“Casino Royale,” the first James Bond novel, was published in 1953 and has been recently reissued by Penguin to coincide with the release of the movie version — practically the first Bond movie since the early Sean Connery films to stick to the original, Ian Fleming-penned story. This event highlights a question that English writer Simon Winder raised in his recent book, “The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond”: “Would the Bond books be read today without the films?”
The answer to Winder’s question is yes — and in fact they have been, and are. Fleming’s Bond novels, all reissued by Penguin, have achieved a mass cult status quite apart from the movies. If anything, the awfulness of most of the Bond films of the past 30-odd years probably cost Fleming some readers; who would care to seek out the literary genesis for “The Spy Who Loved Me” or “Moonraker” or “For Your Eyes Only”? Many readers of the previous generation who came across Bond titles on paperback racks probably thought they were mere “novelizations” of the films.
Half a century ago, though, Fleming had built up the most extraordinary collection of groupies of any genre novelist since Raymond Chandler, including Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, Cyril Connolly (whose article “Bond Strikes Camp” for London Magazine in 1963 is still the best Fleming parody), Elizabeth Bowen and Chandler himself, who, when asked to supply a logrolling cover blurb for the second Bond novel, “Live and Let Die,” asked Fleming, “If this is any good to you, would you like me to have it engraved on a gold slab?”
Even Chandler never got a plug from an American president. Yet, nearly 45 years ago, when asked why the bedroom lights in the White House were on so late, JFK (like James Bond, a naval commander in World War II) replied that he was “up late reading ‘From Russia With Love.’” Fleming returned the compliment in 1965 when he had Bond take a copy of “Profiles in Courage” on an assignment.
The reasons why Fleming became such a cult favorite aren’t easily discerned by those who want obvious “literary” quality in their thrillers. He couldn’t begin to write dialogue as pungent as that of his friend and early supporter, Raymond Chandler, the darling of Brit critics; as Kingsley Amis wrote in his slim 1965 book, “The James Bond Dossier,” Fleming’s “dialogue is serviceable and nothing more.” (Then again, Fleming had many more diverse characters to write dialogue for than did Chandler.) He doesn’t begin to convey a sense of mise-en-scène as well as, say, Dashiell Hammett. (But then Fleming had far more diverse scenes to set than did Hammett.) In fact, as I went back to the Bond books — for the first time since the age of 15, when I sneaked my father’s Signet paperbacks (the ones JFK must have read) into my room — I found myself hard-pressed to say exactly why they were worth rereading. In the end, though, I was compelled to go through them all, which is more than I can say about not only the trashy thrillers of Robert Ludlum but also the classy ones of John le Carré. Fleming’s genius, if it’s proper to apply the word to a writer of genre fiction, was to create a world of espionage more grotesque and dangerous than the actual one while maintaining close enough ties to reality to make it all seem credible. To my surprise, he rewarded not only careful reading but rereading.
I did not, as I expected, think of Bond as Sean Connery. The Bond of the books was physically smaller than Connery by about 2 inches and 20 pounds, and not quite so “cruelly handsome” (as many early reviewers described Connery). I had forgotten that James Bond wasn’t really a spy at all but a cross between the commandos Fleming had known during World War II and a highly trained assassin — obviously, or else why would he be licensed by his government to kill? The literary Bond chafed at the paperwork he was obliged to do plenty of, and unlike his movie counterpart — whose budget for sports cars, rocket-powered backpacks and speedboats, to say nothing of tuxedos, seemed to exceed the entire GNP of Great Britain — was always mildly resentful about his lack of funding. In “You Only Live Twice,” he apologizes to Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, for his meager expense account: “Under ten million pounds a year doesn’t go far when there is the whole world to cover.” In “From Russia With Love,” he ruefully compares his own arsenal with that of his Soviet rivals. “If only,” he laments, “his cigarette had been a trick one — magnesium flare, or something he could throw in the man’s face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!” And in “Thunderball” he envies the “CIA the excellence of their equipment, and he had no false pride about borrowing from them.”
Readers often come to, well, bond with Bond precisely because of his ordinariness. Unlike the Bond of the movies, the Bond on the pages doesn’t seem radically different from most of us. With the right background and training — and, of course, a willingness to kill in the line of duty — it’s easy to feel we could be the hero of those adventures. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is somebody you’d like to have a drink with. Bond doesn’t interest us in that way; he’s more like someone you’d want to be if you had another life. Which seems to be precisely why Fleming wrote the books, to create a fantastic yet believable alternative existence. (And also, as Simon Winder points out, at the urging of and to impress his wife, Ann.)
His KGB file calls Bond an “all-round athlete; expert pistol shot, boxer, knife-thrower,” and we find out he is a capable driver, swimmer and pilot. Still, he is far from the superman of the films, and in many cases he is overmatched by his foes; the fight between Connery’s Bond and Robert Shaw’s psychopath Irish killer, Red Grant, on the train in “From Russia With Love” is one of the classic brawls of movie history, but the Bond of the book “had no illusions about being able to beat this terrific man in unarmed combat. The first violent stab of his knife had to be decisive.” Bond’s triumphs are invariably due to his resourcefulness, wits and superior training rather than to sheer physical ability. As Sir Isaac Newton said of himself, “My powers are ordinary. Only my application brings me success.” Something similar might be said of Fleming’s Bond.
Apparently, not even Bond’s looks are extraordinary — one reason, perhaps, why Daniel Craig, with his Steve McQueen-type weathered features, seems to fit well in the role. We’re not sure exactly what Bond looks like, and it isn’t clear Fleming himself knew. Fleming was fairly certain that Bond did not look like Sean Connery, of whom he exclaimed upon first seeing, “He looks like a lorry driver”! (However, when “Dr. No” was released, Fleming, as everyone else, was won over.) The writer was fond of saying that he thought Bond resembled “a young Hoagy Carmichael,” who, we forget today, was as well known as a character actor in films such as “To Have and Have Not” as he was as a songwriter. (Some people saw a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael in the young Ian Fleming.)
In the books, Fleming offers us only glimpses of his creation, usually through the eyes of others — allies, foes and the women in his life — and trying to form a picture from them is rather like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. Except for a description ingeniously inserted in a KGB file and read to us by an agent in “From Russia With Love,” and a London Times obit at the end of “You Only Live Twice,” we might never know that Bond was dark-haired, had a 3-inch scar down the right side of his face and was educated at Eton (expelled “for some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids”). For that matter, we might have missed the fact that James Bond, the greatest fictional hero of postwar England, had not a drop of English blood in him. Like his creator, Fleming, and like Connery, Bond was a Scotsman. (The Times obit says his mother was Swiss, but Fleming revealed in an interview that in a later book, never written, she would be discovered to also be a Scot.)
Rereading the books doesn’t make clear what Bond looks like, but several other things about him do come into focus. For instance, the famous charges of “sex, sadism and snobbery” that have hung over Bond for so many years are mostly unfounded. Middlebrow culture critic Malcolm Muggeridge was the first and most famous of Fleming’s critics, calling him “an Etonian Mickey Spillane” and creator of a character “utterly despicable; obsequious to his superiors, pretentious in his tastes, callous and brutal in his ways, with strong undertones of sadism, and an unspeakable cad in his relations with women.” Kingsley Amis was probably closer to the truth when he said, “Fleming may be a sadist and a snob, but Bond isn’t.” Bond himself is never sadistic; he is always an efficient killer, dispatching his enemies with the greatest possible economy. Much of what might be written off to sadism is what’s done to Bond by his enemies, but aren’t bad guys by definition supposed to be more sadistic than good guys?
The accusations of snobbery are unfair. In the last Fleming book, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” Bond remained, despite his Etonian education, an unrepentant (in his words) “Scottish peasant,” militantly middle class. He turned down an offer of knighthood from the queen (which Sean Connery did not). “I just refuse to call myself Sir James Bond. I would laugh at myself every time I looked in the mirror to shave.” As for the food and wine, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” Fleming maintained, “James Bond was not a gourmet. In England he lived on grilled soles, oeuf cocotte, and cold roast beef with potato salad … When traveling abroad, generally by himself, meals were a welcome break in the day.” Seems fair. If you may be killed that night, you don’t want to have your last meal at Burger King. Considering how often he saved us from destruction, it seems curmudgeonly to begrudge him his modest oeuf cocotte.
As for the sex, Simon Winder may be exaggerating when he writes, “At the time, the books dragged sexual frankness into respectable literature.” A great many books with more of a claim as respectable literature did this well before Ian Fleming, but, damn it, none of them had women characters as exciting as his.
Far from being the window dressing of most of the movie “Bond girls,” the women in Fleming’s books were the first clue for many adolescent males that women could be tough, sexually independent and, yes, deadly. Bond books can certainly be mined for sexist or just plain misogynist material, though most of the blatantly offensive comments are used (I think) for comic effect, such as the advice Bond’s boss, M, gives him in “From Russia With Love”: “Doesn’t do to get mixed up with neurotic women in this business. They hang on your gun-arm.” Bond’s own opinions on women often differ from those of Fleming’s older male characters, and his preference for female companionship runs along the lines of athletic women who can drive sports cars as fast as he can and who have no illusions about sex being connected to romance. It wasn’t always Bond who left them.
In one of the stories in “For Your Eyes Only,” Bond admits that if he considered marriage, “it would certainly not be to an insipid slave.” The right girl, Tracy Draco, the daughter of a Corsican gangster in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” proves to be “everything I’ve looked for in a woman … She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful … I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience … Why not make it for always?” “Always” doesn’t last to the end of the book, as Tracy is murdered by his archenemy, Ernst Blofeld. Bond, to his sorrow, remains a bachelor forever.
The literary James Bond, then, is a much more complex and intriguing character than the celluloid one. It would have been interesting to see where Fleming, who died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1964, might have taken his character. With “Thunderball,” which was published in 1961, Fleming made an important decision for his hero: As if in anticipation of the coming thaw in the Cold War, he turned Bond away from the Russians and toward international criminal masterminds like Blofeld and his multinational organization, SPECTRE. This worked for the movies and gave Bond a whole new territory that would grow to include, more than 40 years later, a power-mad North Korean dictator. But the change in villainy farther away from reality took Bond farther away from reality. (Note that Fleming never sent Bond to deal with Britain’s longest-running postwar problem, the Irish Republican Army. That would surely have been a no-win situation for Bond, as indeed it has been for Britain.) The save-the-world scenario of the last couple of books (and of the last dozen or so movies) long ago played out, and the grittier, scaled down film of “Casino Royale” — I’m referring to the main plot here and not the obligatory action set pieces — suggests a way to breathe new life into the Bond movies: Simply remove the outdated political subtext and get back to the books. Bond doesn’t need to be an anti-Communist to be intriguing; changing Le Chiffre from a paymaster for Communist agents in Europe to financier of terrorists works just fine.
But why does James Bond continue to intrigue us at all? There may be no single answer to this. If, as Anthony Burgess insisted, Bond “is likely to end up as one of the great twentieth-century myths,” it may be because different cultures respond to different qualities in him. Burgess thought Bond “as universal as Sherlock Holmes … And he is a fuller man than Holmes: he loves women” (which is certainly one thing Italian men responded to; Italian billboards for “Thunderball” simply identified him as “Kiss-Kiss, Bang-Bang”).
Winder’s thesis in “The Man Who Saved Britain” is that Fleming’s books found “their vast niche as part of a general right-wing reaction to the humiliations and failures of British life” after World War II. I’ll buy it, but it doesn’t begin to explain a question that I’ve almost never seen addressed, namely the amazing popularity of Bond in America. Why would Americans respond to a hero who soothed the British inferiority complex? I don’t think Americans cared or knew what Brits felt about Bond; what we reacted to was his sophistication and assurance in going where we have always felt clumsy and self-conscious. (Bond always shows up at a crisis just ahead of his American friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, with all that “excellent equipment.”) Part of the excitement of reading a Bond book for the first time was sharing his enthusiasm for traveling to a foreign locale; more than any other thriller writer, Fleming had a genuine talent for making the reader into a voyeur. (Raymond Chandler, in an interview: “Fleming can go to a town for a background of a new novel, and in three days he will have mapped every detail of that town.”)
The truth is that despite our emergence as the major postwar power, as a country we didn’t know a fraction of what the Brits knew about exotic places like Turkey, Japan (even though we were occupying it) or Haiti (which is right underneath us). Chandler told Fleming that the parts of “Live and Let Die” set in Harlem were remarkable, “quite amazing for a foreigner to accomplish.” He might have said quite amazing for an American to accomplish, as Harlem was surely as foreign to white American writers as Istanbul.
Let’s admit it: Americans have always been secretly convinced that Bond and the Brits understood how to manage the world better than we did. The CIA, after all, was modeled on British intelligence. But, as a Russian intelligence officer in “From Russia With Love” tells us, “The Americans have the biggest and richest service among our enemies … But they have no understanding for the work. Americans try to do everything with money. Good spies will not work for money alone — only bad ones, of which the Americans have several divisions.” Fleming wrote that in 1957. Nearly half a century later, the CIA was still trying to talk itself into believing in the existence of WMD; if only we’d had a James Bond to send in first.
Numerous articles and chapters of books have been written about Bond’s antecedents, the English detective Bulldog Drummond and the sinister Chinese master criminal (and anti-Western conspirator) Fu Manchu, but none of them live for the modern reader. Fleming’s real inspiration doesn’t appear to have been other mystery or thriller writers (though clearly he owes much to Eric Ambler, whom he paid homage to by having Bond carry along one of his novels on the Orient Express in “From Russia With Love”). Bond is an original; even his famous numeric designation is enigmatic. Aficionados favor the theory that Fleming chose the number that Elizabeth I’s agent John Dee used when signing his secret reports to the queen on Spanish activities (which would make Dee the first agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service). I like to think Fleming took Bond’s agent I.D. from yet another source: the talking train that carried Westerners into India in Rudyard Kipling’s story named for the train’s number, 007. Like Kipling, Bond is no English chauvinist, but an “empire man” — never mind that by the 1950s the sun had set on the empire Bond defended.
The world that James Bond was born into has changed drastically, but we ignore Fleming’s influence on our world at our peril. How else to explain self-possessed Bond fanatic Kim Jong Il — the real-life person who seems most like a character from one of Fleming’s novels, a combination perhaps of the evil Oriental genius Dr. No and Largo, the modern pirate in “Thunderball” who blackmails the free world with atomic weapons. In the eyes of countless readers, the pleasures that Bond embodied haven’t changed. A score of Fleming’s imitators who tried to give the public what it wanted are no longer remembered. Fleming remains popular not because he gave people what they wanted but because, as G.K. Chesterton said of Dickens, he wanted the same things people did. In this case, simple pleasures such as freedom from annihilation, a few thrills, some sex and an occasional oeuf cocotte.