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Reassessing Bond

May 12, 2016

 

Before James Bond became the most successful cinematic series in history, he was the protagonist of twelve novels set during the time of Britain’s post-war austerity period, during which the Cold War was fought. Fleming’s novels are not normally regarded as possessing literary qualities but he produced a series of socially popular novels which formed the basis of long-lasting film success. Closer scrutiny reveals that Fleming may have used the global context of the novels as a kind of 'extended pathetic fallacy', along with other literary devices.

 

Paul Johnson of the New Statesman thought Doctor No (1958) was particularly flawed: ‘Mr Fleming has no literary skill. The construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and situations are inserted and then forgotten, in a haphazard way’. Johnson describes how he ‘suppressed the impulse to throw it away’, but did conclude that Bond had ‘some importance socially’. William Cook, also of the New Statesmen, had quite opposing views and, as somewhat of a Bond enthusiast, wrote ‘His genius was to repackage the antiquated adventures of Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay to fit the fashion of the post-war Britain’.

 

Structural integrity and depth of writing seem proportionate to Fleming’s personal level of interest, which varies considerably. For example in Goldfinger (1959) there is an entire chapter on golf with detailed descriptions of exact positioning and individual holes and routes. Fleming used a number of his own experiences within the book, and the round of golf was based upon a tournament in 1957 at the Berkshire Golf Club in which Fleming partnered the Open winner Peter Thomson. 

 

The power of the novel is in its earlier chapters with their entailed descriptions; the denouement of the story is disappointing and anti-climactic, and one instance where a film improved upon a novel. However, upon its release, the novel Goldfinger went to the top of the best-seller lists and was broadly well received by critics, again being viewed as a contemporary version of both Sapper (the pseudonym of H. C. McNeile, author of the Bulldog Drummond stories) and John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

 

On the surface, Fleming was writing a series of thinly-disguised, partly autobiographical wish-fulfilment tales. It seems as though he was fortunate to match the social context with the novels’ publication period: international tension was in the air, communism versus capitalism propaganda everywhere and Britain was trying to come to terms with the fact that it had won the war but apparently sacrificed its empire and social cohesion to do so. Bond is always right, always the side of ‘good’. Fleming also positioned his protagonist as a lover of luxury and decadence, knowing that materialism was growing as post-war austerity gave way to growing consumerism. But if we accept that Fleming was well aware of what he was doing, it’s possible to see that he was very much banking on the contemporary public’s tastes and knowledge of international events to add spice to the stories about his protagonist.

 

A wave of spy scares swept the West in the 50s and 60s; America was swamped in McCarthyist anti-communist sentiment; paranoia about Russia was on the rise especially as that state succeeded in the ‘space race’. In the face of all this, Bond shows superhuman abilities and becomes a kind of ‘superhero’ for the West and Britain.

 

Fleming taps into the growing consumerism and materialism of the period by garnishing Bond with all the latest goods and luxurious cars, giving readers an escape into a fictional realm of fine dining and high living. Moreover, brand names such as Aston Martin, Jaguar and Rolex convey a level of luxury that was as yet uncommon. During the era of the novels’ creation, Rolex advertisement was targeted at the leaders of industry and highflying executives; the watches themselves could only be sold through the most high-end jewellers. All of these brand names feed the audience’s growing consumerism and materialism as the economy of the West started to revitalise in the mid 1950’s onwards, giving further reality to the novels.

 

Both sexually attractive and active, with little responsibility and no self-doubt, Bond was a male icon who appeared at a time of mounting promiscuity and permissiveness. Fleming uses the changing spirit of the times, in fact, to put flesh on his creation. Not only is Bond turned into a kind of metaphor for the emerging late twentieth century man, the reader feels engaged and almost a companion of his because of Fleming’s detailed descriptions of real scenarios and specific routes through Europe and elsewhere: for a British reader, travelling abroad in a high-powered Aston Martin was beyond reach but eminently desirable. 

 

So Fleming was ‘important socially’ as Johnson had surmised; he was filling a wide social vacuum, the need for a British reader to believe in something, the growing desire for that same reader to possess both material possessions and the opposite sex. The Bond novels connected with the contemporary readership who found them compelling, not just because of a relationship with the social and economic state of the readers’ era, but also because of a romantic and luxurious varnish placed on the deeds of Bond. Had Fleming been less aware socially, geographically and politically, Bond would have been just another two-dimensional cartoon hero.

 

The novels’ ‘chaotic’ structures can even be seen as an attempt at verisimilitude - the detached and unconnected use of apparently real incidents can be interpreted as an effort on the author’s part to connect with that sense of perpetual disparity that feels ‘real’, as events in life are rarely ordered. 

Coupled with this is Fleming’s tight control of language. The plot of Doctor No, for example, becomes more and more unbelievable as it develops: the protagonist and his companion are surprised by a flame-throwing dragon buggy, but the scene is described tightly: 

 

Suddenly, from the dribbling snout, a yellow-tipped bolt of blue flame had howled out towards Quarrel’s hiding place. There was a single puff of orange and red flame from the bushes to Bond’s right and one unearthly scream, immediately choked. 

 

This is clearly an unrealistic situation, but it can be argued that Fleming’s descriptive power adds reality. 

 

The Spectator stated ‘By reason of his cool and analytical intelligence, his informal use of technical facts, his plausibility, sense of pace, brilliant descriptive powers superb imagination, provides sheer entertainment’.

The audience’s knowledge of and hysteria about the Cold War adds tension and real understanding to the conflicts Bond faces, such as in the confrontation with Dr. No:

 

‘Now that Stalin is dead, can you name any man except myself? And how do I possess that power, that sovereignty? Through privacy. Through the fact nobody knows. Through the fact that I have to account to no one.’ 

 

‘That is only the illusion of power, Doctor No. Any man with a loaded revolver has the power of life and death over his neighbour. Other people beside you have murdered in secret and got away with it. In the end they generally get their deserts. A greater power than they possess is exerted upon them by the community. That will happen to you, Doctor No. I tell you your search for power is an illusion because power itself is an illusion.’ 

 

This confrontation conveys the ideological differences between capitalism and communism, in which ‘the East’ seeks to control its people and take away their freedom, while the West is spreading and fighting for ‘freedom’. The ideological difference is used to create tension in the plot and also to connect with the readership to make the exploits of Bond more believable contemporarily. ‘The novels are rather like a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition game,’ argues Biondi, ‘where the winner is a foregone conclusion, yet the game is immensely enjoyable as spectacle.’      

 

By calling on the Cold War so much for added tension in the plots, the nuclear background of the 1950’s onwards is exploited by Fleming to again make the situation more real and immediate to the audience. Even when Fleming does not directly use the threat of nuclear weapons in the novels, the audience’s nuclear paranoia compels them to bring that tension into the novels. If Fleming is indeed using an 'extended pathetic fallacy' in this way, it would help to explain why the adventures of Bond have survived where his many imitators failed. Flag-waving nationalism, simple moral polarities, and cosmopolitan glamour had enormous appeal to the public during the drab early years of the Cold War, but can also be seen as literary devices if the author is knowledgeable and careful enough in their use.

 

Is there evidence that Fleming knew what he was doing in other ways? Narrative point of view , for example, as adopted by Fleming in the novels, is third person. Fleming decided to keep Bond’s thoughts slightly hidden and to leave some distance between what is happening ‘outside’ and the thinking of Bond himself. This approach holds the reader at arm’s length, unable to totally empathise with what Bond is feeling in any given moment. Third-person narrative creates tension between what is really happening and what the reader gets to see: ‘Bond slowly, almost reluctantly, moved away from the window’ is an example: how reluctantly? Why reluctant? We are glued as readers to that small mystery in the situation: Bond is acting upon his emotions but not telling us how he feels. 

 

While there are some parts in Doctor No when Bond’s feelings are revealed to the audience, and the tension is lost momentarily, Fleming generally reveals very little emotion directly, maintaining a fascinating veil between what we're reading and what we sense is taking place behind the scenes.

 

Another literary skill Fleming successfully uses throughout both Doctor No and Goldfinger is the use of vivid words and descriptions of situations to paint a picture in which the reader can become submersed, allowing him or her to connect with Bond even when the plot becomes farfetched: 

 

He had chosen the A2 in preference to the A20 to Sandwich because he wanted to take a quick look at Goldfinger-land-Reculver and those melancholy forsaken reaches of the Thames which Goldfinger had chosen for his parish. He would then cross the Isle of Thanet to Ramsgate and ≤leave his bag at the channel packet, have early lunch and be off to Sandwich.

 

This draws the reader into a relationship with Bond with using detail, creating the idea that the reader could be doing what Bond is doing. Philip Stead of The Times Literary Supplement thought Fleming was ‘offering too opulent a feast’ with the book, although he manages to pull this off, where ‘a less accomplished writer, lacking Fleming’s quick descriptive gift and his powers of making his characters talk with such lucid and natural style would never have got away with this story,’  suggesting that Fleming had more literary skill than might at first appear. 

 

Doctor No is based in Jamaica, a luxurious tropical location. Fleming moves from panoramic views to minute detail: 

 

Bond ordered a double gin and tonic and one whole green lime. When the drink came he cut the lime in half, dropped the two squeezed halves into the long glass, almost filled the glass with ice cubes and poured in the tonic. He took the drink out on to the balcony, and sat and looked out across the spectacular view. 

 

The high-flying lifestyle of Bond can be seen as illustrating the advantages of capitalism and the West over communism and at the same time giving hope to the readership that soon they themselves will reach a level of material luxury.

 

Some argue that Bond is based on Fleming himself along with a mix of other Naval Intelligence officers. Fleming was indeed involved in Naval Intelligence during World War Two. His characterisation of Bond is patchy - Fleming makes attempts to give depth to him but this is not consistent. In the initial phases of Goldfinger, for example, Bond is seen to have a conscience:

 

Bond thought, I asked for the easy life, the rich life. How do I like it? How do I like eating a pig and hearing remarks like that? Suddenly the idea of ever having another meal with Dr Du Pont revolted him. He felt momentarily ashamed of his disgust. 

 

As Goldfinger develops, though, this is lost and Bond becomes more God-like, with a dominating presence. 

 

The man at the wheel, who wore the infallible badge of the bad driver, a hat clumped firmly on the exact centre of his head, hooted angrily. Bond reached out of the window and raised an enigmatically clenched fist. The hooting stopped. 

 

Bond has a dominating presence, mostly detached from emotion, written in almost a matter of fact style; however there are also occasions where the dialogue is full of emotion: 

 

She smiled uncertainly. The blue eyes searched his face for reassurance. You’re not worried about what’s going to happen to us? 

 

Both Doctor No and Goldfinger reflect a regressive treatment of women, an attitude to sex which foreshadows change as well as connecting with the public’s repressed ambitions. Fleming gives Bond an ability to subdue any woman. Kingsley Amis noted that Bond’s ‘charm works instantly’ but concludes that Bond’s motives are usually protective rather than predatory. 

 

Though flawed, then, the Bond books make an interesting study in terms of assessing to what degree Fleming ‘knew what he was doing’ as an author. Certainly they were tapping into an awakening sense of material desire in the West in the latter part of the twentieth century, but a lesser author would have ended up with a two-dimensional, transient figure rather than a protagonist in possession of emerging three dimensional qualities which resonated with the times.

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