Saturday, January 19, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser

Two days ago, I finished Quartered Safe Out Here, the wartime autobiography of my favorite author, George MacDonald Fraser. I got it for my birthday, and started reading it over Christmas. I wanted to read it for a couple of reasons; first and foremost, because I love reading anything the man writes, but I also had an agenda - I wanted to finish it before getting in touch with Mr. Fraser, or trying to. I asked Oni Press Editor James Lucas Jones to try and get his agent's contact info, because Fraser would hands-down be my first choice to blurb Crogan's, if he were inclined to do so. The man embodies everything I find fascinating about historical scholarship, has a great understanding of cinematic storytelling, and my thought was that if he liked it then I would have successfully accomplished what I'd set out to do. Plus I just have always wanted to have a conversation with him - I'm sure that you have a short-list of folks with whom you'd love to share a letter or a meal. Fraser topped mine, hands down.

Well, yesterday - the day after finishing the autobiography - I picked up a news magazine that Liz and I get and found his obituary.

So, I'll never have a chance to meet with or talk to him, to pass on work, etc, and that's okay; I'm more upset that there won't be any more installments to his brilliant Flashman Papers series.

Fraser was (indirectly, of course), one of the foremost influences in the direction that my life has taken, and artistically is certainly in the top two. His books - historical adventures and historical comedies, mostly - got me genuinely passionate about history and research. Seeing that the little things that help define a period are in themselves major plot points as well as realism enhancers was something that had never registered until I saw it pop up in his work time and time again. His Flashman book series also was a huge inspiration when it came to coming up with the Crogan series - while mine spans multiple generations, he created a character that was able to span one of the most interesting and action-packed centuries in history, and one whose exploits (like those of the Crogan family) could jump around chronologically at the whim of the writer. I'm sure the technique has likely been used before, and I'm sure it'll be used again, but in my case (subconsciously, at least) I'm sure that his use of it played an important factor.

He also wrote my favorite nonfiction book, The Hollywood History of the World. In it, he discusses a huge number of period films and addresses how they measure up to the "real" history... actually, let me just relay a passage from his introduction, which sums up his take on the book as a whole:

"There is a popular belief that where history is concerned, Hollywood always gets it wrong - and sometimes it does. What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history that Hollywood has got right, and the immense unacknowledged debt which we owe to the commercial cinema as an illustrator of the story of mankind. This although films have sometimes blundered and distorted and falsified, have botched great themes and belittled great men and women, have trivialized and caricatured and cheapened, have piled anachronism on solecism on downright lie - still, at their best, they have given a picture of the ages more vivid and memorable than anything in Tacitus or Gibbon or Macaulay, and to an infinitely wider audience. Nor have they necessarily been less scrupulous. At least they have shown history, more faithfully than they are usually given credit for, as it was never seen before. For better or worse, nothing has been more influential in shaping our visions of the past than the commercial cinema."

Fraser points out the factual inconsistencies, but also brings up a good point of whether or not those inconsistencies matter. In some cases they do, but in others a ripping good film might make one overlook whether or not people were using longbows in the tenth century, and so what if Chinese Gordon never met the Mahdi in person? The Mahdi's grandson himself, upon reading the screenplay, commented that "they should have!"
It's great book, and a must for anyone who has a joint interest in history and good movies; I have, through these pages, discovered a number of absolutely wonderful films that, for some reason or another, are long out of print.

In honor of his passing, I want to suggest a few titles to those with the inclination to read them. The first, of course, is the Hollywood History of the World. The second is Mr. American, which falls somewhere between a Western, a Jane Austen comedy of manners, and a Horation Alger success climb novel. It's the story of an old gun who makes some money and decides to move to England and settle down in polite society, though there may still be folks from his past that won't make it so easy. I've never been able to pick a favorite novel - The Once and Future King is a perennial option, as is Scaramouche, but this one definitely finds itself in the running.

Another is the Flashman Papers, starting with the first book, Flashman. High adventure and loads of learn-as-you-go history, but be prepared to find yourself cringing at the exploits of the main character. He is a thief, a heartless bully, a racist, a womanizer, a coward, a traitor, a lyer, a guy who would throw his own mother in front of a bullet if it meant sparing himself discomfort... and yet he always comes off looking like a hero, and you really can't help but like him. A lot. DON'T read them in Chronological order - read them in the order that they were published.

Fraser was in his eighties, and lived what seems to have been a fine life, and I'm incredibly grateful for the wonderful body of work he left behind. I'll leave off with a quote, culled from the autobiogaphy, and I hope that you all will take it to heart when reading or writing historical whatsits:

"You cannot, must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it. You may not like what you see, but do not on that account fall into the error of trying to adjust it to suit your own vision of what it ought to have been."


Anonymous said...

i'm so sorry to hear about his passing. i feel like a family member of yours has died, and for that, you have my sympathies.

Anonymous said...

I've never read any of his work Chris. I first heard he had passed away after reading Matt Sellman's blog at TIME.

Now after reading your words about him, I think I'll make that my next big read.