I came to an odd realization while reading the collected James Bond letters by author Ian Fleming (1908-1964), The Man With the Golden Typewriter, edited by Fergus Fleming – and that was I really like Ian Fleming, the man.
Odd because … well, are any self-respecting 21st century males supposed to like someone like Fleming? A drinking, smoking, sexist, politically incorrect dinosaur? Bosh to all that, we heartily reply. The Fleming that emerges from his letters is a warm, intelligent, witty and engaging man, kind to a fault and capable of deep and sincere friendships. If the Ian Flemings of this world are dinosaurs, then, bring back the dinosaurs, we say.
This indispensable look inside the mind of the man who created James Bond is neatly organized – each group of letters is filed under the titles of his 14 Bond books. Interspersed between his thrillers, though, are chapters that collect letters between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd (who consulted with the writer on guns and weaponry – and who makes a cameo in the novel Dr. No), mystery great Raymond Chandler, and Herman W. Liebert, librarian at Yale University and Samuel Johnson scholar, who worked with Fleming on mastering American slang for the US-based Bond books.
But the majority letters are between Fleming and Daniel George and Michael Howard, editors at Cape, the first publishers of James Bond, and William Plomer, South African-born poet who was Fleming’s friend and literary mentor. These letters are a revelation because they illustrate how tenuous the entire James Bond enterprise was at its beginning, and how Fleming threw himself into thriller writing with a dedication and seriousness often lacking in his more literary brethren.
These editors did not always have the best judgement, we can now acknowledge with the gift of hindsight. Editor Michael Howard did not particularly care for From Russia, With Love, now considered one of the two-or-three finest Bond novels. Fleming replies: Personally, I think I shall get a good deal of readers criticism such as yours, but I do think it is a good thing to produce a Bond book which is out of the ordinary and which has, in my opinion, an ingenious and interesting plot. There is also the point that one simply can’t go on writing the simple, bang-bang, kiss-kiss type of book. However hard one works at it, you automatically become staler and staler and very quickly the staleness shows through to the reader and then all is indeed lost.
Fleming was not after realism – and he gleefully acknowledges that in these letters. But he did want to get his facts correct – if you read about something (anything – from deep sea diving to poisonous fish to Fort Knox) in a Fleming novel, know that it was researched and checked, and that Fleming strove to get it right. It is also clear that Fleming attacked his work with complete conviction – as if, in writing about the preposterous, he could make it more believable by believing in it, himself. This lack of irony is perhaps his greatest legacy as an author, and perhaps stamps him as the last serious creator of escapist fiction.
But is industry enough to make me … like Fleming? No, it is the many kindnesses chronicled throughout these letters. People who provide information or help are often presented with thoughtful gifts, courtesy of Cartier. When John Goodwin, founding president of the James Bond Club, wrote Fleming, he found himself invited to the set of From Russia, With Love. Fleming entreats an editor friend to write about an ill, aging author ushering in her 80s, while signed books and sweet notes to fans are the order of the day.
Most telling, Fleming sends note after note after heart-attacks and illnesses, putting on a brave front, making jokes, and putting his friends at ease. Here is one letter, recounting advice he received on recovering from heart attack: Am receiving the most extraordinary advices from various genii. “Be more spiritual” (Noel Coward), “write the story of Admiral Godfrey” (Admiral Godfrey), “Be sucked off gently every day (Evelyn Waugh). Over to you.
In these pages, we recently reviewed The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the greatest of the Bond thrillers. Amazingly, this book was dismissed by many reviewers at the time, who wanted ‘the mixture as before.’ These reviews hurt Fleming, who wrote with a specific purpose in mind: I had become increasingly surprised to find that my thrillers, which were designed for an adult audience, were being read in the schools, and that young people were making a hero out of James Bond when to my mind, and as I have often said in interviews, I do not regard James Bond as a heroic figure but only as an efficient professional in his job … So it crossed my mind to write a cautionary tale about Bond to put the record straight in the minds particularly of young readers.
He can also be needlessly self-deprecating, as he writes to Raymond Chandler:
Many thanks for the splendid Chandleresque letter. Personally I loved yor review and thought it was excellent as did my publishers, and as I say it was really wonderful of you to have taken the trouble.
Probably the fault about my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle. If one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond. You after all write ‘novels of suspense’ – whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.
But I have taken you advice to heart and will see if I can’t order my life so as to put more feeling into my typewriters.
Incidentally, have you read A Most Contagious Game, by Samuel Grafton, published b Rupert Hart-Davis?
Sorry about lunch even without a butler. I also know some girls andwill dangle one in front of you one of these days.
I had no idea you were ill. If you are, please get well immediately. I’m extremely ill with sciatica.
Fleming also mentions his many brother thriller writers, and clearly read deeply in the field. He mentions Fu Manchu, Nero Wolfe, Richard Hannay, Mr. Moto and alludes to Simon Templar. (He rather preferred Marquand’s Moto books to his more serious novels.) This sense of continuity charming, and one wonders what Fleming would have made of the scores of Bond imitators over the years.
There are some problems with the book: it could have used an additional edit (one letter appears, verbatim, in two separate chapters), and the index is vague to the point of useless. More amusing, Fergus Fleming closes with a list of Bond novels and Bond films, which is as pressing as telling Californians that they live on the West Coast. But despite these few missteps, The Man With the Golden Typewriter is essential for Fleming devotees.
Readers interested in Bond are referred to these wonderful sites: James Bond Memes at: https://jamesbondmemes.blogspot.com/ and Artistic License Renewed at: https://literary007.com/.