28-37. Ten by George MacDonald Fraser

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28-37. Ten by George MacDonald Fraser

Post  Patguy on Mon Jan 24, 2011 9:04 pm

Flashman
Royal Flash
Flashman’s Lady
Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Flash for Freedom!
Flashman and the Redskins
Flashman at the Charge
Flashman in the Great Game
Flashman and the Angel of the Lord
Flashman and the Dragon


My best discovery of 2010! Fraser’s famous antihero Harry Flashman is a 19th century British Army officer who rises, over the course of the series, from a young enlisted man to a highly respected, highly decorated officer. But the secret is that he’s really—and these are his own words—"a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady." To which I would add: a bully, a racist, and a serial seducer of women, and a complete bastard. He achieves his fame and fortune through a combination of lies, unswerving self-interest and blind luck.

These are scrupulously researched, often very funny, historical adventure novels, and Harry Flashman himself is one of the great characters of 20th century fiction. I suspect the main reason he isn’t better-known is that he is a purely literary character (i.e., there is only one, pretty obscure, film adapted from the books), and that these books are so hair-raisingly politically incorrect.

I employ that term reluctantly since, except for Bill Maher, I generally hear it used snickeringly by people who are about to say something terrible but are afraid of being criticized for it. Still, it’s too apt not to apply to the Flashman books, which depict historically convincing views of race and sex that should appall any modern person. And even by 19th century British standards, Flashman is retrograde. That’s the point, really, especially in the first book, where Flashman is much more straightforwardly a villain than he becomes in his later appearances. I suspect that Fraser wrote the first book without being certain that he would turn it into a series, since it stands alone as a vicious satire of Victorian morals and values, especially those heroic military ideals that led a great number of good and virtuous young men to their deaths while sneaking cowards like Flashman survive to get all the credit. The later books tend to play down the satire and play up the comedy.

The series presumes to be Flashman’s first-person memoirs, written in his declining years just before World War I, “discovered” in the late 1960s, and “edited” by George Macdonald Fraser, who also supplies the footnotes. In reality, of course, Fraser wrote all of these books himself.

A very important literary conceit here is that Flashman is emphatically not an unreliable narrator. Flashman is writing these books near the end of his life and he has now finally decided to be absolutely truthful about his adventures. This is crucial since, given all the terrible things Flashman admits to, we must feel that he is telling us the complete truth now, or else the entire literary project falls apart. Fraser’s scrupulous footnotes assist in this, limiting themselves to correcting only the most trivial of Flashman’s errors, the kind that even someone with Flashman’s incredible memory might still make.

The order of the series is a little tricky, since they were written over the course of 36 years (1969-2005) and take place over the course of 50-some years (1839-1894), and not in order. So: the chronologically first book of the series, Flashman, was also the first one written, but the chronologically third book Flashman’s Lady was the sixth book written, and in fact takes place between parts one and two of the second book written, Royal Flash.

I opted to read them in chronological order—that is, the order in which these adventures “happened,” not in the order that Fraser, and fictively Flashman, decided to write them down. Even this wasn’t entirely possible, since Royal Flash and Redskins both have huge gaps of years in the middle during which other books occur—but I wasn’t about to read the first half of Redskins, read four other books and then return to Redskins.

Anyway, reading in this way produced an odd literary effect: Flashman’s character seemed to change somewhat from book to book, ranging from complete monstrousness in a book like Flash for Freedom! to sympathetic and almost heroic in Mountain of Light. This is because Fraser mellowed the Flashman character over the thirty-some years he wrote the books, but this mellowing followed Fraser’s literary production, not Flashman’s life. And although certain references in the early books anticipate books that Fraser would only later write (as when Flashman talks about the events of 1977’s Flashman’s Lady in 1975’s Great Game), certain late additions, notably the 1990 Mountain of Light, are almost completely ignored. Angel of the Lord (1994) also sits uncomfortably next to 1985’s Dragon, taking Flashman from the USA to China for no apparent reason and making it seem that Flashman learns fluent Chinese in a matter of a few months. But these are trivial points, and I wouldn’t have Flashman miss out on the Taiping Rebellion or the First Anglo-Sikh War for the sake of strictly plausible continuity.

As much as I love these books, I have a hard time recommending them, especially, not to put too fine a point on it, to women. It’s not so much that Flashman sleeps with a lot of women that’s the problem, but that he treats them so badly, especially in the early books. In Flashman he even rapes a women, although Fraser handles this in a clever literary way. Flashman says something like “this was the only time I ever had to resort to that.” In this way Fraser remains true to Flashman’s vicious and amoral character while signaling to the readers that we aren’t going to have to live in dread of any more rape scenes.

Flashman’s racism never really mellows, and there are more n-words in these books than any other books I can think of outside of Faulkner. On the other hand, Flashman’s reluctant familiarity with a wide range of cultures (Native American, Tsarist Russian, Imperial Chinese, etc.) gives him a broader perspective than his British contemporaries, and his cynical analysis of practically every other person in the world seems almost ecumenical at times. And although he’s generally very good at staying behind the curtain, Fraser will occasionally betray his own attitudes. In Angel of the Lord, for instance, which concerns John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Fraser clearly likes and admires Brown, and Flashman seems to share that attitude at times—a noncynical attitude that Harry would never have admitted to in the early books. In the same vein, the obvious fascination with Apache and Sioux culture in Redskins seems to stem more from Fraser than the despicably racist Flashman of Flash for Freedom!

It’s a great tragedy that Fraser, who died in 2008, never got the chance to write any more of Flashman’s adventures, especially his often-hinted-at service in the US Civil War, where he fought for both the Union and Confederate armies.

Highly recommended, with the above-mentioned caveats.

Patguy
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