Friday, March 14, 2008

Some comfort

There’s 238 days until Quantum of Solace opens in the UK. There’ll probably be quite a lot more of this sort of thing before then. It includes spoilers for some of the James Bond novels.

I originally started reading James Bond when I was 11. I can vaguely recall trying to explain to a friend at my new secondary school that the last chapter of Dr No was a lot like Witness – which had been on telly round that time. I also remember calling it “Doctor Number” and my confusion, from a footnote saying ‘See the author’s previous one…’ that this wasn’t the first of the books when it had been the first film. (It’s possibly I gleaned even this fact from a feature on the forthcoming new one, which my wicked big brother kept insisting was called Daylight Saving Time.)

Working through the Bond canon again now (honestly, it is useful research) all manner of other things strike me. Bond is a prized cock at the best of times; the dialogue is always pretty abysmal, clunky, place-holding stuff; the racist undertones and outlook are far more obvious than the misogynistic; and the exotic props described in such pornographic, listy detail have not all worn terribly well.
“In a characteristic passage from Live and Let Die, Bond leaves a ‘bitter raw day … the dreary half-light of a London fog’ to go to New York, where his hotel serves him crabs and tartare sauce, ‘flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice cream with melted butterscotch’ and Liebfraumilch wine. That a burger-and-chips with Blue Nun menu, which would soon become common in suburban lounge bars across Britain, clearly seemed so mouth-wateringly exotic [to British readers] in 1954 is eloquent and, in its way, touching.”

Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain, p. 216.

Annoyingly, I thought that too as I reread Live and Let Die – about a week before I read Marr’s very excellent history. But you’ll just have to believe me that I didn’t pinch the insight. Again, what follows contains major spoilers for various Bond books.

After the events of Casino Royale (book) and the leave Bond gets granted at the end, he’s sent by BOAC to New York to help investigate some long-lost pirate gold that’s just resurfaced and is financing the communists. He and old pal Felix Lighter are soon on the heels of grey-faced black hoodlum, Mr Big. The old-skool Etonian spy naturally has Opinions:
“’I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great negro criminal before,’ said Bond, ‘Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to business. Pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought except when they’ve drunk too much.’

‘Our man’s a bit of an exception,’ said M. ‘He’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good dose of French blood. Trained in Moscow, too, as you’ll see from the file. And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal. After all, there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts. And now Moscow’s taught one of them the technique.’”

Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die, in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, p. 153.

Mr Big could be meant to be some kind of emancipatory figure, because having a black baddie is a kind of equal rights. I’d almost have time for that line of argument if his use of voodoo – and just the way he and his men get described – didn’t plumb such blatant racial stereotypes. A dead giveaway is the painfully “authentic” bickering between a couple in a Harlem bar in the tastefully titled Chapter 5, “Nigger Heaven”.

Yes, it’s easy to wag a finger at the presumptions of another time. But what stands out here is just how old and far distant James Bond seems from now. Marr nicely links the spies, sex and establishment so much a part of novel-Bond to the spies, sex and establishment of the Profumo affair.
“The political scandal that happened at the fag-end of the Tory years was more highly coloured and more unlikely than much of what Ian Fleming poured into his early ‘shockers’.”

Marr, ibid.

The scandal hit in mid-1963, a year before Fleming died and just as a working-class milkman was making Bond his own. As I’ve said before, the film Bond changes quickly: becoming a force for d├ętente when the Russians start buying the movies; or one minute slating the Beatles, the next they’re doing his theme tune. When David Niven – Fleming’s own choice – played the role just five years later, he’s an awkward, embarrassed fossil of another age.

The movies have continued to express tension about how of-the-moment to make Bond: is he a smoker, is he a dinosaur, does he do girls in their teens? Anyway, shouldn’t women know better? Even so, and taking us back to race, notice how Colin Salmon is the only person who works with Brosnan’s Bond who doesn’t at some point take the piss out of him.

Back to Live and Let Die. As with Casino Royale, the plot simply licks along. Bond soon meets Simone Latrelle, better known as Solitaire, who reads cards for Mr Big. She sees Bond as her way out of getting hitched to the villain, lies to save his life and then joins him on a train. Beautiful and 25, she’s never been with a man but – caught up in the adventure – shows everything to Bond. But she’s not foreseen the many eyes of Mr Big and gets herself recaptured before Bond can do his moves.

Bond and Leiter continue their investigations. Fleming is good at conjuring paranoid claustrophobia – the two agents don’t quite appreciate how closely they are watched. In fact, we take their predicament far more seriously than they do. Leiter rather recklessly goes to investigate the baddie’s hide-out all on his own one night. This allows for a shocking bit of savagery, the sequel to the bollock-whacking in the first book. As cobbled into the plot of Licence to Kill, Leiter gets himself fed to a shark.

That’s the gloves off; Bond finds the truth hidden beneath the poison fish, has a fight with an octopus and finally meets up again with Solitaire. They do the bit being dragged behind a boat like in the film For Your Eyes Only, but without the cheat of having an aqua-lung waiting. As is often the case with the films, you realise you’ve been well briefed on the thing that’s going to eat Mr Big at the end. Bond goes off for some ‘passionate leave’ [sic] with Solitaire, and is then back in London in time for his next assignment.

Which sees him playing another game of cards and then pootling round exotic Dover. Moonraker feels like a whole other series. The first chapters have a bored, restless Bond doing a bit of filing and dwelling on things to come.
“It was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five. Eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters. At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.”

Fleming, Moonraker, in ibid., p. 328.

Which makes Bond 37 in a book first published in 1955, and possible set a bit earlier. He can't then be born any later than 1918. I'll come back to this age question another time, when I'm further into my rereading.

It’s a different kind of mission, this – initially a favour to M, then a secondment to MI5. It seems small and parochial, a threat to little England with no need for sexy clothes and locations. Bond worries about his secretary’s love-life and what people might think in the papers of Sir Hugo Drax. Drax is not French here, as in the movie, but one of Britain’s finest. Oh, I realised as I reread it, Drax is Toby Stephens.

There’s something funny with the British rocket programme that Drax is rather dashingly donating for the protection of the nation. Hmm… what could possibly go wrong? It maybe seems a bit obvious since we get told early on how the programme is using lots of former Nazis (who knew a thing about long-range rockets having worked on doodlebugs). I still love their brilliant disguises, as Drax ultimately explains:
“’You smelt a mouse, my dear Bond, where you ought to have smelt a rat. Those shaven heads and those moustaches we cultivated so assiduously. Just a precaution, my dear fellow. Try shaving your own head and growing a big black moustache. Even your mother wouldn’t recognize you. It’s the combination that counts. Just a tiny refinement. Precision, my dear fellow. Precision in every detail. That has been my watchword.’ He chuckled fatly and puffed away at his cigar.”

Ibid., p. 483.

There’s also the oddly erotic mix of awkward and sexy as Bond and Gala go for a swim in just their rubbish pants, and survive an explosion that blows up all their clothes. This is falling into parody – more Tara King than Ian Hendry. Yet there’s still plenty of thrilling writing, like the car chase on the A20 where a boy racer takes the fall for Bond. The live news report at the end of the penultimate chapter is also nicely done.

And I also loved that in this one Bond doesn’t get the girl. Policewoman Gala Brand (a less-rude name than Dr Holly Goodhead) is engaged to someone else and furious when Bond plants a kiss on her. The control freak fantasist has all sorts of plans for them once the adventure’s done, and she neatly tells him it’s not happening and walks out of his life.

A few people have said that the film producers should have followed Casino Royale (film) with a remake of Live of Let Die and then continued through the canon. But Moonraker really has only its title to recommend it. The rest feels low budget and ITC, too easily imagined with stock explosions and the exterior dialogue played against photographic flats.

The short story collection For Your Eyes Only also contains some very un-Bond-like Bond. The titular story is the springboard for a lot of the film of the same name, only it happens in Canada not Greece. The Havelocks in the story have lived in the same house in Jamaica for 300 years and their murder by Cuban gangsters might suggest Fleming’s own discomfort with the political context gathering round his home. It’s odd to see Bond being nominally on the side of Castro, but there’s not really any profound insight into post-colonial or ex-pat existence. Some rich friends of M are murdered and he asks Bond to take revenge.

The film also nicks and hellenifies bits from the story “Risico” (which is how the character Kristatos says “risk”), and neglects to have Bond dying himself with walnut stain until he looks “like a Red Indian with blue-grey eyes.” But the vengeful daughter, the crossbow and that cheesy line about first digging two graves is all in Fleming’s original.

“From a View to a Kill” (the short story has the word “from” in it) has Bond spotting the secret hide-out of some villains who shoot a messenger. The villains have an underground base in the forest and wear things like snow-shoes that stop them leaving footprints in the grass. It’s set in France and has ex-Nazis, but no airships, horses or microchips. “The Hildebrand Rarity” is the Krest bits of the plot of Licence to Kill, only not quite as exciting.

Rereading this stuff, I’ve been struck by how often the best bits of the films are always Fleming’s. Yet it's weird to realise that the worst of Bond on film - silly plotting, an overly serious Bond being dull about posh past-times and food, and sleazing his way into bed (in fact, A View To A Kill) - is not atypical Bond of the books.

The skill of the adapters is also to jettison his crapper stuff. They rename the women and make the set pieces bigger and in more striking locations. They make the words coming out of Bond’s mouth smart and witty and sparkly. They’ve got a broader, more inclusive view of the world and other people. And that’s what keeps Bond involving when he could easily have died with Fleming.

“Quantum of Solace” is really very odd; Bond is bored at a dinner party and doesn’t get on with his host. But a chance remark leads to the host telling a story about an affair that gives him a completely different perspective on the boring guests. Bond is, unlike the reader, gripped. Compared to them, he finally decides, his life isn’t that exciting.

Just what the flying flip?

An uncharitable reviewer might assume Fleming had shoehorned Bond into the framing of a non-James Bond story. Perhaps it’s meant to reinforce the idea of Bond as an outsider, cold in company but keen to know everyone’s secrets. But I think it’s just meant to play as it is; Bond is moved, has a revelation about people, because of hearing this story.

The title comes from the host’s own theory about what finally breaks up a couple. Bond can’t suck up enough.
“Bond said: ‘That’s a splendid name for it … I should say you’re absolutely right. Quantum of Solace – the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.’”

Fleming, Quantum of Solace, in For Your Eyes Only, p. 093.

So it’s a story about there being nothing left of a relationship. Which bleak view, it seems to me, is the complete opposite of what rumour says will be the basis for the film version. If the whispers are right, Bond can take some minuscule comfort from how things with Vesper turned out in that she’s led him to the baddest of the bad guys. And maybe – though they whispered it of the last one, too – that’ll be someone with the same initials as one of Fuller’s beers.

No, not London Pride.

James Bond will be return in Diamonds Are Forever (book), just as soon as I've reread it.


Anonymous said...

Regarding (the short story) "Quantum
of Solace", you are:

(a) wrong, and
(b) a grotesquely ugly freak.

D x

Le Mc said...

I have a) seen little Bond; b) read no Bond; c) wish I had seen Casino Royale and hope to. My dad, however, is more familiar with the written Bond than the film Bond.