Friday, 25 July 2008

Buck vs. Fleming


Ian Fleming, 1953

The novel - What is most alarming about Fleming's novel and Bond, and what causes reservations about the romp, is the misogyny. Yes, we know Bond is a man's man and that he's a bit of a sexist from the films, and so ditto Fleming, but nothing quite prepares for this aggression and immaturity concerning women. Vesper is a "bitch" even before he has met her; she's going to be a hinderance with her feelings and girl stuff. Why couldn't she stay in the kitchen? Or more exactly, when Vesper has been kidnapped by professional, ruthless killers:

This was just what [Bond] had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men. ... For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ranson like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch. (pg.116)

Or: for Bond to spiel such a stream of impassioned invective, like some cartoon ex-Etonian stereotype from a bygone age. The silly buffoon. Caresses, it seems, are for Bentley's and for a villain's gaze upon the naked spy he is about to torture. Not for a "damn fool girl getting herself trussed up like a chicken, having her skirt pulled over her head as if the whole of this business was some kind of dormitory rag." (pg. 124) And let us not forget that, even if by proxy, it is Vesper that almost brings about Bond's emasculiantion. That's women for you.

But even this isn't quite the extent of Bond's immaturity. Whenever something goes wrong, he tends to blame others: if it isn't Vesper, then perhaps it is the fault of "M" and the Secret Service for not warning him of the superior villainy of his adversary. When initially beaten at baccarat, and when tortured and told how he cannot win, Bond seems just to give up in an instant. Is this truly an efficent, pragmatic and dependable spy we thought we knew (we can omit the superhuman elements)? And no, this doesn't necessarily imbue him with a more complex humanity: upon scrutiny, it is the immaturity that rises to the surface.

More surprising, having been nearly emasculinated, Bond lays in his hospital bed and has an existential, ethical crisis. Having been forced to identify with his adversary in the increasingly sado-masochistic torture triste, Bond finds himself questioning his whole stand. Is he really on the side of good? Are his actions and motivations uninpeachable? Does patriotism justify his career? Was Les Chifre truly the face of evil, and would patriotism justify his actions? How can Bond assure himself of his own righteousness? Bond seemingly starts to grow up, or at least belatedly starts to grasp the complexity and subjectivity of behaviour, politics, morality, his whole profession and so on. When a man has almost been made a eunuch, he begins to reflect. But this, indeed, does give Bond some true shading and certainly this chapter sets literary Bond apart from his cinematic interpretation.

Elsewhere, there is much to enjoy in this boy' s own romp. The concentration on a baccarat game rather than world domination. A streamlined narrative focused on a handful of set-pieces and an uncomplicated prose: Casino; torture; hospital; Vesper. Then there is the appealingly cartoonish portrayal of secret agents and evil organisations; and, yes, a formidable protagonist. Fleming proposes a seductive world of exotic locations and foreign menaces, something drawing from the Cold War era and looking towards the brave new world of affordable international travel and luxuries a decade or two ahead. Even now, it's a neverland that still captures culture's imagination. The 007 premise, it seems, is still durable in its datedness and still capable of appeal and being contemporised for new centuries.

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