Thursday, 22 December 2011

Patrick O'Brian interview: The man behind Aubrey-Maturin

You should never meet your heroes
For fans of Patrick O’Brian and his Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian's interview with Walter Cronkite should be of profound interest. Not because the late great author spoke candidly; you get the sense that O’Brian seldom, if ever, did that, to anyone but perhaps his closest friends. He rarely gave interviews. You won’t learn a great deal more about the novels by listening to the exchange with Cronkite, but you can gain insight into the man himself. Unfortunately, the lingering impression it leaves of my favourite author is not really the pleasant one I’d wanted it to be.
The Cronkite interview was given on November 15, 1999 – a mere 48 days before O’Brian's death in Dublin on January 2, 2000 – to drive his publisher’s sales of what would be the final completed instalment of the Aubreyad, Blue at the Mizzen. By that time, details of O’Brian’s closely-guarded private life had been published in the media: he was English rather than Irish; during WWII he abandoned his first wife, Elizabeth, leaving behind two children, one of which was severely disabled and dying of spina-bifida; he divorced and changed his name to Patrick O’Brian before marrying his second wife, Russian aristocrat Mary Tolstoy; and he had been a published author of several books before the war, writing in the 1930s under his birth name of Richard Patrick Russ.
Commentators often remark on O’Brian’s obsessive privacy, living a sheltered existence in the little Mediterranean village of Collioure in French Catalonia. I would say that the author’s own other-worldliness comes across in his character’s style of speech (straight out of Jane Austen), and the often commented on “total immersion” effect, passed on to the reader, within the nautical world of Nelson’s Royal Navy.
O’Brian once wrote: "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene."
The world can be a cruel place, and the joy of a good book can be a great comfort in the spells when real life events seem to be set against us. The Aubrey-Maturin novels are escapism at its finest. O’Brian also lived in a bubble of his own, running and hiding from his past mistakes, inventing a character for himself, and waging an unsuccessful battle to keep his personal life private, once Master & Commander gained him a cult following, and his fame began to spread. By the end, enjoying that fame also allowed the outside world in, ultimately pricking the great author’s bubble.
You can trace his growing bitterness to 1998, when the details of his personal life surfaced in a Daily Telegraph exposé and in a BBC documentary, exacerbating the decline that had begun  when his wife Mary, soulmate and typist for the books, passed away earlier the same year. The ruthless way in which a number of recurring characters are killed off towards the end of the Aubrey-Maturin books also betrays a growing embitterment.
In death, O’Brian’s privacy is still closely guarded by the villagers, even trying to keep the location of his grave secret from visiting tourists. However, once the painful details of his private life became public knowledge, the motives for his prickliness and hermit-like existence became more apparent. It probably also made an increasing contribution towards his evasiveness in those final years – scurrying to and from the library at Trinity College, still writing – which I think becomes apparent even within the uncontroversial exchange with Cronkite.
O’Brian’s step-son, author Nikolai Tolstoy, said he lived out his final days, "lonely, tortured, and at the last possibly paranoid figure”, in his biography: Patrick O’Brian: The Making of the Novelist (2004).
 It’s obvious that O’Brian enjoys making quips, literary asides, wordplay jokes and generally being evasive far more than speaking about real research, background or inspirational events. I find this an infuriating trick, speaking as a journalist and as an Aubrey-Maturin reader interested in learning more about the background to the books and their author.
It would have been far more interesting to gain genuine insight into the author’s thinking about the characters he created. Instead he bats away questions with brief and teasing replies, giving away very little of value despite the benign, unintrusive nature of Cronkite’s questions. 
Writing was O’Brian’s medium, so I’m prepared to overlook the man’s real-life faults and sins. He was a better fantasist on the page than in his own life. He remains my favourite author. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin represent the greatest friendship in English literature. O’Brian’s genius is undeniable, creating his protagonists “Lucky Jack” and secretive intellectual (O’Brian-like) Stephen, and the wonderful wooden world they inhabit aboard Sophie, Surprise, "Horrible Leopard", (etc, etc).
In the novels, O'Brian hints at his dislike for the inquisitiveness of strangers, through his mouthpiece, Maturin, who quips, dryly, that: "Question and answer is not a civilised form of conversation."
But then there is that unmistakable relish for the audience’s approval: O’Brian is enjoying the attention and celebrity. That is what I find toughest to square. The author had courted fame, allowing pride to get the better of him by allowing journalists to pry too effectively into his personal life, and the many fabrications that he had sewn into it.
You cannot have it both ways. It’s a similar type of hypocrisy to that which came to the fore this year through the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. That travesty had plenty of genuine victims: celebrities and the families of victims of crimes. But those celebrities that courted coverage, selling stories and photo shoots in the good times looked less convincing when moaning about press intrusion into their dirty laundry. That is undoubtedly an extreme example, but there is a whiff of hypocrisy from O’Brian that doesn’t sit well.
Alternatively, you could argue he was being deliberately consistent. The event was a marketing one, and Cronkite’s questions are predictable and scripted in advance, so there was no possibility of O’Brian being thrown a curve-ball with any awkward questions to answer. Nevertheless, the old man might have decided that it would have been hypocritical to give candid, detailed answers about professional matters while maintaining a policy of stonewalling any probing of his private affairs.
There is truth in the platitude that it is seldom a good thing to meet one’s heroes. Of course, I never met the late Patrick O’Brian. My dad finally succeeded in coaxing me – after a teenage spell of misguided reluctance – into reading the 20-and-a-bit Aubrey-Maturin novels while at University in 2004, by which time their author was dead. Watching him being interviewed by Cronkite – affectionate chatter rather than an investigative grilling – you can quickly gather that to have met with O'Brian in person and to have attempted a meaningful conversation with the great author must have been a confounding and wholly frustrating experience.

For the 1999 Cronkite interview, click here.

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  1. I was present at that interview, and it was obvious that both men could not really hear what the other was saying. It was a big room with a high ceiling and poor acoustics. Cronkite asked O'Brian whether Maturin had ever shown any anger "about being so ugly," and O'Brian answered as if the question had been directed at himself: "I'm tolerably used to that." It was really quite odd.

  2. Interesting to know! I wish I'd been there. However, I don't think poor hearing or microphones explain all or even most of the awkwardness. O'Brian deliberately evades some questions, or else gives superficial throwaway answers that are hard to excuse.