Friday, 11 December 2009

'all that glisters...'

by Ian Fleming

My first ever Bond will probably be my last, unless Kirsty Young starts issuing them along with Shakespeare and The Bible and I get bored of both of those. As I walk past the specialist bookshops of Cecil Court and Charing Cross Road I constantly see those distinctive first edition covers and I believe they remain some of the most actively traded first editions in the market, constantly changing hands for silly money on eBay (and other auction based websites). Was there any substance to their appeal I wondered; well, no, it would seem on this evidence, unless dull, dated, misogynist, racist (and other -ists) thrillers are your cup of tea.

I won't bother with much of a plot synopsis, you know how it goes: Goldfinger plans raid on Fort Knox, Oddjob lobs bowler hat at statuary, absurdly named lesbian gang leader falls for 'a real man' - actually, is she a lesbian in the film? Well she is in the book, until that is James Bond shows her the error of her ways. Bond is in a bit of a funk at the beginning of the novel, examining his conscience after ending the life of a Mexican who was sent to kill him. The solution to that problem is to make the most of a cancelled flight home from Miami and get roaring drunk at an upmarket hotel. This happens after meeting Mr Du Pont at the airport and accepting his offer of a suite for the night and $10,000 in cash if he can help figure out why he keeps losing at Canasta with a certain Auric Goldfinger. The thing that surprised me about reading a Bond book is how slowly the plot unfolds. 100 pages in and all Bond had done was to solve the Canasta problem, beat Goldfinger at golf and enjoy a close personal attachment with his personal assistant. Even summarising it like that I'm making it sound more exciting than it reads. The prose is a bit leaden and the dialogue far from the snappy, quip laden guff of the films.

What threatens to make it interesting is how a man with a licence to kill deals with that responsibility, how it makes him feel to have had the power to decide whether someone lived or died, does it close the gap between him and the men he pursues? The moment of introspection at the beginning is picked up again when he discovers that his nights of passion with Goldfinger's assistant, Jill Masterson, have led to her being killed.

Bond closed his eyes tight, fighting with the a wave of mental nausea. More death! More blood on his hands. This time, as the result of a careless gesture, a piece of bravado that had led to twenty-four hours of ecstasy with a beautiful girl who had taken his fancy and , in the end, rather more than his fancy...This death he would not be able to excuse as being part of his job. This death he would have to live with.

Which all sounds well and good until I suspect you get to the next novel and it's business as usual. Jill's sister Tilly, whom Bond interrupts in her quest to assasinate Goldfinger doesn't fare so well. His advances spurned by this young girl who gazes lovingly at Pussy Galore leads Bond to surmise that she is

...one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up...they and their male counterparts were a direct result of giving votes to women and 'sex equality'. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. the result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits - barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied.

When she meets the same fate as her sister there's no moment of introspection from Bond, 'Poor little bitch' is all he can muster. Oddjob is the other standout character, here made physically terrifying with his hands covered in a 'yellowish carapace' of hardened skin making them formidable weapons, his cleft palate making every utterance a guttural shout. I guess you need to dehumanize your foe and you can keep your political correctness and enlightened view of the global community to yourself as Bond thinks the Korean's place is 'rather lower than the apes in the mammalian hierachy', (he doesn't discriminate when it comes to racial abuse though: Mr Solo's 'Italian swarthiness' leads Bond to guess that 'he probably had to shave every three to four hours').

You could forgive the language, views and sexual/social politics that date the book if it was simply a rollicking good read, but it isn't. Whatever you might think about the latest incarnation of Bond on the big screen he does at least seem to have some depth, some humanity, some fallibility; qualities which are vaguely hinted at here but never pursued to any satisfaction.


Rob Spence 11 December 2009 at 09:33  

Yes, I find the new "classic" status of Bond rather puzzling. eric Amber, on the other hand, deserves his shiny new Penguin reissues.

William Rycroft 12 December 2009 at 00:57  

Ah, yes, Ambler. John Self reviewed his novel Journey into Fear favourably earlier in the year. It sounds far better than Bond, who commits the biggest crime of all in the thriller genre of being boring.

William Rycroft 12 December 2009 at 00:57  

Thanks for your comment Rob, I may well give Ambler a closer look.

Rob Spence 13 December 2009 at 19:06  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Spence 13 December 2009 at 19:08  

Sorry - what useless typing. Eric Ambler, as you say. His novels must have influenced Le Carre. I don't think Fleming's did somehow.
(Previous comment removed because of more hopeless typing. Aargh!)

Stewart 15 December 2009 at 20:33  

Can't disagree with you on Fleming, having read the first two Bond novels, Casino Royale and Live And Let Die. If the Bond stories are in any way deserving of classic status, it's in the movies and in the songs. The books are lifeless. In my review of Live And Let Die there was, amazingly, a single passage that heightened the prose...but that was soon forgotten about as the plot plodded on.

Would certainly recommend Ambler, as I read his Uncommon Danger earlier in the year, and enjoyed it. Certainly a far deal more interesting than Bond.

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