Bringing Bond to book

bondWe continue our series of articles looking at the work of Ian Fleming who was a friend of Paddy. Fleming was influenced by Paddy’s exploits and he used the Traveller’s Tree in particular as a source for Live and Let Die.

By Matthew Woodcock

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 14 December 2013

There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.

It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?

Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.

The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.

One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.

Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.

None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.

It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.

Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!

Related article:

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger

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