Books by Patrick O'Brian

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


A BOOK OF VOYAGES by Patrick O'Brian
ESSAYS & ANTHOLOGIES
Released: May 20, 2013

"O'Brian's fans and armchair travelers will naturally gravitate to this eclectic work."
A curiously engrossing collection of travel writings from the 17th and 18th centuries, collected by the deceased author of the Aubrey/Maturin series. Read full book review >
THE ROAD TO SAMARCAND by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: July 1, 2007

"A likable if far-fetched jaunt; O'Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series."
This adventure story, set in the Far East, was originally published in 1954; it predates the naval warfare novels that made O'Brian (1914-2000) famous. Read full book review >
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 18, 2004

"It's all there. The wonderful language. The leisurely pace. The rich detail. There's just no end. Readers will be left to their dreams."
A lovely and welcome oddity: the much-loved author's final fragment, titled simply by its position in the canon. Read full book review >
CAESAR by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 1, 2000

"Though clearly the writing of an adolescent, sure to be a hit for anyone who can't believe there are no more novels from a modern master."
Juvenilia by the now-deceased O'Brian (Blue at the Mizzen, 1999, etc.), a fantasy of a panda-leopard's coming of age first published in 1930. Read full book review >
HUSSEIN by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 1, 2000

" O'Brian's faithful fans will be better served sticking to his seafaring adventures. "
This early work from the nowdeceased O'Brian (Blue at the Mizzen, 1999, etc.) has nothing at all to do with the Iraqi leader. Written when the author was in his 20s, the story tells of a young mahout (elephant handler) whose father and grandfather also trained the great beasts. The third-person narrative chronicles Hussein's childhood, his love for elephants and for a girl named Sashiya. Forced to flee his hometown in India, Hussein begins a series of adventures that includes stints as a snake charmer, spy, and thief, but he eventually returns to claim his love. O'Brian's readable and gripping tale is aptly subtitled: it never strays beyond the realm of entertainment. Hussein doesn't claim the reader's affinity as the protagonists do in such later classics as The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore, in which the characters leap off the page and propel us from one event to the next. Also missing is the sense of place O'Brian usually manages to convey in his farflung adventures; perhaps because he hadn't been there, the landscape of India never comes alive. Read full book review >
BLUE AT THE MIZZEN by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 1, 1999

O'Brian announced long ago that he hoped to write 20 volumes in his series centering on the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Along the way, he has built up a huge British following, if a lesser one in the States, although American reviewers find the series splendidly literate. And so here is volume 20, which finds Napoleon defeated at Waterloo and Jack and now-widower Stephen at Gibralter, sent on a mission to release Spain's naval stranglehold on Chile and help Chile gain her independence. Nearly half the duo's crew, however, a ragtag bunch of the stupid and least-skilled, has deserted. And an accident in the roaring darkness as the Surprise sets forth requires that it be put up for repairs. During this period Stephen falls in love with Christine Wood, a naturalist, and asks for her hand in marriage. The journey around Cape Horn to Chile takes the Surprise through the most southerly and icy of horrors. Meanwhile, Jack has the nurturing of Midshipman Horatio Hanson, the engaging bastard son of a future king of England, to think about. The climax comes when the vastly outmanned and outnumbered Surprise attacks the Spanish fleet. Escape at its most intelligent and demanding. Is this the farewell Aubrey/Maturin novel? Not very likely, with the gingery addition of Horatio Hanson to the mix. Read full book review >
THE HUNDRED DAYS by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 1, 1998

The 19th volume (The Yellow Admiral, 1996, etc.) in the most successful modern series of historical fiction indicates no diminishment of power or inventiveness on the part of its author. Loyal fans of the series, which chronicles the martial adventures and complex friendship of Captain Aubrey and the physician/spy Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars, need to know only that the book is available. Others who have yet to sample the series should know that it stands out because of O'Brian's extraordinary ability to match an uncanny, utterly convincing evocation of early 19th-century Europe with subtle depictions of character, all rendered within the confines of plots featuring considerable adventures. This time out, the (realistically aging) Aubrey and Maturin are called on to help frustrate Napoleon's last, desperate bid for power. The dictator has escaped from confinement on Elba, has rallied his armies, and is marching on British forces. There's a chance that Muslim mercenaries may cast their lot with Napoleon and tip the balance of power—if French gold reaches them in time. First in North Africa, and then across the Atlantic, the duo pursue the gold. There are clashes on land, some brilliantly rendered action at sea, and while the two eventually triumph, their victory is not without cost. More swift, vivid, engrossing work from the dean of historical novelists. Read full book review >
THE YELLOW ADMIRAL by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 21, 1996

The 18th voyage for Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, stormy-petrel protagonists of O'Brian's utterly addictive series on life in the service of His Britannic Majesty's navy during the Napoleonic Wars (The Commodore, 1995, etc.). Having returned from a distasteful mission in West African waters, where he commanded a squadron with orders to suppress the slave trade, Aubrey is fending off a welter of lawsuits filed by aggrieved ship-owners whose vessels he seized. Abandoned by his superiors, the aging ex-captain fears he may be passed over for promotion or, worse yet, yellowed (elevated and then retired on half pay). Obliged to play country squire, the cash-strapped Aubrey (a Tory MP) makes new enemies when (as lord of the manor) he opposes enclosure of a common abutting his Dorset estate. Finally sent back to sea with his steadfast shipmate Maturin, the polymath physician who doubles as a spy for the Admiralty, the embattled mariner encounters even tougher going. Assigned to wearisome blockade duty off of Brest, he captures a French privateer laden with treasure but is charged with leaving his assigned station. Aubrey is further dispirited by a letter from his usually complaisant wife who accuses him of adultery with a Canadian lass whose billetsdoux he has unwisely left about the house. Meantime, the Corsican usurper suffers a crushing defeat at Leipzig, and in anticipation of peace the Royal Navy launches the Georgian era's equivalent of a downsizing campaign. Back in England after a successful intelligence-gathering sojourn on the Continent, Maturin arranges for his old friend to assume a training command in rebellious Chile's fledgling navy. As the two sail off for South America, however, word reaches them that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and Aubrey is to head a task force patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar. Another excellent adventure, complete with period-piece arcana, for oceanic literature's oddest and arguably most appealing couple. Read full book review >
THE UNKNOWN SHORE by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 1, 1995

Mining the same material that he used for his first sea-tale (The Golden Ocean, 1956), O'Brian returned three years later to Commodore Anson's 1740 globe-circling voyage in The Unknown Shore, originally published in Britain in 1959. The book follows the adventures of another pair of friends, clearly the models for the Aubrey/Maturin 17volume series that was to begin, in 1970, with Master and Commander. In this precursor, midshipman Jack Byron and his lifelong friend, Tobias Barrow, join the Wager, a converted Indiaman merchant vessel, the fourth and least of Commodore Anson's squadron whose mission is to cross the Atlantic, sail down the coast of Brazil, round the Horn, and harass the Spanish treasure ships along the coast of Chile—this at a time when the Spanish had the Pacific practically to themselves. Jack is large, hearty, and physical—very much what Jack Aubrey might have been like in his youth. Toby, who ships as surgeon's mate, comes out of London's slums—a foundling who'd been apprenticed by a physician who, on a bet, said he believed anyone could be taught if caught early enough and kept at it long enough. Now, Toby, a true innocent, is overeducated and undersocialized, an enormously engaging Stephen Maturin-to-be; he's fluent in Latin and Greek, and natural science is his passion, but naval priorities, alas, remain a mystery to him. Wager, meanwhile, is manned by the dregs of Anson's squadron and captained by an inexperienced and brutal officer. Barely making it around Cape Horn, the ship is wrecked on an inhospitable coast, where the crew's natural proclivities lead to mutiny, desertion, drunkenness, and murder. Making their painful way north to the Chilean seaport of Valparaiso, only 5 of the original 220 will get back to civilization. O'Brian, with obvious affection for his characters and their time, hits his storytelling stride here. Nobody does the 18th-century British Navy any better. Read full book review >
THE COMMODORE by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 10, 1995

O'Brian enjoys a sparkling success while playing with distinctly modern themes — in this 17th installment of the lives of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, best friends and seafaring warriors of the Napoleonic Wars. Following on the botched South American adventures of The Wine-Dark Sea (1993), Aubrey and Maturin find themselves battling the perils of domesticity in an England recognizable from the pages of Jane Austen's Persuasion. In episodes of Aubrey at home with his wife and children and a mother-in-law-turned-bookie, the author expands Austen's portrait of landlocked, rather female concerns — relations among in-laws, etiquette and ambition among the gentry — to show how slavery, the spoils of war, and financial trickery formed the underpinnings of that romanticized and "genteel" society. Maturin's problems are more dramatic: His previously unseen daughter Brigid is autistic, his wife Diana has fled in despair, his addiction to coca leaves has replaced his former appetite for liquid opium. Worse, a homosexual lord is being blackmailed by French agents to denounce Maturin for harboring two transported persons, the penalty for which, given Maturin's French-Irish background, could be the gallows. These themes mix powerfully when Aubrey is ordered to take a squadron and suppress the slave trade on Africa's West Coast, with secret orders to double back and intercept a French invasion of Ireland. One of Aubrey's captains is homosexual, a capable man flawed by his inability to keep his hands off his more comely crewmen. Meanwhile, Maturin's enlightened 18th-century speculations on love, sex, and politics endow the action with rich, often comic, ironies, expressed as always in O'Brian's hyperbolic, nearly Joycean flights of rhetoric. A mesmerizing performance on many levels — as history, as story, as literature — this novel transcends two genres in one stroke, the domestic romance and the seafaring hero's tale. In doing so, O'Brian bids to be considered the rightful heir not just of C.S. Forester, but of Jane Austen herself. Read full book review >
THE RENDEZVOUS by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Sept. 1, 1994

His reputation as a novelist secure, O'Brian (The Wine-Dark Sea, 1993, etc.) here seeks to cement his reputation as a short-story writer. The author has established a deservedly devoted following in this country for his Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin 18th-century naval series, but this group of 27 stories, originally published between 1950 and 1974, is not, taken as a whole, as strong. He is much interested in obscure journeys across frontiers and unhappy marriages, and many of the tales are more vignettes than classic short stories. Early entries feature solitary men who are invariably disoriented and buffeted by natural forces (or by forces implicitly beyond natural ones) while engaged in fishing, fox hunting, pigeon shoots, and other outdoor pursuits. In"The Happy Despatch," for example, Woolen, a poverty-stricken Englishman stuck in a horrid marriage and living as an outcast in an Irish village, stumbles across a stash of golden coins while fishing high in the hills. What seems a sudden shift in his fortunes turns into something very like a horror story in the abrupt, enigmatic ending. In "The Tunnel at the Frontier," a befuddled traveler appears to be passing from life to death. "Lying in the Sun" offers these thoughts from a man on the beach with his insipid wife: "If only she would go away, he would be quite fond of her; he would indeed, and he would do all he possibly could to be agreeable by post." Later stories are less claustrophobic and more striking, especially the dark and bitter "The Chian Wine," in which the planned ceremonial drinking of an ancient cask of spirits is precluded by timeless violence, and the volume's unexpectedly amusing final entry, "On the Wolfsberg," wherein yet another solitary wanderer (female this time) learns a startling truth. Eloquent and elegant as expected, these often intriguing tales are never quite as enthralling as one might hope. Read full book review >
THE GOLDEN OCEAN by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 1, 1994

An early novel by the author of the popular seafaring series starring Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (The Wine-Dark Sea, 1993; The Truelove, 1992, etc.). Originally published in the U.S. in 1956, the story features young midshipman Peter Palafox, who ships out in 1740 on the Centurion with Baron Anson for a four-year circumnavigation of the globe. Not a mature piece of work, but appealing enough to satisfy fans of O'Brian's naval sagas. Read full book review >
THE WINE-DARK SEA by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 1, 1993

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin—the amiable, music-loving heroes of O'Brian's wonderful sail-powered series (The Truelove, The Letter of Marque, The Far Side of the World, et al.)—follow orders into the midst of revolutionary South American politics. His Majesty's government has become interested in Peru, where the Spanish vicegerency is tottering and the beastly French seek greater influence. Who better to send to see that, when the old order falls, the new government is Anglophilic than that extremely clever half-Spanish ship's surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin? Maturin, concert-quality cellist, and Captain Jack Aubrey, the best violinist ever to command a man-o'-war, have successfully concluded their business in the South Pacific and are on board Surprise, a privateer. Licensed to steal anything they find in the way of enemy shipping, the duo make it a profitable crossing, taking their biggest haul from the Yankee ship Franklin, which carries, in addition to tons of loot, one Monsieur Dutourd, who says he's just another string-player and utopian disciple of Rousseau but who seems entirely too interested in Peruvian politics. Dutourd presents a problem in that he and Maturin have crossed paths in Paris, and if they land in Lima together, Maturin's identity as a British spy may become known. Along with fretting about Dutourd, Dr. Maturin is concerned about his assistant and fellow naturalist the Rev. Mr. Martin, whose belief that lust in one's heart can result in venereal disease has brought him to death's door. When the sailors at last reach the shores of Peru, Dutourd escapes and Maturin's mission, complicated enough by the various revolutionary factions, becomes a real hair-raiser involving an arduous transit of the Andes, where he is spit on by llamas and sees the great condors. Literate, leisurely, and as charming as the rest of the series. The illustrated guide to sails and masts is worth the price by itself. Read full book review >
TESTIMONIES by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 24, 1993

A welcome reissue of O'Brian's moving and very fine first novel—a novel of "unassuming proportion and immaculate design" (Kirkus, August 1, 1952). This precursor to the author's Captain Jack Aubrey series about the Royal Navy (begun with The Mauritius Command in 1970) concerns (to quote ourselves) the "testimonies of Joseph Aubrey Pugh, an Oxford don of middle years, and Bronwen Vaughan, the young wife of a Welsh farmer, before a divine inquisitor....For in a small village in North Wales, and in the grandeur of the lonely landscape of mountain, tarn and valley, farm and quarry, Pugh—a man of rather neutral talents and desires— finds a refuge from established habit and discontents. And in Bronwen's serenity and beauty he finds a first romantic inspiration which lends a new impetus to his days. It is, however, the denunciation of an itinerant preacher which stirs the ugly speculation of the villagers which only has its respite with the act in which Bronwen takes her life....A chaste and disciplined prose lend purity to a quiet, tragic idyll for the discriminating reader." Read full book review >
JOSEPH BANKS by Patrick O'Brian
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Nov. 1, 1992

A finely wrought and fascinating biography from O'Brian, acclaimed author of historical naval adventures (The Truelove, 1992, etc.), who now turns his considerable storytelling talents to the life of Joseph Banks (1743-1820)—explorer, botanist, natural philosopher. Banks is a biographer's dream subject: He wrote letters by the peck and drove, left thousands of journal pages, and led an eventful, public life. As a young man, he served as expedition botanist on Captain James Cook's first circumnavigation of the globe (thus claiming his fame), then went on to develop the royal gardens at Kew into a world-class botanical collection; to produce the colossal collection of botanical treasures from the Cook's Endeavour voyage; to make vibrant the moribund Royal Society during his long presidency; to spur the colonization of Australia; and to spend years as privy councillor and close friend to George III. Banks even concocted the breadfruit transplant scheme that brought mutiny to the Bounty and Captain Bligh to the silver screen. O'Brian has a gift for taking a swarm of potentially suffocating details and spinning a compelling story, full of marvelous understatements ("He showed remarkable courage when faced with angry cannibals"; "The inhabitants behaved in a somewhat murderous fashion"), complete with delightful minutiae from the byways and backwaters of Banks's life. Here, O'Brian really shines as a writer, pure and simple, wielding his graceful and stylish prose with great dexterity. Fortunately, he is not so in love with his own voice that he doesn't let Banks speak for himself. Long passages directly from the naturalist's journals are wisely included; their raw, abbreviated quality lends a keen immediacy to the narrative. An impressive achievement, destined to swell the ranks of O'Brian's already sizable readership. Read full book review >
THE TRUELOVE by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 1, 1992

The musings and adventures of 18th-century sailors Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (The Ionian Missionary, The Surgeon's Mate, et. many al.) follow the winds to the South Pacific. On this cruise: a shipboard wedding and a Polynesian dust-up. With Britain between wars for the moment, Captain Aubrey shifts his flag to The Truelove, a merchantman with a military past, and sails to Sydney and points east on a leisurely semiofficial cruise. As usual, Jack is accompanied by his friend Maturin, physician, naturalist, and early intelligence agent, and, as on previous voyages, the crew includes Mr. Martin, a clergyman who shares Stephen's great interest in birds of the world. This time, though, there is a bird on board—a prostitute smuggled out of Sydney by a smitten young officer. She's bad news. Even after she is wed to the smitten and violently jealous Lt. Oakes, Clarissa sees no reason not to scratch the itches of her husband's messmates. Discipline goes to pot, and Jack decides to disembark the young couple at the earliest opportunity. But nothing happens quickly when one must wait for wind. There is plenty of time for Clarissa to consult her physician, who learns that the lady is left cold by the marriage act and, in discussing her depressing past, also learns the identity of a traitor in the highest level of government. When Truelove at last finds the wind, it is off to a Hawaiianish island and rousing battle to install a government sympathetic to his Britannic majesty George III. Intelligent escape. Not for the rushed. Read full book review >
THE IONIAN MISSION by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 27, 1992

Aubrey and Maturin (The Thirteen Gun Salute, p. 496; The Surgeon's Mate—see below) sail again. This time it's to The Meal to blockade the French fleet in Toulon. Fickle westerlies, however, blow them to the Aegean, and political currents put them in the middle of Ottoman affairs. Sinking into debt (thanks to his idiotic investments) and out of favor with their Lords of the Admiralty (thanks to his politically rash father), Captain Jack Aubrey misses the chance for a top-rate new ship and has to settle for H.M.S. Worcester, an ancient, leaky man-of-war. Undignified as the assignment may be, Aubrey is quite pleased to be able to sail away from Britain. He can't get things right on shore, but he is quick enough to put Worcester to trim, taking slack out of the sails and the crew until Worcester is the ablest ship in the line bottling up Napoleon's navy in Toulon. Meanwhile, of course, Aubrey's old friend Stephen Maturin, at last married to the woman he has followed to numerous hemispheres, is with him. The French toy with the English, trying to sneak through the blockade, but there are no conclusive actions. Maturin is eventually assigned a little espionage duty, and there is a hair-raising infiltration of the enemy coast. When Worcester at last gives up the ghost after one too many skirmishes, Aubrey transfers his pennant to the smaller, swifter Surprise and follows orders to sail to the Greek islands to tinker with the balance of power at the fringes of the Turkish empire. Splendid adventures at a stately pace. Read full book review >
THE SURGEON'S MATE by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 27, 1992

This time out, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin limp home from America for a brief rest before sailing to the Baltic to subvert the occupying Catalan troops—and then to the Bay of Biscay to run aground. The dashing Aubrey/Maturin naval tales (among others, The Ionian Mission—see above) continue to come out in intervals from England, where they are hugely and deservedly popular. Published some years ago in the UK, they've been arriving out of order, so readers find themselves sorting out prequels from sequels. But shipping arrangements do no damage to these polished, historically accurate, and intensely pleasurable tales of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era. Anglo-Iberian physician and spy Stephen Maturin is again the linchpin, providing the excuse for his dashing friend Aubrey to flee the mess he has made of his British investments. Aboard H.M.S Ariel, Aubrey transports Maturin to the Baltic, where the doctor will use his linguistic skills and impeccable Catalan separatist credentials to convince Spanish troops holding Baltic islands for Napoleon that they should desert the Corsican monster and throw their lot in with England. The Baltic mission is successful, but the subsequent flight from Scandinavia runs into the rocks off the French coast. The officers are taken prisoner and transported to Paris, where they dine handsomely on meals cooked by a pretty widow as they await execution. Splendid escape. Literate and amusing. Read full book review >
THE NUTMEG OF CONSOLATION by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Sept. 1, 1991

Another in O'Brian's stylish epic series devoted to the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey, his close friend and traveling companion Dr. Steven Maturin, and the men who share their ships—and their adventures—on the high seas of a world nearly two centuries gone. We pick up Aubrey and the crew right where we left them in The Thirteen Gun Salute (p. 496), shipwrecked in the South China Sea after having seen the British envoy they had been carrying sent to a watery grave as a result of his impetuous actions. After a bloody battle with Aborigine invaders and an unexpected rescue, Aubrey is given command of the small Dutch ship whose name serves as the title of this volume. He then overtakes and tricks a French frigate into following him to his rendezvous with his beloved man-of-war, Surprise, leading to the capture of the enemy ship forthwith. Then it's off to the Solomon Islands, where the seagoers rescue two young girls from an island stricken with smallpox, and ultimately to Sydney, where Maturin is provoked into a duel, complicating relationships with officials ashore (as do the two rescued children). The doctor, who is somewhat bemused throughout by his apparently fallen fortunes (thanks to a banking decision made in the previous novel), is, as always, the tale's most interesting character and constantly preoccupied with flora, fauna, and good conversation, not to mention the sumptuous food and drink that he and Aubrey seem to enjoy even in the midst of battle. Witty, literate, and engaging—as Aubrey himself might say, "capital work indeed." Read full book review >
THE THIRTEEN GUN SALUTE by Patrick O'Brian
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 27, 1991

Norton's admirable attempt to achieve for O'Brian in this country at least some semblance of the success he has enjoyed in England continues apace with the release of this 13th adventure of Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew of British seamen during the Napoleonic Wars, in conjunction with trade paperback reprintings of two earlier books in the series (H.M.S. Surprise, The Mauritius Command). At this stage in his career, Aubrey commands the Surprise, a private man-of-war licensed to do battle with enemy warships on behalf of the Crown. He remains a man whose great capabilities and raw energy while at sea are often nullified by an inability to cope while on land, and so it is that captain and crew set sail most precipitously for South America after a lengthy stay ashore, at least in part so that Jack will make no social or political errors that might set back his efforts to be restored to the Royal Navy. Aboard as always is Dr. Stephen Maturin— Aubrey's closest friend, ship's surgeon, and British spy—the character who provides an intellectual counterpoint to Jack's more physical presence. While the Surprise goes on its appointed rounds, however, Aubrey and Maturin undertake another assignment- -delivering a British envoy to the Malaysian Islands to negotiate a treaty there in competition with the French (a mission that, happily, requires that Jack's precious Navy rank be returned him). The story's the thing, of course, but the ultimate appeal of the Aubrey/Maturin adventures lies in O'Brian's delicious old- fashioned prose, the wonderfully complex sentences that capture the feel of the sea and the culture of the great warships, all the while sketching with apparent accuracy and truth the early- 19th-century world. Read full book review >
THE LETTER OF MARQUE by Patrick O'Brian
Released: Sept. 10, 1990

O'Brian (Desolation Island, 1979, etc.) brings back Captain Jack Aubrey, who is no longer in the Royal Navy but nonetheless still sails against Napoleon. Aubrey is a stern man these days, having been dismissed from the service for false charges of stock fraud. His old friend Stephen Maturin, however, having bought Aubrey's old frigate Surprise, now uses her as a private ship of war (a letter of marque) to cruise upon the enemy and gives Aubrey command of it. The brainy Maturin, secretly an agent in British naval and political intelligence, is the perfect foil for Aubrey, a man socially unsure of himself and pursued by creditors when ashore but on deck beloved by his crew and revered as Lucky Jack Aubrey. Maturin himself has become estranged from his wife, Diana, and hopes to win her back while Aubrey, also married with children, must dig his way out of disgrace. These personal worries add fiber to the characterizations, and the play of strengths and frailties between the two seamen (Maturin is overly fond of tincture of brandy-and-opium) glows with humanity. Indeed, O'Brian is a brilliant stylist of sea-historicals, his every sentence sensuous and emerging from saltwater as naturally as the leap of a flying fish. After a few preliminary skirmishes at sea, with his privateer painted up for deception of the enemy, Jack takes a pistol ball in the back and loses half his blood at St. Martin's, where he has triumphed over the French. While the House of Commons entertains reinstating Jack, who sails to the Gulf of Riga, Maturin goes off to Sweden to find reconciliation with Diana. Authentic and engaging. Read full book review >
ADIEUX by Simone de Beauvoir
HISTORY
Released: April 30, 1984

Two documentary additions—prosaic, unformed, but substantial—to the Jean-Paul Sartre biography, to the understanding of his oeuvre, to the history of the Beauvoir/Sartre relationship. First comes a fairly brief, inadequately annotated memoir of Sartre, 1970-1980, "based on the diary I kept during those ten years, and on the many testimonies I have gathered." De Beauvoir, a sometime companion in this period, mostly records the ups and downs in Sartre's health: diabetes, slight strokes, dizziness, teeth problems, incontinence, and—worst of all—near-blindness. (In one of the few emotional moments here: "Then he looked at me with a look of anxiety and almost of shame. 'Shall I never get my eyes back?' I said I was afraid he would not. It was so heartrending that I wept all night long."):' Even amid weakness and pain, however, Sartre continued to work on his Flaubert studies, to take on editing assignments for the Maoist magazines, to address workers' groups—in his desire to be "the new intellectual who endeavors to become integrated with the masses so as to bring about the triumph of true universality." (A subtle, curious undercurrent here is De Beauvoir's muted ambivalence about Sartre's final political allegiances—not to mention "his various young women" who kept him supplied with forbidden whiskey.) And the memoir ends with De Beauvoir's musings on the semi-serenity which Sartre achieved in the face of death, on the quasi-suicidal nature of his last illnesses, on the lack of philosophical comfort at the end: "His death does separate us. My death will not bring us together again. That is how things are. It was in itself splendid enough that we could live our lives in harmony so long." The bulk of this thick volume, however, consists of transcripts from 1974 taped conversations between De Beauvoir and Sartre—which "do not reveal any unexpected aspects of him, but. . . do allow one to follow the winding course of his thought and to hear his living voice." Responding to De Beauvoir's often-leading questions, then, an unenthusiastic Sartre talks about: his petit-bourgeois childhood (the hated stepfather, the boarding-school violence); his sometimes-conflicting roles as writer and philosopher (intriguing comments on varying approaches to fiction, criticism, philosophy); individual novels, plays, essays; the influence of Proust, Kafka, Giraudoux; soured friendships with Camus, Koestler, Giacometti, Genet; attitudes toward food, money, and sex—with his attraction to youth ("I find the adult male deeply disgusting"), his relationships with women, his small, ugly self-image. And the conversations turn finally to freedom and socialism (the dual crux of Sartre's politics), death, and God—"a prefabricated image of man, man multiplied by infinity." Repetitious, rarely surprising, enlivened here and there by the often-amusing De Beauvoir/Sartre subtext (e.g., her vain efforts to get him to endorse her version of shared memories): unscintillating but required reading—for students, followers, and other Sartre-watchers. Read full book review >
DESOLATION ISLAND by Patrick O'Brian
Released: March 19, 1979

A sequel to The Mauritius Command (1970), which was the opening salvo in the Capt. Jack Aubrey series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Once again Jack's dear friend Dr. Stephen Maturin is also aboard, so they have the opportunity to indulge themselves in their cello and violin duets. And the romantic intrigue this time is supplied by French agent Mrs. Wogan, who's been captured by the British and is being shipped as a prisoner to Botany Bay aboard Aubrey's new command, the Leopard. Aubrey has been having a hard time ashore, losing a fortune gambling and buying horses while his wife frets silently with the children, and it's much against his will that he accepts the commission to haul convicts to Australia. On the other hand, Dr. Maturin is fighting an addiction to tincture of laudanum, and needs the time at sea. (He is soon masterfully fighting shipboard plague, tooth decay, and scurvy.) A battle with a Dutch ship in Antarctic waters ruins the Leopard's rudder, and the ship lays over at Desolation Island until a passing American vessel can be induced to give them a forge. The usual action ensues—but O'Brian's literate, clear-eyed realism should draw a slightly broader audience than most nautical fare. Read full book review >
THE MAURITIUS COMMAND by Patrick O'Brian
Released: July 21, 1978

During the Napoleonic wars, Captain Jack Aubrey reaches middle age and is beached with domesticity: wife, daughters, mother-in-law, several servants, all packed into a little cottage like the Black Hole—and on half-pay. Britain's out to dominate France in the South Indian ocean, and so when Jack is offered command of the newly refitted frigate Boadicea, he jumps at the chance to escape. What's more, he'll be with some great old friends, including ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin—with whom he loves to fiddle two-part Mozart inventions over port in the captain's cabin. It's that kind of book, shot through with unobtrusive culture and period texture that flows like a serenade: even the nautical detail—telescopes and stores, regs and discipline—have a lived-in fray of poetic experience and warm handiness. Jack's job is to round the Cape of Good Hope and take the islands of La Reunion and Mauritius from the French. His biggest headache comes after being made temporary commodore and being given his first command of a whole squadron of ships: the captains under him are a nervewracking, neurotic and brutal lot, and all are vividly drawn with every crotchet intact and rolling eyeball secure. They have real nerve to them, a crazy inner skip to their hearts, and O'Brian captures it all in language deep with detail and the poetry of fact on blue-water currents under the trades. Read full book review >
PICASSO  by Patrick O'Brian
NONFICTION
Released: May 28, 1976

They came, they saw, they commemorated. O'Brian, a British translator and writer (H.M.S. Surprise, 1973) who—like so many others—knew Picasso in his later years, presents a detailed account of the artist's movement, activities, mistresses, friends, domiciles, and living and working habits from childhood on. His life is the fullest so far, but it cannot pass as authoritative; O'Brian elects to give no sources for this "popular biography," making it virtually impossible to weigh his claims against others. Stress is laid on Picasso's Spanish origins and Catalan connection, always maintained; on his strong friendships, especially with Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Aluard; on the trouble his many women caused him; and, after World War II, on the price of his fame (he was imprisoned "within his own myth"). These emphases apart, O'Brian has no point of view toward his subject and—lip service to Picasso's blithe spirit notwithstanding—little apparent empathy for him. His knowledge of art seems to be that of a practiced viewer. The course of Picasso's work is traced and—in lieu of illustrations—certain important works are described; the literal descriptions suffice to call a familiar painting or sculpture to mind, but they hardly provide the verbal equivalent of visual exposure. O'Brian, moreover, has a penchant for relating the work—again quite literally—to the public and private record; but beyond reporting the flowering on canvas of one after another mistress, he is often stymied: some of the brightest paintings appear in the worst of times. To the extent that it can be trusted, the book is informative; but as reading matter it almost makes one long for the heroic days of Irving Stone. Read full book review >
WOMAN DESTROYED by Simone de Beauvoir
NON-FICTION
Released: Jan. 16, 1968

In caliber, if not in content, this is comparable to Mme, de Beauvoir's last book, Les Belles Images—three first person, feminine, silky, shrewish, and on occasion shrill confessionals of unhappy women of a certain age. In two out of three, infidelity is once again that particularly parochial French concern and when one woman describes her husband's mistress as "pretty, dashing, bitchy, available," the same could be said of these novellas. In the longest title story, a woman who finds that her two daughters are now self-sufficient, also finds that her husband has moved on—elsewhere. In the short center piece, the fanged hostilities of a consumingly self-indulgent younger woman are applied to all the members of her family then and now. In the Age of Discretion—over sixty—a woman regrets more quietly not only the defection of her son but the reduction of her own life, her inability to love or create as the years narrow the margins. . . . All under glass, the stories reflect rather than extend situations as old as time—and time to a great extent is responsible for the dimming of desire and desirability. They're not important but they're as intimate as a tete-a-tete and read with glistening case. Read full book review >
A VERY EASY DEATH by Simone de Beauvoir
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: May 18, 1966

She was "of an age to die," seventy-seven, and she had a "very easy death" or so the nurse said— well cared for and well attended by her daughters. However the title is ironically derived and it would be hard to think that Simone de Beauvoir who flaunted so many strictures of life, would accept death. Her mother died of cancer which she always feared; although she was religious, she was frightened, defenseless, unready; she suffered "It's a Chinese torture," and up to the end insisted "I don't want to die." And the intention of this memoir, which is in part a requiem and in part an exorcism, is its disturbing, defiant insistence on the fact that this can only be an utterly lonely experience. Mme. de Beauvoir's dusty answer is depressingly effective. Read full book review >
Released: June 15, 1955

A collection of short stories ranges from the rocky Welsh landscape of Testimonies to the softer Mediterranean coastline of The Catalans, confines a talent which is perhaps better suited to this medium, and includes some brief moments of experience where fate often adds the finishing touches to failure and futility. The unending hours of an obsessive, a perfectionist, waste a life which is suspended between the strokes of his clocks; a forced climb to high places becomes as unbearable to a woman as her husband; a German, up against the wall of hatred of a Catalan village, finds no comfort or corroboration in his Nazi faith; an artist, at the end of his success, turns to the rich friend of former years and is now ready to sell him a few pictures- but the man who greets him is blind; there's a cheerful fable of early Welsh Christendom; a voyage to the Indies; some sporting stories- a drawing of badgers, a duck shoot, a mountain climb, and some fishing sorties where the catch is death, etc. etc. Varied and versatile, O'Brian is also a careful writer (never a flubbed phrase) who ministers to minority tastes. These however will be appreciative. Read full book review >
THE CATALANS by Patrick O'Brian
Released: Oct. 9, 1953

A successor to Testimonies is again a chaste, scrupulous and precise performance-discreet- and to a certain extent, inanimate. And from the Welsh mountains of the first, this shifts to the small coastal village of Saint- Feliu in Catalonia with its medieval heritage and proud, autonomous independence. The rather passionate, spiritual conflict of the earlier book assumes a more intellectualized tenor here. Alain Roig, a research doctor, returns to his native village where the prospective marriage of his cousin Xavier to a young girl, Madeleine, following her divorce from a shiftless painter, presages only a disastrous mesalliance to his Aunt Margot. In the weeks which follow, Alain is a reluctant intermediary to whom his aunt complains, while Xavier, the family "phoenix" about to become an "errant fowl", confides in some monents of chilly self- examination. And Alain too is susceptible to the loveliness of Madeleine, and during the seasonal vintage, with its additional festivities, woos her after the night's revelry and escapes with her to another life.... There's a fastidious detail here, of place and character and convention, a reserved scrutiny and an often subtle sense of moral abstraction- which direct this only towards the more discerning reader. Read full book review >