On this Bastille Day, we are delighted to welcome our French cousins commander007.net at Station F, to contribute their thoughts on James Bond in France. Profitez!
In 11 novels and 9 short stories, Bond travels five times through 1950’s France. While Bond is now famous for being a great globe-trotting spy, it is surprising that Fleming, an author so fond of Jamaica and other exotic places, would send his spy just as many times to the other side of the Channel.
The Old Aristocratic joie de vivre
We know relatively little of Fleming’s travels in France, but we can fairly assume that he traveled through the country several times when he visited Switzerland and Germany. France in the 1950s was not an especially jolly era. Still recovering from the war, France in these years was still a fairly rural country. Some old and new fortunes gathered in Paris, its Riviera and other industrial cities, while the common French were not wealthy.
Fleming’s France was different.
Of all the exotic landscapes in France, Fleming picked its quiet and northern coastline far from the French Riviera. He even goes as far as inventing a complete back story to the city of Royale-les-Eaux, inspired by the actual city of Le Touquet (he might also have met Ann O’Neil in the city of Le Touquet). As he presents it, the city is a fading one; far from the excitement of more dynamic ones. However, the place still has that certain charm of its aristocratic past: old buildings with impeccable service; a sense of luxury concealing the economic downfall of the city; old bourgeoisie spending their fading fortunes, as well as the old ways of life living by the sea. Like many other places that have been visited by Bond, Fleming provides us with an abundance of detail.
France in Fleming’s Stories
Casino Royale takes place entirely in northern France on the Channel in the fictional city of Royale-les-Eaux and the near-by region. We also follow Bond tracking Goldfinger’s car through France in Goldfinger, and see 007 investigate a NATO disappearance in Paris and its surroundings in From A View to a Kill*. From Russia with Love also has its epilogue in Paris at the Ritz.
* [‘Bons baisers de Paris’ – this was the first translation in French of the short stories volume ‘For Your Eyes Only’. For and the From ‘A View To A Kill’, which does not mean anything in French. It could be translated as ‘From Paris with Love,’ which reflects the perplexity of the translators when they had to deal with Fleming’s novels.]
We later come back to Royale in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where Bond meets Tracy. He also brings us quickly through southern France, where we discover the Union Corse’s set-up to prepare the attack on Piz Gloria. The opening lines of OHMSS are best in telling this fascination Fleming has for these peripheral cities which emerged from the war and kept their old luxury ways.
After the Casino Royale adventure, Bond is said (in OHMSS) to return every year to visit Vesper’s grave. Now we see him gladly returning to the city of Royale where he is following the alluring Tracy, on his way back from a failed mission in Italy. There, he lets his mind wander into childhood reveries as evening slowly descends upon the Royale-les-Eaux beach. Bond is not someone who easily lends himself to soft daydreaming melancholia; but the charm of the city and rhythm of its inhabitants still seems to act upon him.
Perhaps these quieter towns with their impeccable service and old ways captured Fleming’s attention over England’s more “sophisticated” resort places. From a French perspective, it’s unusual to have sent Bond to these places, as French readers at the time would normally have been expecting more exotic, sunny and glamorous settings. Why go back to boring northern France? Yet Fleming’s talent managed to turn these usually sleepy northern seaside cities into places full of possibilities and excitement (as well as drama and explosions).
A Place Swarming with Opportunities
While James Bond’s England is rather quiet (except when villains such as Drax and Goldfinger set up secret lairs on White Cliffs), Fleming’s France is riddled with crooks, spies, money men, and mafia, which Fleming sought to use in his novels.
During Bond’s missions, Fleming’s describes how the economic powers of the old Vichy regime and investors financed Royale, while rich petrol businessmen and other less recommendable money men, came to wash and spend their money at the casino. OHMSS also lets us discover the foundations of the Union Corse, which expends its economic power from southern France up to the north and easily manages a kidnapping by boat right on the city’s beach, with the waiters from the cafés finding it quite normal.
Working with Draco, Bond discovers other forces remaining from the war and how the mafia acquires its modern and legitimate side from Draco’s entrepreneurial mind. The mafia are not the only crooks in the landscape with Le Chiffre power playing his different economic interests in prostitution and SMERSH, while supporting the French communist party.
What’s more, Fleming’s France is a nest of spies with SMERSH agents swarming around Royale-les-Eaux who are able to find Le Chiffre in his hidden villa, or Bond and Vesper in their cottage. American spies and French intelligence also felt at home. From a View to a Kill reveals to us the capacity of Soviet agents to build a lair on the route leading to Paris, while From Russia With Love shows us Rosa Klebb taking it easy at the Ritz.
All of these details were not so astonishing in the France of the 1950’s. These were times when the grand banditisme (organized crime) was still something to account for, especially in provincial regions. The French political system allowed for a communist party in the Western hemisphere, while NATO forces took their headquarters a few kilometres away from Paris. A large country, it was no wonder to see foreign agents and economic powers using France as an easy base of operations, even if on a map Royale-les-Eaux and Paris were an unlikely front in the underground intelligence war with Soviet Russia.
This background provided great espionage material just a few miles away from England’s coasts. Fleming must have had a comprehensive view of France’s stakes through the war and in his job as a journalist: the country had a political interest in foreign powers and was a good place to make money. It did not mean however, that France was a free-for-all. Indeed, it was the French legislation on prostitution that bankrupted Le Chiffre to begin with. In On her Majesty’s Secret Service, we also learn that Draco’s business is becoming increasingly legitimate, not only for safety reasons, but to keep up with other investments from a crooked elite and new money men. We could surmise, that Fleming kept a close eye on France’s darkest scandals and affairs linked to the mafia.
The French secret service however, didn’t have much of a place. If Mathis was a trusted ally and friend, of the Deuxième Bureau as it was, is was of little use except when Bond needs some local intelligence and last minute help. As a matter of fact, the French Secret Service makes me think more of the traditional figure of the French Gendarme series with his military ways and easy going uselessness. In From a View to A Kill, the French secret service is out of the picture and NATO’s intelligence takes the lead.
From the Ritz to the country
Fleming’s love for France is most apparent when we leave the excitement of the missions for the smaller details of rural France.
Despite the splendor and glamour of Paris, Fleming depicts it as a grimmer place. He knows he can get good food and service, but his inner dialogue gives us the less glorious details of what’s behind the glitz. In From A View to a Kill, Bond only has hard words for the Parisian resorts: all too artificial and over-rated. Fleming confesses that Bond lost his virginity in Paris (did the same happen to Fleming?) and that the French restaurants and love affairs really don’t provide much interest for him. In Bond’s descriptions of Paris, the food, drinks and transport seem to bore the spy who usually likes to live it up. This is in clear contrast with the Hollywood’s portrayal of Paris from the same era.
And yet, there is still excitement beyond the grimness. Spies are killed, women drive dangerously on the French roads (Bond loves a dangerous female driver), and the arrival of Agent Russell in From A View to a Kill revives Bond’s interest in the country. Fleming’s affection for France is felt more strongly when Bond goes to the country. Bond investigates the murder of a motorcycle dispatch-rider and the theft of his top-secret documents by a motorcycle-riding assassin. The rider was en route from SHAPE, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, then located in Versailles, to his base, Station F, in Saint-Germain.
From A View to a Kill also offers wonderful descriptions of rural France; notably its nature and quietness, where French readers would usually only have imagined dull and empty campagnes (countryside). The tracking of Auric Goldfinger on the roads of France reads more like a Michelin guide of the best Auberges and small hotels than a pursuit. Fleming comments on traditional French food such as his trip to southern France to meet up with Draco, who gives tremendous praise for bouillabaisse and garlic and how it should be prepared.
There are many French expressions in his novels too. For French readers, most of these expressions don’t appear as particularly French; some of them would even be considered vulgar for an average French reader, such as n’enculons pas les mouches (let’s not f*** flies over this), which the author must have picked up during his journeys throughout France.
Last but not least are the French roads: Bond’s drives are detailed descriptions about the geography, the distance, his time spent, and the vistas. Lots of action happens here, from the car pursuit in Casino Royale, Bond following Tracy, Goldfinger and Tilly Masterton in On her Majesty’s Secret Service and Goldfinger respectively, to the motorcycle murder and trip through Paris’ streets in From a View to a Kill. There’s no doubt Fleming must have enjoyed driving there, and he reveled in bringing Bond back to some of his familiar itineraries.
We may feel that there isn’t as much love in Fleming’s description of France as he shows for Jamaica; but still, France was a country he appreciated and would provide a rich seam for Bond’s missions and romances. As a French reader in the 21st Century, it still feels odd that Fleming would choose some of France’s most ordinary and quiet landscapes for the famous adventures of 007, yet many of the descriptions were familiar enough for us to achieve the sense that the author really knew our country. And if Fleming was a little harsh on French customs and service, we can hardly reproach him since we are the first to spend our time criticizing it!
Regardless, it’s an honour that Fleming should choose France for some of his most significant stories and share his opinions of our food and service.