It is very hard for people who have never read Ian Fleming (1908-1964) before to dip into the James Bond novels. And that is mainly because the movies have ruined our perception of Fleming and his world, perhaps for all time.
This is not to say that all Bond-films are bad. Some of them – Goldfinger (1964), Octopussy (1983) and a few other come to mind – are delightful fun; and others – most significantly From Russia, With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – are almost real movies, films that pack an emotional and intellectual heft. But from the best to the worst, there is very little of Fleming’s Bond in these films, and the rewards of reading Fleming have not yet been replicated in other mediums.
Despite the fact that Fleming himself sometimes denigrated his own work, it is clear that he was a novelist with ambitions within, and beyond, the framework in which he wrote. He was initially influenced by the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, and professed a great love of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). But his earliest books, Casino Royale (1953) and Live and Let Die (1954), are little better than simple thrillers. It was only with his third book, Moonraker (1955) that the unique fictive world he sought to create started to crystalize.
Pop fiction can be written with various degrees of artistry, and such books as From Russia, With Love (1957), Dr. No (1958), and You Only Live Twice (1964) are written with a great deal of dash and more than a touch of something akin to a pulpy poetry. When Fleming finally found that unique “voice” of the Bond thrillers, he was writing with a stylish purity that cannot be found in mere potboilers.
Like the most vivid of thriller writers (Sax Rohmer comes to mind, ditto John Buchan and very early Leslie Chateris), Fleming wrote with complete conviction: once he finally found the voice of Bond and his world, he wrote with a complete and total emotional investment. It is this authorial honesty that makes so many of the books work so wonderfully well.
But he was also acutely aware that the Bond novels were simply entertainments. Expertly crafted and intriguing, but still simply entertainments.
And so, he tried, within the framework he had created, to transcend the disposability that was hardwired into character and the framework of the novels. These experiments resulted in the terrific short story collection For Your Eyes Only (1960), and the only first-person James Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me (1962).
For Your Eyes Only consists of five short stories, and most of them are as “Un-Bondian” as one can imagine. More literary, more anecdotal, more set in a recognizable reality, Fleming slips into Somerset Maugham territory with tight and psychologically sound short stories that humanize Bond. I find For Your Eyes Only to be a terrific book with which to hook readers on Fleming, and it is highly recommended.
However, Fleming comes his very closest to a real, moving and genre-busting novel with The Spy Who Loved Me. Initially dismissed by the critics (so much so that Fleming put the kibosh on paperback reprints in his lifetime) and usually shrugged off by hardcore Bond fans (more on that later), The Spy Who Loved Me is actually Fleming at his best: psychosocially sound, moving and profoundly real.
Spy is written in the first person by a young French-Canadian woman, Vivienne Michel. She tells of her leaving her provincial hometown and the nuns that taught her, and, of her first love affair with a boy named Derek. Fleming writes of a terrifying (and searing) moment when Vivienne nearly loses her virginity in a dirty cinema, and how Derek casts her aside once he uses her.
Vivienne then steals herself against emotional involvement until later when she and her German boss, Kurt, become lovers. Though cold and calculating, their relationship is satisfactory until Vivienne finds herself pregnant. Horrified at the notion of marrying a non-German, Kurt fires her and gives her a plane ticket and an abortion as severance.
Finally promising herself that she is through with men, Vivienne then takes to her handy Vespa, and starts travelling down through Canada and into the United States. It is in these passages that some of Fleming’s most pungent writing can be found: his disdain for tourist culture and kitschy roadside attractions drips from the page like rank battery acid.
Vivienne finds work in a soon-to-close for the season motel near Lake George. On her last night there, alone and waiting for the owners to come next morning, Vivienne is assaulted and detained by two small-time punks, Sluggsy and Horror. Rape and murder seem to be her ultimate fate … until the doorbell rings.
It’s Bond, James Bond, stranded with a flat tire. At first, Vivienne thinks he is another punk: At first glance I inwardly groaned—God it’s another of them! He stood there so quiet and controlled and somehow with the same quality of deadliness as the others. And he wore that uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters—a dark-blue belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down. He was good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way, and a scar showed whitely down his left cheek. I quickly put my hand up to hide my nakedness. Then he smiled and suddenly I thought I might be all right.
It doesn’t take a famous, world-class secret agent much time to deduce that there are problems in this little, out-of-the-way motel. Before too many pages fly by (and they do fly by), Bond has saved Vivienne from the burning motel, eliminated the punks, and bedded our heroine. More than that, he smooths matters over with the police, and ensures that Vivienne is on the road safe-and-sound in her Vespa as if nothing ever happened. James Bond, professional killer and troubleshooter, restores her faith in male-kind.
Fleming plays a very canny (and very tricky) game here: Bond is, no matter how much one wants to parse his motives and methods, a hero. But he is also a denizen of a darker and more dangerous world; a world that has no place for normal people with normal problems like Vivienne Michel. But it is this compromised figure who saves her life and restores her faith in people. Fleming is fully aware of the irony, and we, who know so much of Bond from previous books, know as well.
However, it is this very act of authorial savvy that prevents Fleming from elevating his tale into something closer to a real literary achievement, rather than merely executing a world-class entertainment. Because the very presence of James Bond in the third act cheapens everything that comes before it.
My paperback edition of Spy runs to 180 pages, and James Bond does not enter until page 108. What has been a straight novel now becomes a James Bond adventure. Fleming had the confidence to stretch and try something new, but not enough to do it without the crutch of his most famous creation. Could he have written a novel where Bond makes a late-page entrance and does not play the role of hero and savior? Yes, we are convinced of it. But, at the last minute, his nerve failed him and he went for something more tried-and-true.
The Spy Who Loved Me is a terrific book that is let down by its ending, and a stellar James Bond novel that ultimately fails once James Bond comes into it. As such, it hovers in a weird twilight within the Fleming corpus: an almost straight novel of real power and insight that is just a fair James Bond adventure.
Ian Fleming was only 56 at the time of his death, and he was just entering the height of his powers. What kind of novels would we have gotten from him had he another 10 or 20 years of life? Would he have continued to grow and evolve as a novelist? Would he have ultimately abandoned James Bond and written more literary novels?
We’ll never know. But we do know that in the realm of pop fiction, Fleming was in a class by himself.