Book Report 004: George MacDonald Fraser, THE PYRATES

Lyons Press · 1983

I bought it because the Flashman novels caught my youthful attention (though I never read one, I was too much of a prig) and because when I glanced down the first page in the used-book store I read the most magnificent opening run-on sentence in comic literature, reproduced in full here because why the hell not it's my blog:
It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shining on the silent snow, and Claud Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets, teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husbands' guineas; an England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers' fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton's heart good; where threadbare pedlars with sharp eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of 'Hudibras' and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o'er everywhere . . .
And now I've read the book and have to think of something to tell you about it.

My first impulse is to call it Pirates of the Caribbean as taken from the whimsical showbizzy angle of The Princess Bride, but other, less obvious, analogies occur, not least those suggested by Fraser himself in the appendix. I'm guessing a thick chunk of the book is merely opaque to those who haven't read Jeffrey Farnol or Rafael Sabatini, and if you don't see the appeal of Errol Flynn movies — or really anything Hollywood used to do back when "historical" meant frilly costumes, bigger sets than usual, and the same old hokum as in every other picture — then you might want to give this one a pass. On the other hand, Fraser might just win you over to his point of view.

This isn't the place to go into the beef I have with the received wisdom that the first PotC movie was good and the second two stank — it's true of the Matrix films but it's not true here — but my suspicion that people who call it stupid are really just saying it's not to their taste (that they are, in effect, "over" pirates) has some bearing here. Me, I'm a romancer from the cradle, I've read my Farnol and Sabatini (and my Stevenson and Orczy and Doyle and Dumas and De La Mare and golly 1890 to 1920 was a fine time for historical romance if you hang around in the right used-book stores) — and I enjoyed The Pyrates tremendously.

Because I'm also deeply familiar with studio Hollywood and Fraser, anachronizing like mad and driving the point home that the age of Romance wi' a Straight Face is over, lards his tale with meta gags like having a stirring soundtrack come up at key battles, peppering the romancer's sixteenth-century dialect with the kind of back chat you'd expect to hear at Minsky's or the Stork Club, and laying it on thick about the bazoominess of the female cast. All in good fun; but of course what's good fun in one era isn't so hot in another, and a faint whiff of the attitude which would later boast about not being politically correct emerges from the pages. (A banquet set in a Royal Spanish castle has music by Xavier Cugat & Orchestra and serves tacos and enchiladas; which is A, a cute joke about all Latin culture being undifferentiated in Anglo eyes, B, an easy way to duck out of doing any actual research about sixteenth-century Spanish colonial mores, and C, actually slightly racist.) I don't want to lay too much stress on this — after all, I haven't read the Flashman books, I don't know what Fraser's "normally" like; but given that quite a few jokes land at the expense of (and never on the side of) feminism and "women's lib," I know where my prejudices lie.

But to happier matters. I typed out that long quote above because that was what I liked best about the book, Fraser hitting those particular English-romance buttons (Farnol again, wi' a wannion). In fact I could have done entirely without the winking-and-nudging Hollywood overlay, but if that's how it all ran together in Fraser's mind who am I to say him nay, and anyway you've gotta be at least a little meta nowadays (by which I mean post-1960 or so) or how do you know you're alive? And to be sure I was a little disappointed (just a leetle, as minor characters in Dickens used to say) that the action didn't ruddy stay in England, but went out into a wholly imaginary Spanish Main, but Fraser remained so goddamn entertaining throughout that who cares.

I've got more Fraser in the collection — at least one Flashman paperback, maybe more. (I really should catalog it sometime.) I don't know that I'll pull it out within the year; there's a lot of otherwise on the shelves. I certainly won't be dreading a visit to his world, though.

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