No novelist since Stevenson imparts so much energy into simple-seeming sentences through inch-perfect phrasing and punctuation
Ian Fleming has never received his due as a man of letters. His centenary this year is not going unnoticed: there is a new Bond exhibition, a new Bond adventure written by Sebastian Faulks, and various new Bond-related titles. But, cumulatively, they feel more like a celebration of a famous brand than a recognition of a literary master.
Fleming’s entry in the Oxford Companion to English Literature is three sentences long and ends in a sneer: “Bond has appeared in many highly popular films which mingle sex and violence with a wit that, for some, renders them intellectually respectable.” One can almost sense the feminist editor, Margaret Drabble, holding her nose.
Fleming will never become a feminist icon. His sexual attitudes — laid comically bare in the closing scene of Goldfinger — belong to another era. Bond to lesbian: “I thought you only liked women.” Lesbian to Bond: “I never met a man before.” It is an ungainly courtship. But if one judged all writers by their sexual attitudes, who would ’scape whipping?
The least Fleming deserves, in his centenary year, is to be judged by his books, not the films they spawned. If the cinema has ensured his immortality, it has also cruelly distorted his work. Some of the strongest Bond books — Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever — are cinematic travesties. People think they know James Bond in the way they know Sherlock Holmes. They don’t. Flippancy, ubiquitous in the films, plays no part in the books, which are tough, lean thrillers, rooted in character and situation, not glib one-liners.
In the films, one Bond girl fades into another, with physical perfection the only common denominator. Fleming the novelist was not so crudely monotonous. Each heroine is different and each heroine is flawed: from the wild-child Honeychile in Dr No to the suicidal Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The heroines are as vividly individual as the villains, that incomparable rogues’ gallery of sadists and megalomaniacs.
Bond himself, saving the world while not spilling his vodka martini, could have been a cartoonish figure — as he is in the films. But the strength of the Bond of the novels, changing subtly as he ages, is the emotional fragility behind the tough-guy façade. Each nerve-jangling adventure depletes reserves of courage which are revealed, ultimately, to be finite. One could psychoanalyse the character at length, starting with Fleming himself and his sadomasochistic relationship with his wife Ann; but that would be a disservice to a writer whose talent was not for introspection but for entertainment — pure if not simple. From the high-stakes golf match in Goldfinger to the midnight car chase in Moonraker to the heart-stopping denouement of You Only Live Twice, one tour de force of suspense follows another, every one delivered with brio.
If the ultimate test of a writer is how he ages, then Fleming scores very highly — far more highly than John Buchan or the other thriller writers who preceded him. The early Bond novels are more than 50 years old, but they have lost none of their tautness; they are models of concision compared with the flabby blockbusters of today.
Politically they reflect, more astutely than is sometimes recognised, the imperatives of the time. Fleming, the son of a Conservative MP, belonged to the generation that had won a great war, then had to endure the humiliation of Suez. “Our politicians may be a feather-pated bunch,” Bond mutters, “but there’s nothing wrong with the British people.” For 007, as for his creator, containing communism was as vital as defeating the Nazis. President Kennedy, deliciously, was such a devoted Bond fan that he consulted Fleming on how to overthrow Fidel Castro.
True, some things in the novels have dated. Those interminable cigarettes… But what is as fresh as the day the books appeared is Fleming’s flair for description: his ability, unrivalled among his highbrow contemporaries, to animate a scene or character through precisely observed minutiae. No novelist since Robert Louis Stevenson has been able to impart so much energy into simple-seeming sentences through inch-perfect phrasing and punctuation.
If Fleming had not turned his hand to thrillers, he could have been a superlative travel writer. Jamaica , where he had a house, is rendered with haunting delicacy. Just as evocative are the descriptions of 1950s America in Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever. From the smoky nightclubs of Harlem to the sun-bleached Nevada desert, every vignette rings true. Worlds that must have seemed impossibly exotic to readers in the austerity of postwar Britain are recaptured with painterly skill.
Like Conan Doyle, another writer unfairly regarded as lightweight, Ian Fleming was one of those master craftsmen whose oeuvre reveals a fault line in English literary criticism. A great storyteller — that is grudgingly conceded — but not a great novelist. But a great storyteller, ipso facto, is a great novelist.
And in the essentials of storytelling — pace, clarity, suspense, the selective use of detail — the creator of 007 was one of the aristocrats of English fiction.