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A Reading Life

A Bonding experience

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June 1, 2008

Ian Fleming would have been 100 years old last Wednesday if he hadn't died at age 56 thanks to a surfeit of the good things in life, namely alcohol, tobacco, and bearnaise sauce. But then, as Ben Macintyre notes in his marvelous tribute, "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond" (Bloomsbury, $34.99), this was a man who was determined "not to waste his life by trying to extend it." As it happens James Bond is himself 56, having sprung fully dressed from the manuscript of "Casino Royale" in 1952, a year before that epoch-making book was published. But, unlike his creator - and despite lighting up his 70th cigarette of the day in the first chapter - he shows no sign of leaving the world's stage. Even now a new Bond film is in the making, starring Daniel Craig, who strikes me as having escaped from a video game, and another novel, this one by Sebastian Faulks "writing as Ian Fleming," has just appeared, further augmenting Agent 007's already considerable post-Fleming chronicles. As for the canon, the original dozen novels and two story collections are all available in elegantly lurid covers from Penguin.

I well remember the wild pleasure of reading Ian Fleming for the first time. I was 14, and the book was "Doctor No" - whose centipede ("five inches of grey-brown, shiny death") crawling up Bond's horror-frozen body still makes me feel ill. In any case I went on to read as many more Bonds as I could get my hands on. They may have been glorified boys' adventure stories ("The Amherst Villiers supercharger dug spurs into the Bentley's twenty-five horses, and the engine sent a high-pitched scream of pain into the night"), but I was never one to read for improvement if there was an alternative. I didn't think much one way or the other about the Bond girls. They were fodder for fantasies that were not mine, as, indeed, were the body-care products, the bling, the finicky gourmandizing, and that extremely embarrassing pajama coat.

But it was just that, the paraphernalia and postures of high living, which accounted for Bond's initial popularity with his first readers, the deprived subjects of dingy, war-straitened Britain. I can't think that that old sad sack George Smiley, drizzle-soaked, cuckolded, and morally queasy, would have gotten very far had he showed up in that climate. Bond gave cold-water Britons the good life: Bentleys, endless changes in wardrobe, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the cornucopia of food and drink with provenance specified, shampoos and soaps with royal imprimaturs. "Bond, in short," writes Macintyre, "is a highly perfumed fashion icon, with a license to smell lovely."

While Fleming was, as Macintyre notes, "one of the first writers to identify the appeal of the designer lifestyle in an emerging age of consumerism," he also had his soon-to-be-gold-plated typewriter keys on the pulse of men's dismay about modern women, what with their jobs, independence of mind, and unpardonable lack of deference. Fleming gave his readers women who always come to heel in the end but who remain happily modern in their sexual availability. Some people get upset about this, though I see it as just another instance of the human desire to have it both ways - and what else is fantasy for?

Macintyre calls his book "a personal investigation into the intersection of two lives," that is, Fleming's and Bond's. To this end he examines, among other things, the probable genesis of Bond's name (an ornithologist) and his spycraft (a number of exotic and intrepid agents, entertainingly described). He looks at the sources for Bond's taste in women (Fleming) and attitude toward them (Fleming) and at the effect of the Bond-of-the-movies on the Bond-of-the-books (significant). He also shows that Bond's palate had little in common with his creator's. Old Grandad was his tipple (after his doctor told him to lay off the gin), and here is Somerset Maugham on dining at Goldeneye, Fleming's retreat in the Bahamas: "The food was abominable . . . it tasted like armpits. And all the time there was old Ian smacking his lips for more and you are tormented by the thought of all those exquisite meals in the books."

Fleming wrote his books at great speed, usually in eight weeks, and while he was master of pace and macabre description, his style was pretty clunky and not without dangling modifier. ("As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her, but only when the job had been done.") Faulks's version of Fleming style in "Devil May Care" (Doubleday, $24.95) is not quite the blunt instrument of the master, but it is close and sometimes sloppy. I almost stopped reading at page 4, when an assassin rammed a "wooden wedge, about four inches at its deepest," into his victim's mouth, "hammered it home with the stock of his gun, to the sound of breaking teeth," and then somehow, without removing this wedge deal, took a pair of pliers and "clamped them on his tongue." It can't be done, and is the sort of impossibility that puts a person in a bad mood, making her impatient with even standard implausibilities - a frame of mind fatal to reading Bond. I found myself actually questioning whether two people could, in fact, survive jumping from a jet plummeting from the sky using only one parachute.

The Bond we meet at book's beginning is on sabbatical, questioning whether he will remain in the field. He has given up drink but not smoking. M has taken up yoga. A powerful baddie with a Flemingesque deformity (one hand is a monkey's paw) - who switched sides from the Nazis to the Soviets during the war, attended Harvard Business School, and cheats at tennis - has emerged with foul designs on Britain. Bond gets back in the game and so does the Bentley, though the Amherst Villiers supercharger has been replaced by an Arnott, which makes "light of the car's customized bulk." Bond becomes involved with a beautiful investment manager . . . or is she? Drinks resume, and derring-do, and double-O doggedness in the face of impossible odds and absolute humiliation.

The novel is a good enough pastiche of Fleming's Bond books, but something is missing. It may just be youth on the part of this reader, but I don't think so. Reality never had a thing to do with Bond, but the fantasy was real, and this is ersatz - obedient to the spirit, but not of it, somehow only dutiful.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.

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