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Question and answer is not a civilised form of conversation.

--Stephen Maturin

As Dean King points out, the above is just one instance where the secretive doctor might well be speaking for his creator. King had been a fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin tales and wrote a terrific dictionary of the terms used in the series, Sea of Words, before undertaking a biography. But, in the midst of his project, world leaked out that not only was the author not born with the name he wrote under but was not the Irishman he had long claimed to be. In fact, he had published a number of well received books under his birth name, Richard Russ,and been married with two children--one with a disability--before running off with the ex-wife of Count Dmitri Tolstoy, making him the step-father of the novelist Nikolai Tolstoy, a distant relation of Leo. Nor were a name and a nuclear family all he left behind. It emerged that Russ was the 8th of nine children of a mother who died when he was quite young and an itinerant doctor father with some queer notions about how to cure venereal diseases and a series on quack inventions to match.

One might have expected Mr. King to rejoice in these scandalous revelations and the grist they offered to the biographical mill. Instead, they are incorporated into a text which makes the convincing argument that the heroes of his great fiction cycle frequently reflected aspects of his own character, often speaking on his behalf, and that they and other characters sometimes stood in for other relations. Thus, fathers come off particularly badly in the books, especially Aubrey's. But Maturin's fascination with various devices, gimmicks and dubious cures seems a gentler invocation of Dr. Charles Russ.

Mr. King does not shy away from O'Brian's convoluted personal background and inconsiderate or even destructive behavior, as what biographer could, but nor does he dwell on it. He is much more interested in the process by which O'Brian was making himself a writer. He offers histories and critical reading of the early novels--like Caesar, Hussein and The Catalans--and of the short stories and story collections that were generally well received by critics. Later, even after the Aubrey/Maturin books had begun, he describes O'Brian's work as a biographer--of Picasso and Joseph Banks--and a translator--he did the British version of Papillon! But the focus tightens when, towards the end of the fifties, O'Brian began to write sea stories--The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore--with characters who foreshadow Aubrey and Maturin. Then his pace really quickens when the series begins, with Master and Commander in 1969. The next nineteen books of the series were produced in a feverish thirty year spate, quite late in O'Brian's life, and Mr. King speeds along at a similar clip.

Fans of the books will be enchanted by the scene in which O'Brian sketches out the plots of a whole handful of future volumes and the ones where he acquires first editions of Jane Austen novels, an author he's often compared to and whom he much loved. If he was not in his early life the man we would have liked him to be, he is by this latter stage the very vision of the author we hoped for. Moreover, his second marriage was marked by great devotion and happiness and Mr. O'Brian appears to have had a gift for befriending other authors and those who championed his work at various publishing houses before it achieved critical mass and became a best-selling phenomenon.

No matter his achievements as an author, we can not excuse the ruthlessness with which Mr. O'Brian treated family members. But when we consider the man in full, as he emerges in these pages, we can fold the mistakes he made into the totality of his life and while they are blemishes, they stand out precisely because he was not otherwise a bad guy. Mr. King is undeniably a fan of the man and he may have cooked the books a bit here, but one would be hard pressed to dispute his assessment of Mr. O'Brian's stature as an author and would have to be rather judgmental to argue that he should be defined by the broken family he left in his wake. He was complex, flawed and fascinating, which makes for exceptional biography fodder. Dean King has given us a book to match the man.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Dean King Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Dean H. King
    -AUTHOR SITE: Dean King (Open Road Media)
    -The Patrick O'Brian Compendium© : The Works of Dean H. King
    -WIKIPEDIA: Dean King
    -TWITTER FEED: Dean King
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed by Dean King
    -ESSAY: IN THE LAND OF THE HUMAN-SUCKING BOGS: Retracing Mao Zedong's epic 1934 Long March through China's Great Snowy Mountains, DEAN KING gains a new respect for the few who survived—and discovers a rugged wilderness ripe for modern adventure. (Dean King, 3/15/10, Outside)
    -ESSAY: THE LODGE REPORT (DEAN KING, 6/01/02, Outside)
    -PHOTO ESSAY: HIKING SICHUAN GALLERY: Photos retracing Mao Zedong's epic 1934 long march through China's great snowy mountains.(Outside, 3/04/10)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A: Saharan Survival: Reading one of the greatest survival stories ever told is one thing. Recreating a trek through the brutal Western Sahara yourself is something else entirely. Here, what drove author Dean King into the desert and what he found (brace yourselves) once he got there. (Mark Kirby, National Geographic)
    -INTERVIEW: Author Dean King ~ Interviewed (Novel Rocket, 7/09/10)
-PROFILE: Dean of Letters: Though he often finds himself traveling to the far side of the world when researching a book, Richmond author Dean King remains devoted to nurturing the literary community of his hometown. (RICHARD FOSTER, May 2010, Richmond Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Tall Tales from the Sea: C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian (Jeet Heer, November 13, 2003, National Post)
    -ARCHIVES: Dean King (Outside)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed by Dean King (Scott Veale, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (John Derbyshire, National Post)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Ian Williams, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed (Anthony Gary Brown, AGB Fine Books)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Jan Morris, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (James Conaway, Outside)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Cape Cod History)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Steve Meacham, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Christopher Hitchens, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Carol Standish, Maine Harbors)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Michael McCarthy, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (Book Browse)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian (OceanNavigator)
    -REVIEW: of Dean King's A SEA OF WORDS (Dennis D. McDonald)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Unbound : A True Story of War, Love, and Survival by Dean King (Aaron Leonard, HNN)
    -REVIEW: of

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