James Bond

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

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.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

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.

Pussy Galore

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?

No way.

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.

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James Bond? Not Exactly…

I’m a fan of Joseph Conrad.  I believe that his novella Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest explorations of what really resides in the souls of men ever written.  Today, it has fallen somewhat out of favor because certain vocal literary critics focus on the colonial trappings… and thereby manage to miss the point of the book entirely.  In fact, I like this book so much that I became a bit of a scholar regarding it, and was even asked to write the introduction to the edition linked above.

So when I sat down to read a Conrad book about spies and conspirators, I thought to myself “I am in for quite a treat.”

Turns out I wasn’t.

The Secret Agent - Conrad - First Edition

The Secret Agent, a seminal book about a terrorist plot in England seemed dry and stale and boring.  The bad guys seemed painfully incompetent and unimaginative, and the plot moved at the speed of frozen molasses in quicksand, ti mix three metaphors.

This was the book that, directly or indirectly led to–or at least influenced–the spy genre as we know it?  This is the one that inspired the Unabomber?  Really?

Well, yes, and the secret to understanding what went awry in my own reading comes down to one thing: expectations.

What I was expecting was a fantastic story about glamorous spies that flirts with the edges of plausibility.  What I got was the slightly dramatized retelling of a real-life story of badly-organized and somewhat incompetent anarchists.

Let’s start with that second part, first.  The bare bones of the plot are based around a failed bombing in London in 1894 whose only victim was the bomber himself (a man who intended to plant his bomb and walk away unscathed).   Names are changed, but that is the story. Not only is the plot uninspiring, but it is also told from the viewpoint of the bad guys… which is cool if your protagonist is Al Capone, or someone equally competent, but not so motivating in this case.

So yes, the book is somewhat at fault–even in 1907 there had to be better secret villains to write about–but let’s look at my other point: fantastic vs. slightly dramatic.  In hindsight, it becomes clear that, as the secret agent novel gained popularity, more baroque and twisted stories needed to be concocted and the heroes slowly migrated from regular men in extraordinary circumstances as in The Thirty-Nine Steps (another book with an intro by yours truly… I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) to very exceptional men and women tested to the limits of their own enormous capabilities.

Joseph Conrad

When we read a book in this niche today, we expect the writer to stand on at least some of the shoulders of the giants who came before him.  Yes, the Fleming books from the sixties are tame by today’s standards, but at least some of the tropes are already present, and the cover art is marvelous.

This immediately leads to the question of who those giants are.  And that is where this volume truly comes into its own.  When you dig into the mass of names: Fleming, Buchan, Householder, standing near the bottom, holding up many of the cherished authorial heroes, is old man Conrad.

So, if you are going to read one Conrad book in your life, read Heart of Darkness.  But If you want to understand where Tom Clancy and John LeCarré are coming from, The Secret Agent is worth the effort. At the very least you will have a good example of art that was a victim of its own success.