As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores. There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them. Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway. Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).
There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series. The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.
Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book. In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.
The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here. Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.
The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire. His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping. I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things. Cue the book bannings.
Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.
The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it. I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.
Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?
Yes. He knew exactly what he was doing. He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors. The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.
By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.
Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?
We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor. Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?
Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel. Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way. As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.
Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery. You can have a look at it here.