Widely regarded as the greatest English poet to arise after the second world war, Philip Larkin was, like his close friend Kingsley Amis, a fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. In the following article, published in the July 8, 1966 issue of The Spectator, he reviews the final Bond book.
These two stories, according to the blurb, were written in 1961 and 1962 respectively, and would have formed part of a similar collection to For Your Eyes Only if the late Ian Fleming had lived to add others to them. As it is, they presumably represent the last hard-cover splutterings of his remarkable talent. I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels. James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story-length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that requires elbow-room, and such Bond examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.
These are no exception. It would be difficult to deduce from them the staggeringly gigantic reputation, amounting almost to a folk-myth, that grown out of the novels. Indeed, it would be difficult nowadays to deduce it from the novels. No sooner were we told that the Bond novels represented a vulgarisation and brutalisation of Western values than the Bond films came along to vulgarise and brutalise—and in a way sterilise—the Bond novels. With our minds full of Sean Connery in Technicolor, or whatever it’s called now, this study of a retired Secret Service major drinking himself towards his final coronary, and its cover-mate, an assignment for 007 in Berlin to out-snipe a sniper, seem sensitive, civilised, full of shading and nuance.
How easy, for instance, to see in the career of Major Smythe an allegory of the life of Fleming himself! The two Reichsbank gold bars that the major smuggles out of the army on his discharge from the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau are Fleming’s wartime knowledge and expertise; he emigrates to Jamaica and lives on them—selling a slice every so often through the brothers Foo (presumably his publishers), and securing everything his heart desires: Bentleys, caviare, Henry Cotton golf clubs. For a time all is well. Then he has a heart attack; his wife takes an overdose; he has another attack, finding himself unwilling or unable to follow the regimen his doctor specifies:
“He was still a fine figure of a man, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbors why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.
The truth of the matter was that Dexter Smythe had arrived at the frontier of the death-wish…”
However inappropriate to Fleming’s life the details may be, this evocation of a fifty-ish ex-service émigré, whose only interest now is tropical fish, going steadily to pieces has a genuine plangency. Bond figures in the story only as a shadowy emissary from ‘Government House,’ come to dig up the nasty business of how he got the gold bars in the first place.
By contrast, the second story shows Bond as a kind of Buchan hero. Lying for three evenings on a bed covering the windows at the back of the Haus de Ministerien, Bond romances about a blonde cellist in a girls’ orchestra that regularly enters the building, presumably to rehearse. When finally the British agent makes a dash for the frontier, and the sniper appears at the window, it turns out to be—as if you didn’t know—the cellist. Bond’s reaction is interesting. Instead of shooting the sniper before the sniper can shoot the agent, he deliberately alters aim (the agent escapes only by luck) so as to miss her, excerpt perhaps left hand. The Secret Service No. 2, who is him, is understandably annoyed:
‘You had clear orders to exterminate…You should have killed that sniper whoever it was.’
But Bond is unmoved:
‘That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough.’
This is the moralist Bond, who toys with resigning in Casino Royale and is quite incompatible with the strip-cartoon superman of the film versions or of popular belief, but who fits well with Kingsley Amis’s suggestion, in his amusing and pertinent The James Bond Dossier, that Bond is a re-hash of the Byronic hero. Perhaps. But it would support equally well the Sunday Times’s simpler and more devastating diagnosis quoted on the paperback editions: ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Or are these still just two ways of saying the same thing?