Books: Feel the barb in your cheek: Godfrey Hodgson wonders why the refined art of Patrick O'Brian remains so secretive

I HAVE two friends in Washington who write as well as read. Let us call them The Lawyer and the Senator. A couple of years ago the Lawyer told me that our friend the Senator was completely hooked on the historical sea novels of an Irish writer called Patrick O'Brian. Well, I said to myself, and why not? The Senator, after all, is Irish himself. As for me, I never read historical novels, and this is bound to be some poor imitation of C S Forester.

A few months later the Lawyer admitted that he too was hooked by O'Brian's novels about a violin-playing Royal Navy officer called Jack Aubrey and his Irish-Catalonian doctor friend Stephen Maturin. I expressed polite interest, even, when hard pressed, a vague intention of looking into one of the works of this O'Brian myself, though I had no real desire to do so. Then, for my birthday, the lawyer gave me, cunningly, the second in the series of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin stories. I read it. Then I read Master and Commander, and I in my turn felt the master angler's barb in my cheeks.

This is no place to repeat the praise that has been justly piled on the Aubrey-Maturin books. It is enough to say that they combine, as only the very first flight of writers have done, the pull of taut narrative and the ability to make the reader experience with the tingle of immediacy an astonishing range of experience: a climb through a jungle-clad mountain in the East Indies; a naval flogging; a Locatelli quintet; a long series of sea battles, never formulaic or repetitive. Add to the virtues of narrative and description O'Brian's phenomenal grasp of the naval, political, social and scientific history of the period of the Napoleonic wars, and his ability to create characters, women as well as men, who get up off the page and act out their own lives like free souls, and it is clear that O'Brian belongs to that high company of authors who are too little examined by literary critics.

The chasm between the writers the critics admire, and the writers the public likes, may be infuriating, but it is an old story. What is much harder to explain is the question raised by two newly published books of O'Brian's. For when Testimonies (Harper Collins, pounds 14.99) was originally published in 1952, it was praised by a critic as eminent as the American Delmore Schwartz in the Partisan Review, about as highbrow a journal as you could find at the time: 'Patrick O'Brian's Testimonies makes one think of a great ballad or a Biblical story. . . In O'Brian, as in Yeats, the most studied literary cultivation and knowledge bring into being works which read as if they were prior to literature and conscious literary technique'.

Testimonies is the story of an Oxford don, Pugh, who gives up his fellowship for life in a cottage in Snowdonia. He falls in love, chastely but with grand passion, with Bronwen, the beautiful wife of his sheep-farmer neighbour. She reciprocates, but so chastely that she is hardly aware of her feelings. Innocently, Pugh volunteers to make over some of his capital so that the farmers can survive. The serpent enters this poisoned Eden in the shape of a canting, hypocritical nationalist preacher. Bronwen kills herself, horribly. The novel is set against the heroic backdrop of the mountains, and told in a variety of different voices. The harmony between setting, character, narrative and method achieves an extraordinary power and intensity of emotion without ever betraying the slightest sign of effort. It is a story that does not so much speak as sing, with the haunting purity of the ancient rhapsode or the bard, yet in a voice as modern and direct as today's newspaper.

Some of the Collected Short Stories (Harper Collins, pounds 14.99) are even earlier work. In one or two instances, two versions of the same idea are included. Many have field sports - shooting wildfowl in the west of Ireland, salmon fishing, a foxhunt on foot in Snowdonia - as their setting and moral metaphor. Many involve a journey which is itself a spiritual symbol. It is easy to see why the critics of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies might not have been drawn to these apparently old-fashioned short stories. Yet their quality is unmistakable. To take a single example, in 'On the bog', O'Brian paces to perfection the reader's introduction to the idea that what the narrator feels for his ostensible friend is in fact murderous hatred.

The question to which I referred is simple but unanswerable. Why has a writer of this quality - an Irishman living in Britain and later in France, working in our language and in our midst - passed comparatively unnoticed? Is it because he has veiled the high seriousness of his art in the cocked hats and topboots of historical adventure stories? The O'Brian example perhaps shows up once again the banal snobbery of too many critics, publishers and literary pundits. Publishers, in particular, have not given him one tenth of the support they have lavished on less gifted novelists.

But there is more to the O'Brian problem than the familiar disjunction between 'highbrow' and 'upper middlebrow'. Lurking behind that division, which goes back at least as far as Conrad and Conan Doyle, is a question about the reader. Is the answer perhaps not just that critics have for three generations turned up their noses at realism, but that readers, too, 'cannot bear too much reality'?

In any case, the practical imperative is as simple as could be. Read O'Brian in costume or modern dress, not as a favour to him, but as a pleasure for yourself.