The Patrick O'Brian Compendium

Dueling Bios

The recent publication of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy means we now have two full-length biographies of the man formerly known as Patrick O'Brian1. Your webmaster has made an exhaustive study of both volumes, and distilled his thoughts into this handy comparison table.

Point of Comparison Dean H. King Patrick O'Brian Nikolai Tolstoy Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist
Period Covered Cradle to grave Way before the cradle to 45 years shy of the grave (yes, it only goes to 1955 or so, and there will be other volumes)
Missing Periods Revealed Pretty much everything before 1946 The entirety of the subject's life, at least to the mid-1950s when the book ends
Sources Used A variety, mostly uncovered using subtle clues and investigative journalism A whole bunch of family archives, diaries and ephemera not available to those outside the family
Author's Genetic Relationship to Subject None Was O'Brian's stepson - POB's second wife's son from her first marriage
Author's Emotional Relationship to Subject Deferential, at times exasperated Reverential, at times fawning
Author's Relationship to Subject While Subject Was Alive Try though King might, Patrick O'Brian wasn't interested in speaking to Dean King in person Cordial relationship of stepfather and stepson, communicated and visited frequently
Level of Healthy Editing Good, keeps book flowing well None whatsoever, rambling tangents the order of the day
Level of Excruciating Detail in Narrative Low VERY high
Opinion of Other POB Biographers Unknown - temporal issues, i.e. there were no other POB biographers when this book was written VERY low - much of the book is spent telling how Dean King got it wrong
Subtext While a truly great writer, POB's private life was not a model of decorum POB was a truly great writer and all his psychological machinations have been greatly overblown
Read it in One Sitting? Probably not Not unless you graduated Evelyn Wood's course summa cum laude
Conclusion Reached POB was secretive and very guarded about his private life to a point just this side of clinical paranoia POB was a brilliant, but private person
Density of Text Good solid read The occasional personal anecdote is nice, but the overwhelming number of them in this book is excessive
Footnotes Almost none There must have been a clearance sale at the British branch of the Literary Device Store on footnotes
Illustrations Goodly number of black-and-white photographs, mostly contemporary though some taken in the present day Also a goodly number of black-and-white photographs, and more of the subject himself than King used
Who Should Read It Anyone interested in POB's Aubrey/Maturin body of work and who might be curious about the author's creative process Anyone who just can't get enough of minutiae about our favorite author
Part of a Series? No, though the author has spent a good portion of the past two decades illuminating POB's work for us Yes - this is just part one
Currently Available at Amazon and Other US Bookstores Yes, though Amazon lists it only available as Used Published by W.W. Norton in 2005
Author's Other Titles & Work Very much a nautical guy - see the Compendium's Dean King page Prolific writer, though NOT nautically-inclined - a sample listing may be found at Amazon.com

1 Tolstoy's biography, while lengthy, is actually less than "full-length" in that it only chronicles POB's life through the mid-1950s.

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