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January 03, 2008

The End of Flashman

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

George MacDonald Fraser -- author of the "Flashman" comic novels as well as much else -- has died at 82. (Here too.) Fraser was an unabashed reactionary who was also a hyper-gifted fiction writer. Hmmm: I wonder how many university lit courses have Fraser's books on their reading lists ...

James Fulford takes a look at some of Fraser's political views. Here's a brief interview with Fraser from 1999. I've only read two of the Flashman novels but both of them bowled me over; I found them to be among the most flat-out entertaining novels that I have ever read. And I liked Fraser's nonfiction book about how Hollywood has treated history very much.



posted by Michael at January 3, 2008


Fraser's books were wonderful. I guess one should say we hope to read "Flashman and God" in the after-life. But we all know, "Flashman and the Devil" would be the better read.

Posted by: sN on January 3, 2008 10:36 PM

The Flashman books' combination of wildly comic plotting and carefully verifiable history is a pure hooting oy. I realize with Fraser's passing that I actually have slightly more than half the series still to read. Note to self: get to it.

Fraser was a talented screenwriter as well: his scripts for Richard Lester's mid-70s versions of The Three Musketeers were particularly good, especially in the hands of Lester's eclectic cast -- Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch may never have been better (and certainly were never funnier) than in those films, and Oliver Reed's Athos is one of his most deliciously soused-but-nuanced bits of work.

The mists of memory may be making me think it is better than it actually is, but I would also recommend Lester's film (from Fraser's screenplay) of Royal Flash: Flashman, Lola Montez and Otto von Bismarck in a wacky fantasia on themes from The Prisoner of Zenda. Oliver Reed again (as Bismarck), as well as Alan Bates, with Malcolm McDowell gloriously craven as Flashy.

Posted by: George Wallace on January 3, 2008 11:51 PM

Only 2? Get the lead out memsahib.

Posted by: steve on January 4, 2008 12:27 AM

I've read (and own) the lot. There's wonderful stuff in there - my personal favorites are probably "Flashman and the Redskins" and "Flashman's Lady", but several others are close behind. There's a perceptible decline near the end of the series, but who couldn't forgive that?

I've been careful not to re-read these for a few years, though. I came close to wearing them out in the 1980s and 1990s, and I don't want to have Fraser turn into one of those authors I can't (for whatever reason) go back to. A good fallow period should do the trick.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 4, 2008 9:55 AM

I have been reading some customer reviews on Amazon, and one thing that is noted is the Historical accuracy of the Flashman series.

Does anyone remember how much Flashman (i.e. Fraser) wrote about the food he and others ate?

The books sound interesting and I have a particular interest in the History of Food, especially pre-World War I.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on January 4, 2008 11:02 AM

Sad news!
I envy those of you who still have Flashman novels to read, I found the series in the late '80s and have long been caught up. Fraser's memoir of WWII, "Quartered Safe Out Here" is a must read for anyone interested in that conflict. For those who find Flashman a bit much, I'd recommend "Mr. American", half adventure and maybe more than half romance. None of the wonderful endnotes found in the Flashman novels, though.

Posted by: mdmnm on January 4, 2008 1:06 PM

If you haven't read it, take a look at 'Black Ajax'. I rate it as equal first with the best of the Flashman books.

Posted by: Graham Asher on January 4, 2008 2:22 PM

I just learned of the Flashman series about a month ago, and have yet to read any of them. This brings up a question to those of you who have already read part or all of the series.

I have read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, and one of the things I love about it is that it was written in chronological order. That is, the first book O'Brian wrote was the earliest chronologically in the series and so on. So what I want to know is, should I read the series in order of publication, or in chronological order of the stories?


Posted by: nushustu on January 4, 2008 2:29 PM

Interesting question. My advice would still be publication order.

Flashman's personal history was retconned a little bit during the progress of the series (the half-breed Hunkpapa mentioned near the beginning of the first book never made the promised appearance, to pick one example, and yeah, I guess I do know the books pretty well).

And to my mind, Flash's personality changes a bit as time goes on - Fraser-time, not Flashman-time. He's never a gentleman, but to my eye is notably more callous in the early books.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 4, 2008 3:49 PM

Can I add that you've never seen the NYTBR Section make big claims for Fraser, and the Nobel Prize people haven't thought too hard about him either ... Both are quite happy making all kinds of artistic claims for the likes of Toni Morrison. Yet have there been many better storytellers around than George Macdonald Fraser?

Hmmm. In the movieworld, it's pretty unremarkable for people to say that Cary Grant, a light comedian, was one of the great movie actors, if not one of the great artists, of the 20th century. (Incidentally, I'm OK with that judgment!) But when it comes to books, entertainers even of the most extraordinary quality get almost no respect, at least of the heavyweight kind.

How to explain? Does this have to do with the kinds of people who populate the books world, or at least the opinion-making corners of it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 4, 2008 6:29 PM

Some "entertainer" writers do get respect. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the great storytellers of English literature, and his stories and poetry are still read by ordinary people, and admired by critics, or at least by some critics. Kipling, surely a "popular" writer if ever there was one, and also a great storyteller, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1907.

Posted by: alias clio on January 5, 2008 11:28 AM

A. Clio -- 100 (er, 101) years ago, sigh ... I have a semi-theory that, at a very basic level, many of today's opinion-makers and snobs and intellectuals and "literary" types don't actually read (let alone write) for pleasure. And that, when they crack open a book, they're looking for something other than living-breathing characters, zesty situations, stories that engage and surprise and deepen ... All which strikes me not just as more-than-enough but quite wonderful. God only knows what the head-cases do read for, though I suspect it has to do with status-marking, criticism, analysis, enlightenment of a chic-trendy sort ... I used to talk about this a lot with one reviewer friend. He'd make the point that not only do many of the more academic-intellectual types not like story (and all it implies), they don't know anything about it. So, faced with a good yarn, they're speechless. They have nothing to say about it. Meanwhile, "lit fiction" gives them lots to analyze, and say, and show off about. Seemed plausible to me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 5, 2008 1:13 PM

Point with respect to RLStephenson. Mark Twain is another writer who was both popular and now gets some critical respect. My impression growing up was that both were considered more authors for young adults than for a general audience (imagine my shock upon wading through "The Gilded Age"). I don't know how much contemporary respect or critical acclaim Kipling gets.
One of the best lit classes I had in college was called "popular American fiction" and had we undergrads apply, such as we could, literary analysis to a number of best-sellers- "Uncle Tom's Cabin", "The Virginian", "The Wizard of Oz", "Gone with the Wind", "I, the Jury", "Stranger in a Strange Land", "Love Story" and a few others. Quite interesting and fun. It showed me that some of the popular stuff was good as well as popular. "I, the Jury" and "Love Story" have redeeming characteristics, though.

Have you read, do you like, any Fraser's books?

Have you read, do you like, any of Fraser's books?

Posted by: mdmnm on January 5, 2008 8:00 PM

twain.ohenry,kipling,scott,conrad little read now. regarded as somewhat twee and self consciously cute.Fraser set up a wonderful premise and manages like woodehouse or thomas harris to have the reader enjoy and like a scoundrel. unfeminist subject matter not popular in rarefied literary circles today.

Posted by: phrage on January 23, 2008 9:59 AM

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