May 10, 2006

Gratuitous Llama Book Review


Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.

Per the recent suggestion of Basil Seal, I picked up this, the first installment of the chronicles of one Harry Flashman, Victorian Rogue Extraordinaire. It begins with his expulsion from Rugby for drunkeness (an episode first described in Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, and follows young Flashy's subsequent commission in the cavalry, forced marriage, posting to India and involvment in the disasters of the First Afghan War. On the way, there are phenomenal amounts of wenching and drinking, together with duels, ambushes, torture and miraculous rescues.

Flashman is a first class swine - a lazy, cowardly, drunken, unprincipled opportunist, a fact he admits in the very first pages of this autobiographical story. At the same time, he is seen by the Public as a hero, the very pinnacle of Victorian bravery, spirituality and propriety. The great joke of the book is that the reasons for these perceptions are completely mistaken - as Flashy readily admits - and his exalted position (indeed, his very survival) is really based on a combination of dumb luck, other people's decency and his own lack of scruples.

Fraser turns Flashman's perfect caddishness inside out. By admitting his own worthlessness, Flashy gains a kind of amoral highground in order to poke holes in the hypocracies and fallability of the society around him. I must admit that I found this aspect of the novel, this virtuous anti-virtue if you will, reyther tarsome after a while.

Other than that, though, a thoroughly enjoyable story, with plenty of action, beautiful women and diabolical enemies, climaxing with a most harrowing account of the British retreat from Kabul and the massacre at Gamdamak. (I gather, by the way, that Fraser's depiction of the First Afghan War, including these episodes, is quite accurate.)

UPDATE: D. Carter's comment indicates that I did not express myself quite right about Flashy's character. In fact, his swinishness does serve to highlight the genuine virtues of others around him - as, for example, during his escape from captivity and flight to the besieged Jallalabad. And at other times, it's just plain fun. But once in a while Fraser uses Flashy to launch a broadside at society in general. Those are the bits that fall a bit flat with me. It ain't that I dislike Flashy's character so much, just some of the ways Fraser puts it to use. If you see what I mean.

I should have mentioned also that there are about a bazillion Flashman novels chronicling his long and illustrious career. I'm a bit late getting started, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

UPDATE DEUX: Okay, you lot, the next two installments - Royal Flash and Flashman In The Great Game - are on their way to Orgle Manor.

Posted by Robert at May 10, 2006 01:19 PM | TrackBack

What?!? You're just now getting around to reading the Flashman novels? Well, better late than never. I think you will find that they are not only enjoyable, action-filled picaresque stories, but very faithful to the historical record (I vaguely recall reading somewhere that, when the first novel came out, some reviewers thought it was non-fiction). I also think you'll find that Flashman, in a perverse sort of way, tends to illuminate the truly noble qualities of other characters (some of them real life) by serving as the amoral foil.

Posted by: D. Carter at May 10, 2006 01:28 PM

What, being a "a first class swine - a lazy, cowardly, drunken, unprincipled opportunist" is a bad thing?

Posted by: rbj at May 10, 2006 01:35 PM

I can't get the Flashdance song outta my wee head now. Dangit.

Posted by: agent bedhead at May 10, 2006 01:38 PM

I knew you'd enjoy these books. Happy reading!

Posted by: RP at May 10, 2006 02:01 PM

It is about time someone did as I suggested...

Posted by: Basil Seal at May 10, 2006 02:04 PM

Flashman definitely should not be overlooked, and George Fraser is a gem - after finishing Flashman and the Tiger, I remembered something Patricia Highsmith once said about M.R. James - that having devoured everything he wrote, she wished she could promptly forget it all just so she could have the immense joy of re-discovering it all again. For me, that applies to the Flashman series as well.

Incidentally, check out Fraser's wartime memoir Quartered Safe Out Here - he served under Slim in Burma, and offers a perspective on the Asian Theater of WWII seldom seen here in the States. You might find it cool as well to look up his non-series fiction - Mr. American and The Pyrates are especially compelling. (And of course, there's his screenwriting talent - both the Salkind Three Musketeer films from the mid-Seventies - I babble on, but hey, I'm a Fraser enthusaist.)

Posted by: Khan (No, Not That One) at May 10, 2006 02:15 PM

The Flashman books are outstanding. I've re-read them as often as I've re-read Wodehouse--i.e., a lot. D. Carter is right about Falshman's character. Over the course of the series he emrges as a genuinely unlikeable character who can nevertheless tell a helluva story. As a technical achievement he's up there with Bertie Wooster, the compleat noodlehead who's also a riveting narrator.

Incidentally, the books get better and the historical research more impressive as the series continues. For me Fraser really started to hit his stride with the third book, Flashman in the Great Game.

Posted by: utron at May 10, 2006 02:51 PM

Welcome to world of Flashman. Here's the web site of the Flashman Society. The latest adventure, Flashman on the March, will come out in paperback in November.

Posted by: Mike Antonucci at May 10, 2006 06:26 PM

Aw, Tom Brown's School Days is one of my favorite old movies, and I remember many years ago my mom gave me a very old copy of the book that she found in a thrift store. The first time I saw the movie I ended up with quite the crush on Freddie Bartholomew.

Posted by: Jaynee at May 10, 2006 10:54 PM

You could read Flashman's adventures in chronological order, rather than the order in which Fraser wrote them.....

Posted by: Hank B at May 15, 2006 01:35 PM