Happy birthday, Robert Louis Stevenson

Flashman, and other reprobates

I really enjoyed the recent two-week stint of My Life in Books that led up to World Book Day. Hearing Anne Robinson’s guests talk about their favourite books didn’t make me want to rush out and buy them, though, but tended to make me want to re-read my own favourites. The one exception was George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I’d heard a bit about it before, and its mention on the programme re-piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a go.

Flashman was published in 1969, but the character Harry Paget Flashman dates back to 1857, when he was the bully in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. In the Flashman Papers (as the series is called), George MacDonald Fraser has that same school bully narrate the events of his subsequent life — a life in which this self-confessed coward, cad and reprobate becomes embroiled in many of the major historical events of the Victorian Age. (The first book, for instance, sees him slap-bang in the midst of the first Anglo-Afghan War.) The Flashman books are so gleefully un-PC, they can’t be taken as anything but satire — satire on the Empire itself, and on the essential emptiness of the myth of the Gentleman Hero it used to whitewash all the mingled racism, sexism and classism that drove it. As such, Flashman is a paragon — a gentleman to the last, he womanises, he beats his servants, he treats the lower classes with utter contempt, but nevertheless manages to come out seeming, in the eyes of the all-too-ready-to-believe Victorian public, a hero, despite the facts. (Though not entirely without his private comeuppances. The one woman he loves turns out to have just as cavalier an attitude to men as he does towards women.)

I didn’t quite enjoy the book enough to want to read the rest of the series, though. The trouble was, Flashman, as an anti-hero, doesn’t really go far enough. Yes, he’s a reprobate, a coward and a cad, but he never came across as having sufficient relish for his misdeeds, and as a result just seems rather mean-spirited. (Exactly like a bully, I suppose, but that’s not enough to sustain a series.) He was too matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and seemed to have no real motivation apart from escaping with his hide intact. If he’d just been that much more of an connoisseur of his own wickedness, it would have given him that much more vivacity, that much more life, that much more character.

This becomes obvious if you compare him with similar roguish types. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for instance, who is such a larger-than-life reprobate his very cowardice becomes a sort of heroism. Falstaff is a poet of self-justification. He has such a way with words that, at the very moment he’s talking his way out of being caught lying, he turns it into something that is both wonderfully comic and humanly tragic at the same time. Accused of being a thief, he says: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal; ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Explaining his running away when the disguised Hal robs him so easily, he talks his very cowardice into a proof that he is in fact a “valiant lion”. His lies are so boldfaced, so brazen and bombastic, but he wins us over by being so very human, so full of life.

Or, to take another historical cad: Edmund Blackadder. Just as much a coward, a cad and a reprobate as Harry Flashman, Blackadder lives for the cunning plan, for the witty reversal of his ill-fortunes, so that while we can laugh at him for his downfalls, we can also feel for him when he comes out on top. What makes you want to feel for him is the joy he takes in his own rascallous actions.

A third example comes from another book I read for the first time recently, Treasure Island. Although it is narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, the character that lingers in the mind once the book is finished is Long John Silver. When Silver speaks, it’s like he’s snatching the pen from Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand. He commands the page. Silver is, of course, a pirate — the very source of all one-legged, grog-swilling, blue-tongued, be-parrotted pirates ever since — but he’s no pantomime villain. He is gloriously, impeccably self-interested. As soon as the pirates are losing, he’s ready to switch sides. He vows his life and loyalty to young Jim, but as soon as there’s a whiff of treasure to be had, he’s ready to switch back again. There’s a wonderful moment when a mere look from Silver reveals his true inner character in a flash of betrayal:

Silver hobbled, grunting, on his crutch; his nostrils stood out and quivered; he cursed like a madman when the flies settled on his hot and shiny countenance; he plucked furiously at the line that held me to him and from time to time turned his eyes upon me with a deadly look. Certainly he took no pains to hide his thoughts, and certainly I read them like print. In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten: his promise and the doctor’s warning were both things of the past, and I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the HISPANIOLA under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.

Alone of all the pirates, Silver escapes with his life at the end — and, in a sense, escapes the confines of the book, too, for he’s the one character with life enough to become so much more than the words he was made out of.

Compared to Falstaff, Blackadder and Long John Silver, Flashman seems a bit pallid. Perhaps this is just because, in the first book, he’s young, and the above examples are all of people with a bit more experience behind them. Does the series get better? Does Flashman get more caddish, more full of life? If I knew, I’d venture to read some of the rest.

A Plague of Scanspellos

They’re not typos, they’s scanspellos — errors that come not from someone mistyping something and failing to check it, but from someone scanning something in, running a quick OCR and spellcheck, then thinking that’s enough work on that one and publishing the damn thing. And I’m not talking about people putting stuff up on the web, I’m talking about supposedly professionally produced books available through Amazon. And this plague of scanspellos is set to get a lot worse as ebooks gain in popularity.

It’s not an issue limited to ebooks. The old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks had their fair share of typos, for instance — enough to make me want to replace them with a higher quality edition if I ever wanted to re-read them, but never so many that it made me give up reading them to start with. I first read A Voyage to Arcturus in its Ballantine edition, and although the typos were mildly annoying, they never got in the way of my understanding — and in fact being bowled over by — the book. It was always obvious they were typos. The trouble with scanspellos (a horrible word for a horrible phenomenon) is, because they involve a careless run through a spellchecker, they’re that much less obvious. The first book that really got my readerly goat as far as scanspellos are concerned was, in fact, another edition of A Voyage to Arcturus, in this case one produced by a university press — Bison Press, who are associated with the University of Nebraska. In a supposedly “commemmorative” edition (that’s one “m” too many, they even managed to introduce an error on the cover), the text was so garbled I actually fired an email off to the publisher (and never got a reply of course). Although it was full of silly little obvious errors, including number 1’s for letter l’s (hardly an important error, but irritating enough to act as a constant distraction from pure reading), some of the words, and therefore the meaning, had actually been changed. At one point, for instance, the text said, “The short stranger turned and comforted the party”. Any reader new to Arcturus would read that and take it at face value, but I, having read the novel a fair few times and knowing that the very essence of the “short stranger”, Krag, is discomfort — he is a supernatural being who has another name in our world, and it is Pain — checked that sentence in another edition and found it was supposed to read “The short stranger turned and confronted the party” — an entirely different meaning.

I’ve recently been reading Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural, a bumper volume of Algernon Blackwood stories. This is from House of Stratus, a publisher who has issued a lot of Blackwood in affordable paperback form. A while ago I bought their edition of his novel, The Human Chord, and it was a well-produced paperback. I thought Tales would be up to the same standard. In fact it was scanspelloed to the hilt. “Her” constantly replaced “for”, “ox” replaced “or”, “axe” replaced “are”, “lie” replaced “he”, among many, many others. Worst of all was its constant replacement of long dashes with hyphens. This might sound like a minor annoyance on a par with number 1’s for letter l’s, but it was actually the thing that most interrupted my reading. There’s a constantly disruptive effect in reading a sentence like:

“The Club-it crossed his tortured mind for a second-was impossible.”

The worst thing was, once I’d been reading the book for a while, I found myself looking at hyphenated words I came across elsewhere, wondering if they were supposed to have a dash or a hyphen between them, and tentatively re-reading them each way before continuing.

Neither of these examples are of ebooks. I recently read Treasure Island on my Kindle, in the free edition offered by Amazon. That actually had very few scanspellos, but had plenty of examples of the other fault that irritates me about ebooks — poor design. I hate books that use html-style paragraphing (a double line-space between paragraphs rather than a single line break and an indent). The free edition of Treasure Island didn’t do that, fortunately, but quite frequently had line breaks within paragraphs, though aside from that — and the poor formatting of chapter headings — it was generally readable. But bad enough to persuade me to pay for a book I want to read in future.

None of this is because of the rise of ebooks, or of print-on-demand technology (the House of Stratus book was POD, the Bison Press wasn’t), but it is an effect of the ease with which old, often out-of-print, books can be brought into production nowadays. On the one hand, I applaud publishers for bringing hard-to-find works back into print once more — particularly the Algernon Blackwood novels and stories. But the very thing that makes it viable for them to do so is that they can put so little effort into it — just scan them, OCR & spellcheck them, and release them to the public without a proper (human) proofread. And the trouble is that once these cheap editions are out there, it makes it so much less likely that a proper publisher — one who will actually check what they publish — will bring out a better edition to replace it, one which will necessarily be more expensive, and so sell less.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a better way of reading out-of-print books. I download them as PDFs from archive.org. Kindles are generally pretty bad for reading PDFs because they either shrink them too small to read in order to fit on the screen, or you have to constantly pan right and left to read them; but books of a certain age are just the right size to fit on a Kindle screen and remain readable. And they’ve got a good selection of Algernon Blackwoods at archive.org.