If you’re after likeable, admirable or decent heroes, it’s no secret that you should steer well clear of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. The bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is given a gift for languages and equestrianism, and then sent out to make his cowardly way through the world, cheating, lying, toadying and backstabbing (sometimes literally) his way to a Victoria Cross, a Medal of Honour, two senior knighthoods, the Danish Order of the Elephant, and so on and so forth. His primary concerns are saving his own skin, winning the praise of others, and sleeping with anything female; he will do more or less anything in pursuit of these goals. Add to this a knack for keen observation and you have a surprisingly compelling, though at the same time repellently terrible, lead character.
In fact, part of Flashman’s charm derives, I think, from the fact that he’s so nearly a good-but-flawed hero. He is capable of applying himself, of bluff and bravado, of charm and clear thinking under pressure. If he were less of a selfish, caddish poltroon, we might like him; even a bit of cowardice can be forgiven. But Flashman also has, shall we say, lax attitudes to sexual consent (I will be blunt: he is a rapist once by his own admission and probably more by a stricter standard). He will engage in murder and lesser skulduggery to preserve his own reputation. And this is Fraser’s great balancing act: he takes a despicable character (the Flashman of Tom Brown) and, without making him less despicable (indeed, if anything, Fraser’s Flash is worse, the apotheosis of the drunken school bully), makes him three-dimensional, fit to be the lead, a mixture of qualities. There could have been an interesting and compelling story to be told about how bully Flash found a vocation in the army, and grew from a school bully into a decent man. This is not that story.
The French, I maintain, are odd, and none much odder than Jean-Paul Sartre. The Age of Reason concerns Mathieu Delarue, a professor who gets his mistress pregnant in the last years of the 1930s and seeks four thousand francs to procure an illegal abortion. The nature of freedom, the difference between bourgeois nonsense and moral behaviour, hatred and love and sex and age: this, the first book of the Roads to Freedom trilogy, is eternally baffled by them all. (Mathieu, enjoyably, drinks at a place called Camus’s, named of course after the equally famous Albert Camus, a friend of Sartre’s until they fell out over the Soviet Union, and the author of The Outsider.)
I go, I go away, I walk, I wander, and I wander to no purpose: this is the University vacation, everywhere I go I bear my shell with me, I remain at home in my room, among my books, I do not approach an inch nearer to Marrakesh or Timbuctoo. Even if I took a train, a boat, or an autocar, if I went to Morocco for my holiday, if I suddenly arrived at Marrakesh, I should be always in my room, at home. And if I walked in the squares and in the souks, if I gripped an Arab’s shoulder, to feel Marrakesh in his person, well! – that Arab would be at Marrakesh, and not I: I should still be seated in my room, placid and meditative as is my chosen life, two thousand miles away from the Moroccan and his burnous. In my room. For ever.
With Boris, his student, and Ivich, Boris’s sister, and Lola, Boris’s lover, and Marcelle, his own, and Daniel (and who knows just who Daniel is?), Mathieu’s two days, for that is the timespan of the novel, batter him this way and that, until all his settled ideas are jumbled and all his comfortable certainties – he, who values his own notion of freedom above all! – are discomfited. I don’t think I can deny that it is wonderful, in that overpowering way. Mathieu has reached the age of reason (to be read as being like “the age of consent”, rather than “the age of flower power”). But what does that mean or require? I don’t know. Sartre almost certainly doesn’t. Reading it should, I think, exhaust you. It certainly did me.
Author George MacDonald Fraser
Best character Captain Mackenzie, a genuinely good officer. Most are incompetent at best.
The Age of Reason
Author Jean-Paul Sartre
Best character Boris, perhaps; in my opinion, the most self-aware character in the entire piece. But Daniel is, in some ways, more interesting.