Friday, May 11, 2012

The Man Who Made Love To Her

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is a really unpleasant book. It's told in the first-person by Vivienne Michel, a young woman running away from her life in England who gets caught up in a nasty scam. The preface says:
“It's all true – absolutely. Otherwise Ian Fleming would not have risked his professional reputation in acting as my co-author and persuading his publishers to bring out our book. He has also kindly obtained clearance for certain minor breaches of the Official Secrets Act that were necessary to my story.”
Ian Fleming, preface to The Spy Who Loved Me
 Perhaps this attempt at realism explains the rather mundane plot. After the outlandish fantasies of the last few Bond books, this feels rather pedestrian. Vivienne is taking care of the Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the north of New York State while the owners are away – but the owners are really planning to burn the place down and claim the insurance, blaming the dead Vivienne for the “accident”.

Alone and without protection, Vivienne opens the door to two tough hoodlums sent to do the burning – and they thing they might enjoy this girl before murdering her. But then, by chance, a British secret agent just so happens to show up...

Modern, bratty and na├»ve, Vivienne is quite a departure from previous Bond girls in the books. The first third of the book recounts a rather tawdry love affair in Windsor, with a posh boy who dumps her as soon as he's had his wicked way. It's surprisingly explicit about her first sexual experience, with none of the usual romance and fantasy. She and her lover – Derek – are caught in the act and thrown out of the local cinema, and then get asked questions by a policeman. The sex itself is awkward and uncomfortable.

Vivienne then runs away from England – but nothing changes: she's still the prey of callous men who only want to use her. As a result, the book is all about her as hapless, helpless victim. There's always been a sadistic streak in Bond books, but with the violence focused on Bond himself. He's a tough, determined secret agent, able to defend himself and win despite what's done to him, so the sadism makes him more of a hero. Here, it only makes Vivienne more of a victim.

This means more than that she's just a weak character. I've said before that the best Bond girls are as tough and resourceful as any man. The tougher it is for Bond to impress them and get them into bed, the more that is an achievement (and, as in Moonraker, he's not always successful). So Vivienne's weakness makes Bond look less cool and the book less exciting.

It also doesn't help that Bond arrives to rescue her from the hoodlums quite by chance – on the way home from a far more exciting-sounding story, working with the Mounties to keep a Russian defector called Boris safe from a SPECTRE assassin. It would have been simple enough to connect the hoodlums to SPECTRE, and make Bond's arrival part of his case. The coincidence kills the “realism” that Fleming has otherwise aimed for.

As it is, there's some odd business as Bond has coffee and makes small-talk while the hoodlums try to look innocent. Why don't they just shoot him and get on with their job? Instead, Bond pretends to go to bed, sneaks round and shoots them before they can carry out their threat on Vivienne. She falls gratefully into Bond's arms, but the tone of what happens next is no less nasty:
“All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful. That and the coinciding of nerves completely relaxed after the removal of tension and danger, the warmth of gratitude, and a woman's natural feeling for her hero. I had no regrets and no shame. There might be many consequences for me – not least that I might now be dissatisfied with other men. But whatever my troubles were, he would never hear of them. I would not pursue him and try to repeat what there had been between us. I would stay away from him and leave him to go his own road where there would be other women, countless other women, who would probably give him as much physical pleasure as he had had with me. I wouldn't care, or at least I told myself that I wouldn't care, because none of them would ever own him – own any larger piece him that I now did. And for all my life I would be grateful to him, for everything. And I would remember him for ever as my image of a man.” 
Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me, p. 154. 
So the title is a lie. Bond doesn't love her but uses her – as all the other men in her life have, or have tried to – and drives off the next morning, leaving her a note rather than saying goodbye. A more accurate title might be “The Man Who Made Love To Me”. True, he squares things with the police so she won't be in trouble and can collect reward money, but that's surely the least he could do.

And Vivienne's point about no girl ever having more of Bond than she did isn't true, either. In the very next book, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, James Bond meets his wife. And it's one of my favourites...

No comments: