Friday, February 7, 2020

Helpless laughter

From "No flash in the pan by John Steele Gordon" about my favorite series of historical novels:
.... This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first installment of the Flashman Papers, entitled simply Flashman.

Through the course of twelve books Flashman finds himself, despite his best efforts, at the heart of nearly every major military disaster of the nineteenth century: the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Rorke’s Drift, even Custer’s Last Stand. And, thanks to luck and guile—Flashman always had plenty of both—he came up smelling like a rose every time. By the end of his life he was a brigadier general and a Knight of the Bath. He had been awarded numerous decorations for bravery, including the British Victoria Cross, the American Medal of Honor, and the French L├ęgion d’honneur, all of them richly undeserved. ....

Flashman was the brilliant conception of the British author George MacDonald Fraser. Flashman had been a minor character in Thomas Hughes’s Victorian classic Tom Brown’s School Days—so minor he didn’t even have a first name in that book. As the school bully at Rugby, Flashman had made Tom Brown’s life hell until he had been expelled for drunkenness. ....

But Fraser took this thinly fleshed-out character and brought him to life by means of a masterly literary conceit. Had he simply written these books as third-person novels, it is unlikely they would have caught on....

Instead, Fraser wrote them in the first person, explaining that they were actually the memoirs of Harry Flashman. “The great mass of manuscript known as the Flashman Papers,” he wrote, “was discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashy, Leicestershire, in 1965.... The papers, which had apparently lain untouched for fifty years, in a tea chest...were carefully wrapped in oilskin covers.” All Fraser had to do, he explained, was edit them very lightly and supply footnotes and endnotes. As far as I know, the Flashman Papers are the only novels in the English language, perhaps besides Tolkien’s, with extensive back matter, at least back matter written by the author and not an English professor determined, as they always are, to make a good book boring. ....

And the endnotes reveal another of Fraser’s literary conceits. For while Harry Flashman is completely fictional, the world he lived in for so long (his dates are 1822–1915) was very real, as were many of the characters and events in the Flashman Papers. Fraser sticks to history as much as possible. Flashman wrote that he met Florence Nightingale, for instance, at Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s Scottish estate, on the night of September 22, 1856, and, indeed, Nightingale was there that day, as recorded in Queen Victoria’s letters. ....

...Flashman is absolutely honest and forthright about his manifold deficiencies as a human being. Memoirs are not exactly famous for their warts-and-all qualities, but the Flashman Papers are most definitely warts and all and then some. Flashman knew exactly what a rotter he had been all his life and had no trouble with it.

Each of the twelve Flashman books stands alone and can be read independently in any order. They were certainly not written in chronological order. But if you are new to Flashman, I’d advise reading them in chronological sequence, though not one right after another. Like a rich and delicious dessert, the Flashman Papers should be consumed one portion at a time. ....

And one final note of caution: these wonderful books are best read either alone or in the bosom of the family. For if you read them in a public place such as a suburban commuter train or a doctor’s waiting room, you will, from time to time, burst out in helpless laughter and everyone will turn around and look at you.

You have been warned. (much more)
The Wikipedia article on The Flashman Papers includes, at the end, the books listed according to the chronology of Flashman's fictional life:


No flash in the pan by John Steele Gordon | The New Criterion

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