Article by Revelator
After For Your Eyes Only Bond was no longer a wonderful machine. Nor was he a fully-dimensional, complex human being—that would involve surrendering his role as a male-fantasy projection—but he was considerably more human than before. Why? Because Ian Fleming failed. He explained why in an interview with Counterpoint:
Now, you’ll notice that the James Bond of the first book was a straightforward man who didn’t really possess a total personality. In fact, in the first several books you’ll find absolutely no discussion of his character, few of his mannerisms, no character study in depth…I kept him quite blank, in a way, at first, giving him no quirks, no particular morality or immorality, not even a definite detailed personal appearance.
As the series has gone on, however, James Bond has become encrusted with mannerisms and belongings and individual characteristics. This is probably a natural outgrowth of getting to know him better. I don’t know if this is good or bad, and I don’t know where all the elements that compose Bond come from, but there they are…As to quirks and tastes, likes and dislikes, bits of me probably creep in. But not important bits.
Those “bits” could be viewed as superficial—Bond shares his creator’s taste in clothes (lightweight blue suits and Sea Island cotton shirts), food (especially scrambled eggs), restaurants (Scott’s), and favorite travel spots (Jamaica and Kitzbühel, site of Bond and Fleming’s happiest youthful memories and Bond and Tracy’s aborted honeymoon)
But Fleming was being disingenuous—important bits did creep in. First, Bond began sharing his creator’s health problems, as demonstrated in Thunderball, when Bond’s body shows serious strain for the first time. Fleming wrings comedy from Bond not only being sent to a health farm but growing to like it. The detailed portrait of Shrublands and its surrounding tea shops—along with Bond’s cravings for illicit alcohol—undoubtedly stem from Fleming’s attempts to dry out.
Beginning in a sanitarium and ending in a hospital, Thunderball marks the advent of Suffering Bond, a man battered by life and clearly showing it. This version of the character could also be called Loving Bond, since his relations with women are more intense and meaningful. Bond falls in genuine love with Domino Vitali, Tracy di Vicenzo and Kissy Suzuki, all among Fleming’s strongest heroines, all of whom rescue Bond from certain death when he reaches complete physical and mental exhaustion. These relationships are far more than flings.
As shown in his conversations with Tiffany Case and Honey Rider, Bond proves himself a good listener with Domino, and his comments encourage her to tell the long, lovely story about the sailor on the Players cigarette carton. Domino projects a tough exterior and Bond courts her with affirmation. He says that what the rest of Nassau thinks of her is irrelevant, and he respects her choices. Later he feels anguish at having to use Domino after falling in love with her:
‘Your brother was killed by Largo, or on his orders. I came here to tell you that. But then,’ he hesitated, ‘you were there and I love you and want you. When what happened began to happen I should have had the strength to stop it. I hadn’t. I knew it was then or perhaps never. Knowing what I knew, it was a dreadful thing to have done. But you looked so beautiful and happy. I wanted to put off hurting you. That is my only excuse.’
After Thunderball, Fleming made a dramatic right turn with The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond shows up as a knight in shining armor (“he had come from nowhere, like a prince in the fairy tales”) but a human, fallible one: he’s grown even more squeamish about killing in cold blood. “Never been able to” he tells Vivienne. (Really? Then how did you become a Double-O?). At times he looks borderline incompetent, and knows it—“Sorry again, Viv! My reactions don’t seem all that smart tonight. I’ll do better.”
Spy is also notable for its autobiographical resonance. Vivienne Michel’s fledgling career in journalism with the Chelsea Clarion draws on Fleming’s stint with Reuters. More shockingly, Vivienne’s first sexual experience—a harrowing, humiliating fumble in a movie theatre—is based on Fleming’s own first time, according to biographer Andrew Lycett. It isn’t a stretch to see Vivienne’s boyfriend—the callow and caddish Derek—as a veiled self-portrait of Fleming, penned by an older man ruefully looking back on his treatment of women.
Critics were horrified by the sexual explicitness of The Spy Who Loved Me (even Bond fans were spooked by the author writing in first person about having sex with his own character) and the book’s failure badly hurt Fleming. He retreated to a more conventional format but continued experimenting: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service presents the marriage of James Bond.
Even without that, OHMSS has several unusual features, including rare glimpse of Bond’s childhood memories, Bond taking the initiative from M for the first time (more irascible than ever, M browbeats OO7 and calls his plan to smoke out Blofeld “a pack of nonsense”), and Bond getting so tired of his job he nearly resigns.
Fatigue with his overall way of life seems to prompt Bond’s marriage:
Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one. She’s got everything I’ve ever looked for in a woman. She’s beautiful, in bed and out. She’s adventurous, brave and resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me…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.
An example of the latter is the tryst with Ruby Windsor, when Bond forces himself to speak “stale, insincere words.” But the greatest prompt is really Tracy’s need to be looked after. Bond is intrigued by “this wonderful girl who did hysterical things”.
After their first time she dismisses him from bed by shouting “You’re a lousy goddam lover. Get out!” and Bond trudges “down the corridor, feeling, for the first time in his life, totally inadequate.” Tracy presents him with a challenge that is not sexual but emotional:
“this girl had come to the end of her tether, of too many tethers. Bond felt a wave of affection for her, a sweeping urge to protect her, to solve her problems, to make her happy.” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the fullest portrait of Loving Bond; Bond as Caregiver, inescapably drawn to protect a “bird with a wing down.”
Reflecting on marriage, Bond realizes it
“never crossed his mind that anybody really cared about him. A shake of a head from his friends when he went, a few careful lines in the obituary columns of The Times, a momentary pang in a few girls’ hearts. But now…he would no longer be alone. He would be half of two people…Now if he got himself killed, there would be Tracy who would at any rate partially die with him.”
The end of OHMSS is a cruel irony: it’s Tracy who’s killed and Bond who partially dies.
You Only Live Twice is the apotheosis of Suffering Bond. If misery demands company, Fleming—plagued by his equally failing health and marriage—demanded that Bond share it with him. As the story opens, Bond is “on the rubbish heap, his career, his life in ruins.” He bungles missions, drinks even more than usual, looks like a mess, gambles badly, and resorts to pills and tranquilizers and even hypnotists. Bond pleads with doctor after doctor: “I feel like hell. I sleep badly. I eat practically nothing. I drink too much and my work has gone to blazes. I’m shot to pieces. Make me better.” It’s a shocking, unprecedented degeneration; a negation of Bond’s glamor and appeal. Now “on the threshold of middle-age,” Bond drunkenly sits on park benches, wondering where dead insects go.
Only the intervention of Sir James Molony (who predicted Bond’s decline in Dr. No), saves Bond from being fired by M, who completely loses his temper. Once in Japan, Bond is reinvigorated by the challenge of an impossible mission and a truly foreign country, and he indulges his sense of humor more frequently than in the earlier books. This has usually been attributed to the influence of Sean Connery and the Bond movies, which also explains the revelation of Bond’s Scottishness. But like Bond, Fleming was half-Scottish. Furthermore Bond’s Swiss mother has little to do with Connery (she also speaks French, one of two languages Bond and Fleming are fluent in). The most plausible explanation is that Connery’s background inspired Fleming to emphasize his own.
The humor in You Only Live Twice mostly consists of sardonic banter between Bond and Tiger Tanaka (discussing a youth who committed suicide under a piledriver, Tiger says he “will have gained great face in his neighbourhood.” “You can’t gain face from strawberry jam” replies Bond). Ultimately, it’s a far cry from the pun-heavy one-liners typical of the Bond films. The better explanation is that Fleming, after having transferred to Bond his health problems and gloom, also gave Bond his sense of humor. (Fleming contributed parts of himself to other characters too—Dexter Smythe in Octopussy is a partial self-portrait of the author gone to seed). When Bond cheerfully breaks cover:
(“Well, Blofeld, you mad bastard. I’ll admit that your effects man down below knows his stuff. Now bring on the twelve she-devils and if they’re all as beautiful as Fraulein Bunt, we’ll get Noel Coward to put it to music and have it on Broadway by Christmas”)
he displays the sort of humor found in Fleming’s letters and gives a shot-out to one of the author’s best friends.
Fleming engages in further metatextuality: Blofeld’s denunciation of Bond reads like parody of Blunt Instrument Bond, or of Fleming’s snootiest critics—
“You are a common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places. Having done what you are told to do, out of some mistaken idea of duty or patriotism, you satisfy your brutish instincts with alcohol, nicotine and sex while waiting to be dispatched on the next misbegotten foray.”
John le Carré couldn’t have put it better.
But even Blofeld admits that Bond has changed: “Since last January he has ceased to be an animal. By a simple stroke of surgery on the woman he loved, I reduced him to human dimensions.” Bond is further altered by injury and amnesia: Kissy finds him swimming “feebly round and round like a wounded animal, in ever-increasing circles.”
He becomes a male bird with a wing down, and Kissy—the outdoorsy, straightforward, and most self-sufficient female character in Fleming—rescues him.
“All I want to do is to care for him and keep him for myself as long as I can. If the day comes when he wishes to leave, I will not hinder him. I will help him. He was happy here fishing with me…He told me so.”
And so he was, living a simple life as her husband, in accord with nature. Stripped of his memories, past life, and even his sex drive (he has to re-learn lovemaking from a book), Bond has died and been reborn as Taro Todoroki. OO7’s rough life had therefore come to a natural close—or would have, if Fleming hadn’t felt obligated to drag his dying self to the typewriter one more time. The proper end to Suffering Bond was death, but instead Bond killed his creator.
Left unfinished, The Man With the Golden Gun is a reboot of the series. Introduced as a zombie with patricidal urges toward M (the assassination attempt marks the complete breakdown of their relationship), Bond is shock therapized into a near-blank. Once a wonderful machine, then a human being, Bond is now just a machine.
Among the few human qualities he has left is his complete inability to kill Scaramanga in cold blood (“James Bond knew that he was not only disobeying orders, or at best dodging them, but also being a bloody fool.” Indeed!).
This continues the softening Fleming had explored in The Living Daylights, where Bond cannot bring himself to assassinate Trigger and tells his minder “Think I like this job?…I’d be quite happy for you to get me sacked from the Double-O Section.” The Blunt Instrument Bond of Casino Royale would have been disgusted by all this, and if Fleming had lived, he might have further explored the repercussions of Bond having totally lost his ruthlessness and killer instinct, the qualities that made him a Double O in the first place. But Ian Fleming had run out of zest and time.
The Man With the Golden Gun partially recovers in its last chapter, thanks to Felix Leiter’s sentimental goodbye and Bond’s mixed reaction at being offered a knighthood. His frivolous refusal (“My principal reason is that I don’t want to pay more at hotels and restaurants”) and tongue-in-cheek humility (“I am a Scottish peasant and I will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant”) can’t conceal how moved he is by M’s gesture. He knows his boss (“a romantic at heart like all the silly bastards who get mixed up with the Service”) will understand why he can’t accept the honor.
The humor in this scene has a warmth and profundity not found in any other Bond book or film. Fleming uses knighthood as a symbolic acknowledgement of Bond’s growing fame, a fame that he knew would take Bond away from him.
In death Fleming ceded his character to the movies. It was the end of an age, and James Bond would not have another.