Patrick O'Brian, 1914-2000

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One mark of a great literary talent is the ability to create a world consistent within itself that the reader can inhabit like a favorite hideaway. And when the work extends into a series, these visits become a sort of regular pilgrimage, where old acquaintances are renewed and relationships deepen into lifelong bonds. When Patrick O'Brian died this week in Dublin, such a world closed its horizons to millions of readers.

The author of some 30 books, O'Brian will be best remembered as the creator of the Aubrey-Maturin series, the 21st installment of which he was working on at the time of his death. The swashbuckling naval series, set in the Napoleonic era, chronicles the adventures of its two principal characters: the rugged, uncomplicated Captain Jack Aubrey and his mysterious, cerebral ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (pronounced MAT-urin), who is also a secret agent and a naturalist — an avocation that gave O'Brian ample opportunity to show off his considerable knowledge of nature, particularly ornithology.

The novels owe their brilliance not only to the rich characterizations of these two opposites, but also to the unerring authenticity that the author lends to their setting. O'Brian read transcripts of 19th-century court-martial proceedings to find out how common sailors spoke, and often referred to an 1810 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Many of the battles and campaigns he describes were based on real events; throughout, his mastery of sea-lore imbues the stories with a potent combination of authority and excitement.

O'Brian himself shared more than a few traits with his enigmatic Maturin. Fluent in French and Catalan, he participated in Britain's Political Intelligence Department during World War II creating "black" propaganda intended to destroy German morale; perhaps this cloak-and-dagger background explains his notorious aversion to discussing his private life. Such secretive tendencies, however, did not prevent the revelation in 1998 that he was English, not Irish, as had long been believed, and that his real name was Richard Patrick Russ (he changed it in 1945). Further burnishing his exotic image, O'Brian had lived in the south of France since 1949. It is fitting that there is even some disagreement as to when exactly he died, with Sunday and Tuesday both having been reported.

In addition to the Aubrey-Maturin books, O'Brian wrote a biography of Picasso, whom he knew, and of the British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks; he also translated the works of several French authors, including Andre Maurois and Simone de Beauvoir. A published writer since he was 15, O'Brian once said of his craft, "it never occurred to me to do anything else."

And that's a blessing we'll always be thankful for. Perhaps it's best that the story never did end. Aubrey, Maturin, Barrett Bonden and the rest of those dashing lads will sail forever on the boundless seas of our imaginations.