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Before the mast was rigged

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

The Catalans Patrick O’Brian

HarperCollins, pp.167, 16.99

Richard Temple Patrick O’Brian

HarperCollins, pp.250, 16.99

There are three possible reasons for republishing forgotten books by writers who have achieved subsequent fame. The first and best is that they may have been unjustly forgotten. The second is that they are of interest to fans looking for hints of the future. The third is that early novels in particular often contain autobiography, more or less disguised; and in the case of a life as strange as Patrick O’Brian’s they may therefore be of interest to literary detectives.

Only one of these novels really passes the first test; both pass the second and third. The Catalans is a well-crafted story of love and betrayal in the French Catalonia to which Patrick and Mary O’Brian had moved not long before. It paints a powerful and unsentimental picture of an intensely close-knit community. It may all look pretty to the tourists; foreigners and big city people may imagine lives of simplicity and content. But Dr Alain Roig, returning from Indo-China to his home town to deal with the crisis of an unsuitable marriage intended by the formidable Xavier, town boss and head of the family, knows that perceived social transgression can be savagely punished. In the end it is Alain himself, falling in love with the very girl against whom he is supposed to be warning his cousin, who runs the risk of vendetta. The suspense, which O’Brian builds with a skill we shall find again and again in the sea-chases of the famous novels, drives the book to a satisfying climax good enough to be worth not giving away. There is plenty here to foreshadow the future, but the book is worth it on its own terms.

As to what it tells us about the hidden life of O’Brian, there is a passage about Xavier’s appalled discovery, at the death of his first wife, that he feels nothing for her, and that he dislikes their son, which leads him to fear that his soul itself has died. This could not, I think, have been written by someone who had not felt something similar.

For those interested in such detective work, Nikolai Tolstoy’s definitive Patrick O’Brian: The Making of the Novelist, shows how to use these early books as source material for O’Brian’s life. He draws some sensible conclusions from The Catalans, but rightly quarries much more from Richard Temple. This is a less successful novel; a sort of Pincher Martin story of a life told in flashback as Temple, a British agent, lies in a Gestapo cell in occupied France at the end of a long period of interrogation by torture. He has in fact outwitted his interrogators, having created such an impenetrable carapace of an invented life for himself that his fiction is more real to himself, and to the Gestapo, than the truth. In a passage which perhaps says all we need to know about the process by which O’Brian came to inhabit a world he had himself created, Temple, formerly a painter, reflects that ‘the pseudo-Temple was his own creation, as much as if it had been one of his pictures, or a book he had written (very like a book) …. the whole was a reflection of the mind that fathered it.’ The joy Temple feels when he realises that the Gestapo have accepted pseudo-Temple as the truth, and that he is therefore safe, is the converse of O’Brian’s agony when journalists, late in his life, broke down his own cover story.

There is one other, rather disturbing conclusion which might be drawn from Richard Temple. The painter-SOE agent finds love, after many depressing adventures in the pre-war Chelsea which O’Brian inhabited, with a beautiful, upper-class girl who sounds very much like the young Mary Tolstoy. She persuades him to abandon his financially unrewarding ambition to be a great modernist abstract painter and become a sort of amalgam of Rex and Lawrence Whistler who finds popularity and money as a decorative painter whose designs are sometimes engraved on glass. The book was written during the period when O’Brian gave up writing novels which aim at high seriousness, like Testimonies, the short stories, and indeed Richard Temple itself, and started to write adventure stories like the unsuccessful Road to Samarcand and the excellent Golden Ocean which foreshadows the Aubrey-Maturin books. Did O’Brian, I wonder, think he had sold out for happiness and cash, as Temple did? I hope not, because there are plenty of us who believe that his acceptance of his destiny as one of the world’s great story-tellers through what he called his ‘tales’ of the Royal Navy gave us books of much more lasting value than many a work of self-consciously ‘high’ literature.

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