Thursday, November 4, 2021

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

by George MacDonald Fraser
1969 Barrie & Jenkins

Flashman is the satirical memoir of a the exploits of Harry Flashman, a fictional 19th Century military figure. Flashman is not a nice man. He's a snob, a drunk, and a coward. And he's supposed to be, as this is a conscious satire of the English "gentleman", with Flashman snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and vice versa, sometimes through skill but mostly just sheer luck.

The story itself covers Flashman being kicked out of school, joining the military, and ending up in the First Anglo-Afghan War, the highlight being the disastrous retreat from Kabul, in which thousands died in an attempt to flee to India.

There's a long tradition of unsympathetic protagonists in comedy, from Basil Fawlty to Dennis Reynolds, and a good comparison can be drawn to Blackadder. There's fun in watching them fail, but you also find yourself rooting for them. This is a little harder with Flashman, as he's a bigoted serial rapist. This isn't my bleeding heart 21st Century assessment, he's presented this way.

Flashman is such a horrible creature it creates some tonal problems. If this was a straight, warts-and-all historical adventure the character would be historically accurate, and not much worse than the average of the time. This is a theme, with Flashman being honest with himself about being horrible while most of British society is arranged around trying to hide it.

The adventure and the comedy largely alternate, with most of the satire coming in the breaks around the action. It's a bit too miserable, what with the dead children, rapes, and constant n-bombs, for light comedy, especially for the modern reader, and it's a bit on the silly side as a straight historical adventure with social commentary.

I've read that the character softens throughout the series, becoming closer to a Blackadder, to be more of a loveable scoundrel. I always seem to have a limit with these kind of characters. It's an essential part of comedy for characters to satirize the less honorable side of human nature, but at a certain point it seems to indulge it a bit too much. Veep did the same thing to me through the seasons, as it felt like it went from "let's laugh at these horrible people" to "wouldn't be great to be able to get away with things like this, but not really" to "let's do a bunch of racist stuff but it's the character doing it, not us".

Well written and well regarded, but like a Ricky Gervais character (or Ricky Gervais himself, for that matter), the schtick gets wearisome.

Kindle version is currently overpriced, paperback available from Abebooks

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