I suppose I should resign myself to every one of my literary idols gradually fading away and passing on. They were at their prime when I was young and impressionable, and now that I’m a bit older most of them have more than lived out their allotted three score and ten. Sometimes the loss is so great that as a reader I wish that it were possible for writers to earn literal immortality rather than just living on through their works. That’s how I feel about George MacDonald Fraser whose tale came to an end on Thursday, after a prolonged struggle with cancer, at the age of 82.
Fraser started his literary career after serving in the Gordon Highlanders during and after World War II. He began as a journalist and editor in Glasgow and soon moved on to writing short stories, novels and screenplays, hitting the height of his commercial success in the 1970s and early 80s when he was constantly on the bestseller lists with his Flashman novels and in high demand in Hollywood and working on Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies. Fraser had a sly wit and a great sense for personality. Of his contemporaries only Tom Stoppard exceeded him in putting clever words in the mouths of memorable characters. Fraser was also a consumate historian. Even when he was turning history on its ear he always maintained the integrity of the historical events he wrote about and even provided extensive footnotes to point the reader towards other interesting sidelines of history worth exploring.
Fraser’s fiction worked so well because it was so invested with his own experiences and observations of life. You can see this quite clearly in his MacAuslan stories, collected in MacAuslan in the Rough, The General Danced at Dawn and The Sheikh and the Dustbin which drew heavily on his own military experiences and conveyed his love of the men and traditions of the Scotts units in the British military. The stories are hilarious, but they are also full of endearing characters and a good bit of history and a real feel for the life and times of those serving in the military in the aftermath of the war.
Fraser’s skills as a pure wordsmith may be best displayed in his screenplays. Oliver Reed, Michael York, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay never had better words to speak on screen and in many ways their appearance in the Fraser scripted Four Musketeers in 1974 marks the height of their careers. Fraser is also largely responsible for providing Arnold Schwarzenneger with the first role in which he came off as intelligent and even witty as the thief Kalidor, though even Fraser’s words couldn’t make Brigitte Nielsen seem like more than an animated manequin.
Of course, Fraser will be most remembered for his twelve remarkable novels about arch-cad Harry Flashman and his efforts to scandalize the British Empire and bed every famous woman in history. In Flashman Fraser created one of the most memorable characters of 20th century literature, a person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever who would stoop to any depravity and commit any crime to advance himself. He is a fool and a coward who somehow through pure luck and personal charm manages to always come out on top of his enemies. Despicable though he is, it’s impossible to hate Flashman even as his behavior outrages you. Fraser’s integration of his fictional character with historical events is brilliant and the novels are worth reading just as history, though they are much more. Sadly, Flashman has never gotten the memorable film treatment he deserves. Fraser defended Richard Lester’s 1975 production of Royal Flash, but Malcolm MacDowell was miscast as the robust Flashman, and Lester’s direction was too surreal and over-the-top and distracts from the story. Fraser deserves a better Flashman movie as a memorial.
Fraser also wrote some very good historical novels including the short but riveting
Black Ajax and The Candlemass Road and The Steel Bonnets which are set on the Scottish border and provide a great look at the history of the unique border society. The Reivers which was published just a couple of months ago, uses that same setting for humor in the comic opera style of his earlier novel The Pyrates, with mixed success. It’s a fun read, but the mixture of history and modern idiom is nothing if not bizarre and makes the novel hard to really get a grip on. In some ways it’s quite brilliant, but it’s also distracting. Rather like reading history as told by the Evening Standard.
Fraser did leave us with two excellent memoirs. Quartered Safe Out Here is a fairly striaghtforward but very informative account of his experiences in Burma during World War II. Light’s On at Signpost is a more recent release and combines reminiscences of his time working on movies with political observations of contemporary Britain. In it Fraser writes as a voice for his generation, the last one to grow up when Britain was truly an empire. He was a great traditionalist, and his criticism of Britain’s drift away from its values and history is very effective. Fraser argues powerfully against the dilution of British national character and the abandonment of traditions for a modernity which is dehumanizing and offers nothing of real value to replace what has been lost.
Above all, Fraser was a great storyteller. I wish there were more tales of Flashman or MacAuslan in our future, but at least the ones he gave us are good enough to read again and again. If you haven’t read Fraser go out and start with Flashman and if you’re already familiar with his work, read him all over again, because we’re not likely to see his equal again in our lifetimes.