Friday, January 3, 2020

Happy Birthday, 007: James Bond at Forty

Written for Forbes-FYI in 1993.

Forty years have passed since Ian Fleming’s James Bond first put on evening dress and strode into the casino of our collective imagination.  In 1953 a lucky British public first glimpsed 007 standing alone by a roulette wheel (where else?) amid the elegant baroque of the casino at Royale-Les-Eaux, observing the enemy:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.  James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired.  He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge…”

From the opening pages of Casino Royale, 007 had it all: the sophistication we envied, the danger we dreamed of, the girls we desired, the life we wanted.  The fingerprints of Fleming’s style—an apparent worldliness, a precise sense of physical sensation, the urgency of the man alone—were already there.  By the time Fleming died in 1964, he’d created in fourteen books a mythological hero, one of the greats of the century, for Bond is part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones.  And though the Bond films will probably go on forever and a series of book sequels has already gone on too long, we should celebrate his anniversary by looking fondly back at the original: the British secret agent licensed not only to kill but virtually print money.  How, after all this time and nearly a hundred million copies sold, do Ian Fleming’s novels measure up?  Can an outdated book-Bond ever hope to withstand an up-to-date film-Bond?

There is an enormous difference, of course.  The films, which started as faithful adaptations of the books, became excursions into literally outer space.  (Over half the earth’s population has seen at least one Bond movie, for those who are keeping track.)  Film-Bond turned into a secret agent version of Superman, wearing a tux instead of a cape and destroying his enemies with quips and gadgetry.  Sean Connery’s finesse aside, book-Bond—the archetype—remains a more complex character, and his exploits human and attainable.

What stuns the most, going back to the Fleming canon, is the books’ hypnotic power—a sheer drive and compelling readability that overcome the dull patches, Bond’s total lack of humor, and many implausibilities.  (M. always seems to send our man into the teeth of an enemy who know every detail of his movements.)  This headlong tension may partly be the result of the novels always being written quickly; they often seem less planned than vividly dreamt.

Eric Ambler, arguably the finest thriller writer of all, told me a couple of years ago that he thought the Bond books “definitely deserve to be read as literature.”  Anthony Burgess went further: he called Goldfinger one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939, describing Bond as a “patriotic lecher with a tinge of Scottish puritanism in him, a gourmand and amateur of vodka martinis, a smoker of strong tobacco who does not lose his wind…against…megalomaniacs.”

Who, then, is James Bond?  A civil servant, probably born 1924; entered the employ of the Ministry of Defence at age seventeen, went to work for the Secret Service (M.I. 6) after the war.  He performs his duties, according to M., “with outstanding bravery and distinction” though “with a streak of foolhardy.”  He likes his eggs boiled for precisely three and a third minutes, and definitely smokes too much, a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobaccos custom-made for him; each cigarette bears three gold bands.  (At three packs a day, they must crowd his suitcase on long assignments.)  He stands a little over six feet, weighs about 167 pounds; he lives in a comfortable flat in a square off the King’s Road in Chelsea, London, on an income (mid-Fifties) of about $4,200 a year.  He has few friends.  Several women notice a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael, though it’s hard to see this in “the dark, rather cruel good looks” or “the thin vertical scar down his right cheek” or the “coldness and hint of anger in his grey-blue eyes.”

He is, however, emphatically not a spy: his job never involves stealing state secrets, blueprints for weapons, plans of invasion, etc.   (The closest he comes to traditional espionage is receiving a stolen Russian cipher machine.)  He is a secret agent, a loaded gun sent out to enact the will of his government without being caught.  His ancestors are neither the actual Sigmund Rosemblum (“Reilly, Ace of Spies”) or John Buchan’s fictional Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps), but Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden.

Despite some tentative passages—Fleming grew considerably as a writer in the first few books—Casino Royale still stands up as one of the best 007 novels.  Bond has been sent to the slightly faded French casino by M. to win a 50 million franc game of baccarat against Le Chiffre, paymaster of Smersh, the Soviet organization for counterespionage abroad (Fleming’s version of one sector of the KGB).  The prose is uneven but always vividly detailed; scene after scene are imprinted on the memory: Le Chiffre’s “obscene” benzedrine inhaler and the carpet-beater which he used to torture Bond genitally.  The precise gestures of the card-games—no one has ever bettered Fleming at conveying the mano-a-mano drama of “polite” competitions like golf, bridge, vingt-et-un.  The two Bulgar assassins blown up by a camera bomb (based on a real event from the war.)  And cool, dark-haired Vesper Lynd, first of the Bond heroines, “with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter roughly.”

The book, published by Jonathan Cape with a first printing of 4,750, was generally applauded by the British critics and sold well enough for a second printing.  The Listener hailed it as “supersonic John Buchan,” the Sunday Times called it “an extremely engaging affair” and said Fleming could become the best new English thriller writer since Ambler if he could make his work more probable.  The Spectator found it “lively, most ingenious in detail…except for a too ingeniously sadistic bout of brutality…”  A year later, when the novel came out in the USA, it fared worse, and sales were poor.  Anthony Boucher, who never cared much for Bond, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Fleming “pads the book out to novel length, leading to an ending which surprises no one but Bond himself.”  He did, however, admire the gambling scenes. 

Thereafter a new Bond book appeared each spring—at the tail-end of the British Empire and the beginning of the British welfare state.  Bond would prove a welcome antidote to both conditions.  An independent, powerful Everyman who often sweats at the idea of his plane crashing, he is tied down to neither one setting, nor one woman, though he remains selflessly loyal to his country and gallant toward the heroine of each book.  (The film formula of three lovelies per adventure, with one discarded or dead, one definitely dead, and one prize in his arms at the end, does not occur in the novels.  Likewise, the gadgetry:  the only sophisticated toys in the books are a few minor modifications to Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger, and Nash’s lethal copy of Tolstoy in From Russia, With Love.) 

The world of the books, then, is not that of John Le Carré, who crested the sixties’ 007 wave with his complex heightened realism, nor of Ambler’s cold, neutral political savvy.  We are far from Philby’s treason or Graham Greene’s drab truths, and much closer to a romantic era of the Scarlet Pimpernel and even Gilbert & Sullivan.  Bond is, no doubt, our last hero burdened with the weighty myth of empire.

Fleming himself, well after success arrived in spades, defended his creation thus: “Bond is not a hero, nor is he depicted as being very likeable or admirable…He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent.  He enjoys the fight—he also enjoys the prizes.  In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins.  Nowadays they have pond water.  My books are just out of step.  But then so are all the people who read them…intelligent, uninhibited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes and beds….”

As the poet Phillip Larkin points out, what strikes one first about the novels today is “their unambiguous archaic decency.  So far from being orgies of sex and sadism, as some outraged academics protested at the time, the books are nostalgic excursions…England is always right, foreigners are always wrong…Girls are treated with kindness and consideration, lust coming a decorous third.  Life’s virtues are courage and loyalty, and its good things a traditional aristocracy of powerful cars, vintage wines, exclusive clubs, the old Times, the old five-pound note, the old Player’s packet.” 

Indeed, the only double agent I can find is Vesper Lynd, who obliges the secret service and Bond by committing suicide.  (“The bitch is dead now.”)  Villains are always foreign: Russians, Bulgars, Germans, Koreans, Mexicans, Corsicans, Chinese, Yugoslavs.  And they are always memorable: Doctor No with his metal hands and a heart on the wrong side of his body, Auric Goldfinger with his flaming red hair and mania for gold, Blofeld with his clinical love of death in all its forms, Sir Hugo Drax with his courtly manners and his cheating at cards.  Sometimes, of course, these foreign villains try to pass themselves off as British.  They always fail.


When Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908-1964) built a simple house called Goldeneye above a private cove near the tiny banana port of Oracabessa on Jamaica’s north coast, he was hardly a writer.  After a respectable war career in Naval Intelligence (his duties resembled M.’s rather than 007’s), he settled down to the London world of journalism, with the proviso that he be given two months' leave each winter.  He would spend every winter at Goldeneye from 1946 until his death.  “Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday?  I doubt it.”  It was on his seventh sojourn that Fleming conjured his secret agent, the man of action who was really a vicarious dream-self.

Of Scot ancestry (like Bond) Fleming had been a top athlete on the playing fields of Eton (like Bond) but never graduated (ditto).  Without his father around—killed in WWI—and outshone by his elder brother Peter (the explorer who wrote one of the great travel books of the thirties, Brazilian Adventure), Ian already had a reputation for women and cars by the time he dismissed himself from Sandhurst, England’s West Point, after only one term.  Like many writers in the process of forming, there was a good deal of the actor in him.  In the Austrian Tyrol, then Geneva and Munich, he skied and played at being a young intellectual on the way to a career in the Foreign Office—but failed the exam.  He saw Moscow as a young Reuters correspondent.  By 1933 he was back in London at one of the better brokerage houses.  There he stayed until the war.

Despite claims Fleming made after the Bond wave hit, his war career in Naval Intelligence, as assistant to Admiral Godfrey, was mainly administrative.  (Fleming apparently came to believe—or at least convinced a few very close friends—that he’d actually had to kill an enemy agent on a secret mission, either by sandbagging him, or with a concealed revolver, or a mysterious black hat, or by drowning.  This acting went too far to be mere play; he had authorial photos taken posing with a gun like Bond’s while vaguely claiming the books were based on his own experiences—“my autobiography” he half-joked.)  A colleague recalled him in the war years as a “young fashionable man about town…fastidious about dress, which the old salts of the Admiralty viewed with scorn.”  After the war he landed a plum job, as Foreign Manager for The Sunday Times

That same fastidiousness flavors the novels; part of their early success was due to their cultivated veneer of sophisticated knowledge.  This was Fleming the journalist at work, going to expert sources for his information, for as many friends pointed out, it was hard to think of a single subject on which he was truly expert.

All this time he was known for his philandering ways: he was far less protective towards women than Bond.  His brother’s success and his own past as something of a black sheep still followed him.  If he could not quite be a successful man of action, he could invent one.  As John Pearson puts it in his perceptive biography of Fleming, “when [Bond] looks at himself in the mirror…we see just how closely Fleming identifies himself…James Bond is simply Ian Fleming daydreaming in the third person.”  Pearson makes the point firmly: Bond is essentially “this odd man’s weird obsession with himself.”

When Fleming finally fell it was for another man’s wife, Lady Anne Rothermere.  Soon Fleming was nicknamed “Lady Rothermere’s fan” in Fleet Street circles; her husband was a newspaper magnate.  And in late January 1952, with ten weeks of Jamaican sunshine before marriage at the end of his bachelorhood, he sat down in front of a battered Royal portable and brought James Bond to life.  Can it be mere coincidence that, just as Bond dreams of asking the book’s heroine, Vesper, to marry him, she frees him by committing suicide?  For that matter, the novels’ villains (usually physically repugnant, as if seen through a child’s eyes) often treat Bond in a fatherly way—and Fleming, as a boy, called his authoritative mother “M.”

Casino Royale, utterly unplanned, took Fleming barely two months.  At forty-three he had written fictionally not so much as a short story.  The hero’s name was appropriated from “one of my Jamaican bibles, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, an ornithological classic,” he once wrote.  “I wanted the simples, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find.  James Bond seemed perfect.”

Despite strong British reviews, the first few novels sold only moderately well in England and struggled in the States.  But following the 1956 Suez Crisis, the visit of soon-to-be Prime Minister Anthony Eden to Goldeneye for a rest brought a flurry of attention to Fleming and Bond in the U.K., and the snowball began rolling.  A similar exposure occurred when President Kennedy named From Russia, With Love as one his ten favorite books in 1961.

In our violent times it’s difficult to see how the books could have shocked: they pall beside the vindictive sadism of, say, Mickey Spillane, and Bond takes his fair share of the suffering.  A list of 007’s injuries includes nerve poisoning, having his genitals mangled, his hand carved up, his little finger broken, a shoulder gnawed by a barracuda, and his spine rubberized by a traction machine, plus assorted knife wounds, burns, and the odd bullet.  Unlike today’s screen heros, when Bond gets hurt he goes to hospital.

In the course of the novels he is hurt so repeatedly it’s a wonder he can manage to please women at all, much less those as demanding as Pussy Galore, Solitaire Latrelle, Tiffany Case, Honeychile Rider, and Tatiana Romanova.  The books’ heroines are always integral to the plot, not a mere adjunct; several times they save Bond’s life.  Though beautiful, they usually have a qualifying flaw: a broken nose, a limp, a difficult past, which arouses Bond’s sympathy alongside his lust.  (His behavior is invariably gallant and gentlemanly.)  They are of a type: usually a “bird with one wing down,” often semi-naked on first encounter, outdoor girls or elegant dressers, independent-minded yet needful of Bond’s protection, and aware he is not a man they can hold.  He is almost always either the first real man in their lives or, unfortunately for them, the last. 

After the first seven books Fleming began to “run out of puff.”  This was part ennui and part ill health; Bond’s smoking and drinking justified his creator’s excessive habits.  But it was no coincidence that the books’ decline in energy followed the first Bond films.  Fleming had dreamed of best-sellerdom; in real life, fame exhausted and rankled.  In interviews and letters he referred to Bond as his “cardboard dummy” or “a blunt instrument” and his books as “piffle.”

Fleming had long had his eye on the big film money, and for years offers came and went; Casino Royale was initially filmed as an hour-long American TV program.  In 1961 Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli formed Eon Productions and acquired options on all but two of the books for a guaranteed minimum payment of $100,000 per film plus 5% of the producer’s profits.  It was, for them, a steal.

Shortly before Fleming’s death, film-Bond began to replace book-Bond, in the powerful image of Sean Connery, as 007 became Britain’s most successful sixties export alongside the Beatles and the miniskirt.  (Fleming saw only the first two, Dr. No and From Russia, With Love.)  It is difficult to exaggerate the phenomenon of these movies, the most popular film series ever, and not just as financial blockbusters.  In every man born after 1930, there surely still exists a part of his psyche which dreams of being James Bond.

Fleming died of a second heart attack in August, 1964, just before the release of Goldfinger, when the Bond boom exploded and paperback sales began to multiply many times over.  For years he’d scrupulously neglected doctors’ advice to cut down on alcohol and tobacco; his words to the ambulance attendants were:  “I’m awfully sorry to trouble you chaps.”  (Fleming had also been weakened and embittered by continuing litigation over Thunderball, whose plot resembled a joint concoction with a film producer from years earlier.)  It was estimated at his death that he had earned close to three million dollars off the books.  The sale earlier that year of a controlling interest in his private company, Glidrose Productions, for a tenth that figure meant that his heirs would miss much of the really big money over the next three decades.

Fleming didn’t live to see 007 toiletries, bubble-gum cards, lunchboxes, board games, action dolls, spy kits, decoder rings, and a cartoon series for children.  What he achieved temporarily within the thriller genre was to kill off (Bond’s greatest victim) the knowing detective as popular hero.  Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey were now replaced by 007, the amateur sleuth by the professional secret agent, as the new magic formula was copied endlessly.

The Fleming Empire at first tried to satisfy readers’ lust for more Bond.  By far the most successful Bond sequel appeared in 1968, four years after Fleming’s demise.  Colonel Sun by “Robert Markham” was really written by Kingsley Amis, a fan whose James Bond Dossier (1965) remains the liveliest barnacle on the Fleming reef.

Despite a certain success, no other Bond appeared until 1981, when (with Glidrose Productions behind him) the British mystery novelist John Gardner took up the mantle with License Renewed.  This effort has been followed, at last count, by eleven others, which threaten to equal the Flemings with library shelf-space; sure-fire bestsellers, they demonstrate a reading public’s hunger for Bond—or at least the familiar.  One doesn’t have to read far in bloodless Gardner to miss the original.  His Bond really is a cardboard dummy, and his books owe more to the late films, verging on self-parody, than to Fleming.  Though Fleming’s confessed concern from the start was to make money, his books never read that way; Gardner’s do.

Often today the popular myth of a writer’s life comes to overshadow his work.  But Bond has almost totally erased Fleming: it is thanks to the films, rather than the books, that the 007 saga provides a worldwide image of the man of action.  (Perhaps after a suitable time has passed, the films will have aged like Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes series, and as with Holmes, we may live to see them nostalgically re-filmed for new generations.)  Still, all the books remain in print in many languages, and 007 is now virtually in the public domain; in a Bulgarian bestseller of a decade ago, an east-bloc bludgeon bests Bond.

What, in the end, makes the 007 of the books more compelling than his screen double?  Can it be simply that he is more like us, even while up against overwhelming odds—that like Sherlock Holmes, despite his many victories, he always carries with him the possibility of failure?  Let the last word belong to the man himself:

“Bond had always been a gambler…he liked it that everything was one’s own fault.  There was only oneself to praise or blame.  Luck was a servant and not a master.  Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt.  But it had to be understood and recognized for what it was and not confused with a faulty appreciation of the odds, for, at gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.  And luck in all its moods had to be loved and not feared.”


007 A LA CARTE

Casino Royale (1953).  Baccarat superb; ditto tragic heroine (Vesper Lynd); most violent tortures.  The perfect martini, 007-style.  Le Chiffre the first of Fleming’s outsize father-figure villains.

Live and Let Die (1954).  Bad Harlem, good Jamaican voodoo atmosphere.  Strong, sultry clairvoyante Solitaire; Felix Leiter (CIA) as shark bait.  “Negro genius” Mr. Big.  Pirate treasure.  Uneven.

Moonraker (1955).  Only all-England setting.  Fine villain in Hugo Drax, outplayed by Bond at bridge in Blades, M.’s exclusive club; otherwise dull.  Gala Brand defends her feminine honor to the end.

Diamonds Are Forever (1956).  Hot rock smuggling, from Africa to Las Vegas.  Settings and villains (mobsters) too diffuse, though gem lore shines.  A lovely Tiffany Case loses her virginity to 007.

From Russia, With Love (1957).  Radical, persuasive structure; severe Moscow and aromatic Istanbul; well thought-out plot earned admiration of Raymond Chandler.  Perhaps finest Bond.  Who can forget Tatiana Romanova on the Orient Express, Red Grant’s deadly book, Rosa Klebb’s poisoned knitting needles, the gypsy fight, a loyal Kerim?

Doctor No (1958) Evocative Caribbean settings, Jamaica and Crab Key.  Extremist villain (half Chinese, great aquarium) and delectable shell-collector Honeychile Rider.  Most inventive torture (obstacle course ending in giant squid); intense, measured pace nearly equals its illustrious predecessor.  Oddly lyrical and touching.

Goldfinger (1959).  A crock equal to Drax; attention to detail makes plot (knock off Fort Knox) go down.  Great canasta and golf games.  Two blonde Masterton sisters perished by Odd job, the strong silent type, but Pussy Galore survives.  Settings a snooze, though.

For Your Eyes Only (1960).  Five uneven stories.  Relieves the novels’ standard pattern; aptly divides the Bond canon.  Paris, Vermont, Bermuda, Venice, the Indian Ocean.  For fans’ eyes only.

Thunderball (1961).  007 at a health spa?  Fleming’s fatigue shows, but technique masterly and steady.  Nassau beautifully rendered, Domino’s poisoned foot well worth sucking.  SPECTRE the new bad guys.  Underwater scenes more vivid and persuasive than ever.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962).  Short, told convincingly from female viewpoint (Vivienne Michel).  Bond to the rescue against Spillane-esque hoods in the Adirondacks.  Guns and knives.  Only fair.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).  SPECTRE’s Blofeld plots to infect British livestock; 007 infiltrates Alpine Hideout posing as genealogist.  Saves Italian countess Tracy from herself, only to doom her to death as Mrs. James Bond.  Now he’s really bitter.

You Only Live Twice (1964).  Most fantastic elements: Bond in Japan braves a garden of death run by Blofeld, slays him, escapes in a balloon.  Kissy Suzuki dives naked for pearls and has to resort to aphrodisiacs to restore 007.  Henderson, Bond’s guide to the Orient, based on Fleming’s old friend, legendary Aussie journalist Richard Hughes, also used by John le Carré in The Honorable Schoolboy.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1965).  Left unrevised at Fleming’s death.  London and Jamaica; a Soviet-brainwashed 007 tries to murder M.  Rehabilitated, he is sent after Scaramanga, fastest gun in the world.  Even Felix Leiter can’t salvage it as a weak end to series.

Octopussy (1966).  Posthumous; two novellas; paperback contains a third story.  Jamaica, Berlin, London.  A last attempt to mine the Fleming mother lode.  Finished work, at least, rather Maughamesque.

Dates given above are for British editions.  U.S. editions may be a year later or nearly identical.

Staunch fans will want to try Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun (1968), publishing pseudonymously as “Robert Markham”).  Also Amis’ The James Bond Dossier.  Best all-round appreciation is Raymond Benson’s The James Bond Bedside Companion (1984).

Among first-edition biffs, Ian Fleming remains the most collected 20th century author.  British first editions of the 007 books runs from, say $25 for the last to $1200 for the early ones.

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