Jeff Abramowitz was born in South Africa and has lived in Israel since 1979. He's spent most of his adult life in the news business, for reasons he can't quite understand but which probably have to do with punishment for sins committed in a previous incarnation. At present he is a correspondent for an international news agency and, like many in the trade, the author of several unwritten novels and works of non-fiction. Jeff writes here about books he keeps returning to.
Jeff Abramowitz on the Flashman books - and other books
This is daunting. Writing for a living does not make one a writer and being a compulsive reader does not really equip one to analyze any work of fiction or non-fiction. Looking through the list of previous contributions to this series, I realized that I'd not heard of most of the books or authors, never mind read any of them - with the exception of the Tintin books and Alan Furst's Dark Star. I would even go so far as to say that when it comes to reading, my tastes in fiction lean toward the Philistine, but then I'm in danger of finding an entry on one of the media-monitoring web sites exclaiming that a Tel Aviv-based journalist admits to leaning toward the Palestinians.
In fact, having received Norm's invitation, I feel sympathy for Morris Katz, the protagonist of Max Shulman's Potatoes Are Cheaper, who finds himself having to live up to the expectations of his Irish-Catholic girlfriend, Bridget O'Flynn ('she's one of the O'Flynns from Minsk'). She's convinced all Jews are communists and intellectuals, and shleps him to an exhibit 'of somebody called Chagall, who paints very Jewish... frankly by me pictures of flying rabbis is no way to kill an afternoon'. (The book also contains the superlative heartfelt lament to thwarted ambition with which an awful lot of journalists can identify: 'The business I picked was to be a madly successful novelist. This is the business I got.')
In truth, I cannot say there is one book I've read which changed my life. There are, however, books and authors I keep returning to.
Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minster, for example. While the TV series were superb, for my money the published version, in the form of Jim Hacker's diaries, is even better. It has taught me more about the art of politics than any political science course I ever signed up for. Whether the books reflect accurately the machinations of government in Britain is something on which I cannot comment. As I understand it, the genesis of the series lay in a number of television interviews one of the authors, Anthony Jay, conducted with Harold Wilson, and some of The Great Pretender's anecdotes found their way into the scripts.
I suspect the series is more fact than fancy, not just as regards Britain, but even those countries whose civil service is not Oxbridge-trained. Take for example the bit in Yes, Prime Minister where Hacker says how he and the US president simply swapped briefing papers and spent the rest of their meeting rubbishing the French. After Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon had his stroke, then opposition leader Yossi Sarid revealed that during his monthly briefings with Sharon, the two had spent about five minutes discussing 'the situation' and devoted the rest of the time to making jokes about their political colleagues. And like the best observations, the cynicism is timeless. Here's Sir Humphrey's explanation of the likely reaction to a scheme to introduce the new European Identity Card:
The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it, the Italians and Irish will be too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it.The joy of the Minister series is that it purports to - and probably does - give the reader a behind-the-scenes look at the way things really work.
So too, in their own genre, do the Flashman books of George MacDonald Fraser - although in this case we're talking about the acquisition of the British Empire and the men and women who made it what it was. Fraser - this is a cliché, but no less true for all that – is one of those rare writers who can't pen a dull paragraph. Even the political rants of his The Light's on at Signpost are worthwhile.
As a historian, Fraser can more than hold his own. The Flashman books, purporting to be the private memoirs of Harry Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays, are so authentic and well-researched that some reviewers treated the first volume as non-fiction, a point Fraser gleefully makes in the introduction to Flash for Freedom, the third of the series.
Fraser, I suspect – and I think he has Flashman make this point somewhere along the line - is a devotee of the cock-up school of history. The books are also politically incorrect, reflecting what is an honest voice of its time and class, not burdened with modern touchy-feely guilt; and Flashman (or Fraser) is a sharp observer of what people call human folly when they really mean characteristics of which they disapprove.
Although the books deal with the nineteenth century, for those who wish to find them there are also plenty of comments on our own era. Take Flashy's remarks at the beginning of Flashman and the Redskins, after he's thrown out of his club for arguing with an anthropologist who'd been sounding off on American treatment of the Indians.
Usually I just sit and sneer when the know-alls start prating on behalf of the poor oppressed heathen... why I've absolutely heard 'em lauding the sepoy mutineers as honest patriots and I haven't even bothered to break wind by way of dissent. I know the heathen, and their oppressors, pretty well, you see and the folly of sitting smug in judgment years after, stuffed with piety and ignorance and book-learned bias. Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye, and helpless, and there's an end to it.The Flashman books have of course another advantage, apart from the knowledge you pick up. They are very, very funny, with brilliantly jaundiced observations of leading - and other - figures of the nineteenth century, including Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Earl of Cardigan, Colin Campbell, General Elphinstone ('we shall not, with luck, look upon his like again'), Hope Grant, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Bismarck, Oscar Wilde ('looking as usual like an overfed trout in a toupe') and Sherlock Holmes, (described variously as a 'looney', a 'conceited ass' and a 'know-all ignoramus'.)
There are many other books and authors I could ramble on about: Alan Furst, for example, whose opening sentence to Night Solders - 'In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stonianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia' - takes just 25 words to convey tone, atmosphere, time and place, and sets you up perfectly for what is to come in the remaining 500 pages. Or Mordecai Richler, with his acerbic observations, sly humour, warmth, and - especially in St Urbain's Horseman - dissection of modern Jewish neuroses. Or Thomas Flanagan and his beautifully written, heartbreaking Irish trilogy – The Year of the French, The Tenants of Time, The End of the Hunt.
My list is endless. As soon as I think of one book, several others come to mind. I think, in this, I've finally found something in common with the other Writer's choice contributors.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]