Magazine article The Spectator

Before the Mast Was Rigged

Magazine article The Spectator

Before the Mast Was Rigged

Article excerpt

THE CATALANS by Patrick O'Brian HarperCollins, £16.99, pp. 167, ISBN 0007214979 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

RICHARD TEMPLE by Patrick O'Brian HarperCollins, £16.99, , pp. 250, ISBN 0007214987 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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. …

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