Friday, January 04, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser, 1925 — 2008

In which we lament the passing and celebrate the works and life of one of the giants of historical fiction

More than anything else, George MacDonald Fraser was a man.

He was best known as the author of the "Flashman" series of books, about a ne'er-do-well officer in British Army who somehow manages to scrape through the greatest battles of the century with nary a scratch. But Fraser was also a redoubtable journalist, a talented screenwriter, historian and a great warrior, having served in the Scottish Border Regiment in the Burma campaign — one of the bitterest and most brutal of the war — and later as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders in the Mid-East and North Africa.

The Flashman books, as well as his other novels, such as Black Ajax and Mr. American, have given me and other fans countless hours of pleasure. But it is his memoir of the Burma campaign Quartered Safe Out Here that most captivates. It begins with the wholly un-PC phrase, "The first time I smelt Jap… " and continues to take the reader on a ride through the almost surreal landscape that was war against an implacable enemy in a trackless jungle.

In his opinions he spared none, and asked no quarter.

The best of the Flashman books — there were 12 in all — was Flashman at the Charge which takes our wiley anti-hero, Harry Flashman, from the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava into the heart of southern Russia, through the Caspian and Ural seas and finally back into British India. His descriptions of the semi-feudal Russia in the Wintertime in the 19th century are magnificent in their detail.

In addition, Fraser wrote the screenplays for both "The Three Muskateers" and "The Four Muskateers" (directed by Richard Lester and staring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway and Richard Chamberlain) two of the best and funniest swashbucklers films ever produced.

As a writer, Fraser seemed never to be concerned about appearing literary. This unpretentiousness was one of his great strengths. What Fraser had was an ear and flare for the English language as it was spoken throughout Britain, the Empire and in America. He also had an uncanny ability for showing history through the eyes of both fictional and true-to-life characters. In fact, for 20 years Fraser's work has spurred me to learn more about history in both the British Empire and in America than any textbook ever did. In Fraser, history came alive.

His last book, The Reavers will appear posthumously in the U.S. in April.

This one's for you, George. Thanks.


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