reading etc: george macdonald fraser

Posted on January 5th, 2014 by Scraps.
Categories: Books, Short Stories, Words, Writers.

I'm slowly enjoying reading again, at least sometimes. Complicated reads are still frustrated for me at the sentence level. And I can't delve into why I'm enjoying anything*, let alone analyze anything. But I'm going to report what I'm reading, because.**

The last two books I've read in the previous year were The General Danced at Dawn and McAuslan in the Rough, two books of short stories somewhat based on true events of George MacDonald Fraser's life as a lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders after World War II, mostly in North Africa. I bought them used at St Vincent de Paul; I didn't know they existed, but I read (a long time ago) almost all the Flashman books.

They're mostly good. Fraser is funny, of course. The viewpoint character, MacNeill (presumably Fraser), is complicated and he looks back on himself with kindness but sometimes of course he's wrong. Mostly he's good, trying to lead, eventually learning. He's very much the opposite of Flashman. Sometimes that's embarrassing. With Flashman you know he's a cad and a coward. With MacNeill, his views of Arabs, in passing but everywhere, is uncomfortable-making. There is a story that is about a black man who wants to play with the band, and the author is at pains to point out this was in the forties. The dialogue in which the black man gets in is fascinating, one of the the best in the book, diving into the heads of several of the men, and you can see how very carefully Fraser gets dialog. But Arabs? Apparently Fraser hasn't seen the necessity of treating Arabs as people. (The two books were written in the early seventies.) I'm not treating Fraser severely, I think; I think he's a good guy, etc. (Anyway, he's a good writer.) But I wouldn't recommend these two books to Arabs***.

(Another thing that bemused me. I'll just quote:

This was in the days when the British Army was still spread all round the globe, acting as sentry, policeman, teacher, nurse, and diplomat in the wake of the Second World War, and getting no thanks for it at all.

No irony, if you're wondering.)

But another good thing or two. There are several long paragraphs, usually setting up the story, economical and pleasing, lots of them with long sentences linked with several semi-colons. It looks easy, but. Eventually I started looking for them, because it was pleasing. And the characterization was fleshed out immediately, even though they were mostly comic characters.

I bought them thinking that these were comic novels (or linked short story collections), like the Flashman books, and the publishers sold them that way. But they were not really; comic-tinged, but human, lived-through books.

* I wrote this before writing what came after. I, uh, will still defend that "can't delve into why" thing... my thoughts around my thinking is always scattered, and I still, looking back on what I've immediately written, is how I didn't express most of my thoughts clearly through my brain-fog.

** "because" is the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. I approve.

*** I know late in life Fraser took shots at "political correctness". If you want to point this out, and j'accuse! me: yawn.


Jo Walton

Comment on January 5th, 2014.

There's a third one called _The Sheikh and the Dustbin_.

I am ridiculously fond of these books, which have been comfort reading for years. There's something about the way in which they are anecdotes polished into both humour and humanity that really works. I like them much better than the Flashman books, which haven't worn well for me.


Comment on January 5th, 2014.

I think I read the Flashman books only once, which probably is a good idea.

I liked Elspeth, because she always gets her way, and Harry really doesn't understand. I don't remember any specifics other than that.

(Is The Sheikh and the Dustbin good? It's written many years after the first two, and the second one ends up with MacNeill demobbed. Is the third one oh-I-remember-one-more-thing stories?)

Jo Walton

Comment on January 6th, 2014.

Yeah, it's oh-I-remember, but I'm not sorry I read it. It's not what I reach for when I want those stories though.

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