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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.