Bond in Torment

John Lanchester

  • From Russia with Love, Dr No and Goldfinger by Ian Fleming
    Penguin, 640 pp, £10.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 14 118680 1

‘Follow your fate, and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-rate motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist, pickled in alcohol and nicotine,’ James Bond tells himself about halfway through From Russia with Love, the fifth and perhaps the best of Ian Fleming’s thrillers. This sounds like good advice, but it does raise one large issue: what exactly counts as being ‘pickled’? Flying from London to Istanbul – the journey in the course of which Bond indulges in these reflections – Bond drinks ‘two excellent Americanos’ during a thirty-minute wait at Ciampino, puts away two tumblers of ouzo at Athens (‘Bond felt the drink light a quick, small fire down his throat and in his stomach’) and then, during the ninety-minute flight to Istanbul, has ‘an excellent dinner, with two dry Martinis and a half-bottle of Calvet claret’. I make that about sixteen units of alcohol for the trip, so our hero is doing well when he manages to thank the stewardess and carry his ‘heavy little attaché case’ off the plane without doing a Yeltsin down the steps. The in-flight consumption is in line with Bond’s general boozing level, established during a medical he undergoes in one of the books as half a bottle of spirits a day. He also smokes between sixty and seventy cigarettes, so I ask again, how pickled do you have to be before Bond regards you as being pickled?

There’s no mystery where the Bond books get their air of dyspepsia, ennui and fatigue. Fleming lived as hard as his hero, one of whose central preoccupations is a determination ‘not to waste my days in trying to prolong them’. There is always something depressing about the story of a lifestyle casualty, someone whose boozing and smoking bring about the actuarially predictable consequences. Fleming, who died at 56, was one of those. Andrew Lycett’s first-rate biography, published in 1995, almost doesn’t need its text, since the photos tell a perfectly clear story of how the (I hadn’t realised) strikingly beautiful young Fleming turned into a prematurely knackered roué with an air of not-at-all-suppressed boredom and a cigarette holder.

The boredom was partly a generational thing. Evelyn Waugh, b. 1903; Graham Greene, b. 1904; Cyril Connolly, b. 1903; Ian Fleming, b. 1908. These Englishmen came from a similar class background, and had writing careers which, from the outside at least, seemed characterised by brilliant success. They also had parallel lives as spies, soldiers, shaggers and men of action (or in Connolly’s case, of inaction so spectacular that it, too, seems like a form of action). But all of them suffered from a desperate, crippling, lifelong fear of boredom. Greene’s boredom was perhaps the best publicised, what with the Russian roulette and all that. In a sense, it was boredom that led him to Catholicism, since religion offered him the opportunity to regard every moment as a soul-imperilling drama, and therefore added a pleasant tang of chilli-heat to the things he was doing to keep the boredom at bay – brothel-visiting, opium, spying, having adulterous sex on church altars etc. Waugh feared boredom so much he used to have nightmares about it; Connolly based his whole adult personality on the idea of his battle with ennui. In many respects a childish man, he did at least face the truth that the main thing he was bored with was himself. Fleming, too, was chronically, cripplingly bored.

We can see this endemic boredom as a collective whimsy, a reaction of spoilt and pampered men – though none of them, it has to be said, lived all that easy a life (even if a good few of the difficulties were self-inflicted, no burden feels lighter because of that). Perhaps the obvious explanation as to why these brilliant men were so bored is the simplest one: life, for them, was boring. Life was changing in ways which made it less boring to be an upper-middle-class man, but the awareness of the fact that life was changing made men more conscious of the burdens they had been carrying. The straitjacket of gender and class identity pinched hardest as it was being shaken off. All the four writers I mention felt that pinch, I would suggest, as boredom: the deep, chronic boredom of roles, of social life, of having to pretend to be something that they knew they weren’t, quite.

In Fleming’s books this is a source of strength. The novels’ world-weariness and melancholy is real, and vividly conveyed; and although these might seem like odd ingredients in riotously successful popular fiction, they aren’t really, since the emotional palette of thrillers and mysteries is often distinctly dark. From, say, Conan Doyle to, say, Le Carré, the genuineness of the gloom provides a note of authenticity, a convincing bass line, to underpin the various implausibilities of the main plot. Fleming is in that tradition. Everyone knows about his pioneering use of brand names as a way of making Bond’s world seem close at hand to his readers, but it is this sense of accidie which gave the books an underlying sense of reality; it did so because it was real. ‘Scent and smoke hit the taste buds with an acid thwack at three o’clock in the morning.’ That was his first try. ‘Scent and smoke and sweat can suddenly combine together and hit the taste buds with an acid shock at three o’clock in the morning.’ That was his second. He got it right third time, with the sentence that became the opening line of his first book, Casino Royale: ‘The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’

Fleming was 44 in 1952 when he wrote those words, in Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica, where he spent several months each year on leave from his job at the Sunday Times. (I had always thought the house was an accoutrement of his success as a writer, but not so: he bought and built it on the proceeds of his newspaper job after the war.) He had just married Ann Rothermere, becoming her third husband after pinching her off Esmond Rothermere, the newspaper magnate; her encouragement was decisive in making him sit down and get on with his long-contemplated task of writing a book.

There is a kind of writer’s life where nothing at all happens until he or she sits down at the desk, with the earlier life an essentially eventless waiting-to-be-a-writer. Fleming’s life was not like that. His grandfather Robert was a Dundee book-keeper who left school at 13 and went on to become a fabulously rich man by more or less inventing the investment trust, the first of the pooled investments which now dominate the financial world. Robert’s son Val, Ian’s father, went to Eton and Oxford, became a Tory MP, and died a hero on the battlefield in May 1917. Val had two sons, the elder of whom, Peter, b. 1907, inherited the tendency to be a paragon, and the younger of whom, Ian, b. 1908, inevitably became the family handful. Things were not helped by the wills of Val and Robert, which absent-mindedly or maliciously left the boys’ mother, Eve, with not quite enough money.

Ian did so-so at school, and then was kicked out of Sandhurst in inglorious circumstances. A girl he was chasing had a long-standing promise to go to an Oxford ball with a man; Ian begged her not to fulfil it, and said that if she did, he would bunk off to London and sleep with a prostitute. She did, and he did, and he caught gonorrhoea. The streak of recklessness and self-pity in this – the mixture of drama-queenery and nastiness – was Fleming at his least appealing, even though it should be said in his defence that he was not yet 19. Fleming’s mother, responding perhaps to the fact that the Army had been her idea, opted for maximum humiliation of her son. She booked him in to a residential clinic for treatment, and pulled him out of Sandhurst.

It could perhaps have been predicted that Fleming wasn’t the Army type. More surprising is the fact that he also failed in his attempted careers at Reuters and on the Stock Exchange (Lycett’s chapter on that period is called ‘The World’s Worst Stockbroker’). Like many others, he was rescued from himself by the war. Fleming wangled a job working for Admiral Godfrey in Naval Intelligence, and was good at it – cunning, inventive, industrious. He made a particular success of his time as a liaison officer in Washington. After the war he had another go at journalism, this time as an executive for the Sunday Times, and – older, less flighty – made a success of it. In parallel with this busy career Fleming was engaged in an energetic love life, one in which he employed a mixture of powerful charm and mesmerising indifference. He had many girlfriends but seems never to have been in love until he met Ann O’Neill, née Charteris, during the war. To give some idea of the complexities involved, he was staying with her when her first husband, Lord O’Neill, was killed, and was asked by her to break the news to the man who was to become her second husband, Esmond Harmsworth, later Rothermere. It was Fleming’s inaction which led to Ann marrying Rothermere, but after the war Ann and Ian slowly and tormentedly realised their mistake, if that is what it was, and married in 1952. It was on honeymoon that Fleming wrote Casino Royale.

A key fact in Ian and Ann’s relationship is that they were both into spanking. This, perhaps, is linked to the boredom, and to a corresponding need to play sexual games with identity and roles. The spanking wouldn’t matter to anyone now if it didn’t show up in the Bond books, but of course it does. Simon Winder, the editor responsible for republishing all the novels (and for cheekily bringing out three of them as a Penguin Classic) has said simply and robustly that Fleming was a sado-masochist. This is a sensible way of dealing with the profoundly unsensible sexual attitudes in the novels. It is not anachronistic to find the erotic climate of the novels strange and distracting, since plenty of people were distracted by it at the time. Christopher Hitchens, in his lively introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, quotes Fleming’s friend and neighbour Noël Coward on the subject of Honeychile Rider’s world-famous bottom, ‘almost as firm and rounded as a boy’s’: ‘I know we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?’ In a way, we are now better placed to see the sexual attitudes of the books for what they are, part of the wish fulfilment in which the Bond novels bask, in which KGB agents disguised as English gents expose themselves as impostors by ordering red wine with fish, and tough dykes called Pussy Galore secretly long to be converted from sapphism by our cruelly handsome hero. The contrast between the real woman Fleming loved, complicated and demanding and grown-up as she was, and the wank-fantasies of the novels, must have been deeply embarrassing for Ann Fleming, and it is no wonder that she disliked Bond as much as she did.

Sado-masochism permeates the whole atmosphere of the books. I had forgotten until rereading them just how often Bond gets beaten up, how long he spends recovering from it, and how a woman is usually involved in the recuperative process. The strongest currents of feeling in the novels always circulate around these sequences. It would be an exaggeration, but not all that much of an exaggeration, to say that the Bond novels are at heart a series of lavish beatings strung together with thriller elements. The first of these beatings is the most famous – that’s the one in Casino Royale where Bond sits in a chair with a hole cut out of it and has his testicles thrashed with a carpet beater – but not one of the novels is without its scene of Bond in torment. The tenderest, most yearning word in Fleming’s lexicon is ‘cruel’.

So why bother reading the books? The answer to that is the same as it always was: because Fleming wrote so well. Thrillers need their undernotes of authenticity, both in the incidental details and the emotional climate: but they need their topnotes of fantasy and action, too, and Fleming was supremely skilled at these. A large part of the game is creating good baddies, and Fleming did that as well as anybody ever has: Goldfinger, Blofeld, Dr No, Rosa Klebb, Grant the red-wine drinking assassin. The action scenes are very vivid: the one I enjoyed most this time was the night-time escape on skis from Blofeld’s mountain castle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – even though Bond does end that rather more exhausted than you’d expect from a secret agent in his prime. One thing which often happens when reading thrillers, especially by writers who wrote a series of books with the same character, is that you get about halfway through one before realising that you’ve read it before. That doesn’t happen with Fleming. Once you’ve snuck ashore on Dr No’s island hideaway, you stay snuck.

Success, like everything else, bored Fleming. There was a race between his increasing competence with the thriller form and his growing ennui. He wrote 14 books, and the best of them are the ones in the middle – From Russia with Love, Dr No and Goldfinger, the fifth to the seventh – and then a couple towards the end, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, volumes 11 and 12 respectively. (Some Bondians don’t like You Only Live Twice, on the grounds that Blofeld’s garden of death, filled with poisonous and/or man-eating plants and fauna, and expressly designed to encourage the notoriously suicide-prone Japanese to off themselves, is over the top. There’s no pleasing some people.) These are the best of the books because they have the best baddies and the best action scenes, and because the torture, sexism and unsound views on the question of foreigners are all of a wish-fulfilling piece – that’s to say, they now read as works of fantasy. That is what Fleming latterly claimed the books to be, and although he may not genuinely have believed it himself – as Hitchens points out, the anti-Communist politics of the books were intended to be serious – it now seems about right to say that the books were, in his words, ‘fairy tales for grown-ups’. The quibble now would be with the word ‘grown-ups’.