Book Review: The Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser


Errol Flynn as Robin Hood (1938)

Guy Williams as Zorro (1957-1962)

Guy Williams as Zorro (1957-1962)

As a child I had two heroes–characters whom I would pretend to be, jumping off walls, running in alleys and woods, with friends or by myself. The one was Robin Hood. The other was Zorro. These were my heroes–and I’m sure for a variety of reasons. They both were rebels, outsiders fighting against established tyranny. (The evil Prince John in the former case, Spanish rule in the latter.) Robin Hood fought for the little people (the put-upon Saxons) as did Zorro (the colonized Californians.)

Both were dashing swashbucklers and always more cunning and cleverer than their enemies. They were both perfect role models for a young boy, for in addition to their skill with swords and bows and horses, in addition to their noble goals and pure hearts, they were gentlemen. And for some reason that appealed to me. (Probably for the same reason why I believe God should sound like Cary Grant in all portrayals!)

As I grew and my reading advanced, I found other such characters that appealed to me: The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, even Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Unwittingly, I was drawn to those characters who punctured the established hypocrisy and tyranny and who stood up for the little guy, the oppressed, the wronged.


Albert Finney as Tom Jones (1963)

And then I discovered Tom Jones. His skills were nowhere near as impressive as the others–although he was a great sportsman, a horseman, and a lover of life–but his charm and his concern for the weak and put-upon were similar. And he was the ultimate outsider–he was a bastard, found lying in the bed of the benevolent Squire Allworthy. Tom’s enemies were the hypocritical upper class who resented his being taken in by the squire, and who, in a way, both condemned and envied his life-loving ways. He was easy to root for. Certainly, he had his faults, but even these faults could be explained away. And in the end, he one-upped the toffs who had persecuted him–affirming life over priggishness.

So where is this all taken me? To a “hero” I can’t abide.

A friend of mine, a writer and comic in Brooklyn, had often asked me if I had ever read any of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. I hadn’t, but promised I’d look into them. But I never got around to it. Finally, as a gift last Christmas, he bought me the first novel, Flashman.

Book Cover of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraiser

Book Cover of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraiser

I wanted to like it. But the hero was different from my past heroes in an important quality: he was part of the ruling classes, an imperialist, an Englishman lording it over the Empire on which the “sun never set.” A bit of a wild oat–the character Sir Harry Paget Flashman, first appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, as one of Tom’s classmates who was expelled for drunkenness– Flashman desires to tell his side of the story and move forward. (Indeed, Fraser cleverly takes this very minor character, fleshes it out and runs with it–for more than a dozen novels.) But even Flashman describes himself as “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.”

Upon expulsion from school, he seduces (and beats) his father’s mistress; his father buys him a position in the army, and from there his (mis)adventures begin. These adventures could be a lot of heroic fun (ala Barry Lyndon), except it is all coming from the wrong perspective–from the view of those in charge. And because of that assumption of superiority, Flashman is as prejudiced and arrogant as any British officer could be at the time. And I found it uncomfortable to read. The Indians and Afghans and Irish and Italians are all stereotyped and all looked down upon and insulted. And they fare much better than the women; for the women–no matter what nationality–are not even human but mere objects for Flashman’s seductions. And he is completely unfeeling in his disposal of them.

Exotic locales, derring-do (though Flashman runs from more battles than he partakes in), and a flip irreverence is often a fun entertainment. But my heroes fight from the bottom up…not the other way around. Falstaff, who holds many of the same characteristics as Flashman, is much more likeable–but that can be because he is not an imperialist, a man who believes his own entitlements. To be honest, I simply don’t like Flashman, never mind the book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Ironic coincidence….

There is a scene in Flashman (1969) when Flashman has been transferred from Calcutta to Afghanistan. He is explaining the condition there. Ironically, it sounds very much like Afghanistan history over the past four decades (if you change the nationalities of the forces involved). Here is what Flashman says:

“The reason we sent an expedition to Kabul, which is in the very heart of some of the worst country in the world, was that we were afraid of Russia. Afghanistan was a buffer, if you like, between India and the Turkestan territory … and the Russians were forever meddling in Afghan affairs.”

Then, ” the British Government had invaded the country, … and put our puppet king, Shah Sajah, on the throne in Kabul, in place of old Dost Mohammed, who was suspected of Russian sympathies.”

“I believe, from all I saw and heard, that if he had Russian sympathies it was because we drove him to them by our stupid policy; at any rate, the Kabul expedition succeeded in setting Sujah on the throne, and old Dost was politely locked up in India. So far, so good, but the Afghans didn’t like Sujah at all, and we had to leave an army in Kabul to keep him on his throne. It was a good enough army,…but it was having its work cut out trying to keep the tribes in order, for apart from Dost’s supporters there were scores of little petty chiefs and tyrants who lost no opportunity of causing trouble in the unsettled times, …”

I don’t know about you but this summary of the world in 1839 sounds eerily familiar to me.


Work in Progress

(Arranged in Alphabetical Order for Convenience)
J. P. Bohannon

Andromache: cf. Racine, Jean.

Antigone:  “Antigone inspired Hegel to his magisterial meditation on tragedy: two antagonists face to face, each of them inseparably bound to a truth that is partial, relative, but, considered in itself, entirely justifiable.” (The Curtain, Milos Kundera, page 110). Kundera then says that History cannot therefore be tragic. What in his definition allows him to say this:   “Inseparably bound”?   or “a truth that is partial, relative, but …entirely justifiable”?

Beauvoir, Simone de:  “There were other humiliations for Simone as well: she was the last chosen for any game or athletic contest, and her efforts to join any of the playground groups were usually greeted with hooting laughter.  With the innocent cruelty of children she was scorned by her schoolmates as much for her ill-fitting clothes and general untidiness as for her self-important pronouncements.  She was a gawky chatterbox, entirely friendless.  There really was no model, no influence, no one and nothing at all in her life to help her develop any social or societal graces.”  (Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, Deidre Bair, p. 63.)  QUESTION: Does unpopularity on the playground and in the classroom affect children so that they have one of two choices when they reach adulthood: greatness or psychosis?

Brain Mass:  “One of his patients was a postgraduate student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, a regular social life and virtually no brain. ‘Instead of the normal 4.5-centimetre thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.’ ”
James Hamilton-Patterson, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” Granta: This
 Overheating World,  No 83, Fall 2003, pp161-173.

Cockney Slang:   I go into a pub in London and see some people I know.  I order a pint and ask the others if I can get them one.  “Nah, I’m Van Gogh,” says bald-headed Nick.  “Wha?”  I answer back. “I’m Van Gogh,” he says. “I’ve got one ‘ere.”

The Colombo Club: I worked for a while for a group of bricklayers, the Calabrese Brothers. On Fridays, in the summer we would quit early and go to the Colombo Italian Club on the Lansdowne Road.  There were darts, shuffleboard, and cards. They always paid us in cash. Much of it stayed there on a Friday night.

Drew, Ronnie (of The Dubliners):  As a teenager, my friend Justin once dated Ronnie Drew’s daughter.  He went for tea one afternoon at their house, and while the women were busy in the kitchen, Ronnie spoke his first words to him: “If you get her up the pole, I’ll feking kill you.”  Despite this Justin and the girl remained friends, and at her 21st birthday bash, he met Van the Man.  Wikipedia cites Ronnie Drew in its article on Finnegans Wake for his recitation of the Humpty Dumpty poem.

Eliot, T.S.:  Pound X’d out the entire first 54 lines of The Wasteland and Eliot accepted his changes.  (And that was just the first 54 lines. Pound’s heavy pen is crossing things out throughout the original typescript.) The poem originally began: “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,/There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.”  For some reason, I never imagine Eliot getting sloshed or womanizing but there it is: “Get me a woman, I said; you’re too drunk, she said,/ But she gave me a bed, and a bath, and ham and eggs.”  Even if it is another character and not the poet (isn’t that some sort of fallacy we learned once in school) that particular world seems alien to that pursey-lipped banker.

The Ginger Man: A woman accosted me on the 110 Bus from 69th Street to West Chester while I was reading The Ginger Man by J. P. Dunleavy. She called it sexist, misogynist and misanthropic.  I told her I always loved the guy drinking at the pub in a kangaroo costume and that’s why I wanted to read it again.  She had bright red lipstick with much of it stuck on her beautiful teeth.

Ibsen:  Someone compared Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Ibsen’s plays. The comparison made sense.  In fact, it was said that Torvald’s bank seemed enlightened compared to the work place in Wilder.

Irish Phrases:  
Aris, mo bhuachailin Ní thagann ciall roimh aois  = Sense doesn’t come before age

Joyce, Lucia.  She had strabisimus and was an accomplished dancer.  She was also highly intelligent, although wasn’t given much credit for it. She was diagnosed schizophrenic. A very tall shadow blocked her sun.

Kafka:  Kafka means crow in Czech.

Kundera, Milos: In The Incredible Lightness of Being, the character Sammy says that she thinks of New York as “Beauty by Mistake.”  What a great phrase!  I copy it down in my journal.  It will be the title of my next novel, CD, film, whatever.  I begin a short story with the title, but do not get very far.  Last month, the NYTIMES featured an article tracing Kundera’s appearances in its Book Reviews.  The article is titled “Beauty by Mistake.”    AAAARRRGH!

Madonna:   A good pun for the iron Madonna sculpture in my cemetery story: “A ferrous-wheeled Madonna.”  I love it.

Madonna (the singer): Toni, who flew out to LA to waitress at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, told me that Madonna seemed to want to talk only to other faux-Brits.

New Words:
Parp  1. (verb) To break wind, to fart.
2. (noun) Nonsense, rubbish.
…a green double-decker bus that parped its horn at him.

Paine, Thomas:   (Letter to the Editor, London Review of Books, 4 January 2007).  “In John Barrell, the London Review tasked a truffle hunter to examine Christopher Hitchen’s book Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man‘ (30th November 2006).  But instead of sniffing out tasty morsels for salivating LRB readers, Professor Barrell chose to stick his snout in a cow pie.”  Marvelous!!!!

The Puck Building:  Originally built in 1886.  A second building was added on in 1893 when Lafayette Street pushed through.  The statue of Puck is a duplicate of the original.  The original stood over the doorway.  It’s the building where Grace worked in the television show, Will and Grace.

Quiche Lorainne:
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
8 slices of bacon
6 ounces Swiss Cheese, shredded
1 tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
Dash ground nutmeg
3 eggs
1 ½ cups of light cream

Cook & crumble bacon. Reserving 2 tbsp crumbled backon, place remaining bacon in partially baked pastry shell (450° for five minutes).  Add shredded cheese.  Combie (beat) flour, salt, nutmeg, eggs, & cream.  Pour over bacon & cheese in pasty shell.. Trim with reserved bacon.
Bake at 325° till knife comes out clean, about 25-40 minutes.

Racine, Jean.   Andromache: Orestes →Hermione; Hermione→King Pyrruss; King Pyrruss →Andromache; Andromache→Hector.  (Hector is dead.)  Check out Hector in the made for TV mini-series, The Odyssey.  His death had to be divinely manipulated.

Romanticism:  “The battle of the outs against the ins must be older than history, but the idiosyncratic psychological coloring of the Romantic struggle came from the Romantics’ passionate pride in being out—while, of course, they were struggling to get in.”   (Romanticism and Realism, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner).

Russian Woman on train:  6/12/06—Russian woman on train. Beautiful. Very dark but with eyes that in one light might be called green but today are sparkling grey—beautiful and literally attractive: they pull you in.  She has two children. One about five in a stroller, another a large baby, slung in some sort of sling.  The R8 out of Philadelphia travels westward towards Chestnut Hill.  It is typically urban. Cement pillars, graffiti, discarded tires, old RR ties, glass.  At one point the tracks cross the Schuylkill River. It is the same scene.  The five year old—who up until this time has been speaking Russian—speaks out in English to his mother: “Look Momma.  It is beautiful.” The Mother also speaks in English only once. A young boy—16 or 17—gets on the train. “Oh, it’s Alex,” she says.  “Alex, Raisa, Hi Alex.”  She was brilliant.  He gave her an adolescent grunt. I wanted to strangle him.

Stevenson, Adlai.  Janet Flanner (in Paris Journal: 1965-1970) quotes Stevenson’s obituary in Le Monde: “The tragedy of Dallas assured to John F. Kennedy a posthumous radiance that memories of Stevenson will never know.  Yet Stevenson during his lifetime was no less an influence than the assassinated President. … Without doubt, Stevenson’s integrity and intelligence were loftier than those of even the elite of American political personalities.

Unacceptable CD Players:
Students may not use CD Players that:
Require an electrical outlet
Accept more than one CD
Have duplication or recording capabilities
                   (from the SAT® Program Associate Supervisor’s Manual, 2006-2007)

Vietnam:  The French lost control of Vietnam after the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was in 1954.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps:  How cool is the string quartet in George Martin’s remastered version for the Cirque du Soleil production, Love?  How sweet is George Harrison’s thin voice on the demo tape.

“Cette fois, c’est la Femme que j’ai vue dans la Ville, et à qui j’ai parlé et qui me parle.” Rimbaud. (“This time I found and spoke to the woman in the city.”)  I don’t know what this means. It often happens with me and Rimbaud.

Zorro:   In the early 1960s my aunt took me to a department store to see Guy Williams dressed as Zorro.  There was an entire set, Spanish-style adobe building, cactus, rough-hewn fence.  I spoke to him for about three minutes.  On another floor, children were lining up to see Santa.  The last time that the actor who played Sgt. Garcia was seen on television was in October, 1967.  He appeared on an episode of Mannix.