Sunday, December 14, 2003

Unfinished Aubrey novel discovered among O'Brian's papers
(Filed: 14/12/2003)

Fans of the fictional seafaring hero Jack Aubrey are delighted at the prospect of the 21st story by the author whose work has been turned into a blockbuster film, writes Chris Hastings

Jack Aubrey, the fictitious naval commander played by Russell Crowe in the hit film Master and Commander, is to fight another day after the discovery of an unfinished novel by the author who created him.

Executors of the estate of Patrick O'Brian, who wrote 20 books about the heroic seafarer before his death in 2000, are believed to have found the near-completed novel among his personal papers.

O'Brian, who was still writing in his eighties, is known to have completed at least three chapters before his death and is believed to have made extensive notes about the direction of the novel. These are now being considered for publication in the light of the film's success.

Some friends of O'Brian believe that the author had written several more chapters that have yet to emerge.

The series, which charted the adventures of Aubrey and his ship Surprise during and after the Napoleonic wars, had already sold more than six million copies before O'Brian's work attracted the attention of film-makers.

Sales of the books, regarded by critics as among the best historical novels, have been further boosted by the film, which has grossed more than $100 million (£57 million) in a month.

O'Brian is understood to have begun work on what he referred to as Book 21 in 1998.

The unpublished chapters, which are believed to exist in a handwritten draft and a more polished, typed version, begin in South America, and take up where Blue at the Mizzen, the 20th book in the series, ended.

Farrers, the London law firm acting as the executor of O'Brian's estate, has consulted a literary specialist about publishing the work. The firm refused to comment further.

HarperCollins, the author's British publisher, also has one completed chapter, sent to them by O'Brian soon before his death.

It is understood that both parties have ruled out hiring a ghostwriter to try to emulate the author's distinctive prose style, fearing a backlash from fans who regard O'Brian's eye for historical detail and use of 19th-century language as unique.

Another more viable option would be to publish the unfinished novel as a stand-alone work, or to use it as the centrepiece of a new study into the author.

Starling Lawrence, the editor-in-chief at W W Norton and Co, O'Brian's United States publisher, said: "I am aware that there are the beginnings of a new novel by O'Brian, but I have not seen it myself.

"Patrick would rarely talk about his work and you would only know he had written something when it landed on your desk. As for the new book, if there were enough written I would have no reservations about publishing it unfinished."

The large number of websites dedicated to O'Brian and his work reflects the author's world-wide popularity.

One of the most popular sites, called The Gunroom, runs competitions in which fans try to emulate the writer's style.

Jan Hatwell, 49, a civil servant from Horsham in Surrey, who is a regular user of the site, said that publication of just three or four chapters would be enough to leave fans "foaming at the mouth".

He added: "We would be fascinated to see it. It would provide a unique glimpse into the author's writing style and provide a tiny clue about where he was taking the character."

Friends of the author, however, would prefer the book's contents to remain secret.

Kevin Myers, a columnist for the Telegraph, who befriended the writer in the later years of his life, said: "He was writing up until his death because at that stage all that was left to him was his books and his adulation.

"He did not talk about what he was working on. Anyone who asked him about a work in progress was likely to get their head bitten off.

"I have not seen the unpublished book, but I hope it's not made public. In my opinion, his last published novel was a travesty. It was tragic and was only printed because publishers wanted to cash in on his success. His talent as a writer had been completely exhausted by then."

Helen Lucy Burke, a friend who says she was shown the unfinished book, said: "It is only a draft and it would have been subject to constant re-writes by Patrick if he were still alive.

"It is not my decision, of course, but I would be violently opposed to the idea of anyone ghostwriting the book."

The discovery of the unfinished material is the latest twist in a remarkable literary story that began with the publication of Master and Commander, the first book in the series in 1970.

The books went largely unnoticed outside Britain until The New York Review of Books carried a prominent review of The Reverse of the Medal, the 11th, and described its predecessors as "the best books you have never read".

That article prompted great interest in the author and propelled his entire back catalogue into the spotlight. Subsequent additions to the series throughout the 1990s became big publishing events.

O'Brian's life contained as much fiction as his books. For years he portrayed himself as an Irish-born gentleman from Galway who had learnt to sail on a square-rigged ship.

In 1998 it emerged that he had been born to relatively poor parents of German immigrant descent in Buckinghamshire and had changed his name.

Telegraph | News | Unfinished Aubrey novel discovered among O'Brian's papers

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