As some readers here may know, I am a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of seafaring novels. When I was in college, my father introduced me to them, and after one false start (it took me two tries to read Master and Commander) I was hooked. Every time I find out that an author I like reads Patrick O’Brian, I like that author a little more, because it’s a kinship (Stephen King, A.S. Byatt, David Mamet); I recommend O’Brian to everyone I can. By now, I’ve read the entire series of 21 novels three times, including once on audiobook, read by the inimitable Patrick Tull, and I wouldn’t rule out reading them again and again. They are witty, poignant, exciting, and deeply immersed in history; and they are, taken as a whole, one of the greatest portraits of male friendship I’ve ever read.
I started reading Patrick O’Brian: The Making of the Novelist knowing that there had been some controversy about his life. To be honest — and this may just be professional deformation — I don’t care much what sort of life an author has led. This is not to say that I am not interested in biography — on the contrary. I think biography and historical context are some of the best ways we can understand a work, what produced it, and why it looks the way it looks in a certain time and place. Rather, what I mean is that I don’t mind if an author has been unpleasant or even horrible: a drunk, or sexist or racist, or an adulterer or a murderer, or a collaborator with the Nazis. I want to know those things, because it helps me understand what’s going on with the work, but it doesn’t gross me out or spoil my opinion of the work. In my view, if we only read works by nice people, I would not need nearly so many bookshelves. So I was perfectly happy to read about an imperfect O’Brian.
Nikolai Tolstoy is O’Brian’s stepson. He wrote this biography partly because he inherited some of O’Brian’s papers on the author’s death, and partly because he felt that the other biography that was out (Dean King’s Patrick O’Brian, A Life Revealed) had a great many inaccuracies. Unfortunately, Tolstoy’s biography, which he says is meant to be a more accurate and balanced account of his stepfather’s life (particularly with respect to his childhood and first marriage), is dreadful. It’s disorganized and digressive. It’s by turns sycophantic and excoriating. It’s got horrible source problems, and because of that it’s imaginative rather than factual. It makes excuses where none should be needed, and doesn’t excuse where O’Brian’s behavior was the most unpleasant. And worst of all — I flinch even saying this — it is over 500 pages long, and it is only the first volume.
Tolstoy reveals fairly early on that despite having lived with O’Brian and his second wife (Tolstoy’s mother) for years, and despite the inherited papers, he knows extremely little about O’Brian’s childhood. This is not exactly Tolstoy’s fault; O’Brian was an intensely, almost viciously private person who turned off personal questions with the “reptilian glare” that lovers of Stephen Maturin will be familiar with, and who burned all evidence of his past. However, instead of relying on the pieces of factual evidence he does have, Tolstoy takes short stories and novels O’Brian wrote, states that they are probably very similar to things he did when he was young, and then does entire chapters of close reading of them, analyzing them for O’Brian’s youthful actions, feelings, and indiscretions. This biographical procedure is so ghastly I can’t even go on.
The rest of the problems are not equal to the absolute invention of a past, but they are bad, very bad. Tolstoy rambles, inserting himself into the narrative every chance he gets. He’s a terrible snob (though he makes O’Brian sound much worse) and his long comparisons of one sort of school with another, despite O’Brian’s almost total lack of formal schooling, are weirdly out of place. He makes the point over and over again that O’Brian hated children with a disgust that amounted almost to phobia, and that’s probably why he left his first wife and children, but he doesn’t even mention the date when O’Brian’s daughter died. It’s a piece of carelessness that is unfocused and heartless. There are dozens and dozens more problems. And frankly, after all this, when I realized I’d read 500 pages and we hadn’t even gotten to the writing of the first Aubrey-Maturin book, I nearly howled. I doubt that the second volume will ever be written — Tolstoy is over eighty years old and it’s been eleven years since this biography came out — but if it ever does, I’m not reading it.
Again, I don’t have a problem with O’Brian’s life. He was who he was, and he wrote the books I adore. It’s the biography that’s a stinker. Stay away! But read, do, do please read the wonderful roman-fleuve O’Brian wrote. You’ll never regret giving it a chance.