Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Things come together

One of my favorite aspects of reading is the occasional serendipitous convergence, wherein something I’ve picked up one place turns up in another book I’m reading later. Nonfiction and fiction interweave, and knowledge gleaned in one area resonates in another. A reader brings those moments on himself, largely, through his preoccupations—in my case, it’s primarily my Anglophilia—but they’re still a pleasant surprise.

Reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman this weekend, I enjoyed several such moments. Flashman purports to be the first installment of the autobiographical writings of a Victorian soldier who happens also to be, in Harry Flashman’s own words, “a coward and a scoundrel.” Throw in womanizer, imperialist, opportunist, violent brute, misogynist, and casual racist, and you’ve got Flashman down. George MacDonald Fraser pretends to have been given the papers to edit upon their discovery in a trunk at mid-century; he’s been doling them out in novel-length installments since 1969.
Fraser found the germ of Flashman in a passing reference in the Victorian boys’ novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays; he’s mentioned as a bully who, deservedly, is drummed out of Rugby. From that mention, Fraser created a character whom he has now followed through more or less all the great military disasters and blunders of the Victorian era, from the charge of the Light Brigade to Little Big Horn. Throughout, Flashman cheats and lies and wenches his way, never sticking his neck out for anyone except himself; yet time after time, he ends up covered in undeserved glory. Explaining how he retailed a post-battle packet of lies to his superiors, Flashman says
I can say that I told it well—off-hand, but not over-modest; just a blunt soldier reporting to his seniors. It calls for nice judgment, this art of bragging; you must be plain, but not too plain, and you must smile only rarely. Letting them guess more than you say is the kernel of it, and looking uncomfortable when they compliment you.

At times, Flashman’s cowardice and lack of ethics can be downright uncomfortable. Fraser is doubtless saying something about the nature of heroism,the lies of hero-worship, and the concept of honor, but overriding such concerns is his desire to tell an exciting story—which he does, thereby somehow salvaging the time he’s asking us to spend with this frequently horrid man.

Flashman finds Harry Flashman beginning his military career serving under Lord Cardigan, commander of the 11th Hussars, later to enter history at Balaclava as the Light Brigade. Therein lay the weekend’s first convergence: about a year ago, I was given by my friend Maggie (about whose excellent gifts of books an entire post will come later) Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why, which, though nearly fifty years old, seems still to be regarded as the best account of the catastrophe that was the charge of the Light Brigade. It’s utterly engrossing, simultaneously an explanation and a riveting recreation. Lord Cardigan (whose name lives on in the sweaters he wore while awaiting orders on his yacht in the weeks before the charge) I knew from Woodham-Smith to be an arrogant martinet and world-class incompetent; fortunately, Flashman inadvertently manages, through a couple of ill-advised adventures with women, to get detached from the 11th Hussars—though he will eventually return, for he mentions later surviving the slaughter at Balaclava.

For now, he finds himself serving in Afghanistan, which the British had recently invaded in order to prop up a friendly king and thus ensure a buffer between India and Russia. That was the second convergence: New Year’s weekend I spent editing my friend Steve’s thesis, wherein he applies social movement theory to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War and the mujahideen fighting against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. Reading the novel, I kept thinking back to Steve’s thesis and seeing a direct line between the meddling of the British Empire and the meddling of the United States and Russia in more recent times. Flashman sees through it all; one of the benefits of a narrator who is utterly unsentimental and truthful is that he clearly sees all illusions—even those of an empire he’s serving—as ultimately self-serving lies. The British position is unjustifiable and untenable, and Flashman’s only concern is that he live through the inevitable disaster.

Just as in reality, the British are forced from their station in Kabul in an ignominious retreat that quickly turns into a deadly rout, the horrors of which Fraser conveys as well as anyone I’ve read. Harried by Afghan raiding parties, the army of 14,000 (some 4,000 soldiers, with the rest families, servants, and Indian and Afghan camp followers) is doomed from the start. Within days, it is utterly destroyed, with but a single man surviving to reach the garrison at Jallalabad. I had a clear image of him riding in, but it took a few hours for me to realize that the image was not my own: it was from a painting by a Lady Butler, The Remains of an Army, which I had seen a year or two ago in A. N. Wilson’s The Victorians.

Flashman of course survives as well, though detached from the army in a harrowing battle midway through the march. He survives in large part because he has by chance teamed up with a non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Hudson. In the course of their flight, he begins to think about the relationship of officers and the lower ranks, much along the lines of what I discussed earlier on this blog when writing about Admiral Nelson. Early in the escape, noting Hudson’s particular competence, Flashman says
I found myself considering this Sergeant Hudson for the first time, for beyond noticing that he was a steady man I had given him not much notice before. After all, why should one notice one’s men very much?

Writing sixty years later, however, about Hudson’s questioning of some of the command decisions that led to the ruination of the army, Flashman says
I didn’t think much of Hudson’s questions about Gandamack and Elphy at the time; if I had done I would have been as much amused as angry, for it was like a foreign language to me then. But I understand it now, although half our modern generals don’t. They think their men are a different species still—fortunately a lot of ‘em are, but not in the way the generals think.

Knowing what he himself is not—good, brave, ethical, self-sacrificing—Flashman is all the more impressed when he finds those qualities, and so is the reader.
But Flashman learns nothing from Hudson’s heroism, except possibly that the wages of heroism are death, and he ends the book unrepentant and covered in the false glory that only an empire can bestow. He’s even featured in a cartoon in Punch, which makes for the weekend’s final convergence, as Punch’s editor for many years was the father of novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose review of Barbara Pym first set me to reading Pym, about whom more later this week.

I think this is what paranoids are talking about, only less sinister: if you’re looking for pattern, it’s there to be found.

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