“I have no idea whatsoever of the reason so many people have taken to reading my books. Years ago the books, the selfsame books, were there: the people were there. But the two sides did not come together until some quite unexplained catalyst came into play. As for “fame,” I quite like what I have of it, though at the same time it makes me feel uneasy, vaguely fraudulent; and then its consequences have a way of shattering old frugal values, making them artificial. I do not think it touches me much, or affects my self-esteem. When I sit down at this desk I am still as bashful before the virgin page as I was sixty years ago—perhaps more so, for in the interval I have acquired some notion of what very good writing can be.”
“The writers of fan letters: they fall into four main classes. One, those who say, I love your books and I wish to thank you. Two, poor lonely souls who just want to write to someone. Three, those whose ancestors went to sea and who would like information about their careers. And four, those who point out my errors, sometimes real (I am a left-handed man and when I am writing I easily confuse right and left, east and west; this does not happen aboard, however) but more often, I am glad to say, imaginary. All four classes have grown so numerous these last years that I have had to beg my publishers to sieve them, because I am a slow, indifferent letter-writer and even half a dozen eat all the cream of my morning work, the best time by far. Yet they are sometimes extraordinarily encouraging: I think primarily of sick people who have found some relief in my books, but also of that splendid admiral who, dating his letter from the North Atlantic, told me that after a strenuous day of exercising his submarines he would submerge, sinking to the calmness of deep water, and there, in the ocean’s bosom unespied, he would turn to my naval tales: or of that other gentleman whose thank you took the form of a wholly gratuitous offer of his one-hundred-and-fifty-four-foot yacht with a numerous crew (including an excellent chef) and room for ourselves and six of our friends, to cruise for a fortnight in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean this coming spring or summer, himself making no appearance whatever. And if you do not call that handsome you must be very, very hard to please.”

INTERVIEWER How about the material about the sea. Have you ever had that wrong?


INTERVIEWER Well, that’s remarkable, isn’t it?

O’BRIAN Fairly remarkable, but I have observed a great deal and read an enormous amount.

INTERVIEWER You have total recall? O’BRIAN Absolutely not. I’m always forgetting where I’ve put keys to various padlocks.

Patrick O’Brian on errors in print

INTERVIEWER Do readers ever find errors?

O’BRIAN A Cambridge don who interviewed me for the Times diffidently suggested in later conversation that I might be mistaken in having Sir Joseph Blaine attending a performance of Figaro at Covent Garden, for said he, there was no Mozart opera to be heard in London until (I think) 1832.

INTERVIEWER There’s nothing you can do about this?

O’BRIAN Wriggle.

“When words are flowing faster than one’s pen can catch them, writing is a strong though wearing delight, but these splendid bursts are rare and they are paid for by many, many days of only a thousand words or so, and long periods of silent reflection. And for me the process works best with no interruption, no breaks in the steady application, no letters to be answered, very little social life, no holidays; it is therefore a form of happy imprisonment to which no man would submit without at least the hope of publication and its rewards, often dimly seen, often illusory.”

In which George Plimpton sneaks himself into the Patrick O’Brian interview

INTERVIEWER [Plimpton] How do you name your characters? I note that a Plimpton turns up—a seaman flogged for drunkenness.

O’BRIAN Names just float up, often with some remote suitability. 

“A freewheeling mind can conceive a virtually infinite number of sequences, but just how that mind picks out and stores those that may perhaps be used later to deal with a given tension, a given situation, is far beyond my understanding. Yet there is a certain analogy with conversation. When one is with friends, talking hard, maintaining a point against severe and well-informed opposition, one draws on resources scarcely to be imagined at ordinary times; and when they are exhausted—all hope gone—fresh reserves come to cheer one’s heart, apt quotations forgotten these forty years and more, fine strokes of scurrility. And after all a book can be represented as a conversation with one’s demon.”

Patrick O’Brian, sentimentality, & redemption through observation

As I often do as winter shows its unwelcome face, I am turning to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels for solace, energy, and inspiration. This weekend I copied over — dictated via my voice-recognition software, actually — the passage below. It comes from “The Reverse of the Medal,” in which both our heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend/surgeon/naturalist/spy, Stephen Maturin, suffer horrid reversals.

I read for and find different things every time through this 4000-page opus (20.5 volumes) This time through, as I write my own book about sensitivity to experience, I’m noticing especially how richly responsive to experience both men are, albeit it in very different ways.

So I was taken by this passage, about halfway through the novel, in which Stephen, deeply blackly despondent over setbacks in both his love life and his espionage, finds the deepening blackness brightened by the natural world to which he is so deeply attached. It’s a lovely piece of writing — the sort in which the slight faults make the strengths more evident. It picks up where a horse-drawn coach has dropped Stephen off in a village near Aubrey’s place, to which he will walk. It is just dawn; he has ridden in the coach all night. A couple of observations at end.

A few minutes later Stephen was standing there with his baggage by the side of the road while the dim coach disappeared in the dust-cloud of its own making and a long trail of early-morning rooks passed overhead. Presently the door of the ale-house opened and an amiable slut appeared, her hair done up in little rags, very like a Hottentot’s, and her garment held close at the neck with one hand. “Good morning, now, Mrs. Comfort,” said Stephen. “In time pray let the boy put these things behind the bar till I send for them. I mean to walk to Ashgrove over the fields.”

“You will find the Captain there, with some saucy foremast jacks and that wicked old Killick. But won’t you step in, sir, and take a little something? It’s a long, long way, after a night in the coach.”

Stephen knew that the Jericho could run to nothing more than tea or small beer, both equally repugnant to him in the morning; he thanked her, and said he believed he should wait until he had walked up an appetite; and when asked whether it would be that wicked old Killick who came in the card for his portmanteau he said he would make a point of asking the Captain to send him.

For the first mile his road was a lane between high banks and hedges, with woods on the left hand and fields on the right — well-sprung wheat and hay — and the banks were starred all along with primroses, while the hedges had scores of very small cheerful talkative early birds, particularly goldfinches in their most brilliant plumage; and in the hay a corncrake was already calling. Then when the flatland begin to rise and fall this lane branched out into two paths, though on carrying on over a broad pasture — a single piece of 50 or even 60 acres with some colts in it — and the other, now little more than a trace, leading down among the trees. Stephen followed the second; it was steep going, encumbered with brambles and dead bracket on the edge of the wood and farther down with fallen branches and the dead tree or two, but near the bottom he came to a ruined keeper’s cottage standing on a grassy plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage has lost its roof long since and was filled up right with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding behind; but there was still a stone bench by the door. Stephen sat upon it, leaning against the wall. Down here in the hollow the night had not yet yielded, and there was still a green twilight. An ancient wood: the slope was too great and the ground too broken for it ever to have been cut or tended, and the trees were still part of the primaeval forest; vast shapeless oaks, often hollow and useless for timber, held out their arms and their fresh young green leaves almost to the middle of the clearing, held them out with never a tremor, for down here the air was so still that gossamer floated with no perceptible movement at all. Still and silent: although far-off blackbirds could be heard away on the edge of the wood and although the stream at the bottom murmured perpetually the combe was filled with a living silence.

On the far side, high on the bank of the stream, there was a badger’s holt. Some years ago Stephen had watched a family of fox-cubs playing there, but now it seemed to him that the badgers were back: fresh earth had been flung out, and even from the bench he could distinguish a well-trodden path. “Perhaps I shall see one,” he said; and after a while his mind drifted away and away, running through a Gloria he and Jack had heard in London, a very elaborate Gloria by Frescobaldi.  “But perhaps it is too late,” he went on, when the Gloria was ended and the light had grown stronger, brighter green, almost the full light of dawn. Yet scarcely were those words formed in his mind before he heard a strong wrestling, sweeping bumping sound, and a beautifully striped badger came into sight on the other side of the brook, walking backwards with a load of bedding under its chin. It was an old fat badger, and he grumbled and cursed all the way. The last uphill stretch was particularly difficult, with the burden catching on hazel or thorn on either side and leaving long wisps, and just before the entrance the badger lifted its head and looked round, as though to say “Oh it is so bloody awkward.” Then, having breathed it took a fresh grip on the bundle, and with a final oath vanished backwards into the holt.

“Why do I feel such an intense pleasure, such an intense satisfaction?” asked Stephen. For some time he reached for a convincing reply, but finding none he observed “The fact is that I do.” He sat on as the sun’s rays came slowly down through the trees, lower and lower, and when the lowest reached a branch not far above him it caught a dewdrop poised upon release. The drop instantly blazed crimson, and a slight movement of his head made it show all the colors of the spectrum with extraordinary purity, from a red almost too deep to be seen through all the others to the ultimate violent and back again. Some minutes later a cock pheasant’s explosive call broke the silence in the spell and he stood up.

At the edge of the wood the blackbirds were louder still, they had been joined by blackcaps, thrushes, larks, monotonous pigeons, that a number of birds that should never have sung at all. His way now led him through ordinary country, field after field, eventually reaching Jack’s woods, with honey buzzard said once vested. But it was ordinary country raised to the highest power: the mounting sun shone through a faint trail was never a hint of glare, giving the colors of freshness and intensity Stephen had never seen equaled. The green world of the gentle, pure blue sky might just have been created; and as the day warmed a hundred scents drifted through the air. 

“Returning thanks at any length is virtually impossible,’ he reflected, sitting on a stile and watching two hares at play, sitting up and fibing at one another, then leaping and running and leaping again. “How few manage even five phrases with any effect. And how intolerable are most dedications too, even the best. Perhaps the endless repetition of flat, formal praise” — for the Gloria was still running in his head — “is an attempt at overcoming this, an attempt at expressing gratitude by another means. I shall put this thought to Jack,” he said, having considered for a moment. The hares raced away out of sight and he walked on, singing in a harsh undertone “Quoaniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus” until a cuckoo called away on his left hand: cuckoo, cuckoo, loud and clear, followed by a cackling laugh and answered by a fainter cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo far over on the right.

His happiness sank at once…

As well it might, for the bird spoke with unbearable directness to his love life. 


  • One of the beauties of O’Brian’s monumental work — over 4000 pages; Proust, but with battle scenes, salt water, deadlier gossip, and better breakfasts — is that he can take the time to stretch out like this, to slow down; to try to capture a smart, sensitive, man being perfectly still. To say nothing of the incomparable English countryside.
  • Part of me thinks this does not quite work — that O’Brian’s attempt to have Stephen pay homage to nature’s redemptive beauty, a healing that is open only to slow, attentive observation and a sensitive heart, surrenders to sentimentality. O’Brian recognizes this danger too, which is why he lodges his caveat (via Stephen) that no homage, no thanks, at least in words, will ever quite work: Maybe it takes musical homage, formalized as a recognition of God’s glory, to express the gratitude. 
  • Thus throughout, O’Brian, even though he writes fast, or at least fluidly — for his manuscripts, in elegant, longhand, bear few revisions — does his best to steer clear of sentimentalism: Other than Stephen’s own critical examination of how deeply he is moved, there is no hand-waving to tell us how beautiful and moving this is; no florid adjectives. One might argue he crosses the line with the dewdrop; maybe that’s a bit much. Then again, Stephen’s observation of that wet prism jibes perfectly with what we’ve seen before in this intensely curious and informed observer; so, arguably, this is not too much. And I like too how, shortly after this, as Stephen gets up and walks through other birdsong, O’Brian ends the list of signing birds with a reference to “monotonous pigeons, and a number of birds that should never have sung at all.” 
  • Finally, while I always thrill to O’Brian’s vocabulary — various, intricate, always necessary — dictating this passage via my voice-recognition software made me even more aware of how much original and fresh language he brings. Some rich stuff not in the standard vocabulary:   
    • Hottentot
    • portmanteau
    • well-sprung wheat
    • corncrake
    • trace (for trail)
    • plat
    • combe
    • holt
    • fibing, for which I could find no definition

Tortoise sex, via the eyes of Lucky Jack Aubrey

On a walk of this kind in the Mediterranean islands he usually saw tortoises, which he did not dislike at all — far from it — but they seemed rare on Gozo, and it was not until he had been going for some time that he heard a curious tock-tock-tock and saw a small one running, positively running across the road, perched high on its legs; it was being pursued by a larger tortoise, who, catching it up, butted it three times in quick succession: it was the clap of the shells that produced the tock-tock-tock. ‘Tyranny,’ said Jack, meaning to intervene: but either the last blows had subdued the smaller tortoise — a female — or she felt that she had shown all the reluctance that was called for; in any case she stopped. The male covered her, and maintaining himself precariously on her domed back with his ancient folded leathery legs he raised his face to the sun, stretched up his neck opened his mouth wide and uttered the strangest dying cry.
'Bless me, said Jack, 'I had no notion…'.

This is the sort of thing you can do when you’re writing 3000 pages.  
from Patrick O’Brian, Treason’s Harbor, p 52.