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Patrick O'brien

Patrick O'Brian is best known for the Aubrey-Maturin series, acclaimed by Richard Snow in 'The New York Times' as 'the best historical novels ever written'.

Patrick O'Brian, one of our greatest contemporary novelists, is the author of the acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin tales and the biographer of Joseph Banks and Picasso. His first novel, 'Testimonies', and his 'Collected Short Stories' have recently been republished by HarperCollins. He has translated many works from French into English, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and the first volume of Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. In 1995 he was the first recipient of the Heywood Hill Prize for a lifetime's contribution to literature. In the same year he was also awarded the CBE. In 1997 he was given an honorary doctorate of letters by Trinity College, Dublin. Patrick O'Brian died in January 2000.

Patrick O'Brian's work has now been made into a major motion picture directed by Peter Weir and starring oscar winner Russel Crowe...."Master & Commander" released November of 2003.....

Letter from the Patrick O'Brien:

This article first appeared the Patrick O'Brian newsletter 1993.

I am often asked how I came to write about the sea. It happened like this: in the early fifties, when I had finished a couple of different novels, one of them quite good but filled with anguish and written with even more, it occured to me to write a book for fun. In the usual novel of today you have to invent everything, from the names of your chararcters onwards, which can be very wearing. But in the present case the names were provided for me, together with the whole sequence of events, just as the were for Homer, Virgil and many others; since the tale I had in mind was that of Anson's voyage round the world. He set out in 1740 at the head of a squadron to make war on the Spaniards in the Pacific, and this, after terrible difficulties and privations, he did, coming home in 1744 with only one ship left, but that ship deep laden with 1,313,843 pieces of eight as well as other loot, the whole filling thirty-two great wagons (that is why I called the tale The Golden Ocean).

Since what I wanted to write was a book for readers of no particular age (after all one can delight in David Copperfield or Kidnapped at twelve or seventy-two) all I had to do was put a boy, an ingenuous youth from Connemara, aboard the commodore's ship as a midshipman and raise the anchor.

I was fortunate enough to have great material, and I wrote the book in about six weeks (or was it less?) laughing most of the time. In the first place there was the chaplain's excellent account, together with other contemporary sources; a mass of documents from the British Public Record Office; and the great wealth of the national Maritime Museum and its library at Greenwich. my owm knowledge of the sea was useful too; but though I had sailed for many years and in many rigs, both for-and-aft and square, my vessels were far removed from Anson's ships and it called for a great deal of research to get the technical details quite right - very agreeable research, too, in an atmosphere where I felt thoroughly at home, and in very good company: research that has, in the course of later years, led me through countless ship's logs, official correspondence, courts-martial, Admiralty orders, memoirs and letters written by sailors of all ranks from admiral of the fleet to ordinary seaman, and of course innumerable books dealing with naval history, ship-handling, ship-building, the health of seamen, and the fighting of battles at sea.

In my subsequent naval tales I have rarely had everything, character, plot and ending, handed to me on a salner; but I have often found a comfortable kernel of fact for my fiction: for example I borrowed Cochrane's taking of the immensely superior Cacafuego in Master and Commander, Linois's unsuccessful action against the Indiamen in HMS Suprise, and Captain Riou's collision with an iceberg in Desolation Island. Indeed, anyone who reads extensively in the subjects I have mentioned will find a great many traces of my borrowing; nor shall I blush on being confronted with them, for I do not claim the merit of originality: only that of being a tolerably exact mirror, reflecting the ships and the seamen of an earlier age.

1914-2000 W. W. Norton & Company mourns the loss of Patrick O'Brian, one of the great authors of the twentieth century, whose novels were often compared by critics to the work of Jane Austen and even Homer. A writer of breathtaking erudition, Mr. O'Brian evoked in complete and dazzling detail an entire world—that of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to formidable scholarship, Mr. O'Brian brought to his work keen psychological insights, a sharp wit, and fast-paced, heart-stopping action.

In a cover story in The New York Times Book Review published on January 6, 1991, nine years to the day before we learned of Mr. O'Brian's death, Richard Snow wrote that Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure novels are "the best historical novels ever written. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives." And in a Washington Post article published August 2, 1992, Ken Ringle wrote, "The Aubrey/Maturin series far beyond any episodic chronicle, ebbs and flows with the timeless tide of character and the human heart."

W. W. Norton & Company began publishing Patrick O'Brian's books in 1990. The previous year, our editor-in-chief, Starling Lawrence, had read The Reverse of the Medal on a trans-Atlantic flight, fallen hard for the series, and had become convinced that Norton ought to publish Mr. O'Brian's works in the U.S. We decided to publish each new book in hardcover as it was completed and to bring out the earlier books in the series in paperback until we had caught up. The first season, we published The Letter of Marque (# 12) in hardcover and Master and Commander (# 1) and Post Captain (# 2) in paperback. Most recently, we published Blue at the Mizzen (# 20) in hardcover in 1999 and in paperback in 2000. At present, we have all of the books in the series available in uniform hardcover and paperback editions.

In addition to the twenty books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, we have published a short story collection (The Rendezvous and Other Stories) and three of Mr. O'Brian's other novels: Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian has also written acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and has translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. In April of 2000, we published Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard, his very first book, begun when he was just twelve, and Hussein: An Entertainment, written when he was about twenty years old. Both of these books had long been out of print.

Starting in the early 1990s, Mr. O'Brian achieved, at long last, the critical and popular recognition that was his due. All of his new books published since 1993 have appeared on national bestseller charts, and his books have sold well over three million copies in the U.S. alone.

Mr. O'Brian once said, "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." [Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography, edited by Arthur Cunningham]. In fact, Mr. O'Brian often seemed to have walked out of another era, and in his interactions with his publisher, he displayed a level of courtesy and civility rarely seen in our times.

We were grateful to him for setting aside his cherished privacy and agreeing to come to the U.S. on three occasions, in 1993, 1995, and 1999, to grant interviews and appearances on behalf of his new books. When he departed for home on November 20, 1999, after graciously spending a week in New York for the publication of Blue At The Mizzen, we hoped to see him sometime again. We are deeply saddened that we will not.


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