unravel the O'Brian saga. He was not Irish, as it turned out, and not a Catholic. He was born in London and his name was Richard Patrick Russ. He was the son of an English mother and a physician of German descent.  Most literary critics defended him, however, saying that it is a writer's privilege to take whatever persona he chooses."

The Seattle Times obit seems to have a few more facts:

Mr. O'Brian was a literary phenomenon and a very private man....  In an interview with The Seattle Times, Mr. O'Brian said of Aubrey and Maturin: "Likings arise when one has no unearthly reason for liking - the most wildly improbable marriages and uncommon friendships. By making them opposites, I can say what I want of a sociological, and not to sound too pompous, of a philosophical nature."

Friends of the author said he remained true to the sea until the end, asking that his body be shipped from Ireland to the coast of French Catalonia. Though Mr. O'Brian had been in poor health recently, King, author of a biography-in-progress, said the author had been working on the next book in the series.

Apropos the biography, we learn at NYU  that:

Writer Dean King has researched O'Brian's past and confirms other reports that O'Brian was born in a village outside of London (and not in Ireland as O'Brian claims) under the name of Richard Patrick Russ, and that he authored several early books under the name Patrick Russ. (New York Magazine, Nov. 16, 1998, pp. 37-39). Dean is writing a biography of O'Brian to be published by Henry Holt.

There is also an obit and some discussion over at www.salon.com.  Examples:

O'Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1914. His father was a venereologist [physician specializing in VD]  and his grandfather a German furrier. His birth year, the start of World War I, may have been one reason why he didn't want to advertise his German ancestry too much -- after all, even the British Royal family changed its name from Battenberg to Mountbatten at that time to hide its Teutonic antecedents. The family was prone to feuds, and O'Brian eventually broke off relations with his siblings, as indeed later he did with his own son.

During World War II he left his wife and two children to move in with the wife of Count Nikolai Tolstoy. Both were involved in British secret service activities. At the end of the war he changed his name by deed poll to Patrick O'Brian and married the now ex-countess. They lived first in Wales and then moved to the south of France where for many years he was a diligent, well-reviewed but poorly bought author and translator.

... his notorious reluctance to give interviews, or at least to give any accurate information in them, broke down only in the last years of his life after his wife died in 1998, which is when his Irish Catholic persona was peeled away by investigating journalists. Far from detracting from his reputation, the mystery of the practical joke he played on decades of reviewers and interviewers is more likely to enhance interest in his life and work...

Ian Williams is the United Nations correspondent for the Nation.

The playwright David Mamet has an appreciation of  POB in the NY Times:

The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius

For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O'Brian....

Recently I put down O'Brian's sea novel "The Ionian Mission" and said to my wife, "This fellow has created characters and stories that are part of my life."

She said: "Write him a letter. He's in his 80's. Write him and thank him. And when you go to England, look him up, go tell him.

"How wonderful," she said, "to be alive, when he is still alive. Imagine living in the 1890's and being able to converse with Conan Doyle."...

Well, I saw myself talking with Patrick O'Brian. "Sir," I would have said, "what a blow, the death of Barret Bonden." (Bonden, the coxswain, half-carries the wounded Captain Aubrey from the deck of a sinking privateer: "We'd best get back to the barky, sir, as this ship's going to Kingdom Come," the closing sentence of the novel.)

"Sir," I would have said, "I've read your Aubrey-Maturin series three or four times. When I was young I scoffed at stories of the Victorians who lived for the next issue of the Strand and the next tale of Sherlock Holmes; and I scoffed at the grown women and men who plagued Conan Doyle to rescind Holmes's death at the Reichenbach Falls. But I am blessed in having, in my generation, an equally thrilling set of heroes, and your characters have become a part of my life.

"Your minor characters," I would have said, "are especially dear to me: the mad Awkward Davis; Mrs. Fielding, the inexpert spy; old Mr. Herapath, the cowardly Boston loyalist; Christy-Palliere, the gallant French sea captain; and, of course, Barret Bonden, Captain Aubrey's coxswain." And I will not say I cried at his death, but I will not say I did not....

The perfect medium for such, of course, is not the meeting, but the concise note.

So I sat at the breakfast table composing my note, and leafed through the newspaper and read of Patrick O'Brian's death.

Geoff Hunt, the cover artist for the POB series, writes:

May I contribute to the general mourning this little drawing of the "dear Surprise". Captain Aubrey, sailing his ship somewhere in the Elysian Seas, has anchored awhile to salute his creator. In the prescribed navy manner, the yards are hoisted cockbilled, the flags and pennants droop at half-mast; cannon boom out the salute, while on board, perhaps, the hands are mustered, black is the colour of the day, swords are reversed, and maybe the Dead March is played. It will not last long. There will be another tide to catch, another wind to profit by; she will not lose a minute. The man may be gone, but Surprise and her well-known crew will sail on forever in our hearts.



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