If a great artist uses his gifts to will a dazzling alternate world into existence, can he be forgiven for fashioning an alternate self? Especially if his real self is riddled with human frailty? That’s the sorrowful conundrum Dean King chews over in Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed. O’Brian, who died in January at 85, found fame late in life as the author of the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin novels; ostensibly a series of ripping naval-adventure yarns set during the Napoleonic Wars, the books actually are gloriously written explorations of friendship, comedy, disaster, and honor.
Researching this biography, however, led King to O’Brian’s previous life — as one Richard Patrick Russ, a British-born (not Irish, as he claimed) writer of animal stories and dour novels, and a man so emotionally constipated that in 1940 he abandoned his first wife, a toddler son, and an infant daughter with spina bifida. Doughty Aubrey-Maturin fans won’t appreciate the tarnishing of their idol, but King is a fan of the books, and O’Brian is clearly of such a stature that posterity deserves the details. The puzzle, of course, goes unanswered; the work remains.