Monday, June 11, 2012

The Wedding of James Bond

The tenth James Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) begins with Bond revisiting the scene of the first – the casino from Casino Royale. On a winning streak, he pays off the debt of a pretty girl, who then invites him up to her room. This is Tracy – soon to be Mrs James Bond.

Bond's first night with Tracy is not exactly romantic. She's cross and weird, telling him:
“Do anything you like. And tell me what you like and what you would like from me. Be rough with me. Treat me like the lowest whore in creation.”
Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, p. 36. 
 Bond can see she's troubled and self-destructive, and she makes it explicit that she's shagging him because he paid her. So it's not exactly gallant that he doesn't walk away but instead gets his money's worth. Of course, it's been well established that Bond is an amazing lay. Later, Tracy tells him:
“'That was heaven, James. Will you please come back when you wake up? I must have it once more.' Then she had turned over on her side away from him and, without answering his last endearments, had gone to sleep – but not before he had heard that she was crying. 
What the hell? All cats are grey in the dark.”
Ibid., pp. 36-37.
It's hardly a great start to their relationship, but Bond then keeps his eye on Tracy and stops her when she tries to kill herself after a day on the beach. This rescue is interrupted by some hoodlums who take Tracy and Bond away to a Corsican gangster called Marc-Ange Draco – who turns out to be Tracy's dad.

So far, its a strange and exciting beginning. Draco and Bond quickly become friends – they might work on opposite sides of the law, but they're both rough diamonds with a liking for the finer things in life. The despairing dad explains Tracy's history, and again there's nothing very romantic about it.
“'I was married once only, to an English girl, an English governess. She was a romantic. She had come to Corsica to look for bandits' – he smiled – 'rather like some English women adventure into the desert to look for sheiks. She explained to me later that she must have been possessed by a subconscious desire to be raped. Well' – this time he didn't smile – 'she found me in the mountains and she was raped – by me. The police were after me at the time, they have been for most of my life, and the girl was a grave encumbrance. But for some reason she refused to leave me ... The result, my dear Commander, was Teresa, my only child.' 
So, thought Bond. That explained the curious mixture the girl was – the kind of wild 'lady' that was so puzzling in her.” 
Ibid., p. 46.
If this mix of glamour and abuse sits uncomfortably, Bond at leasts turns down Draco's offer of money to help straighten Tracy out, and instead recommends a clinic in Switzerland – which will be quite convenient later in the book. Bond returns to London, but he's smitten. Fleming doesn't exactly go overboard in schmaltz, using Bond's new secretary to show how much he's changed:
“Loelia Ponsoby had at last left to marry a dull, but worthy and rich member of the Baltic Exchange, and confined her contacts with her old job to rather yearning Christmas and birthday cards to the members of the Double-O Section. But the new one, Mary Goodnight, an ex-Wren with blue-black hair, blue eyes, and 37-22-35, was a honey and there was a private five-pound sweep in the Section as to who would get her first. Bond had been lying equal favourite with the ex-Royal Marine Commando who was 006 but, since Tracy, had dropped out of the field and now regarded himself as a rank outsider, though he still, rather bitchily, flirted with her.” 
Ibid., p. 57.
James Bond in love. What a dick.

And all this love stuff is just a side show anyway. Bond has also got an important lead from Draco on the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the super-villain whose SPECTRE organisation Bond has fought in the last two books. Bond hasn't met Blofeld, but a man who might be him, Monsieur le Comte de Bleuville, is living it up in a posh ski resort in Switzerland. And he seems rather pleased with his title, as he's been writing to the College of Arms to get it officially recognised.

The plot that follows is good fun, Bond posing as Sir Hilary Bray, an expert on heraldry who can help trace Blofeld's line. In doing so, he can also establish the man's history and link him to his crimes. But to do this, Bond has to go stay in Blofeld's luxury complex, high on the top of a Swiss mountain, without even packing a gun.

That's important. As always, the more the odds are stacked against Bond, and the more he must rely only on his wits rather than luck or clever gadgets, the better the adventure. Coincidences mount up against him – first a man who knows the real Sir Hilary is visiting, then one of Bond's own colleagues turns up. We hear the terrible scream of a man “accidentally” falling down the bob-sleigh run, and the threat of such a death hangs heavy over Bond. It all licks along quite nicely. Fleming nicely puts in brackets stuff Bond doesn't know, as Blofeld's henchpersons watch his every move, putting us in a privileged position that helps build suspense.

Also guests of the Count are a group of pretty girls from all round the UK – not from round the world as in the film. They're being treated for allergies to chickens and potatoes, and are all keen to get Bond into bed. He obliges one called Ruby – though we're told he's not forgotten Tracy, this is just him doing his job and getting information. Even so, it's odd to hear Bond call a girl “Baby” and there's something oddly prissy about what he gets up to:
“He gave her another long and, he admitted to himself, extremely splendid kiss, to which she responded with an animalism that slightly salved his conscience. 'Now then, baby.' His right hand ran down her back to the curve of her behind, to which he gave an encouraging and hastening pat.” 
Ibid., p. 122.
There's some fun stuff as he sneaks about, dodging the CCTV and opening locked doors to get into Ruby's room. Again, the details about smell make Bond seem weirdly OCD.
“Her hair smelt of new-mown summer grass, her mouth of Pepsodent, and her body of Mennen's Baby Powder. A small night wind rose up outside and moaned round the building, giving an extra sweetness, an extra warmth, even a certain friendship to what was no more than an act of physical passion. There was real pleasure in what they did to each other, and in the end, when it was over and they lay quietly in each other's arms, Bond knew, and knew that that the girl knew, that they had done nothing wrong, done no harm to each other.”
Ibid., p. 127.
This is all a little convenient. Bond – and Ruby - might feel entirely guiltless, but what would Tracy think? It's telling that he lies to her, says he never touched the girls – but tells the truth to her father, who accepts the fact without reproach. If the marriage had continued, how faithful might Bond have been?

As well as shagging the patients, Bond finally gets to meet Blofeld. Though this is the first time they meet, Bond has clearly gathered a lot of intelligence already:
“He knew what not to expect, the original Blofeld, last year's model – about twenty stone, tall, pale, bland face with black crew-cut, black eyes with the whites showing all round, like Mussolini's, ugly thin mouth, long pointed hands and feet – but he had no idea what alternations had been contrived on the envelope that contained the man.”
Ibid., pp.102-3.
Given the bald, Nehru-suited look of three Bond films (plus Charles Grey in Diamonds Are Forever and Max von Sydow in Never Say Never Again), it's striking how different the book Blofeld is:
“The man was tallish, yes, and, all right, his hands and naked feet were long and thin. But there the resemblance ended. The Count had longish, carefully tended, almost dandified hair that was a fine silvery white.” 
Ibid., p. 103.
Perhaps it's the “dandified”, but I imagined him played by Jon Pertwee. That Bond is able to catch this master criminal by playing to his vanity about a family title is really nicely done – a character flaw that makes a credible lure. Note also the book Blofeld is not accompanied by a white cat.

Speaking of the films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service also shows the influence of the film Doctor No. Fleming originally disliked the casting of Sean Connery but was soon won over – and here accommodates the accent into the canonical Bond:
“My father was a Scot and my mother was Swiss ... My father came from the Highlands, from near Glencoe.”
Ibid., p. 59.
Ursula Andress is also one of the celebs dining at Blofeld's restaurant (on page 114). I'm tempted to suggest that the exciting escape from the Swiss mountain in the midst of an avalanche is also a nod to the action set pieces of the films. Bond's mum being Swiss means he's an okay skier, though Fleming is keen to make his style basic and old-fashioned, which ensures it's not to easy and that the odds remain against him.

Amid Emma Coat's 22 rules of good storytelling compiled while working at Pixar, there is:
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Bond – desperate, exhausted and with baddies almost on him – bumping into Tracy feels like a cheat. Yes, Fleming has set this up and it was Bond himself who recommended that she go to Switzerland, but it still feels too easy. Tracy is good in a crisis and helps Bond escape. He needs to get back to London to report, so she drops him at the airport. And Bond suddenly gets all romantic.
“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I'll never find another girl like this one. She's got everything I've looked for in a woman. She's beautiful, in bed and out. She's adventurous, brave, resourceful. She's exciting always. She seems to love me. She'd let me go on with my life. She's a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings. Above all, she needs me. It'll be someone for me to look after. I'm fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn't mind having children. I've got no social background into which she would or wouldn't fit. We're two of a pair, really. Why not make if for always?” 
Ibid., p. 172. 
This might seem a bit brutal and pragmatic, but it's perfectly in character. In context, it's even quite moving. Bond tells Tracy to meet him in Berlin, where they'll tie the knot.

Back in London on Christmas Day, Bond visits M's bizarre, nautically themed home to present all he's learned and work out what Blofeld is up to. There's something comic and late-60s The Avengers about M's house being based on his old ship, even down to his old staff now acting as a butler.

Experts arrive to confirm Bond's suspicions, and we get a full briefing on the new, deadly science of biological warfare. It all sounds credible, quoting a “United States Senate paper, Number 58991, dated August 29th 1960, prepared by 'The Sub-committee on Disarmament of the Committee on Foreign Relations'” (on page 191). Yet, as always, we need to take the things Fleming states as fact with a pinch of salt:
“Now there is plenty of medical evidence for the efficacy of hypnosis. There are well-authenticated cases of the successful treatment by these means of such stubborn disabilities as warts, certain types of asthma, bed-wetting, stammering, and even alcoholism,drug-taking and homosexual tendencies. Although the British Medical Association frowns officially on the practitioners of hypnosis, you would be surprised, sir, to know how many doctors themselves, as a last resort, particularly in cases of alcoholism, have private treatment from qualified hypnotists.”
Ibid., p. 187.
Having established what Blofeld's about, British intelligence is then rather hamstrung by tricky things like international law and the lack of help they can expect from the Swiss in extraditing Blofeld. Luckily, Bond is now owed a favour from Tracy's dad, and enlists the Corsican underground to lead an attack on Blofeld's base. Draco is only too pleased to help, seeing this as a sort of dowry. Tracy is less pleased:
“'All right. I won't ask questions. And I'm sorry I cried.' She added fiercely, 'But you are such an idiot! You don't seem to think it matters to anyone. The way you go on playing Red Indians. It's so – so selfish.'”
Ibid., p. 226.
The thing is that she's right. There's no reason for Bond to go, except his own macho nonsense. The attack is a bit of a disaster – despite an exciting chase down the bob sled run, Blofeld escapes and Bond is badly wounded. He heads to Berlin and to Tracy, where again it's not quite romantic:
“'What worries me is how we're going to make love. In the proper fashion, elbows are rather important for the man.' 
'Then we'll do it in an improper fashion. But not tonight., or tomorrow. Only when we're married. Till then I am going to pretend I'm a virgin.' She looked at him seriously. 'I wish I was, James. I am in a way, you know. People can make love without loving.' 
Ibid., p. 230.
Yes, the real tragedy is that they don't have a proper, loving shag before she snuffs it. A second bracketed section tells us that – in another coincidence - Bond has been spotted by his enemies. It's beautifully done – Bond's wedded bliss while we know something awful is coming, and then the simplicity with which he doesn't quite accept that Tracy is dead.

At the end of the fifth novel, Fleming killed Bond; at the end of the tenth* he kills his wife. I'd loved this book best of all when I originally read the novels in my teens. This time, I was struck by the fun and smart plot (especially after the awful The Spy Who Loved Me), how difficult things are made for Bond, and the striking “visuals” of the setting and action set pieces. The romance between Bond and Tracy is odd, unequal and often uncomfortable, and never quite convinces. She's yet another damaged girl “cured” by Bond having sex with her. Yet the ending is beautifully played and haunting, partly because of a tantalising glimpse of Bond being happy and putting someone else first.

(* For Your Eyes Only isn't a novel but a collection of short stories.)

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