November 18, 2012
THERE WAS A WAR ON, AFTER ALL:
The man who never lost a fight in the movies was, in his literary incarnation, not physically imposing. SMERSH estimated his height at "183 centimeters, weight 76 kilograms, slim build." Or six feet and 168 pounds. Fleming's Bond is no superman, though the Russians thought him an "all-round athlete, expert pistol shot, boxer, knife-thrower... knows the basic holds of judo. In general, fights with tenacity and has a high tolerance of pain." Lucky for him, because in all the 1950s books he is tortured by people who mean business, not supervillains like in the movies who want to explain their plans and show him their erector-set operations with inexplicably obvious self-destruct buttons.This is because they are Communists. The grim visage of Cold War is never far from Bond's mind in any of the early books. Casino Royale's le Chiffre, Auric Goldfinger, the hideous and asexual Rosa Kleb in From Russia With Love, Mr. Big, the fierce African-American crime boss in Live and Let Die, were all Communist agents--vermin eating at the vitals of the free world. [...]In The Man Who Saved Britain (2006), Simon Winder argued that Fleming's novels would fade, regarded at best mere addendums to the Bond films. I would maintain the opposite. Outside of the first few Connery films and a handful of others since then, most of the Bond movies have been a waste of time. The books, on the other hand, have attracted perhaps the smartest readership of any genre writer since Raymond Chandler. Chandler, in fact, was one of Fleming's biggest boosters, along with Kingsley Amis (who wrote a fun little book, The James Bond Dossier, and a Bond novel himself), Anthony Burgess (who wrote an introduction to a British edition of the Bond paperbacks), Cyril Connelly (author of perhaps the best parody of Fleming, "Bond Strikes Camp"), Christopher Isherwood, Elizabeth Bowen, and even John F. Kennedy, who, in a 1961 edition of Life magazine named From Russia With Love one of his 10 favorite books, along with Stendhal's Scarlet and Black. Fleming was particularly proud of Kennedy's endorsement; he probably died without knowing that another fan, Lee Harvey Oswald, had checked his works out of a New Orleans public library.Fleming's Bond is an avatar of a time still strongly felt if only dimly remembered. The Cold War may be dated, but so is the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe's pre-boom Los Angeles. There will always be room in the fictional pantheon for someone willing to die in the service of his country. And when you do what you're told as well as Ian Fleming's Bond, you shouldn't be begrudged a little grated egg with your caviar.
Similarly, but with even less literary pretense, Mickey Spillane's early Mike Hammer books are a helpful reminder of how much decent people hated Communists.Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2012 8:02 AM