Awesome Men Throughout History: George MacDonald Fraser
I don’t often read books that are part of a series, and yes, this means I haven’t delved into Harry Potter/Song of Ice and Fire/Wheel of Time/etc. all that much. I suppose I should someday, but I’m in no rush. I just prefer standalone novels, I guess.
The exception to this is the Flashman series, in which the principal character (and unreliable narrator) is a retired British military officer named Harry Flashman who is a lying, womanizing, selfish fake, but so charming that it compels the reader to stay with him, even if they hate him (as I often do). He’s not so much an anti-hero as a minor villain who survives due to his own cowardice and cunning.
The author of this series was George MacDonald Fraser, who is also this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.
Fraser was born in Scotland and described himself as a lazy, low-performing student. So did his father, evidently, because Fraser didn’t follow his wishes and go into medicine. He joined the Army instead, enlisting in the Border Regiment and serving in the Burma Campaign during WWII. He was also a member of the Gordon Highlanders, serving with them in tours of the Middle East and North Africa.
Clearly, Flashman’s military career was no coincidence.
Fraser worked as a journalist in the UK and Canada after the war, and eventually became a script doctor, working on The Three Musketeers, Octopussy, and Superman II, among other films. He came up with the idea of his Flashman series when he read Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s School Days, which featured a cowardly bully named—what else—Flashman. Fraser decided to develop the character beyond his supplementary role in that book, which technically makes the Flashman novels fanfiction by modern standards. Don’t judge me.
Anyway, each novel in the series is written as a piece of Flashman’s memoirs, with Flashman looking back on his ridiculous exploits, which put him in the center of nearly every major military conflict in the mid/late 19th century, from Afghanistan to Russia to China to the Civil War, and even Custer’s Last Stand.
Now, since Flashman is such a turd, the challenge is keeping the reader engaged for an entire book narrated by a guy who they would hate like poison if they met him in a bar. Luckily, Fraser was a very good writer with a journalist’s eye for detail and a veteran’s eye for what is important, and there are many passages—particularly ones describing the atrocities and aftermath of war, or how people on serious power trips treat those who trust them—where Flashman’s observations are vulnerable and human.
Fraser was able to write about both takes on war, the blustering frat-boy highs and the cold, lonely, introspective lows, with pinpoint accuracy, and his development of Flashman as a character may challenge how you think (and what you assume) about people you can’t stand.
George Fraser died in 2008, but his books are all still in print, so go pick one up.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.