Not long ago, being stuck ill in bed, I downloaded James Bond: The Complete Collection into my ereader for the low price of $9.99. I was temporarily bedridden, without access to my own book collection, which as followers of this blog know is currently in storage, and in need of something light(?) to read.
We are all fairly familiar with the Bond films, I imagine; they’ve been appearing at regular intervals since 1962. Those who were young when they first went to see Dr. No may well be contemplating taking their grandchildren to see the forthcoming Spectre. In many ways, however, the films have little connection with the twelve novels and further short stories published by Ian Fleming from 1953-1966 other than some take their titles and the name of their hero from the novels and short stories. Ian Fleming’s Bond was born sometime in the 1920s so would now be in his eighties or nineties and would presumably, even with all the best will in the world, be rather beyond some of the feats required of his movie namesake.
The first Bond movie I saw was From Russia with Love, and I then read the book. I still find that particular film one of the movie versions that does actually remain somewhat closer to its original source than do the others. Even as a teenager, I realised that the books were what we now tend to refer to as genre fiction (I’ve written on these kinds of definitions before, so I won’t re-engage with that discussion here). I enjoyed them as light relief from George Eliot, who we were reading in English at school, and will admit that they did inspire a certain aspiration to a somewhat more sophisticated life-style than I felt I was experiencing growing up in an English cathedral town.
Since then, I have occasionally reread one or two of Fleming’s Bond novels, but I have never before taken them all in one session so to speak, and I haven’t read the books written by other writers subsequent to Fleming’s death.
So what did I discover reading the entire corpus all at once? That Bond has a literary pedigree. By no means a Boy’s Own hero, Bond retains, nevertheless, those characteristics beloved of writers of an earlier generation such as G. A. Henty: daring, the ability to flout authority when necessary for a higher good, intense loyalty, and a strong sense of justice. More debonair, more sophisticated, more adult than his predecessors, Bond, nevertheless, can be seen as belonging in the tradition of Biggles or Kipling’s Kim, or even of Horatio Hornblower. It is this sense of what for a better word I might call honour that allows him to do what he is often called upon to do: kill.
It is possibly his role as assassin that contributes to the inherent loneliness one senses in Bond. But it’s more than that. Bond, like the literary forebears I mentioned above is of Britain but not wholly a part of it. British but not English, his father a Scot and his mother Swiss, his early childhood being spent mostly out of Britain, he is at heart a solitary figure. There is a touch of the puritan in him: in his simple meals when alone, in his demand for excellence without excess.
His relationships with women tend to be transient. He marries once, but his wife is killed not long after the ceremony. Other women leave him for other men. The constant women in his life are his Scottish housekeeper May, M’s Secretary Miss Moneypenny, and to a certain extent his own secretaries Loelia Ponsonby and Mary Goodnight. I couldn’t help feeling that in a way, Bond is still the little boy at play who comes home to Nanny when he is done with saving the world. Perhaps that is too cruel and facile an assessment. Nevertheless, the constants in his life are the Service and the women who look after him.
The women in the novels are one of the aspects of the books that I found somewhat troubling. Often independent and self-reliant, for the most part sexually aware and confident, often wounded by their pasts, they still need to be rescued. I did find myself wondering what Bond would have made of Betty Frieden and Germaine Greer.
What interested me most about reading Fleming’s works all together was not so much how they are rather formulaic—I expected that—but how much of their own particular time they reflect. To read a Fleming Bond novel is to step back into another era and another ethos.
Casino Royale was published barely a decade from the end of the Second World War. People of Bond’s generation are still haunted by memories of that war. The Britain of the books is still rather battered and in the earlier books still an imperial presence. The last books came out in the early sixties when the movement towards independence for the colonies is gathering speed, and Jamaica, scene of three of the novels and one short story, and where Fleming wrote, has become independent. One of the pleasures I took from the books was Fleming’s descriptions of Jamaica, where for a couple of years in the early seventies, I myself lived. However, my memories of the Junction Road are not so pleasant as Fleming’s. I nearly always became miserably car-sick on the Junction Road.
It is not only in his loving descriptions of Jamaica that one senses an elegiac tone in Fleming’s work. I’m not sure it would be so noticeable if one read the books individually with some considerable time between each one, but taken as I recently took them, all at once, the novels and stories reveal a certain nostalgia, which I sensed always in my parents’ generation, for a perceived British certainty that may well have or have not existed. Bond himself is, dare I say it, somewhat typical of this generation: his attitudes particularly towards things American such as air conditioning reflecting those expressed often by my parents and their circle.
So what did I conclude about Fleming’s James Bond books? That the works’ prime focus is entertainment; that they reflect a mid-fifties nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future; that because of their time setting they appear to espouse a consciousness of race, gender, and class that does not sit comfortably today, and that I could develop my thoughts on these last three issues in considerably more detail than appropriate in an overall review.
Will I be going to see Spectre when it is released later this year? I expect I will.