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Patrick O'Brian : A Life Revealed

de Dean King

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This is a biography of Patrick O'Brian, a reclusive writer whose greatest fictional creation was his own identity. It traces his persona created from his imagination, and refined by decades of rumour and speculation, drawing on interviews with relatives, friends, and colleagues.
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    thorold: Is there something about the sea that makes authors re-invent their own backgrounds?
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Dean King's subtitle, "A Life Revealed," accurately describes this biography of Patrick O'Brian, notoriously secretive author of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. King begins with O'Brian's grandfather in order to set up the family conflict that shaped O'Brian's personal life, leading O'Brian to change his name from Patrick Russ and to reinvent his backstory following World War II. This same drama later shaped much of O'Brian's writing, where his fiction offered him the chance to portray relationships as he thought they should be, rather than how they occurred in his life. Even though O'Brian felt that a reader need not know about the author in order to enjoy a book, King's research demonstrates how O'Brian's own interests, to say nothing of his personal life, informed his writing, from language and life in the nineteenth century to the pursuits of naturalists. Though The Daily Telegraph had already exposed part of O'Brian's background prior to his death, King's work goes further and will likely compete with Nikolai Tolstoy's (O'Brian's stepson) biography of O'Brian for position as the definitive biography for years to come. King admits that he wrote it while encountering "gaps and deliberate misinformation," but he sorted out the conflicting narratives, trusting verifiable sources first and O'Brian's testimony when it matched (p. xviii). The truth of the author's history likely lies somewhere in between the two biographies. From a purely ethical standpoint, O'Brian would almost certainly have objected to the publication of this book (even though he had written a similar volume about Picasso), but it does offer valuable context that will enable readers to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for his work, not only because they will better see the influence of the author's life, but also because they will know how he believed in his writing even when others did not. Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed will appeal to the most ardent Aubrey-Maturin fans or those interested in literary history. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Aug 28, 2016 |
The Amazon review quoted below describes Patrick O'Brian as having had an "impressive yet appalling life" - that turns out to be a rather apt way to sum up this biography too. Dean King has evidently done a lot of painstaking research to piece together the facts of O'Brian's life. Unfortunately, when it comes to communicating the results of his research, King displays his weakness both as a writer and as a scholar. The text is littered with mixed metaphors, clichés, and rambling sentences that go nowhere. These infelicities of style could have been removed by proper editing, and are probably just the result of rushing the book out as soon as possible after O'Brian's death was announced. However, there's no excuse for not including proper references for facts. Even direct quotations in the book are only identified sporadically and imprecisely.

Like alcohol, a good biography can make a dull person seem interesting. Reading this one is for the most part like watching someone else get drunk: it makes a person who in principle should be interesting seem dull. That's possibly a built-in problem of literary biography: authors are not necessarily as interesting in life as in their works, and few biographers can write as well as their subjects did. O'Brian certainly didn't make things easy for his biographer, either. He did his best to cover up his background, and often fed false information about his past to friends and reporters. Moreover, he was evidently a rather private person, who liked to live off the beaten track and avoid the literary world, so we don't get much in the way of juicy anecdotes about great writers here.

King stresses the importance of O'Brian's name-change by staging a low-budget TV-documentary-style reconstruction of his walk to the solicitor's office in a prologue chapter. (This cringeworthy passage in itself should be enough to discourage all but the most determined PO'Bers from attempting to read this book.) The name-change is clearly very important to King. Why should someone who already has an established reputation under one name start again from zero with another? And why adopt a new name for everyday life rather than simply using a nom-de-plume? It may well be that King was writing too close to the events to be able to step back and give us a clear account of this: certainly the writer's brothers and sisters never made sense of it, and we don't emerge much the wiser either. Was it resentment at his father's second marriage? Was it guilt about his own desertion of his first wife and children? Did it come from his war service? Or was it just a romantic desire to be someone different? In the end, King doesn't really manage to persuade us that it matters to us, as readers of O'Brian's books, where the author was born. He was a novelist, after all: someone whom we pay to tell lies to us. Why should we care if the bio on the book jacket was not strictly true? It's what's inside the book that matters.

It is odd that, whilst paying so much attention to O'Brian's choice of name, King is rather casual about the names of some of the other people he mentions in the text. Stevie Smith, for example, reviewing one of O'Brian's early books, has her name rather quaintly described as "a pseudonym for the English poet and novelist Florence Margaret Smith". It's a bit exaggerated to call "Stevie" a pseudonym - it was more of a joky nickname that stuck, and seems to have been what everyone outside her immediate family called her. She certainly didn't use the name to conceal who she was: her family background, job, and personal circumstances were all very much on display in her work. On the other hand, when discussing Mary Renault, King never mentions that "Renault" was a pen-name, which she used, as many writers do, to separate her literary and professional identities (her nursing career might have been prejudiced if people had known she was a novelist).

Having said all that, one thing that does shine through this book is King's enthusiasm for O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. When he is talking about these books, his comments are frequently apt and perceptive. He doesn't tell us anything especially new about them, but his very knowledgeable account does make it easier to get an overall perspective on the series. I was left with the feeling that I should re-read O'Brian's novels. On the other hand, I re-read the Aubrey-Maturin cycle every two or three years anyway, so maybe I didn't gain that much from King's book apart from a few more facts about the author...

POSTSCRIPT (2011)
Since writing the above, I've read the rival biography by O'Brian's stepson Nikolai Tolstoy, which contradicts just about every "fact" in King. I've made some comments on how the two relate in my review of Tolstoy's book, but the main conclusion is that this is one case where you should read either both or neither if you want a balanced picture of the subject. ( )
2 vota thorold | Nov 9, 2009 |
Biography of Patrick O'Brien - first ever of this famous secretive man
  littleship | Mar 6, 2009 |
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This is a biography of Patrick O'Brian, a reclusive writer whose greatest fictional creation was his own identity. It traces his persona created from his imagination, and refined by decades of rumour and speculation, drawing on interviews with relatives, friends, and colleagues.

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