Patrick O'Brian

I find it difficult to express, without hyperbole, my opinion of Patrick O'Brian's writing. Here are some critical remarks that I agree with.

Patrick O'Brian has shown us that in our literary silver age, authentic gold can still be mined... He is a man whose books you would dare to give Sterne, whose conversation would have delighted Coleridge. It is his misfortune, but our great good luck, that he is our contemporary, and not theirs. --- William Waldegrave, Daily Telegraph.

But in the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power: the fretful play of mood that can irrationally darken the edges of the brightest triumph, and can feed a trickle of merriment into the midst of terror and tragedy.... I continue to believe [these are] the best historical novels ever written. --- Richard Snow, New York Times Book Review, 1991

And, from a review by Katherine A. Powers in the July 1995 Atlantic Monthly,

The books, set chiefly at sea from 1800 to 1814, combine comedies of manners, moral tales, and stories of naval domesticity, technology, and war. [...] The best historical novelists have bridged the gap of time and made a bygone reality accessible by bringing, without obvious anachronism, the insights of the present to bear upon the past. Patrick O'Brian is sui generis . Unlike any other writer of historical novels, he truly belongs to the era in which the majority of his works are set. [...] O'Brian's writing builds a bridge between the centuries that starts, it really seems, at the distant shore, projecting the understandings of the eighteenth century into the twentieth. [...] His language transcends pastiche, even style ---O'Brian himself employs the expression ``prose rhythm'' to describe it. Prose rhythm, he says, lies at the heart of writing. It is an individual cadence, a thing quite different from style. [...] One does not get many pages into the Aubrey-Maturin sequence before falling under the spell of O'Brian's prose, which is coiling and uncoiling, spare, elegantly paced, quietly witty, punctuated by colons at every turn.

The rest of the review is also quite pleasant to read, by the way, but I think that's enough to give the general idea. One thing I should make clear, though, is that in addition to being superb literature (quite spoiling my taste for lesser works) , the Aubrey-Maturin novels are also exciting , and as un-put-downable as any thriller.

I have read:

The Aubrey-Maturin Novels:

  1. Master and Commander
  2. Post Captain
  3. HMS Surprise (perhaps my favourite)
  4. The Mauritius Command
  5. Desolation Island (well, maybe this one is my favourite)
  6. The Fortune of War
  7. The Surgeon's Mate
  8. The Ionian Mission
  9. Treason's Harbour
  10. The Far Side of the World (well, maybe this one)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (or this one)
  12. The Letter of Marque
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (ok, maybe this one)
  15. Clarissa Oakes (also published under the title ``The Truelove'')
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (I read this one first, by the way)
  17. The Commodore
  18. The Yellow Admiral
  19. The Hundred Days ( Don't read the jacket cover---it contains a nasty spoiler)

Perhaps there will be more.

Short Stories:

There are many repetitions in those collections---Peleg appears in all of them, by the way. I find that that particular story works very well when read aloud (funny that we usually only do that for children nowadays, but Sumaya enjoyed it, my mother and father enjoyed it, and my friend David Jeffrey enjoyed it; and I certainly love to read it).

Many of the short stories are dark, and all are powerful and subtle. I'm pretty sure that some of them have more effect than can be accounted for by a simple model of the reader's consciousness...

Miscellaneous Novels:

The EARLIEST Book: A Book of Voyages edited by Mr. O'Brian, this is an absolute gem of a collection. It contains (actual) 16th, 17th, and 18th century reports of travels, ranging from the horrifying to the utterly charming. This book is present in somewhat decayed condition in our library; of course it is out of print, but one hopes it will come back in print as I am desperate to own a copy.

Biographies:

I have discovered from these last two that reading a biography because of the author is a very good thing to do; I had no interest in Picasso (shock, horror) and had barely heard of Banks before reading these books; I have since seen and loved the Musee Picasso in Antibes (France) and the Picasso works on exhibit at the Tate Gallery, and the biography of Banks has changed the way I look at science. I am now reading "The Quest for Longtitude" which is the proceedings of the (recent) Longtitude Conference, and enjoying it very much. I would never have looked at it before.

Translations: Mr. O'Brian has translated some modern novels, including at least three by Simone de Beauvoir, from the French; I have not yet read any, but I look forward to it. He has also translated volume 1 of Jean Lacouture's De Gaulle, which I am currently trying to acquire.


There are facilities for ordering these books directly from Norton Publishing. See The Patrick O'Brian Page. In the meantime if you have comments about Patrick O'Brian that you think I simply must hear, or if you have suggestions for other authors (e.g. Sam Llewellen maybe as Helen Verrall has mentioned to me) please e-mail me at Rob.Corless@uwo.ca.