Good Evening Mr Bond.

24 Feb

Yes, I have a white cat. Every now and then she sits on my knee and I stroke her while refining my plans for world domination. Then she usually bites my hand, hisses and scampers away like the furry little psychopath that she is.

It never happens like that in the Bond films.

It never happens like that in the Bond books, either. As a matter of fact, there’s no mention of Blofeld having a white cat, or any other pets, in any of the Bond books (Although he does have a rather impressive collection of toxic plants in You Only Live Twice).

I first read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels  thirty-five to forty years ago and, just while we’re waiting for the hype to crank up over the release of Skyfall, (currently scheduled for October 2012) I thought it might be fun to give the books another look.

Of course the books are very different from the films. For one thing they are period pieces now. They were published between 1953 and 1966, so they were a little dated even when I was reading them, and by now I suppose they would qualify as historical fiction.

Having said that some of the best of the Bond films, notably From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, also have a period feel to them now.

So when you have all the glamour and the gadgets, not to mention up to date settings, costumes and dialogue, why would you want to bother with the books?

Well the obvious place to start is the fact the Ian Fleming was just a really talented writer. He had been a journalist back in the days when that meant a bit more than phone hacking, door stepping celebrities and rehashing press releases. Back in those days, journalists were supposed to be able to tell you what, where, when, how and why, and they were expected to do it reasonably coherent, and if possible elegant, prose. (The late Marie Colvin is proof that are still some journalists who try to follow this tradition, but if they had all been doing that over the last few decades we wouldn’t have needed the Levinson Inquiry).

The Bond books have been described in terms of  ‘sex, sadism and snobbery’, (and as a writer you can’t go too far wrong with that combination), but there’s more to them than that.

I know it’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating that Ian Fleming was very, very good with locations and with things.

He was widely travelled and he was good at noticing the significant little details and then using those details to create a vivid sense of place. He was also a man who knew about things,  specific, physical things.

In particular he knew about the very best quality things. In Dr No he can not only tell you about the right guns, toiletries and alcohol to have, he also knows the very best firm to employ if you want a lift fitted into your secret underground headquarters. (Weygood Otis, if you’re interested).

It’s tempting to assume that his apparently effortless competence in writing about places things somehow means that he wasn’t as good at writing about people. I think that would be a mistake.

Bond villains tend to be larger than life grotesques in both the films and the books, but it’s only in the films that they have sometimes tended to lapse into cardboard cutouts.

Fleming is happy to make Goldfinger an oafish ogre in appearance, but he is an ogre with some depth to him. He is intelligent, ruthless, boorish, meticulously efficient and dedicated to his cause.

Dr No also has his peculiarities, he has his heart on the right, and not the left side of  his chest, he has his steel claws and his contact lenses, but none of this is impossible and as a character he has the psychological depth to live and breathe as much as any written character can.

Fleming’s female characters are also generally well-developed and often very strong, but I have heard it said that all the Bond books follow a pattern involving Bond encountering an assertive, independent female character who represents a challenge to his authority, but who is finally, and inevitably, subdued and obliged to submit to him.

This model may apply to some of the films but there are too many exceptions to this rule for it to apply to the books.

To provide a few examples. At the end of Dr No, Honeychile Rider more or less tells Bond to shut up and do as he’s told (he owes her ‘slave time’). At the end of From Russia With Love Bond ends up literally on the floor at Rosa Klebb’s feet. In Moonraker Gala Brand leaves Bond flat because she’s already engaged and has no interest in his seduction technique.

There are exceptions, of course. Pussy Galore becomes quite suddenly (and in my view a little improbably) submissive at the end of Goldfinger, for example, but Bond certainly does not always end up as the all-conquering hero in his relations with women.

I’m not trying to suggest that Ian Fleming was some kind of proto feminist, all I’m saying is that his female characters are more than just the bland eye candy that they sometimes were in the films. (There were obvious exceptions, even in the earlier films, and it’s a tendency that’s far less evident in the more recent films).

In most of the books Bond doesn’t have much of a sense of humour (this changed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in response to Sir Sean Connery’s portrayal of him), but that doesn’t mean that there’s no humour in the books and a good deal of it is at Bond’s expense.

As a matter of fact, while Fleming seems to like Bond and to share a lot of his values, tastes and opinions, that doesn’t stop him having a bit of fun with him. (I’m sure there’s a decent PhD thesis for someone in the study of the relationships between authors and their characters. Dorothy L Sayers seem to be a little in love with Lord Peter Whimsey, while Agatha Christie apparently couldn’t stand Poirot. Pity she never saw David Suchet’s portrayal, it may have changed her mind).

So we see Bond being taken to task by M like an errant school boy over his near death at the hands of Rosa Klebb in Dr No. He is pretty thoroughly ridiculed in the opening chapters of Thunderball, even his conflict with Count Lippe has an air of the ridiculous about it. In You Only Live Twice, he is put on the defensive about Britain’s post war performance compared with that of Japan, he is also shown at various points to be a snob, a ‘faddist’ and someone who is generally prone to silly prejudices (ie his notion that there is such a thing as the perfect boiled egg).

So he doesn’t have the intellect of Sherlock Homes, nor does he have the virtue of St George, and he’s certainly nowhere near as professional as later literary spies, most notably Quiller and George Smiley. (Although he’s arguably the first more or less professional in the genre, previous to Bond you generally had heroes like Richard Hannay, who was really an engineer but just seemed to fall into adventures by accident).

Having said all that, Bond is still a hero. Flawed, sometimes silly, and often selfish, but he’s a hero nonetheless. When the chips are down, he’s the man we can rely on to sort things out, shoot the villain and, usually, whisk the girl off for drinks, dinner…

He represents an idealised view of Englishness (for all the Scots parentage that was another gift from Sir Sean Connery) and I think Ian Fleming intended him as a sort of morale booster for the British at a time when the British had quite a lot to be miserable about.

There are a couple of odd features that I’ve noticed in many of the Bond books. I think they all start very well, the opening chapters in almost any of the Bond books are typically very well written, but I sometimes wonder if Fleming got a bit bored with them after a while, because that standard of writing doesn’t always seem to be maintained throughout the books. (Maybe that’s just me).

There are also a couple of occasions when Fleming seems to linger a little over the physical description of his male characters, most notably the detailed anatomical description of Grant in From Russia With Love. It’s hardly surprising that he spends a good many words in describing his female characters, they’re there, at least in part, to be gorgeous and Fleming was known for his active interest in women (often other men’s wives) so it would be reasonable to assume that he expected most of his readers to share his interests.

Inevitably, I have sometimes wondered why Fleming was so interested in describing some of his male characters. I think it has a lot to do with the way he builds characters in his writing, but I did wonder for a while if he might have been a little bit gay. (There have been enough biographies written about him for me to find out if I was really interested, but I don’t suppose it really matters, it’s just an idle thought).

One think that is clear about Ian Fleming’s preferences is that he really wasn’t that interested in virginal little ingenues.

When you read the Bond books, you consistently find that the ‘Bond girls’ have been through the mill to some extent or another and they often seem to have been the victims, or more accurately survivors, of rape or sexual abuse.

Honeychile Rider was raped and had her nose broken, Tiffany Case was also raped while Pussy Galore was sexually abused by her uncle. There’s no mention of Domino Vitalli being sexually victimized, but she has clearly had to use her sexuality in order to get what she wants, while Tatiana Romanova is put through a course of what we suspect would be the thoroughly charmless SMERSH training in the arts of allurement. 

What’s interesting about all of these women is that they don’t come out of these experiences as timid little victims.

Honeychile Rider in particular isn’t the type of girl to just lie down and take it, she kills her assailant with a poisonous spider (Good for her). While the other Bond girls are shaped by their experiences, but not destroyed by them. They’re tough, smart, resourceful characters, and they deserve Bond’s respect as well as a good deal of lust.

So maybe Ian Fleming wasn’t the sexist dinosaur you might have been led to believe.

His attitude toward race I suspect may have been a little less enlightened. He seems to have a tendency to represent non-white characters as being almost childlike creatures (Quarrel in particular).  So while I don’t think he was racist in the sense of being hostile to non-whites, I do think you could say he was a bit patronising at times. (Mr Big could be seen as an exception, he’s pretty formidable).

In conclusion, I would suggest that if you really like the Bond films then you may find Ian Fleming’s books a little disappointing and certainly unfamiliar. You won’t find too many gadgets and Timothy Dalton’s portrayal is probably the only one that comes anywhere near Fleming’s idea of Bond.

Having said that, Fleming is very good at creating detailed settings. He then populates those settings with vivid, sometimes likeable, often larger than life, but always engaging characters, and then he keeps those characters busy with all kinds of heroic, villainous, glamorous or sleazy, but always interesting things to do.

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One Response to “Good Evening Mr Bond.”

  1. Edward Fraser 01/03/2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Fleming’s Bond series is on my list of things to read. Thank you for setting the scene, and galvanising my sleepy brain into action!

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