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Bondage

For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond

an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, April 17, 2008– March 1, 2009.

Devil May Care

by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming
Doubleday, 544 pp., $24.95

1.

Fifty years ago, a fictional spy who had gradually become famous suddenly became notorious. Dr. No was the sixth of the books that had been appearing since 1953 when Ian Fleming, a restless, cynical English newspaperman, published Casino Royale, and with the words “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” James Bond first appeared. Fewer than five thousand copies were initially printed, but sales rose with each book, Bond entered the national consciousness, and his adventures began to travel, notably to America. Then in 1958 academic and journalistic critics began to look hard at this phenomenon, and did not like what they saw.

First came Bernard Bergonzi, with “The Case of Mr Fleming.” Apart from finding the sex distasteful—male brutality and female submission, or what Bond himself called “the sweet tang of rape”—he lamented Fleming’s “vulgarity and display” and his love of luxury goods. This was true enough, as anyone knows who has read the books, or who visits the fascinating show about Fleming and Bond at the Imperial War Museum in London on which For Your Eyes Only, Ben Macintyre’s enjoyable new book of the same name, is based. Fleming pioneered brand-name-dropping, and we can see a letter he received from Floris of Jermyn Street, enclosing a bottle of that elegant emporium’s lime essence in return for a puff in Dr. No.

Then the Manchester Guardian (as it still just was) editorially deplored the decline in taste expressed by the “advertising agency world” of the books, which echoed Bergonzi unkindly contrasting Bond with “the perfectly self-assured gentlemanly life” of his obvious predecessors, the Clubland Heroes. That was the title of Richard Usborne’s book, published in the same year as Casino Royale, about the novels of John Buchan, Dornford Yates, and “Sapper,” and those earlier heroes would not, Bergonzi sniffed, have tolerated club servants talking like something out of a New Yorker ad (“If I may suggest, Sir, the Dom Perignon ‘46”). Fleming responded genially to the Guardian with “a squeak from the butterfly before any more big wheels roll down on it,” but he was dismayed by a more ferocious assault, from Paul Johnson in the New Statesman. Under a headline which almost entered the language, “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism,” Johnson denounced Dr. No as “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read,” combining schoolboy sex fantasies with suburban “snob-cravings.”

Not that these fusillades did much material damage. Half a dozen more books were to come before Fleming died in 1964, and there was a handy endorsement when John Kennedy revealed his enthusiasm for 007. Author and president met, even discussing harebrained schemes for disposing of Dr. Castro rather than Dr. No (but is it really true that Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were both reading Bond books the night before the assassination in Dallas?). Then Bond went through the financial stratosphere when the film adaptations began in 1962, since when there have been—well, Simon Winder, in The Man Who Saved Britain, his entertainingly idiosyncratic book about Bond and “Bondage,” gives a list before breaking off, “…I’m sorry: I just can’t go on it’s all so terrible. They’re roughly the same, come out at irregular intervals and tend to have the word Die in the title.”

After Fleming’s death came the pastiche novels: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks “writing as Ian Fleming” is the twenty-second in a line that began in 1968 with Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis—and here is a curiosity in itself. Great writers are often parodied by lesser talents, but Fleming must be the only thriller-writer to be mimicked by a Booker Prize winner, and now by another well-known literary novelist. This might have puzzled Fleming, whose ambiguous attitude toward what he shrugged off as his “kiss kiss bang bang” books has already been chronicled in biographies by John Pearson and Andrew Lycett. His life casts only a little light on the real world of espionage, but is more revealing as a rather bleak story of malaise and decline, personal and national.

For all the snobbery of which Fleming was accused, his grandfather Robert Fleming was born in a humble home in Victorian Dundee, started off as a thirteen-year-old clerk for £5 a year, and worked his way up, founding his own bank and accumulating a fortune, a house in Grosvenor Square (where the unlovely American embassy now stands), and an estate in Oxfordshire. His son Valentine became an MP and fathered four sons. The elder two were Peter and Ian, born in May 1908: Faulks’s Devil May Care was launched on the centenary itself, when a blonde in a red jumpsuit whisked the first copies to an awaiting warship (Fleming might have been half amused, while wondering whether his beloved Royal Navy had nothing better to do than host publicity stunts).

In 1917, Valentine was killed on the Western Front. Ian’s life was clouded by that memory, and he was overshadowed by Peter at Eton. Ian didn’t follow his brother to Oxford, being sent instead to Sandhurst military academy. Quite forgetting the wisdom of the Duke of Cambridge (Queen Victoria’s cousin, and commander in chief for most of her reign, visited Sandhurst at a time when there was a high incidence of venereal infection among the officer-cadets, and told them with avuncular sternness, “I understand that some of you young gentlemen have been putting yours where I wouldn’t put my walking stick”), he contracted gonorrhea in one of the first of many escapades, and was removed by his horrified mother.

After flunking out of the army, Fleming flunked out of journalism and stockbroking as well, and was in his thirties when he was rescued by the war. He worked in the Admiralty intelligence department for Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the model for Bond’s boss “M,” became a commander, the rank he gave Bond, and followed from afar the missions of Special Operations Executive in occupied Europe. It’s not hard to see an element of compensation when this desk-bound sailor came to write about derring-do he had never personally experienced. The only time Fleming literally saw action was in August 1942 when he was in a destroyer observing the Dieppe raid. Instigated by the absurd Lord Louis Mountbatten, one of Churchill’s worst appointments, that disastrous enterprise saw one thousand of six thousand men killed in a day for no discernible purpose, a shambles which might have sown the first seeds of doubt in Fleming’s mind about England’s greatness.

After the war he found a comfortable newspaper job, and resumed his liaison with Ann Rothermere, a famous London hostess. Fleming’s one child, Caspar, was born five months after they married in 1952, following her divorce from her second husband. Not that marriage cramped Fleming’s style. Amis thought that Bond was an “amalgam of what many men would like to be,” which may have said more about him than many men. The real-life Fleming showed little of the chivalry toward women with which he occasionally invests his hero. At best he was Philip Larkin’s Englishman, “too selfish, withdrawn/And easily bored to love,” at worst a heartless philanderer; as Rosamond Lehmann (a novelist of a very different kind) astutely put it, “The trouble with Ian is that he gets off with women because he cannot get on with them.”

He got on with Ann on and off, as it were, in a curious relationship. Torture is conspicuous in the books, and an early Dr. No paperback cover (the kind of thing we don’t see much in bookstores now) shows a girl with very little on dangling from manacled wrists while a vast black man stands over her to inflict horrible pain. But then Fleming knew whereof he wrote, warning Ann in one letter to ready herself for more of her own punishment and “be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days.”

Then again, he might have been settling the score. Returning to the small house on the Dover coast he’d been lent by Noël Coward, Fleming heard laughter from the sitting room, which fell silent when he entered, and he realized that Ann and her friends had been guffawing over passages from galleys of Casino Royale. He never cared for Ann’s salon of writers and artists and one can almost see why. One of her friendships at least bequeathed an unforgettable legacy: amid the memorabilia—Ian’s old typewriter, or a cable from Clay Felker asking for a piece on Russian spying for Esquire—a visitor to the show is stopped in his tracks by Lucian Freud’s haunting small portrait of Ann.

And one more of the circle was Cyril Connolly (even if, come to think of it, Ann was exactly the woman he had in mind with his lethal coining “smartistic”). In 1963, Connolly published a parody of Fleming in the London Magazine. “M” has conceived an illicit passion for 007, who is told to get himself done up in drag, go to a nightclub, and entice a kinky visiting KGB general, who turns out to be “M” himself in disguise (“I’m sorry, James,” he says forlornly at the unmasking. “It was the only way I could get you,” at which Bond’s “long rangy body flared out above his black silk panties,” before he cuts his boss short: “I thought fellows like you shot themselves…. Have you got a gun—sir—?”).

This spoof was entitled “Bond Strikes Camp,” and that was the mot juste. There is sometimes a perceptible arch self-consciousness in the original books, but everything since has been one big camp meeting, the movies most obviously, but also the knockoffs. Not surprisingly, Faulks’s Devil May Care is better written than Fleming’s books. If Johnson exaggerated when he said that Fleming had “no literary skill,” so does John Bayley in claiming that “Fleming wrote so well…almost as well as Raymond Chandler.” The quality of writing in popular novels is as varied as in literary fiction, and while Fleming didn’t write as badly as Jeffrey Archer he really didn’t as well as Chandler. His prose style, such as it is, was acquired during his brief sojourn at Reuters: who-what, short sentences, a minimum of adjectives and adverbs, all of which Faulks carefully copies.

While Devil May Care is short on sex and sadism, it does begin with one unfortunate having his tongue torn out; but then Faulks’s own tongue is a little too obviously in his cheek. We get Gorner, an impossibly horrible villain, a brutal enforcer called Chagrin (nice touch), a glamorous heroine with whom James is far too diffident—and a distinctly autumnal flavor. The book is set in 1967, when Fleming not only didn’t write it but could not have written it, and 007, as he admits, is showing his age. Now and again the writing flags. Bond has been in Tehran a few days when he lunches alone on caviar and martinis, before spreading out “some maps he had bought from the hotel shop…. The country was between Turkey to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Its southern frontier was the Persian Gulf, its northern limit the Caspian Sea.” Well, yes.

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