Thursday, January 03, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 84 (Flash Harry edition)

Aw, damn.

RIP George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008).

As a historian, Fraser was one of my first heroes. The fact that he was a novelist, not an academic; that his principal character was fictitious, not historical; that he mixed real and fictitious events and characters freely, are all irrelevant factoids relative to the much greater truth he taught me: that the very greatest and most amazing stories are found not in novels but in history books.

About six years ago, shortly after I landed a tenure-track gig, I wrote a short fan letter to Fraser, who'd by then lived for decades on the Isle of Man, thanking him for the books and briefly articulating the way I saw his influence in my own career as a historian. It was mostly just a way to acknowledge a debt--not really seeking a response--but he was kind enough to write back (by hand, on a postcard) a brief response, mentioning the next book he was then working on (it was Flashman on the March, about the Civil War period--I don't know if he ever finished the manuscript). I still have that postcard.

I was 15 years old, abroad for the first time with my brother-in-music Larry, traveling with almost no money (and less chaperonage) in England on a Eurail pass. Larry's dad was working as a sales representative for the Ford company (I still remember an absolutely hair-raising drive down through the Lake District in the back seat of his dad's company Capri), living outside Manchester in a medieval town called Great Budworth on the edge of the moors, in a 16th-seat house across the lane from the churchyard where one night Larry and I both
saw a ghost (only discovered in researching this article that there actually is one).

Though we did overnight for a few days with Larry's dad there, mostly we traveled--I remember Edinburgh, and Stonehenge, and a good deal of time in London, and Wales, for sure--mostly standing up in the third-class compartments of Brit-rail trains. I knew almost nothing about Britain--hadn't yet been bitten by the history bug--but I loved the countryside, especially in the area of North Yorkshire and the Borders: I remember riding south from Edinburgh, standing up in the pass-through between carriages, playing harmonia & fiddle duets, and watching the cows and fells and fields flashing past.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that was going to be an enormously influential trip, because it was the first time that multiple intuited life-goals (being a musician, traveling, studying history, understanding folk cultures) snapped into conscious focus. The first professional live theatre I ever saw was a revival production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (still my favorite of the Stoppard plays) at the Young Vic for the price of a late-rush student ticket (around 6 quid, as I remember); we got taken by a con-man in Picadilly Circus who claimed he could get us into a post-concert party with Elton John; I visited the militaria collection at the British Museum; I saw the opening of Richard Lester's great Three Musketeers film (see "100 Greats" #64) and bought a used copy of that book, inscribed to a deceased Battle of Britain pilot, on the Thames embankment, and I saw Lester's not-so-great film version (though with the matchless and perfectly cast Malcolm MacDowell) of Fraser's second book, Royal Flash.

The conceit of his novels, first sketched out in a Kerouackian 90-hour stint in Flashman after Fraser got canned from his newspaper job, was that the craven, bullying villain of the nauseatingly Victorian Tom Brown's Schooldays, Harry Flashman, did not fall out of the pages of (fictitious) history after Hughes's 1857 publication, but instead was expelled from Rugby, drafted into the army after impregnating a Scottish mill-owner's daughter, and found himself, through no effort or courage of his own, the only hero of the Retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War. It was Fraser's single, brilliant idea: to take the genre of Victorian heroic fiction (and historiography) and stand it on its head--to make the picaresque title character, the fictional military hero around whom the events and luminaries of Victorian Imperial history swirl--a craven coward whose only attributes are skills with languages, horses, and women--and then to have that "hero" tell the story in the guise of a collection of memoirs dictated in his antiquity. It let Fraser simultaneously undercut every bit of imperial hubris and Victorian priggery toward which the impulses of the age thrust, and provide more than a bit of revisionist and re-revisionist history (by the end of his life, Fraser was an unapologetic traditionalist, inarguably prone to the prejudices of his age, class, and background).

The books, in addition to being fantastically readable (Flashman is a contemptible coward, but, especially in the later books--say, Flashman's Lady, set in Singapore and Madagascar--rather admirably cynical and free of pretense), are models of how to tell historical stories. The only historical novels I've ever read that even come close--I'm not a huge fan of the genre, but there are a few authors who captured for me what Fraser did with Flashman--are Forester's "Horatio Hornblower" series, set in the Napoleonic British Navy. Forester was equally well-informed about the Age of Sail as Fraser was about the 19th century, but Flashman was an even better, more entertaining focal character, and the case of historical individuals and events through which, Zelig-like, he moved, even more amazing.

Fraser was also a veteran of the Burma and North African campaigns (though born in the Borders, he served in two different Highland Scots regiments), and his knowledge of what soldiering, and combat, are actually like deepened, darkened, and enriched the novels--his accounts of campaigns in China, Afghanistan, the Sikh country, Central Asia, and South Africa are all matchless. Likewise, his hard-eyed realization that no one, no matter how imaginative a novelist or opportunistic a politician, who hasn't served in combat can ever understand war, was an important object lesson for me. Probably closest to home for him are the wonderful, comic (but sad under the surface) stories of Lieutenant Dand MacNeil (a thinly-disguised autobiographical character) in a Highland Regiment in The General Danced at Dawn. I still replay, every New Year's Eve, a radio version of his tale of Hogmanay in North Africa.

Fraser had his faults and prejudices, that's for sure, and they were more-or-less what you'd expect in a cantankerous Borderer and World War II vet in his '80s: he didn't like East Asians much (the portraits in Flashman and the Dragon are pretty stereotypical), he idealized the Muslims he served with (see especially Flashman in the Great Game), he didn't tend to believe that violent overthrow of British colonialism was anything "heroic" (see Great Game, again). But when he was in his areas--especially amongst the peoples and topographies of North India--his love of, admiration for, and erudition about the "two-shilling scruffs and yokels holding the muskets" and the Central Asian peoples he served with shine through.

Fraser was never stupid about war: there's an iconic moment in At the Charge when he's described the jingoistic civilian fervor that led to Crimea when, just after saying "I'd like to take one of those breakfast-scoffing papas out into the mud of Sevastapol; not to show him, because he'd just tut and cry and have a good pray and not give a damn--but to shoot him in the belly with a soft-nosed bullet and let him die in the mud; that's all they deserve", he describes "the young blades roistering and the girls flirting and letting 'em pleasure them red in the face because the poor dead boy is off to the cannon's mouth, and the lights get brighter and the music faster...and the older men in their dress uniforms by the fireplace sip their punch, and look tired, and don't say much of anything at all."

Probably my favorite: Flashman at the Charge, the fourth in the series but the first I found in the US when Larry and I came back in the Fall of '75: Fraser's account of Flashman's service in the Crimean War (a monument to imperial hubris and stupidity only exceeded by the respective Soviet and US misadventures in Central Asia), the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade. After incredible adventures, he winds up in far northwest Afghanistan on the banks of the Syr Daria, hostage to a Russian imperial army trying to force a passage into North India and thus incite the rebellion that would come later in the Mutiny, only to escape with the aid of the astonishing, real characters Yakub Beg, the Uzbek general who became king of Kashgar, Izzat Kutebar, the aged bandit who says "Shall I not be free, to rob in my own country?", and Yakub's lover, the military-genius daughter of a Chinese warlord called "The Silk One" (only Fraser characters who even come close to being as cool: Colonel Alexander Campbell Gardner, the Wisconsin-born gunner who became Chief of Staff to the rulers of Lahore just before the first Sikh War, who lived to be 93 even though he couldn't swallow solid food; and the larger - than - fiction "Doctor" Josiah Harlan, the "crooked Quaker" who was the basis for Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King).

At the end of that novel, after the extraordinary night-raid during which Yakub's and Kutebar's riders holding the Russians at bay while, at the Silk One's direction, a team commanded by a hashish-addled Flashman assemble a set of stolen Congreve rockets and successfully incinerate the Russian's power-ships, Flashman is escorted along the Silk Road toward the East, taking the long way home through Afghanistan and into North India in time to warn the British of the impending Russian invasion. As they are watering their horses, Yakub (who in reality was every bit the fighting man and the mystical seer--some people said, the reincarnation of Tamerlaine--Fraser portrays him to be) says "Goodbye, blood brother. Come visit us in Kashgar some day...or better yet, find a Kashgar of your own!"

It's ironic that he would have died on my birthday--but for me, personally, a great reminder of how much I owe him. Thirty-four years after I first encountered Harry Flashman, I am a historian at least in part because of that adolescent realization that the very greatest stories are the real ones. George MacDonald Fraser taught me that. Thirty-four years later, I am astonished to look up and see that, in large measure due to the impetus and inspiration from Fraser to first discover, and then trust, the true stories of history, I have.

A Kashgar of my own.

Thank you, Lieutenant.



Kim Pineda said...

Thanks! Nothing like reading something to make me feel less nutty in my current trend of reading only non-fiction, with emphasis on history.

"The Spaniards were thwarted simultaneously by the heretical Drake and the terrifying Chichimecas."


alec said...

Very much agree with your thoughts. Before Flashman, I liked history. Afterwards, I loved it, and in my own (as yet unpublished) writing, I do my best to weave the fictions around the bedrock of historical fact. GMF set a great example that can be emulated but rarely equalled.

A great shame, he shall be missed.