George MacDonald Fraser Essay - Critical Essays

Fraser, George MacDonald

Fraser, George MacDonald 1925–

Fraser is an English novelist and short story writer, the creator of Harry Flashman. The first of the Flashman novels was received as serious fiction; now Fraser's farcical intentions are amply appreciated. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

"It is never difficult," said P. G. Wodehouse, "to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." And a Scotsman in an army uniform is a Scotsman with a grievance: We have encountered the techiness of this cast before, in George MacDonald Fraser's previous collection, The General Danced at Dawn. McAuslan in the Rough—his … collection of seven longish stories—offers all the enjoyment that readers must have felt when Kipling paraded out his own reckless subalterns…. Fraser's highland battalion is bursting with energy; hard-drinking and accident-prone, it is about as rambunctious as it is possible to be this side of court-martial. Above all, it is a wonderful antidote to the glum domesticity and boring indoor games that so many of our own short-story writers are currently marketing as important and compelling.

Fraser's artful appropriation of Flashman in the four-novel saga that is now called The Flashman Papers has made that intrepid bully seem larger than life (and a whole cult of readers has emerged to grasp at sequels). In The General and in McAuslan in the Rough, Fraser has created a character who might be a lower form of life, the Glasgow equivalent of the cross-eyed planaria. It is McAuslan himself, "the dumbest and dirtiest soldier in the world."… McAuslan is the colonel's nightmare, the lieutenant's despair, the terror of the Suk—the native bazaar—and the perpetrator of most of the regimental fiascoes. But McAuslan is indestructible—he shares that characteristic with the lower forms of life—and he also comes in handy at times. (pp. 3-4)

It is impossible to describe these stories without giving everything away. The pleasure in them is their swerving to the unguessable and unexpected, and they don't need the promotion of paraphrase. It goes almost without saying that they are very funny, but they are—or at least sound—very accurate as well, these chronicles of an overheated outpost. Late at night, when the conversation turns to the Indian Army or the Boer War, it is Kipling who is quoted, not the military historian; if people speculate in the same way on what it must have been like in the barracks and bazaars of the Western Desert, I would not be a bit surprised if they quote Fraser. This comedy is worth a dozen history books. (p. 4)

Paul Theroux, "Scotch on the Rocks," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 6, 1974, pp. 3-4.

If you can wade through the dialect [in McAuslan in the Rough] (after a while it becomes sport), eight masterly comic stories await. Creator of Flashman, literature's greatest cad, Fraser peoples his splendidly crafted stories of a Scots regiment in North Africa and Scotland in the Forties with memorable characters: his alter ego, Lieutenant MacNeil; the Colonel, whose moments of sagacity match the expectable overdose of bravado; the Padre, who golfs in a jersey embroidered for him by the "market mammies" of some St. Andrew's Kirk in West Africa, with his name in scarlet on the front and the Church of Scotland emblem on the back; and best of all, McA. himself, the ambulating disaster case, focal point of these parfit gentil tales. Sno' blouidy fair, so it's no', to us duffers, the way this Fraser fella writes. (p. 1311)

David MacBrudnoy, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 8, 1974.

[In "McAuslan in the Rough" Mr. Fraser's Scottish regiment] purveys military humor as nourishing as plum pudding. As a matter of fact, it would make an excellent substitute for plum pudding….

"McAuslan in the Rough" is loaded with good humor and Scottish charm, and if you have charm, as J. M. Barrie observed, you don't need anything else. (p. 41)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1974.

George MacDonald Fraser must surely be related to the George Macdonald who wrote those charming children's stories, The Princess and the Goblins, The Princess and Curdie, and The Back of the North Wind. The first is about a little princess who is kidnapped by some very poison-dwarf-like goblins and saved by a noble miner-boy. The second still more explicitly teaches that the healthy elements in every class should get together—not such a bad idea either. I remember especially that the little princess, after climbing innumerable stairs and getting lost in a rabbit-warren of passages, finally reaches a mysterious upper room in which her beautiful grandmother spins her own hair, which changes from silver to gold as she renews her youth. It is an allegory akin to Rider Haggard's magnificent She. In a sense, I suppose, MacDonald Fraser carries on the same traditions, bringing the best and the worst together and worshipping beauty despite the continual presence of ugliness. I detect the same platonic form behind the appearances.

The most significant thing about Flashman is that, although he is a coward, most of the Britons around him, representing people who really lived, are anything but cowards. It is as though he were designed as a foil to show off their bravery, and to draw hidden but significant parallels with our own epoch. Besides, Flashman is something of an impostor where cowardice is concerned. He can fight at a pinch and is a man of action. Your true coward will cringe and whine even when action might save him. Also, there is some generosity in Flashman, as when he has the mutineers unbound from the cannon after being released himself…. Flashman [exemplifies] courage,… largely by contrast. (p. 37)

H. D. Purcell, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright H. D. Purcell 1976; reprinted with permission), July, 1976.