Pandemic Bonds: Re-reading Ian Fleming

Article by Jeffrey J. Susla

In 1963, Ian Fleming’s “How to Write a Thriller” appeared in the May issue of Books and Bookmen. According to Fleming, “There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.” So, during my teaching hiatus, while the world suffers through a virulent pandemic (a plot worthy of a Bond novel) I returned to the old Signet paperbacks of my youth and re-read all twelve James Bond thrillers (and eight short stories), turning in total 1,662 pages. A Bond enthusiast since my adolescent years, I expected my reading to be a temporary return to normalcy (forgive the cliché).

An impressionable child, in 007’s exploits I learned about heroic behavior and values. I was introduced to richly exotic locations and name brand quality products. James Bond’s noblesse oblige (for better or worse) helped form an important part of my character and ethos. This trip down memory lane was not without its’ drawbacks. While I was fully prepared to shudder in disgust at his racial and gender stereotypes and objectification of women, I also realized some 50 years later after my first encounter with 007, that Fleming’s James Bond is not the skilled, savvy, and suave secret agent of lore. While M thinks Bond his “best man” in the Double-Oh section, Bond’s incompetence and foolhardiness also lead me to believe he’s damned lucky to be still alive.

In Casino Royale, Bond falls in love with a Russian agent (unknowingly submitting himself to “kompromat”) and captured while attempting to rescue her, nearly loses his testicles to Le Chiffre’s carpet beater. Live and Let Die has him suffering a broken finger as he’s interrogated by Mr. Big’s Harlem henchmen. And frankly, he asks for it. On a recce touring Harlem jazz bars with Felix Leiter, Bond, and his arrogant attitude, stick out like a sore thumb (pun intended) while investigating the gangster’s territory. In Moonraker, Bond seems to have forgotten the circumstances behind his Casino Royale road accident and pursing too closely, totals his Bentley under a load of newsprint.

Illustration by © George Almond

Bond’s incompetence is at its’ worst in From Russia With Love. First, there’s the film of Bond in bed with a Russian agent which the Russians plan to use to discredit the British Secret Service. On the Orient Express, incredulously, Bond gives Donovan Grant, the chief executioner of SMERSH his own Beretta, which later in the Hotel Ritz in Paris, catches in Bond’s trouser waistband, allowing Rosa Klebb to administer Bond a lethal dose of poison. (In Dr. No we learn just how close Bond came to death in the encounter.) After a simple surveillance mission goes awry, he’s nearly sawn in half in Goldfinger and his phone call of inquiry placed to HQ in Thunderball is overheard by a vengeful SPECTRE agent, resulting in Bond’s nearly being torn from limb to limb by a traction device. Lastly, Bond barely escapes from a geyser enema in You Only Live Twice. (Fleming does have a way of connecting excretive body parts with torture.)

Fleming’s writing recipe concocts scenes of compelling page-turning; through Bond’s repeated resourcefulness in winning a high stakes gambling match, eluding danger, or surviving torture, our disbelief is checked at the door, our wish-fulfilment granted. Consider this ski sequence, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:

The first vertical drop had a spine-chilling bliss to it. Bond got down into his old Arlberg crouch, his hands forward of his boots, and just let himself go. His skis were an ugly six inches apart. The Kannonen he had watched had gone down with their boots locked together, as if on a single ski. But this was no time for style, even if he had been capable of it! Above all he must stay upright!

Bond’s speed was now frightening. But the deep cushion of cold, light powder snow gave him the confidence to try a parallel swing. Minimum of shoulder turn needed at this speed – weight on the left ski – and he came round and held it as the right-hand edges of his skis bit against the slope, throwing up a shower of moon-lit snow crystals. Danger was momentarily forgotten in the joy of speed, technique, and mastery of the snow.

There is a kind of Newtonian acknowledgement in Bond’s escape from the Alpine mountaintop. Not having skied for years, Bond both criticizes his technique, while also having a degree of self-satisfaction that his muscle memory of past lessons, combined with his heroic application to the gravity-defying act of staying upright, brings him a moment’s reprieve from the fear of his gun-toting pursuers. And that is an undeniable trait of Fleming’s hero. James Bond is an ordinary man, but given the proper circumstances, he has what Fleming calls, “The Nelson Touch,” an ability to extricate himself from danger through tenacity and ingenuity. Who among us doesn’t also wish for that?

In the 1963 essay, Fleming states the focus of his novels was somewhere in the region between the solar plexus and the upper thigh. “I write for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes or beds.” Fleming was being somewhat self-deprecating and modest—for his thrillers, replete with punchy prose, lengthy geographical and horticultural lessons and attention to the minutiae of detail about various products and the occasional snobbery associated with their use, allow his readers genuine vicarious pleasure. The opening line of Live and Let Die reads, “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent.” An example of this occurs in Goldfinger, where Bond is treated to dinner in Miami Beach:

Bond was reminded of Charles Laughton playing Henry VIII, but neither Mr. Du Pont nor the neighboring diners seemed surprised at the hoggish display. Mr. Du Pont, with a gleeful “Every man for himself”, raked several hunks of crab on to his plate, doused them liberally with melted butter and dug in. Bond followed suit and proceeded to eat, or rather devour, the most delicious meal he had had in his life.

The meat of the crabs was the tenderest, sweetest shellfish he had ever tasted. It was perfectly set off by the dry toast and slightly burned taste of the melted butter. The champagne seemed to have the faintest scent of strawberries. It was ice cold. After each helping of crab, the champagne cleared the palate for the next. They ate steadily and with absorption and hardly exchanged a word until the dish was cleared.

Goldfinger meal

Photo: Henry Hargreaves from ‘Dying to Eat’ with Charlotte Omnès


In describing Bond’s meal in lip-smacking detail, Fleming also allows the power of his simple prose to do the work here. Fleming appeals to the human sin of gluttony, in the use of “hoggish”; “hunks”; “devour” and “absorption”. No need for conversation here, there’s eating to be done, and we relish every mouthful.

Among Ian Fleming’s fans are the novelists Raymond Chandler, Kingsley Amis, and Umberto Eco (the latter two contributing chapter and book-length studies on Fleming). In reviewing Dr. No for the Sunday Times, Chandler’s comment, “Bond is what every man would like to be and every woman would like to have under the sheets,” now reeks of a politically incorrect sound bite, but it unabashedly acknowledges the style and success Fleming achieved in the novels by tapping into the post-war sexual openness and spirit of the 1950s, a time when, as Anthony Lane puts it in The New Yorker, “luxury was no embarrassment and travel was a gas.” Fleming, who interviewed Chandler for the BBC, and wrote a piece on him in The London Magazine, told an interviewer, “I wanted my lead character to more or less follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s heroes, who are believable people, believable heroes.”

In The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco refers to Fleming’s formulaic plots as his contract with his readers, sealed with “an implicit wink of the eye.” In examining his success, Eco suggests that Fleming’s narrative structure has five levels: (1) the opposition of characters and of values; (2) play situations and the story as a ‘game’; (3) a Manichean ideology; (4) literary techniques; and (5) literature as collage. Eco gives Fleming a serious academic boost in the essay, and uses structuralist analysis to describe the Bond novels as a series of chess moves wherein “The reader’s pleasure consists of finding himself immersed in a game of which he knows the pieces and the rules—and perhaps the outcome—drawing pleasure simply from the minimal variations by which the victor realises his objective.”

Kingsley Amis thinks Fleming:

attained a mastery of action scenes and of description and the art of interweaving these. His work combined a passionate interest in the externals of the modern world—its machinery and furniture—in the widest senses of both words—with a strong, simple feeling for the romantic and the strange: the gypsy encampment, the coral grove, the villain’s castle, the deadly garden, the mysterious island. Fleming technologized the fairy-tale for us, making marvelous things seem familiar, and familiar things marvelous.

For Amis, Eco’s “wink” is simply, “the Fleming effect”—the passages that deal with matters virtually unknown by the reader, causing us to take “a good deal on trust”. In creating James Bond, Fleming established what Ken Follett calls, “a fantasy hero for our time.” Anthony Burgess goes even farther, stating that Bond “has the stuff of immortality in him.”

Illustration by © George Almond

Fleming’s contemporary critics censure Bond’s sexual prowess and Fleming’s reliance on extreme violence. Writing in 1958, Bernard Bergonzi notes “voyeurism and sado-masochism” in the books. Paul Johnson thinks Bond has “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob cravings of a suburban adult.” A closer reading of the twelve novel-length thrillers indicates that Bond averages one consensual sex relationship per story. These liaisons usually develop from Bond’s current assignment and are not mere flirtations with only the bedroom in mind. That is precisely what happens in the final Fleming novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, where Bond ends up convalescing in Jamaica, nursed by his long-admiring former secretary, Mary Goodnight, echoing the care given Bond by Vesper Lynd in the first in the series, Casino Royale.

And Bond doesn’t always get the “girl”. In Moonraker, Gala Brand politely eschews Bond’s advances, and he ends up sleeping alone. Fleming himself defended the frequency of Bond’s romantic encounters in a 1963 interview, for the BBC Desert Island Discs series. Sadly, the entire recording does not survive, but always the writer, the luxury chosen by Fleming for the desert island was simply a typewriter and paper.

In addition to gaping plot errors, Fleming well deserves condemnation by feminist critics. The subject is deftly addressed in Lisa Funnell’s, For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. The women Bond encounters in the novels have male fantasy, comic book names (Honey, Kissy, Goodnight, and of course, Pussy), and stereotypically beautiful. While some are sexually liberated, they are as Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott note, “equal but subordinate.” Fleming’s Bond is not a misogynist, but an undeniable sexist. In Casino Royale, Bond thinks that women “were for recreation”; and throughout the series, Bond threatens to spank them and engages in possible sexual harassment banter at the office. And there’s the humiliating lines uttered by Vivienne Michel in The Spy Who Loved Me, “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken.” In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Theresa DiVincenzo (later Bond’s wife for a few hours) tells him to “Be rough with me. Treat me like the lowest whore in creation”. While Fleming warrants being tarred and feathered, and ridden out of town on the next cancel culture train for such dialogue, James Chapman reminds us:

The books seem to suggest is that greater sexual freedom for women amounted to greater sexual opportunities for men. At their worst, they pander to male fantasies that women are “easy” and willing sexual partners. This tension between the progressive and the conservative . . . is a constant theme of the books and it is this tension that makes them such fascinating cultural artefacts.

Lest we forget, Fleming’s thrillers reflect the prevailing social conditions of post-war Britain. For historian David Cannadine, James Bond is “a product of his time and of his class” and of Fleming’s own “Tory imagination,” appealing to his largely male readership. While Fleming’s wife Ann thought the books pornographic, there is little to no evidence that women condemned Fleming’s novels for their sexism during his lifetime. Furthermore, there are several times when Fleming’s females risk their own lives in saving Bond from a certain, ignominious death. Given this frame, James Bond does not deserve to be “cancel cultured” merely for his sexism.

Illustration by © Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of Goldfinger by Ian Fleming ©Fay Dalton 2018

Illustration by © Fay Dalton 2018 from The Folio Society edition of Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Cultural historian Michael Denning concurs with Cannadine, noting that Fleming’s thrillers must be considered in a historical context, even though he refers to them as “the mark of the first mass pornography”. For Denning, pornography is more than a “depiction of male power”; rather “a narrative structured around the look, the voyeuristic eye, coding woman as its object, and second, a culture whose every discourse is dominated by, indeed translated into a code of sexual signifiers.” Viewed in this light, Bond’s objectification of women is undeniable and seen through the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, Laura Mulvey, and Claire Hines, Bond’s gaze seeks female domination and submission.

As for physical sadism, it certainly exists, although it is often less graphic than exhibited in a typical hour of the tv series “24” or “Homeland”. Bond is often the victim of violence, administered by cruel individuals who choose to torment their captive, rather than dismiss him with a single bullet. These situations reflect the world as it was (and sadly still is). We, like Bond, live in dangerous times and cruelty in pursuit of a greater good is a reality. When government officials talk of Jack Bauer moments, they implicitly acknowledge their Bond-era Cold War precedents.

The contrast and confusion surrounding Fleming’s Bond thrillers and subsequent visual representations can be seen in the mistake Christopher Hitchens makes in his introduction to a 2002 Penguin edition of three Fleming thrillers. Hitchens writes that Bond rescues the “ingot-lined vaults of Fort Knox from contamination at the close of Goldfinger.” Sean Connery’s Bond does precisely this in the 1964 film. In Fleming’s novel, Goldfinger does not want to irradiate America’s gold supply; he expects a passing Russian sub to whisk the 500 tons of purloined bars to his new residence in Kronstadt. This small error is symptomatic of a larger issue, the idea that modern audiences get their fill of Bond merely by going to the movies. Susan Hill makes a similar error in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, when she mistakes the baccarat Bond plays in Casino Royale with the Texas hold’em poker game in the 2006 movie.

Through their screen adaptations, Fleming’s James Bond has become almost unrecognizable. Fleming’s literary Bond is quite a different animal than the often flippant, nattily dressed cinematic one. We’re told that he has a scar down his right cheek and has a passing resemblance to the songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. He wears houndstooth suits, sea island cotton shirts, and abhors shoelaces. When Bond was first brought to the big screen, Fleming thought that David Niven would make a good 007. At one time, Cary Grant was offered the part. (Coincidentally, Grant was best man at Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli’s wedding.) In From Russia With Love, Tania compares Bond’s looks to that of an American film star, Bond replies, “For God’s sake.! That’s the worst insult that you can pay a man!” While the Broccoli family has provided thrilling, escapist entertainment to worldwide moviegoers for more than 50 years, what Anthony Burgess wrote over 40 years ago still remains true, “it is time for the aficionados of the of the films to get back to the books and admire their qualities as literature.”

Fleming’s Bond is puritanical, easily bored, an incessant smoker, snobbish, disdainful of paperwork and a heavy drinker. Reviewing the 2002 Penguin edition of From Russia With Love, Dr. No, and Goldfinger John Lanchester hilariously comments on Bond’s drinking before his arrival in Istanbul in From Russia With Love:

I make that about sixteen units of alcohol for the trip, so our hero is doing well when he manages to thank the stewardess and carry his ‘heavy little attaché case’ off the plane without doing a Yeltsin down the steps.

In a similar jocular vein, the authors of an article appearing in the British Medical Journal write:

Although we appreciate the societal pressures to consume alcohol when working with international terrorists and high stakes gamblers, we would advise Bond be referred for further assessment of his alcohol intake and reduce his intake to safe levels.

In James Bond, Fleming created a deeply flawed hero for post-war Britain, but undeniably part of the cultural zeitgeist. In the BBC interview, Fleming self-deprecatingly admits that he never sought to enter the “Shakespeare stakes”. Criticize Fleming as one must; what is incontestable about Fleming is that he, in John Bayley’s phrase, “wrote so well” (emphasis his).

Hugo Drax at Blades [Illustration by © George Almond]

Hugo Drax at Blades [Illustration by © George Almond]

Moreover, in a post 9/11, Covid-19 world, James Bond’s adventures have an eerie similarity with recent events. After completing Moonraker, I find the oafish braggart U.S. president, not unlike the millionaire Russian agent Hugo Drax. The men conduct themselves like a circus ringmaster—the current White House is nothing if not a three-ringed one—and tout the destructive power of weapons “the like the world has never seen”. Both have long hair “dipped down” over the forehead and Fleming could be describing Trump when he calls Drax a “bullying, boorish, loud-mouthed vulgarian”.

Furthermore, recent geopolitical events echo several Fleming plots. Has the Steele dossier been entirely discredited? Is there evidence of a future president romping with Russian whores in a Moscow hotel room (From Russia With Love?) Bond villains often are Russian agents. The Russians hacked the 2016 American election and there is evidence that they have influenced recent British, Scottish and Belarus ones as well (not to mention the current 2020 U.S. election). They are currently hacking British, American, and Canadian research companies in order to learn of Covid-19 vaccine research developments. For years, Russian military intelligence has been actively weaponizing social media.

The recent poisoning of Putin critic Alexei Navalny in Siberia, mirroring the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the 2018 attack on Sergi Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England years ago, is typical Russian modus operandi, seen in many of Fleming’s thrillers. Auric Goldfinger, banker for Soviet-era SMERSH, is “something of a chemist” and plans to anesthetize the population of Fort Knox by contaminating its water supply with a nerve agent developed by the Germans in WWII. SPECTRE operative Rosa Klebb’s boot, with its poisoned steel tongue, contains tetrodotoxin, which according to Sir James Molony, medical consultant to the British Secret Service, “is terrible stuff and very quick”. In You Only Live Twice, Ernst Blofeld’s Kyushu castle is “an island of death” containing poisonous vegetation, the lakes and streams with poisonous fish”, and infested with “snakes, scorpions, and poisonous spiders.” Finally, Francisco Scaramanga’s bullet, which nearly ends Bond’s life in The Man With the Golden Gun, was dipped in enough poison “to kill a horse”.

Furthermore, is the “China virus” a biologic weapon created to cause political and economic chaos in the West? Have technological companies manipulated the virus, or created new network ones to increase their stock value? While I could go on, I am not a conspiracy theorist or suggesting all of the above has occurred, but I do think 2020 has brought us a new Cold War. Whether we face a nuclear (Moonraker, Goldfinger, and Thunderball), biochemical, eco-terrorist (You Only Live Twice) or virulent threat (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), 9/11 Commission staff member Alexis Albion writes that James Bond’s relevance “is that the shape of the world around us appears increasingly that in which Bond operates.” Bond’s enemies are often “non-state bound agents of terrorism” who presently “pose our greatest current threat to global stability.” Consequently, we need:

men and women with James Bond’s experience and skills in order to prevail; but more importantly, we need to recognize that there are conceptions, dreams, and problems that we all share. We are, perhaps, ready for Bond to remind us of that again.

The Man With the Golden Gun ends with the sentence, “For James Bond, the same view would always pall.” For the past five months in America, many have had the same view daily, in state-mandated stay-at-home orders. While I reject both Bond’s Toryish politics and his view that “feminine qualities are dying out”, Ian Fleming’s work has helped me weather the early parts of this pandemic as it did 50 years ago through my adolescent tribulations. I’ve again toured the world from the comfort of my armchair, tasted exotic food, and experienced armrest gripping tension while agonizing over Bond’s torture scenes and rejoicing at his escapes. For me, the “Fleming effect” still works, and I willingly put aside my gender, cultural, and race sensibilities aside, engrossed in a Manichean world, ripping though pages under the undeniable power of Fleming’s prose.

I find it sadly ironic that the title of the forthcoming Bond film, “No Time to Die” is a macabre reminder of the global crisis which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of tragic deaths. As I nervously wait out this pandemic, in re-reading Fleming I have found a quantum of solace.

Incidental Intelligence

Jeffrey J. Susla is an Instructor in Writing at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Dying to Eat: The Food of Literary James Bond

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Bonds: Re-reading Ian Fleming

  1. I find this an excellent and most welcome article that encapsulates well the strengths of both Fleming’s format, his writing and his relevance today.
    That said, I do wish everybody, Denning and Cannadine included, would drop this irksome caveat that ‘Bond is a product of his time and class’ and should be read through that prism.
    Frankly it is stating the bleeding obvious and one would have to have been lobotomised not to realise that.
    What is less or never mentioned is his popularity with women. After the first movie you would have been hard pressed to find a train, boat, plane, bus or beach that was not populated with females of all ages clutching a Fleming paperback. Such was their manifest disgust at his work that they couldn’t wait to rip them the spinner racks !

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