27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Dean King's groundbreaking biography of Patrick O'Brian has taken a real beating of late from Nikolai Tolstoy's recent and competing treatment of his stepfather's first 35 years. Having slogged through both biographies of the literary gifted but humanly flawed O'Brian, I have to say, no one wins. In fact, a pox on both their houses; I am going to forget what I have read and will just start rereading the man's work.
King gets credit for being the first to put together O'Brian's life. Even with all the inaccuracies so helpfully pointed out by Tolstoy, King was able to anchor the main points of that life in a way that make Tolstoy's criticisms often seem petty (more on that). Above all, it must be understood, King has written a biography more of O'Brian's work--what was written when, how it was received, the struggles for recognition--than of his life with all its hidden chapters and strange motivations.
Tolstoy, having read and disagreed with King's bio of his stepfather, has given us an uneven, often tedious, and overly defensive account of O'Brian's life until his move to France in 1949. In the end, quite ironically, his biography leaves one less enamored with O'Brian the man than does King's.
Tolstoy's thickest problem is that he's too close to his subject for comfort. The most transparent example of this is Tolstoy's repeated criticisms of Dean King's errors--some factual but most on the writer's motivations--that themselves originate in O'Brian's lies about himself, lies that Tolstoy dismisses as "innocuous pretense" or "romancing." Tolstoy, in essence, just doesn't see what all the fuss is about, but as one of those O'Brian family members who refused to speak with King, he really cannot have it two ways. Likewise, Tolstoy swings between saying that O'Brian knew perfectly well that he was lying about his background (and what does that matter really?), the suggestion that O'Brian believed his own lies (and therefore is not culpable), and the idea that others wanted to believe O'Brian was Irish, so he had to follow along (and therefore should be forgiven).
It's in the substance of Tolstoy's defense of O'Brian--responding to what King unearthed in his research--that things get ugly, or amusing, depending on your point of view. King discovered that O'Brian had an affair shortly after marrying his first wife; Tolstoy gives O'Brian a pass on adultery because the girl was willing and the wife probably would never know! Tolstoy lets us know that "nothing can justify" O'Brian's leaving the first wife and two small children--one with a fatal disease--but he apparently thinks the situation mitigated somehow by the fact that O'Brian was "constitutionally ill equipped" for fatherhood (in fact he hated children), that his little daughter wasn't going to live long anyway, and that in any case he had met and moved in with his soul mate, the author's mother, a woman of wit and education, quite in contrast to the first wife. At one point Tolstoy cannot understand the first wife's bitterness, as O'Brian had done nothing (nothing!) to provoke it.
Tolstoy's biography is more accurate than King's (it helps to have the subject's diaries and papers), there is no doubt Tolstoy is a better writer (a family thing, perhaps), and I have to say his teasing out autobiographical elements from early short stories is very good indeed. But one must question both his judgment and his perspective. He started by wanting to defend O'Brian against what he saw as unfair treatment, but he ended up portraying a far more dysfunctional, far less appealing Patrick O'Brian than Dean King ever did or would.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Jay A. Frogel
- Published on Amazon.com
A biographer who is intimately familiar with his or her subject, especially if that familiarity extends over nearly half a century, can bring a unique perspective to the subject. Tolstoy certainly does that since his mother, Mary Tolstoy (her last name derives from her first marriage to a member of a branch of THE Tolstoy family) was O'Brian's second wife for that much time. It can also bring a certain bias to the biography, for better or for worse. In this case I think that the author has succeeded in presenting a balanced and highly nuanced portrait of a complex and secretive individual. I disagree with one of the trade reviews on the Amazon page that suggests that Tolstoy is too much of an apologist for O'Brian's behavior, especially towards his first wife and mother of his son.
The writing can get rather tedious at times and I often found myself scanning quickly over whole paragraphs, but taken as a whole the book is well written. Much of it is based on private letters and diaries available only to Tolstoy and not to O'Brian's previous biographer (a book I did have not read). As a result of access to this material there are exquisitely vivid portrayals of war time London and the harsh but beautiful landscape of Wales. Tolstoy's analysis of O'Brian's life, particularly his youth, relies heavily on deconstruction of O'Brians short stories and other early writings. I was amazed to learn that O'Brian's first work was published when he was barely a teenager. While highly speculative, Tolstoy does manage to present a fairly convincing and consistent picture of the author. Although you might wonder if a completley different picture might be drawn from the same fictional writings of O'Brian, the lengthy excerpts from these writings that Tolstoy presents suggests that if you are going to take this approach, then you are not likely to end up with a widely divergent description.
I read the entire Aubrey/Maturine series over a period of a few months about a year ago and wanted to learn more - actually anything - about the author. While Tolstoy's work ends well before O'Brian began or even conceived of the A/M series, you can certainly see his growing fascination both for detail and for life in the late 18th early 19th centuries. Indeed, Tolstoy makes the case that O'Brian probably would have been much happier living in the past than in the present. He was exceedingly class conscious and regarded with disdain many of the "new-fangled" contrivences of mid-20th century life.
So, would I rank this as amongst the best biographies I have read? No, for reasons I have already given. But I certainly do not regret having read it since the writing is good and I learned a great deal about O'Brian. And I certainly would read its successor volume if one is in Tolstoy's plans.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The man most of us know as Patrick O' Brian very nearly did just that. He became the best author of fictional wooden sided naval warfare. Along the way he nearly bests Jane Austin for capturing British life during this early 19th century. And all along he was never a sailor, never even Irish. If somehow this reads as an overly done fictional plot; wait, there is more!
An unprepossessing, marginal writer, Richard Patrick Russ was born and raised an Englishman. He may or may not have disputed his parentage, but there is no case for him being Irish. His first marriage would be a disaster. It would end with him living in marginal circumstances. He would then charm away a beautiful titled Russian bride, convince her to give up life a of comfort and follow him into a bare existence. Did I say titled Russian nobility? How about he stole away the bride from Count Tolstoy. Not That one but that family. They would live mostly, off the land in remote minimal cottages while he struggled to make keep them alive and make some money as a writer.
Ultimately Richard would reinvent himself as the Patrick O'Brian author the 20 (plus one published as unfinished) Aubrey/Martin seagoing/espionage adventures.
It may look like I have given away all of the O'Bian's secrets. There are more and there is the skilled writing of Nikolai Tolstoy. Professor Tolstoy was O'Brian's stepson and witness to many of the events described. That this Tolstoy is also an accomplished historian and writer is a happy coincidence. Tolstoy is clearly a fond and friendly biographer, but his style is engaging.
Being a fond biographer, he is perhaps too forgiving of several of Patrick's many human failures. If they are recounted without proper censure they are not whitewashed. You can accept Tolstoy's excuses or not, the facts are recounted. Tolstoy is also a somewhat defensive biographer. A fair amount of what is recounted is documented for the express purpose of refuting portions of O'Brian's life that a previous biographer either could not have known or was not written to Tolstoy's satisfaction. Some of this is not as important to O'Brian's fans or to one who may have read the previous biography.
My conclusion is that Patrick O'Brian; The Making of a Novelist is a fascinating story. Part of the fascination is its extremes and its improbability. My biggest let down is that in the nine years since the publication of this book, we have not heard what Professor Tolstoy has to report on the O'Brian from 1949 until his death in 2000. Half of his step fathers life and everything from his formally changing his name to the arrival of world-wide fame. In The Making of the Novelist, we have the "rags" part but not the "to riches". More exactly Nikolai Tolstoy gives us the picture of the writer as a young man. I want the rest of the story.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
This is an extremely well written summary of the first 35 years of Patrick O'Brian/Richard Patrick Russ/Richard Ross's life. Nikolai Tolstoy does a superb job mapping the parallels between the unattested portions of his step-father's life through a detailed analysis of O'Brian's 3rd and autobiographical novel, Richard Temple. Tolstoy's interpretations is measured and credible. While critical of certain points in Dean King's portrait, he avoids getting excessively embroiled in their differences.
What I still am at a loss to understand is exactly what prompted O'Brian's name change at the end of WWII, particularly given that Richard Russ operated as Richard Ross while working with what appears to have been one of the propaganda branches of British Intelligence during WWII. Tolstoy teasingly describes how Richard Russ a.k.a. Richard Ross had assumed the identity of an academic with a PHD from an Italian University. Was Richard/Patrick escaping these lies?
The other area that remains unexplored is Patrick O'Brian's craftsmanship. Tolstoy certainly makes clear that Russ/Ross/O'Brian leveraged many of his life experiences when writing his short stories (and many themes reappear in the Aubrey/Maturin series). But how did a largely uneducated writer evolve such a potent writing style. Tolstoy himself is no mere scribbler. The writing is very clear and moves the reader effortlessly along. But what of his subject's beautiful style? Tolstoy apparently had access to manuscripts from this earlier period. Do they tell us anything?
Finally, I believe that this book will help readers look at the characters in Aubrey/Maturin series, especially the female characters, in a new and richer light.
Tolstoy is currently working on Part II of his O'Brian biography.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
This has to be the worst biography I've ever read, hands down. What sort of editor would let this get published? Tolstoy pads this thing out to such an extent you want to pull your hair out. And the man has no humour whatsoever. Deadly dull prose, all the more horrifying when you consider the subject- Patrick O'Brian- took such care with HIS brilliant writing, and was himself a master prose stylist. Avoid at all costs. O'Brian needs someone to do him justice (and not a besotted fan either). What a biography it would be!