Monday, November 17, 2008

James Bond = FAIL

After the not-so-great Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever, Bond Book 5 is a bit fab.

Bond himself doesn't appear until page 78 of From Russia, With Love – more than a third of the way through. In that time, a huge conspiracy is set in motion, the full apparatus of Smersh (the Soviet Union’s spy-killing squad) focused on ruining one man.

In the film, the scheme – by SPECTRE not Smersh – is revenge for Bond killing Doctor No. But here it’s not personal; the real target is to embarrass the British Secret Service, and by extension to fray the Special Relationship for sharing secrets with the US. Bond himself is not important and certainly not a hero. One top Russian says of him:
“The English are not interested in heroes unless they are footballers or cricketers or jockeys. If a man climbs a mountain or runs very fast he also is a hero to some people, but not to the masses. The Queen of England is also a hero, and Churchill. But the English are not greatly interested in military heroes. This man Bond is unknown to the public. If he was known, he would still not be a hero. In England, neither open war nor secret war is a heroic matter. They do not like to think about war, and after a war the names of their war heroes are forgotten as quickly as possible.”

Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love, p. 43.

Their wheeze is to get Bond caught up and killed in a sex scandal, preferably in France where the press is most salacious. The honey trap includes a beautiful girl defector and a code-breaking machine. Bond knows it sounds dodgy but the prize is too much to resist; he heads off on the next flight to Istanbul.

The book is full of fecund exoticism – Istanbul itself, the Orient Express, Bond eating a kebab. As always, this is in sharp contrast to contemporary privations. The world is still deeply scarred by the recent world war.
“The clouds broke up and a distant blue haze, far away to their left, was Paris. For an hour they flow high over the burned-up fields of France until, after Dijon, the land turned from a pale to a darker green as it sloped up into the Juras.”

Ibid., p. 93.

That battered landscape reminds Bond of how much he himself has been ravaged by the last few years. He remembers his teenage self,
“bracing himself against the top of a rock-chimney on the Aigulles Rouges as his two companions from the University of Geneva inclined up the smooth rock towards him [...] If that young James Bond came up to him in the street and talked to him, would he recognize the clean, eager youth that had been him at seventeen? And what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognize himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear – this man with the cold arrogant eyes and the scar down his cheek and the flat bulge beneath his left armpit?”


I point this out chiefly because it implies Bond gets his scar after the age of 17, while SilverFin has Bond scarred during his first year at Eton. Pedantic sod that I am.

Fleming’s prose is often functional, brutal, yet littered with concise observations and occasional glimpses of poetry. The following, for example, seems to thieve from the famous quote by Viscount Grey of Falloden, watching streetlights being lit just before World War One:
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris.”

Ibid., p. 150.

Likewise, the Bond girl Tatiana is a surprisingly well-drawn character, with conflicted and developing motives. The film nicely makes her chose between Bond and her country at the end; in the book Bond seems to assume that he’s won her over but we never know quite for sure. She’s a graceful, good looking girl and Fleming makes a point of her classy, royal heritage. But he also likes women to have some kind of flaw. Tatiana’s might be evidence for those who think Bond is a secret gaybo.
“Her arms and breasts were faultless. A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's.”

Ibid., p. 59.

Bond’s sex life is worth a post all of its own. He apparently considered marriage to Tiffany Case (from the last book) but agrees with M that it’s for the best it didn’t work out. But more importantly, his “normal”, “healthy” appetites serve to contrast with villainous extremes.

Fleming apparently found villains difficult to write, but in this he’s created two corkers. Rosa Klebb is a toad-faced, predatory bisexual – one of the cliff-hangers is that she’s a woman, another that she tries to seduce Tatiana. In stark contrast, Red Grant is a handsome if ginger-haired sadist with no interest in sex. You can tell he’s helluva tough because when Klebb punches him with a knuckle-duster he doesn’t even flinch.

Importantly, the villains seem better than Bond. Grant is taller than the six-foot Bond (p. 101), more powerful, more ruthless. Note that unlike the 007 of the films,
“Bond had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn't liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.”

Ibid., p. 141.

The Russians are also better equipped. Bond can’t see any trace of forgery in Grant’s faked documents.
“Bond knew most of the signs to look for in forged passports, the blurred writing, the too exact imprints of the rubber stamps, the trace of old gum round the edges of the photograph, the slight transparencies on the page where the fibres of the paper had been tampered with to alter a letter or a number...”

Ibid, p. 176.

Grant has a copy of War and Peace that shoots people, Klebb has poisoned knitting needles and shoes. Bond might have knives and gold sovereigns hidden in his brief case, but nothing quite so crafty.
“He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man's face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!”

Ibid., p. 195.

Spy stories are at their best when pitting one individual against huge odds. What makes this one so exciting is that the hero is so clearly out-matched. In some ways it’s like the creation of Moriarty to destroy Sherlock Holmes: it’s the extraordinary stakes that make this one memorable. There’s incident aplenty – naked wrestling gypsies, explosions and stuff – but even several chapters of train journey, eating meals and looking out the window, feels exciting because we know the jaws of the trap are straining at their springs.

The film version wisely stays faithful to the book. The documentary on the DVD explains where they reordered scenes in the editing to make more sense of the building conspiracy. Richard Maibaum's last minute rewrites – made when filming had already begun – also make more of Grant, brilliantly having him one step ahead of Bond at every turn. Again, this emphasises that Bond is out of his depth. The shooting War and Peace is also replaced with a less silly garrotte-wire hidden in a watch. It tightens up the structure, making more of the book…

And yet the book pulls off a singular coup which the film series never could. Bond seems to have dodged the claws of the conspiracy, but there’s one last brilliant twist in the tale. No film Bond would ever dare go so far as the killing of Bond…

You wouldn’t know it from the book, but James Bond will return in Doctor No.


Le Mc said...

-No wonder they abandoned Smersh. It sounds like some kind of stew.
-Eating a kebab is exotic?? I suppose it would have been when the book was written?
-Is it possible Bond has 2 scars?
-How could Bond be gay??
-That selection you quote about Bond not killing in cold blood made think of the Doctor's morals ...
-War and Peace that shoots people??

Hot diggity, you made me want to read this book.

0tralala said...

Smersh was a real organisation. The films favoured the fictional SPECTRE because it made it easier to sell the films to Russia.

Kebabs were exotic. Hamburgers are exotic in Live and Let Die.

No, Bond has one prominent scar down his cheek. It's one of the things Fleming keeps telling us about him. And his comma of hair hanging down above his right eye brow.

Not gay, repressed. It's a favourite subject amongst some chums of mine.

But hah, gotcha.

Le Mc said...

I stand corrected, but then I knew I would.