Review by Benjamin Welton
Biographers, like translators, often don’t get credit for their work. In the hierarchy of paperbacks and hardcovers, chronicling the life of another is usually placed somewhere below that of a standard history, whether popular or academic. Partially this is a problem of subject, for more often than naught, people buy biographies based on the person in question, not the author. Similarly, biographers typically write about large personalities and extravagant histories, both of which can swallow whole rigorous scholarship and brilliant writing.
Andrew Lycett is miraculously a writer apart – a biographer who is not often resigned to the biographer’s grotto of no name recognition. One cannot blame his subjects either, for Lycett traffics in big British personages, specifically British writers from a certain era. Lycett’s subjects have included such luminaries as Wilkie Collins (2013’s Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and Rudyard Kipling. In his second biography, which was published originally in the United Kingdom in 1995, Lycett examines Ian Fleming, the bird-faced cigarette smoker, gin drinker, and naval officer who created James Bond.
Recently published in the U.S. for the first time, American readers are just know getting around to reading Lycett’s incredibly in-depth portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest thriller writers. But be forewarned: Lycett’s biography is no thriller, and one must be truly interested in Fleming and his creations if their goal is to complete this tome. Although it is told with an accessible voice, Ian Fleming is excruciatingly detailed and overwhelming well-drawn. For a lesser reader, this can be too much to handle, especially given the controversial nature of Mr. Fleming.
“Warts and all” is a trite, yet apt tagline for this four hundred pages plus book, and while Fleming at times comes off as every bit the gentleman playboy of his later novels, Lycett’s biography also paints him as a vicious if not aloof lover, a bumbler, a lousy stock broker, and a simpering boy-man who often lived under the thumb of strong women (first his mother, then his wife Ann). Of course some of these descriptions are oversimplified, but as Lycett’s biography points out, Fleming’s life had several reoccurring elements, some of which are bound to repulse readers.
Born in 1908, Fleming’s short life was “a continuous battle for supremacy between two radically different set of genes: the dour Scots respectability of his paternal line and the raffish capriciousness of the maternal.” The young Fleming often failed to find the balance between his desire for economic stability and his preference for leisure. A Byronic soul in an age of white-collar careerists, Fleming during the Jazz Age had all the hallmarks of yet another aimless bourgeois boy, and Lycett’s biography is riddled with examples of Fleming’s moral failings.
For instance there’s the time when Fleming was forced to give up a career as an officer in the British army. Fleming, who suffered from having to live up not only to the achievements of his older brother Peter (a writer and adventurer in his own right), but also the shadow his father, the brave former Conservative MP who died fighting in World War I, was at the time enrolled in Sandhurst, the British military academy for infantry and cavalry officers. The idea was not his own, for his spendthrift mother Eve chose the army for her son after his lackluster performance at Eton. While at Sandhurst, Fleming performed well but oddly, and before long he became known as a campus eccentric who had little time for strict rules or discipline.
One top of this, Fleming’s Sandhurst days were notable for his increasingly dim view of women and relationships. For young gentleman cadet Fleming, women were for frivolity, and throughout his youth Fleming showed a cool attitude towards romance and prudish behavior (one gets the view from Lycett’s book that Fleming espoused sexual liberation merely for the sake of sleeping with as many women as possible). Ultimately, such an attitude netted Fleming gonorrhea, which forced him to resign his commission in 1927.
Not to be outdone by her son’s shameful behavior, Eve, whom Lycett describes as “not yet finished with her son,” took charge once again of Fleming’s budding, yet inchoate career. What followed was a series of short-lived excursions – short, sometime bumpy jaunts along Fleming’s eventual rise to stardom. From Reuters to Cull & Co. to the Royal Navy, the pre-James Bond days of Ian Fleming were chock full of their own excitement, but rarely did they come close to the fictional exploits of 007. So much for the hoopla around Fleming, no?
And yet, Lycett’s biography is not a condemnation of the man on its cover. While it does chronicle his numerous infidelities and flights of fantasy, Ian Fleming also showcases Fleming’s ardent patriotism, his loyalty to his small collection of friends, his visionary approach to special military operations, and above all, his greatness as a writer.
Throughout his masterful book, Lycett never once allows the focus to leave Fleming. While other biographies take the long view and try and make a much larger statement about the world surrounding a certain subject, Ian Fleming never once wavers from its single mission – the unendingly interesting life of Ian Fleming: the writer, the creator, and the fallible human being. Miraculously, Lycett’s writing and Fleming’s life mesh so well that there is not a single down chapter full of filler. Each one of the book’s fifteen chapters is both engaging and captivating, from Fleming’s passionate love affair with Jamaica to Ian and Ann’s troubled marriage. And in the process, Lycett never once renounces his duty as a scholar, and one peek at the index should let a browser know that this is a serious study.
Ian Fleming, like all of Andrew Lycett’s biographies, is a supreme achievement that remains eminently readable. Told with a clear and concise prose style, Ian Fleming covers both the little tidbits and the major moments with an equal sense of straight-laced panache. Although fantastic, Ian Fleming is just another near-perfect biography in a string of near-perfect biographies.
Ian Fleming is currently for purchase from St. Martin’s Press.
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