The Toast’s previous literary pilgrimages can be found here.
Not too long ago, I found myself on a dusty bus rumbling through French Catalonia, trailing a dead man called Patrick O’Brian. I would find him in a tiny fishing village called Collioure.
“It would have been easy to miss Collioure altogether,” he once wrote, “but I did not.”
O’Brian might have liked it if everyone else missed Collioure altogether, myself included. He was a notorious misanthrope. He produced historical novels — some of the best ever to be written, according to many — and was also a translator, biographer, vintner, and husband of a divorced Russian countess. In his old age, O’Brian looked exactly like a hawk. Not approximately; exactly. The cover of his complete short works features a marvelous picture of him grinning, a hawk perched on his gloved fist. They could exchange places and one might not notice.
His books are sea-tales, rollicking broadside ballads of the Napoleonic era. The era of Nelson! Of Trafalgar! Of wooden ships and iron men, with hearts of oak pulsing with Stockholm tar! Every thumb a marlinspike! The novels feature a courageous British sea captain and his best friend, a brooding surgeon/naturalist/spy/anarchist. There are duels and puns and moral quandaries, as well as drunken sloth. They are the ineluctable best of their genre, the sadly crowded genre of nautical super-series. There are twenty of them in all. I freely admit to an incomplete knowledge of the O’Brian oeuvre; the closer I get to finishing the series, the slower I go. I am close — alarmingly close. But just as I was unable to finish Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal (it ends because he dies. Just up and dies on you), I don’t want to run out of Patrick O’Brian. One day I’ll finish The Final Unfinished Voyage of Captain Jack Aubrey, an incomplete manuscript, cryptically published as “21” after the lonely Dublin death of its author. But not yet.
One of the most intriguing things about O’Brian’s sea-stories is that their author had never been to sea. He claimed he had, but any number of mid-nineties exposés will tell you otherwise. That rascally O’Brian wrote his definitive historical sea tales having never set foot on board a single one of the glorious ships he brought to life with such skill! The cheeky rogue! If this complete and total landlubber could craft a technically immaculate world solely by virtue of good research, surely (I once told myself) I could one day make my living on the sea. For, fortunately or unfortunately, O’Brian’s books have been known to inflict a perilous strain of sea-fever on unwitting readers. I grew up altogether inland, surrounded by high dry arid desert, squinting at blue mountains in the distance and pretending they were the ocean. I stood not a chance when the sea-fever struck and, still no more than seven books into the series, I became a professional sailor of historically-rigged ships.
The concept of luck, of being lucky, features prominently in O’Brian’s work, and I can attribute my current profession to little else. Once I had self-diagnosed my sea-fever affliction, the only logical thing to do was to go out to the sea in ships, seeking a remedy. I was lucky enough to locate a pair of square-riggers accepting trainees; I was lucky enough to get a few weeks’ vacation from all three of my poorly-paid but delightful summer internships to journey out to the coast and finally set foot on a sailing ship; I was lucky enough to be placed with a crew of knowledgeable, encouraging sailors who were patient with my soft hands and penchant for staring about like a moonstruck calf when I should have been sheeting home a t’gallant or some other terribly nautical and fascinating task. I had tasted the reality of a wooden world, peopled with iron men and women with hearts of oak pumping Stockholm tar! Every thumb was a marlinspike! I wanted marlinspike thumbs, more than I’d ever wanted anything else. Once ashore I found my sea-fever was worse than ever; moving tons of manmade mass through the water with nothing more than cloth, rope, and some sticks of wood is a tough act to follow. I spent my off-hours devouring O’Brian’s books, pining after salt water and wind in the rigging.
It soon became clear that I would not and could not be content until I’d given life at sea a fighting chance. I was lucky enough to go sailing sporadically throughout my last years of college, skipping class to ply the foggy Pacific. I was lucky enough to spend a semester in Europe, chasing maritime museums across the continent. By the time I made it to Collioure, I was poised to start my first paid position aboard a tall ship once I returned to the States, and I was seriously contemplating early graduation so as to hasten my running away to sea. I needed guidance, a sign, a benediction that this silly and anachronistic life plan wasn’t complete palaver. Two hundred years after the age of Aubrey, I had ascertained that “sailor of square-rigged ships” was still a full-time career, could be my full-time career — one I wouldn’t have known of were it not for Patrick O’Brian. How could I not drop by his final resting place and pay a small homage, try to get some answers?
It happened in springtime. I was in the neighborhood.
By “in the neighborhood,” I mean to say that I was in France. Patrick O’Brian spent the last half of his life secluded in Catalonia, spitting distance from the Spanish border, sandwiched between an infinity of vineyards and the Mediterranean sea. I stumbled forty minutes across Marseille at four in the morning to make the first train of the day, and was treated to a textbook Med sunrise. Like O’Brian on his first visit to Collioure, I was fleeing rain and cold and the creeping damps. I had been studying in Ireland (O’Brian had done neither — studying nor Ireland — and resented it for the whole of his life; he had a meager education and made a point of dying in Ireland, seeing as he couldn’t live there, because THAT would show them all). Since leaving the Emerald Isle I had been drenched in London, drizzled upon in Portsmouth, rained across the channel to a soggy Normandy, and soaked to the bone in Paris. Now there was sun and, like O’Brian before me, I was thankful.
Here is something he said of Collioure: “The village is altogether absurd…rose colored roofs, blue and pink houses, streets with hardly room to pass, strong smell of the sea, nets.” As soon as my feet hit the dusty ground in Collioure, I could feel it. The absurdity hung in the wind, and the colors were intense. I had a scant seven hours until my train departed the station, and in that time I had much to do.
The priority was locating O’Brian’s grave. His final resting place was notoriously elusive, hidden tight in one of three cemetières scattered throughout the town. But a few hot tips from fellow O’Brian fanciers led me to believe that his grave lay up in the hills, a substantial hike from the edge of the Med. Before I set off for the end goal I took a leisurely peregrination through town, the better to seek out O’Brianish points of interest.
The tower of Notre Dame des Anges, the local Catholic church, dominates the Collioure waterfront. O’Brian was rumored to attend Mass here, despite not being Catholic. Lots of critics and book-jacket biographers thought he was, but like most things written about him on his book-jackets, it was all twaddle. Besides being not-Catholic, O’Brian was not a number of other things claimed by said book-jacket biographers: he was not Irish, he was not an RAF war veteran, he was not a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, he was not a sailor, and he was not originally named Patrick O’Brian. The name of the man who arrived in Collioure in 1949 was only a few years old, a post-war identity chosen by one Richard Patrick Russ. Our man never bothered to disabuse others of their mistaken notions about him, and was thusly shrouded in legend. I imagine him taking a prurient delight in this fact.
I was just barely too late for noon Mass, but was able to creep into the back pew and observe the church ladies blowing out candles and sweeping the nave. The inside was overbearingly gold, and you could cut the smell of incense with a butter knife. It was easy to see how O’Brian, who loved grand things, would have been attracted to this cold, quiet, meditative space.
But nobody comes to Collioure to be cold. After a moment of meditation — I frowned deeply to get into a curmudgeonly O’Brian-like frame of mind — I struck off through the downtown streets, not understanding a single word of the spoken Catalan bubbling out from patio cafes and shops. It was almost better that way; when O’Brian arrived in Collioure, he had a foreigner’s understanding of French and no Catalan at all. I was able to navigate my way to Rue Arago, where the first O’Brian residence was perched above a series of tiny pastel shops. The streets were too narrow for any conceivable car, cobbles worn down to smooth fish scale, and flowers clouded the neat lines of ancient blocks. The hills above Collioure were green and lush, populated by wildflowers and vineyards visible from the village streets. O’Brian’s small vineyard home was up there somewhere, as was a walking trail high above the sea that allowed him to observe majestic square-rigged ships in the waters below. His grave was somewhere up there, too — high on a hill, overlooking the sea — so that’s where I pointed my feet.
Collioure thins out quickly, in the way of all good villages. In a few blocks’ time I was out in the rolling grasses along the sea, waltzing through the ruins of hilltop forts, recalling a passage O’Brian had recorded in his diary. He and his wife, Mary, the ex-Russian-countess, were strolling this very trail between Collioure and Port-Vendres when they spied a glorious brigantine in the water below. The couple followed the movements of the ship during its stay in the region until its final sailing, whereupon they raced to the top of these cliffs to see her spread every stitch of canvas and go flying off to the South. Of this sight, he wrote with words equally glowing and glowering: “Such joy. (& in such a horrible, horrible world).” Of course it would be a ship that made our hawkish old recluse smile; it may have been this episode that inspired his first nautical novel, which in turn attracted the interest of publishers who wanted more of the same. I tried to picture a cloud of sail skimming just below me, but a tiny sloop had to suffice. I picked a bouquet of scrubby seaside flowers — O’Brian, destitute for the better part of his life, wouldn’t begrudge me a poor student’s graveside offering — and penned a swift and sappy note of thanks.
I next hiked to the cottage on Rue St. Elme, at the foot of yet another ancient fortification of some class, where the books had been written. I wasn’t expecting much. Soon after constructing a modest, pastoral white red-roofed house on the edge of the hills leading up to the fort, the O’Brians were displeased to find that each new season grew houses in the surrounding fields rather than citrus trees. One story holds that an irritated O’Brian hired a helicopter to fly a vast quantity of trees into his yard so as to block out the world, which they did. Only a sliver of the house, with gratings on the windows and mildly menacing cacti in the yard, is visible from the street. The O’Brians valued privacy, and I acquiesced. I didn’t even provoke the wrath of the spirit by snapping a picture.
After lurking around the residential sections for just long enough to provoke a few looks askance I trotted back out to the highway and made tracks for the La Croette cemetery. When I finally made the summit above Collioure at the N114 roundabout, I could have mistaken La Croette for the garden of some eccentric stonemason. The graves are not so much graves as sarcophagi, neat stone tombs squarely set cheek-and-jowl between clean-hewn walls, in full view of a kindly sun. If the second coming were to raise the departed napping in orderly rows here, they would wake facing the sunlit sea, and stretch their arms into a mistral. O’Brian would be pleased; the man spent the first half of his life exclusively in the throes of the creeping damps. I set off through the graves, each a private altar, to find him. In five minutes I had twice walked past and then backtracked to the modest grave of Patrick and Mary O’Brian.
There they were, together entombed. Given its size, they must have been placed as close in death as they had been in life. This was impossibly sweet and I shed a tear and then listened for the sound of rolling; O’Brian did not seem the type to permit such sentiment at his graveside. I was not the first pilgrim to have come; the top was decorated with gifts and tributes. A black stone tablet announced in O’Brian’s not-at-all-native Irish tongue “Mac na hÓige slán”: the Son of the Virgin is safe, an Easter blessing. Crumbling bouquets had drifted behind the wee monuments, and I added my wildflowers and letter to the tributes. Here we were, two landlubber peas in an earthbound pod, who’d sought their fortunes on the bounding main! I tried to sense any kind spirit of benediction for my future, but just heard the mistral blowing through the stones. Off in the distance, the high blue Pyrénées-Orientales looked strikingly like my familiar high desert mountain range, half a world away. If you squinted, they still looked like the sea.
I tried not to hurry as I made my way back down the highway to the roundabout. I’d done it — I’d found Patrick O’Brian, paid my respects, ensured that he was indeed resting in the warm sunny peace he so richly deserved. But one significant place in Collioure had yet to be seen: Les Templiers, his favored public house down in the heart of the village. O’Brian frequented the eminent bar to mix with the writers and artists of Languedoc-Rousillion, and there he met and befriended one Pablo Picasso, who invited our recluse to write his biography.
Many patrons of Les Templiers paid the odd tab with artwork, and the walls are hung with sketches and paintings bearing the cryptic squashed-spider signatures of every artiste to call the South of France home. When I stepped through the door I was blinded by the simulated sun of hundreds of canvases depicting glowing bright Mediterranean scenes. Apart from their light it was refreshingly shady inside, and I was alone save for a perspiring bartender. He stood behind a bar made from the burnished hull of a catalá, one of the local fishing craft that had so charmed O’Brian sixty years before. I tried to order in French. Perhaps it was my ragged just-went-tromping-round-the-dusty-countryside rasping, or maybe it was my atrocious accent, or perhaps the bartender didn’t speak French. In either case I ordered a Jameson on the rocks, deeming it an O’Brian-appropriate beverage. O’Brian loved wine, and made wine, and wrote, at length, of wine, but the thought of tackling the massive wine menu at Les Templiers was more than I had energy for.
I must have looked parched, because the bartender wordlessly poured me a triple. It was heaven. I ensconced myself in the shadiest corner and observed various fisherman types amble through. It was a quiet late afternoon, and I had just enough time to read through a James Joyce short story — O’Brian was a great Joyce fan, and probably spent some evenings much like this one in Les Templiers reading him — and soak in the ambience before it was time to wait for my train.
When travelling alone, I have the graceless habit of forgetting to feed myself. This day, as with many others past, I had been too stoked by half about the Med and Patrick O’Brian and graves and ships and wildflowers to even give a thought to food. Sitting on a bench in the sunset waiting for my (delayed) train gave me time to realize that my stomach had been crying out for hours. The triple whiskey I had just downed to quench my thirst went straight to my stomach, found naught, swam up to my head, and stayed there, turning the birdsong and distant sound of waves into a symphony. The high, vineyard-wrapped hills were rolling like the sea. The lonesome whistle howling North along the tracks seemed to last an age. I was drunk as a skunk, debauched as a sloth, in Collioure — albeit accidentally.
“Are you proud?” I huffed under my breath in the direction of La Croette’s hilltop. Maybe it was the whiskey talking, but I was sure that I finally felt O’Brian’s benediction rushing down from the hills.
The train back to Marseille was cold, and I was trapped in the wind tunnel of Narbonne’s station for hours — long enough to shiver off my buzz. It wasn’t until I was back in my cheap hostel wolfing terrible day-old bouillabaisse that I realized that I had hardly spoken to or seen a soul during my ramble in Collioure. This was fitting; Patrick O’Brian chose the town in part for its quietude. I was glad to have been able to spend my day stalking only a ghost.
In the end I did indeed run off to sea as soon as I possibly could, and I am there still today. The job is just as hazardous, exhilarating, tiresome, inspiring, challenging, and variable as my favorite author made it out to be in his twenty-volume monument to the age of sailing, but it no longer seems that preposterous. Patrick O’Brian, who once upon a time did a splendid job of reinventing himself, would hopefully be pleased at his hand in the reinvention of yet another life.