James Bond was the 20th century's most famous spy and -- almost as certainly -- one of its best-known literary characters.
Had he lived, 007's creator, Ian Fleming, would be 100 years old today. A number of new books have been timed to the centenary -- including the 15 volumes under review here -- and London's Imperial War Museum is staging an exhibition, "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond," which explores the numerous connections between Bond and the author's real-life experiences, particularly those that occurred during his service with British Naval Intelligence in World War II. The exhibit continues through March.
Handsome, charming, witty and sophisticated, cultivated but unpretentious, Fleming imbued his literary alter-ego with many of his own sybaritic tastes, including an abiding pleasure in the company of beautiful women. There were certain departures -- Bond's extreme fondness for scrambled eggs, for example, while his creator relished the haute cuisine of France. They shared, however, a prodigious appetite for distilled spirits and cigarettes, of which Fleming smoked about 80 a day. The combination is generally blamed for his early death in 1964 at age 56, attributed variously to heart failure or complications of pleurisy brought about by an ill-advised round of golf (another passion) in foul English weather.
All the Bond books -- 12 novels and two collections of short stories -- were written over a dozen years, beginning when Fleming was 44, and all were composed during his annual three-month sojourn at his beloved retreat on the Jamaican coast, Goldeneye. (The name was borrowed from a particularly ingenious intelligence operation Fleming conceived during the war.) There, each day, the author rose early, went for a swim in the cove below his home, then went to work on a portable Remington typewriter for three hours. Cocktails and lunch were served on the terrace with its spectacular views, followed by an hour more of work and the completion of each day's quota: 2,000 words. The rest of the day and evening were spent in the glittering company of friends -- Noel Coward, first among them, but also W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Eden and a "Who's Who" of British literature and politics.
As one biographer put it, Ian Lancaster Fleming, the second of four brothers, was born into one of those privileged British families to whom "all roads seem open," though they never quite are. His father, Valentine, heir to a banking fortune, was a widely admired member of Parliament who enlisted in a fashionable cavalry regiment during World War I and was killed in France. Valentine's fortune was bequeathed to his wife, Evelyn, in a trust, one of whose conditions was that she forfeit the entire thing if she ever remarried; another specified that his sons were not to receive any of it until her death. (Eve, as she was known, made her own accommodation with circumstances and, though she died Valentine's widow, bore a daughter to the painter Augustus Johns.)
Ian attended Eton and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst but was dismissed from both for indiscretions with young women. His mother sent him to the continent to learn French and German in hopes he could pass the Foreign Office exams, which he failed. Fleming took up a career with Reuters, including a stint in Moscow covering the show trials, which left him with a profound revulsion for communism. He subsequently worked as a stockbroker, making a handsome enough income to cut a fashionable figure in the upper reaches of London society, while building what ultimately became an internationally famous personal library devoted to first editions of books that revolutionized the scientific and intellectual landscape.
By 1938, he'd returned to journalism -- though probably as cover for his new vocation, espionage. Just before the war, he enlisted as a subaltern in the Black Watch but quickly was recruited as personal assistant to Adm. John Godfrey, the Royal Navy's director of intelligence. Fleming had what the British like to call "a very good war," ultimately rising to the rank of commander. Early on, he engineered the escape of Albania's King Zog from occupied France, an operation that made time for a spectacular French meal just hours before the Nazis arrived in Dieppe. He ultimately took over supervision of a daring commando unit, whose dashing field commander -- Patrick Dalzel-Job -- was a major inspiration for James Bond.
After the war, Fleming returned to journalism, built his famous house in Jamaica, which he'd discovered during the conflict, and resumed his life in society, including his affairs, one which left his longtime lover, Lady Ann Rothermere, pregnant. He wrote his first James Bond novel -- "Casino Royale" -- while in Jamaica waiting for her divorce from her viscount husband to become final, so that they could marry.
Fleming had flirted with writing and literature while at Eton and, afterward, read widely among leading British and continental literary magazines. It's unsurprising, therefore, that the novel he produced, like its successors, slipped neatly into a serious -- though entertaining -- genre that the British invented early in the 20th century. What we now call espionage or spy fiction begins with three great English novels -- Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" (1901), Erskine Childers' "The Riddle of the Sands" (1903) and Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" (1907). All three authors were from the periphery of the Empire and profoundly concerned with questions of identity -- Kipling the Anglo-Indian, Childers the Anglo-Irishmen, Conrad the immigrant. Their concerns would predominate in a field of literature whose greatest practitioners -- Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Maugham, Len Deighton and others -- all would be British. Their subject would be identity and loyalty in a century in which ideology's demands obscurely challenged, indeed subverted, older, more traditional bonds. Fleming's Bond is untroubled by all that ambiguity, but he confronts profound questions of identity in distinctly midcentury, post-war fashion. He's an unself-conscious patriot but deeply conflicted by the nature of his work, its demands and by the necessity of defining himself though his work. Very much in the mode of his time, he also defines identity as style -- one that quickly made its way into the consumer economy as, for example, a penchant for casual, short-sleeved shirts, dry martinis and Rolex watches.
Coming to Fleming's utterly masterful Bond novels fresh after many years, one is surprised to find just how tough-minded and extraordinarily well written they are. (It's easy to see why John F. Kennedy so admired them, a taste that was instrumental in winning Bond's first American audience.) Fleming was a taut and propulsive stylist with a deep gift for characterization. Perhaps because we now see Bond through the gauzy scrim of affable, slightly preposterous films with inevitable political and sexual happy endings, it's easy to forget that the Bond of Fleming's books was, in many cases, an unlovely character, often described as "cruel," his relations with women often aggressive and forthrightly exploitative.
That brings us to the latest in a long series of Bond novels by Fleming impersonators sanctioned by his estate. (The first, "Colonel Sun," actually was written by Kingsley Amis under the pseudonym Robert Markham.) "Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks is the 22nd such book and, though competently enough constructed, belongs more to the cinematic Bond tradition than to the one Fleming tapped out on his Remington. In this case, Bond is summoned back from a sabbatical in Italy to swinging London during the 1960s. The story revolves around an Eastern Bloc plot to flood the West with heroin, and most of the action occurs in France. It's all likely enough in an undemanding sort of way, but it compares with the real thing in about the way a sour apple martini compares with the proper cocktail, shaken not stirred.
Take this opening paragraph of Faulks' book: "It was a wet evening in Paris. On the slate roofs of the big boulevards and on the small mansards of the Latin quarter, the rain kept up a ceaseless patter. Outside the Crillon and the George V, the doormen were whistling taxis out of the darkness, then running with umbrellas to hold over the fur-clad guests as they climbed in. The huge open space of the place de la Concorde was glimmering black and silver in the downpour."
Here's the opening of "Casino Royale": "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling -- a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension -- becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it."
One of those is postcard exposition; the other is an MRI of the spirit.
Here's the last, all-too-familiar line of Faulks' cinematic Bond: " 'Yes,' said Scarlett, smiling as she pulled back the covers to reveal her naked body -- pink from the bath, clean, soft and waiting for him."
And here's the last line of "Casino Royale" in which the distraught Bond informs his London handler that his love interest, the beautiful Vesper, had been a double agent all along: "Yes, dammit, I said 'was.' The bitch is dead now."
Most of all, what one misses in the work of the Fleming impersonators is the unsentimental confidence of a writer willing to describe his one and only protagonist -- and alter ego -- as Fleming does with Bond in this passage: "His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt Police Positive with the sawn barrel. Then he slept, and with the warmth and humor of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold."
I'll take mine shaken not stirred, and hold the fruit liqueurs.