They came to celebrate the past: not the aloof, musty, once-removed yesteryear of textbooks. But the right-here, close-up, living, breathing, gunpowder-smelling, tall-ships and high-seas, upon-my-honor past of novelist Patrick O’Brian.
At the New York Yacht Club, itself a citadel for things venerated, Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley Jr., retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. George W. Emery, and more the 100 of the Eastern Seaboard’s establishment came. At a downtown Barnes & Noble, 350 workaday New Yorkers came, some of them waiting more than two hours. At the New York Public Library, limited seating for 500 sold out far in advance.
They came for the improbable pleasure of honoring a man who has achieved renown in his own era by helping legions of others retreat from it.
Two weeks ago, just shy of his 85th birthday, O’Brian traveled to the U.S. from Ireland upon publication of his 20th volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series of early-1800s British navy seafaring stories. He has been called the most accomplished historical novelist alive, but crowds applauded to thank him for restoring the secret pleasures of escapist serial reading not enjoyed since grade school with the likes of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, although ever more highbrow, of course.
“There flows from the audience very something like reverence,” said Richard F. Snow, editor of American Heritage magazine. “It’s something you don’t see with other authors. It’s what the great novelists do.”
Even great novelists, however, seldom match the commotion that attends O’Brian and his fictional duo, Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. He has sold more than 3 million books. Middle-aged adults who form the core of O’Brian’s readership behave not unlike their star-struck teenage children when it comes to forming Internet chat groups, spawning newsletters, buying CDs of Aubrey and Maturin’s favorite string composers, hosting costume dinners, and serving toasted cheese and other mealtime staples of O’Brian’s fiction.
In the “model room” of the New York Yacht Club, an ornate setting of upthrust stone, stained glass, carved wood and resplendent scale models of sailing vessels, folding chairs were squeezed together from stairway to ladder-way. The audience nodded knowingly as celebrated men stepped forward to read their favorite passages from O’Brian’s works. Each selection seemed to hit a memory, as if the listeners had been present at the scene recounted--a ghastly battle in the Southern Ocean, a flirtatious encounter in the lamplight of a far-off parlor, a moment of grave public injustice rousing the solidarity of seamen.
Patrick Tull, a British-born actor who narrates the series for Recorded Books, made the floor tremble with the thundering voices of ill-tempered old sea admirals and able-bodied reefers, afloat on moody and dangerous oceans long ago.
The only person not straight in his seat was O’Brian, who dozed intermittently.
Cronkite, who hosted O’Brian on a sailboat trip in the Mediterranean last year, deferred his choice of a passage to the author. O’Brian suggested that the former CBS anchorman read an account of a clumsy but engaging romantic interlude involving Maturin and a woman as they went bird-watching in a mangrove swamp in West Africa’s Sierra Leone. In this case, the characters went so far as to disrobe, but only to pluck leeches from each other’s backs.
Tales Popular With Women Too
This selection was a reminder that although O’Brian’s high-seas genre is flavored with red-blooded action, the greater part of his running story is affectionately, and deeply, human. Precisely re-creating period language and perceptions, his story overflows with the mood of life, the nature of friendship and love, and the terms of ambition and politics as occurred at the less bewildering pace before the dawn of machine power. O’Brian’s favorite author is Jane Austen.
Given his turn, O’Brian rose from his leatherback chair and was handed a cordless microphone. In a whispered Irish mumble, he apologized for his unwillingness to make a speech. “My word is the written word, not the spoken.” But he thanked the yacht club for presenting him a plaque. “I dearly love a present,” he said.
“A great publishing phenomenon and a great character himself,” said Starling Lawrence, editor in chief of W.W. Norton & Co., the man who gave O’Brian a second chance in the American market. After an initial issue of early volumes was only marginally successful, Lawrence insisted on trying again 10 years ago because he thought the writing was uncommonly good--never anticipating that stories of tall ships in his majesty’s navy would wage such a spirited war for the hearts of Americans.
Who, for instance, could have guessed that the same people who follow the stock market moment by moment on digital beeper displays would lapse into rhapsody for this new book, “Blue at the Mizzen,” which begins with this sentence:
“The Surprise, lying well out in the channel with Gibraltar half a mile away on her starboard quarter, lying at a single anchor with her head to the freshening north-west breeze, piped all hands at four bells in the afternoon watch; and at the cheerful sound her tender Ringle, detached once more on a private errand for Lord Keith, cheered with the utmost good will, while the Surprises turned out with a wonderful readiness, laughing, beaming and thumping one another on the back in spite of a strong promise of rain and a heavy sea running already.”
A difficult and demanding man, O’Brian is said to relish this celebrity that came to him only in his 70s. But having earned it, he sets his own stern terms. With classic sensibilities, broad education and the bearing of a nobleman, he terrifies even the most veteran interviewers. His admirers understand they are never to approach him except as “Mr. O’Brian” and to avoid inquiry about his personal life.
The latter has always been a touchy subject, made worse two years ago when the British press disclosed that among O’Brian’s engaging fictions were his name, Irish ancestry and Catholic upbringing. Actually, he was raised a Protestant and born in London, although he spent most of his writing life in a one-bedroom stone house in France and has now retired to Dublin. Although those revelations are usually recounted tenderly, they nonetheless disturbed him. He has never chosen to explain.
“He and I have not had a conversation about this, and I don’t think you’d better,” advised his publisher, Lawrence.
Face to face, however, O’Brian proved only about half the ogre of his reputation. In this interview, his smile ranged from kindness to outright devilishness. Clearly, he gave not a fig whether he was taken seriously for anything except his work.
Sitting at a dining table at the New York apartment where he was a guest, his voice so low as to be intermittently inaudible, O’Brian reflected on the writing life.
About being an 18th century man in the 20th century: “It seems to me that just as the 17th century humanists inhabited both worlds, the classical and their own, you can perfectly inhabit two worlds. And if you happen to be a tolerably practicing Catholic, you can occupy a third, and hopefully a fourth.”
About living in the 20th century: “I think I’d rather be in an age when they can operate on an appendicitis rather than leave you die, writhing in the dark. And it’s not altogether disagreeable to me to take a flying machine across the ocean.”
About the period 1800 to 1820, of which he writes: “Extremely dirty, extremely uncomfortable and there was a great deal of avoidable famine. Otherwise, it was delightful. . . . They did build very laudable churches, they painted glorious pictures and they wrote splendid poems.”
About his technique of writing: “May I start at the beginning? I take a blank sheet of paper and I take a pen and I write Page 1. And I go on to about Page 365, and at that point I write, ‘The End.’ ”
O’Brian writes with a Parker fountain pen upon plain typing paper. He counts about 1,000 words on a good day. “That’s not a great lot, but it adds up,” he said.
A Warning to His Editors
About revisions and editing: “Anybody who would try to edit me, I should tell him to go about his business and I’ll find another.”
O’Brian is famous for writing a near flawless first draft, although in handwriting that is “legible to myself alone.” Since the death of his wife, Mary, last year, he has had to retype his draft into manuscript on his own.
About eating: O’Brian is celebrated for his love of fine food and, as a onetime hobbyist vintner, of good wine. But has he dined on the gory food of his novels?
“Not many rats. Not many at all.”
About his legendary determination to present nautical terminology and bygone geography without explanation or glossary: “Ignorance of the cross-cat harpons is not necessarily fatal; explanation of them almost certainly is.”
O’Brian, however, did not utter these words at the moment. He loathes repeating himself. But when reminded that he once was heard to say them in private, he allowed that, yes, they expressed his belief.
O’Brian has traveled to America only a few times, and his publisher believes this trip, to New York only, will be his last. The author confessed to feeling “very near ancient.” Saying he was not feeling well, he canceled his final event of the trip, a scheduled Internet chat with far-flung readers.
But those who saw him on this farewell trip took heart: For a man who lives mostly in his mind, O’Brian’s mind appeared formidably sharp and as curious as ever.
He arrived for a reading at Barnes & Noble’s Union Square bookstore and was greeted with a standing ovation. The author smiled briefly. As he tottered to the podium, however, his attention was held not by his crowd, but by shelves of books along his path. One wondered if he might pause and select one to browse.
Later outside, two men in business suits discussed the author.
“I’ve read every word,” boasted the first. The second man sniffed: “I’ve read the series eight times. I got rid of my TV.”
Who can deny Patrick O’Brian one of the strangest success stories of 1990s America? Book buyers in Los Angeles put the new O’Brian installment at No. 4 on The Times bestseller list. In New York, it was No. 12 and rising.
Perhaps the most welcome news was O’Brian’s announcement that he is halfway through Chapter 3 in Volume 21. Capital, sir, just capital.