INTERVIEW / A landlubber beneath the stuns'l boom iron: Peter Guttridge meets the remarkable and well-mannered novelist Patrick O'Brian

PATRICK O'BRIAN values good manners. The erudite 79-old-author of a magnificent series of novels chronicling naval life during the Napoleonic Wars, and the friend and biographer of Picasso, is excessively formal and polite. He is immersed in the 18th century, and his exceptional series of books chronicling the adventures of the heroic Jack Aubrey, RN, and the saturnine ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, confidently recreate the spirit of the age.

In the 16th of the series, The Wine-Dark Sea, Aubrey and Maturin pursue a privateer sailing under American colours through the Great South Sea, then sail on to South America where Maturin's task is to set the revolutionary tinder ablaze in the High Andes. Battles, storms, shipwrecks, disease, death, heriosm and hardship are plentiful in the 5,000 pages of the series, as they are in traditional sea yarns by Forester or Marryat. But O'Brian is aghast that anyone should think of his books as mere sea-stories or, worse, historical novels.

'When I first began I heard some extraordinary statements - such as that I was a writer of adventure stories. It distressed me extremely to find I was put into a disreputable genre. I thought I was writing about living people. And of course if you talk about living people you necessarily say things about la condition humaine, don't you? You see I have nothing to say about the purely temporary things, but about the more lasting things I do have some remarks. And after all I do love telling a tale.'

Indeed, many critics have found in his books the depths and complexities of 'serious' fiction. John Bayley, a longstanding admirer, has compared O'Brian to Jane Austen, referring facetiously to the series as 'Mansfield Park-sur-mer'. O'Brian has recently written a preface to a 'very pretty' new edition of Mansfield Park. 'I went clean through Jane Austen again - oh with such pleasure. Every time you find some charming little shift of rhythm or brilliant turn of speech that somehow escaped a dozen previous readings.'

However, Austen never wrote about seamen sodomising goats or any of the other robust topics O'Brian handles with gusto and good humour. 'I'm very fond of writing these books, particularly minor characters and little absurd things,' he says. 'I think of them in the night sometimes and laugh and laugh.'

Aubrey and Maturin are unlikely friends. Aubrey, nicknamed Goldilocks for his long blond hair, is a natural seaman, a born leader, outgoing and uncomplicated. Maturin, a doctor and natural philosopher, is secretive and analytical, forever the landlubber. He describes himself as a 'frigid, self-effacing man'. Once rivals in love, all they have in common is their pleasure in making music - more often than not Boccherini's Corelli Sonata.

They have survived many scrapes: they once escaped from Spain disguised as a dancing bear (Aubrey) and its handler (Maturin). Aubrey tolerates Maturin's eccentricity, on one occasion affecting nonchalance when the doctor stashes 60,000 bees in the officers' communal cabin. 'What a good friend you are to Aubrey,' someone remarks. 'Oh, I sew his ears on from time to time,' Maturin replies.

The seeds for Aubrey and Maturin were sown in the mid-Fifties when O'Brian wrote two linked novels about Anson's 1740s circumnavigation of the globe, featuring a prototype of their friendship. His interest in that voyage began in childhood. 'I must tell you something. I was a sadly sickly little boy. I scarcely went to school. I was . . . ill. I spent a lot of time in bed in a great house, In the cellar was a chest full of Gentlemans Magazine (the 18th century publication which had Doctor Johnson on its staff). All in very sound condition, And I read in their entirety the reports that slowly came through and then the aunts that followed of Anson's noble voyage.'

O'Brian was born in Ireland in 1914 to a family of some distinction. His mother died when he was young, and he came to England. He sailed a great deal to allay the effects of his illness, a lung complaint, and has strong memories of prep school in Torbay. 'The Atlantic Fleet used to gather and King George would come down to review them. The destroyers would tear along. Four funnels they had, with black smoke streaming from them.'

He took up writing in the Thirties, in Paris and Chelsea, working in the British Library seated in Karl Marx's chair. According to a recent profile in the New York Times, he was unfit for active service during the war, so drove an ambulance during the Blitz and then worked in an intelligence unit alongside the French Resistance.

After the war he went to live in Wales, the setting for Testimonies, the only one of his early novels he considers worth republishing (it comes out later this year). It tells the story of the doomed love between an academic and a farmer's wife and is full of vivid descriptions of mountainous landscapes. (There is also, in passing, a character called Maturin.)

In 1949, O'Brian and his wife moved to a one-bedroom house, approached along a dry river bed, in the Roussillon region of southern France. Since then he has lived by his pen, publishing some 21 novels, four story collections, the Picasso biography and one of the 18th century naturalist Joseph Banks.

He has also established a reputation as a translator, winning praise for his version of Colette's letters. 'That was about as difficult a thing as you can do,' O'Brian recalls, 'and the New Yorker said the translation was perfect.' He smiles shyly. 'They are known for their understatement.'

In recent years the Aubrey series has taken up all his writing time. He goes to original sources, including his collection of the Naval Chronicles, with their first hand accounts of engagements. 'When you read a Times of 1805 the small ads give you a great feel for the period. Especially on that paper in depraved print. I also have an 1810 Britannica. If I want to know what Maturin would know of a certain subject I look it up. Quite often he's wrong therefore, but wrong in the right way, do you see.'

He also seems to delight in making his sea terms unintelligible to lay readers. 'Unship the stuns'l boom iron, brail up the mainsail and touch up the ends of the stop-cleats, if you please' is typical. It doesn't interfere with the pleasure of the narrative. 'I'm translated into Japanese and I really don't know how they manage 18th-century sea terms. They didn't have vessels of that sort.'

O'Brian writes quickly, in long hand, ambidextrously, seldom needing to revise his first draft very much. This leaves time for other things. 'I have a garden that's too big and a vineyard that's bigger, and one does like to wander around the mountains and have fun.'

In the mountains he indulges the interest in natural history he shares Maturin - though he denies that the character is autobiographical. 'Our vineyard is 20 minutes away and 1,000 feet higher. Up there are wild boar, eagles and eagle owls. We have a stone house in which I write sometimes. In migration time, when we have 2,000 Honey Buzzards go over in a morning, I do watch them rather more than I should.'

He has begun the next novel in the series, but there is another book he wants to write. 'I have a very petty beginning for what I call the Gothic novel. We've lived with friends in Austria in a prodigious schloss with a Romanesque chapel and a bear pit through which the servants had to bring dinner - they came at a run, I do assure you. And I want to put there a very particular - what shall I say - a very particular series of emotional crises. Some of which at one time concerned me fairly intimately but also concerned friends. That might be a very considerable novel.' There is talk of Aubrey and Maturin on film. 'Interest has been expressed by such a pleasant man. We had dinner at Brooks and got along famously. He was called Charlton Heston - have you heard of him?'

Heston is interested presumably because, in America, the shy, reticent O'Brian has become a cult. There is a newsletter and calendar (featuring Geoff Hunt's cover art), and, on the West Coast, a computer bulletin board offering an O'Brian forum where readers can discuss ship armaments, naval cooking and Maturin's taste in music. 'My American publishers want to put out an O'Brian catalogue, which I must say sounds rather absurd,' he says in a bemused tone. He shudders. 'Someone suggested O'Brian coffee mugs.'