As Skyfall opens on the big screen, Richard Williams remembers Ian Fleming's ambitious gamble in The Spy Who Loved Me.
Vivienne Michel is perhaps the least well known of the women for whom Ian Fleming arranged assignations with James Bond and yet none of her more celebrated sisters, from Vesper Lynd through Tatiana Romanova and Pussy Galore to the Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, succeeded in engaging the author’s interest to the same extent.
To her alone is accorded the honour of a Bond book written entirely in her voice, with 007 making a late appearance in a supporting role. And although, unlike some of the others, she survived to tell the tale, she was destined to suffer a different kind of literary death.
Few novelists in Fleming’s position, riding the public’s voracious appetite for the adventures of a fictional hero, would opt for the sort of risk that he took with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1962. By the time he came to write the ninth of his Bond books, the already massive popularity of his creation was about to be transformed, by the release of the film of Dr No, into a cultural phenomenon.
But his health was starting to collapse, along with his interest in maintaining the formula established with the publication of Casino Royale, Bond’s debut, nine years earlier. His response to an inner urge for novelty, and perhaps a desire for a more elevated kind of acclaim, was to employ an entirely different voice and to hold back the appearance of his celebrated protagonist until after the half-way point of the story.
Although in From Russia, With Love, five years earlier, he had filled the opening 77 pages with Rosa Klebb, Donovan Grant and Tatiana Romanova before bringing Bond on to the stage, there was never any doubt about the identity of the central character, and the device was a success. In the case of The Spy Who Loved Me, however, delay was not answered by gratification, and Fleming’s gamble ended with his readers and reviewers feeling betrayed by the sudden change of tack and tone.
“His ability to invent a plot has deserted him almost entirely,” the Glasgow Herald’s critic harrumphed, “and he has had to substitute for a fast-moving story the sorry misadventures of an upper-class tramp, told in dreary detail.”
A chastened Fleming wrote to Michael Howard, his publisher at Jonathan Cape, to insist that plans for a paperback edition should be abandoned; today’s authors and publishers might be surprised to learn that his desire was honoured, at least until after his death two years later.
Wisely, the current paperback edition omits the coy prologue written by Fleming for the original publication, a memo to the reader in which he claimed that the manuscript of The Spy Who Loved Me had simply materialised on his desk one day, along with a note from one “Vivienne Michel”, asserting authorship of this narrative of what she claimed to have been a real incident. “I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of a telescope, so to speak,” Fleming wrote.
The standard mayhem
His narrator recounts her childhood in Canada, her education and early working life in England and her decision to return to North America and embark on a road trip from Quebec to Florida. In the Adirondacks, short of money, she accepts an offer of $60 to spend a night looking after an empty motel that is about to be closed for the winter. Two thugs, Sluggsy and Horror, arrive from New York, apparently working for the owner. They are about to have their way with her in preparation for burning the place down in an insurance fire and leaving her corpse to take the blame when Bond appears out of the stormy night.
Thereafter Fleming gives us the standard mayhem in which Bond routs the hoodlums before sleeping with the girl in a scene that finds the author using his female narrator to express a view for which he has been roundly and regularly condemned: “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.”
Fleming, a confirmed fan of sadism in his own relationship, certainly meant it. In Casino Royale he had Bond musing in similar terms on the prospect of sex with Vesper Lynd: “And now he knew that … the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would have the sweet tang of rape.”
Which makes it more than a little surprising that the most interesting and convincing section of the book, and the one adding weight to the contention that Fleming could actually write, is the one in which Michel introduces herself and describes the circumstances of her life up to the point at which it is disrupted by Sluggsy and Horror.
Fleming summons the voice of an intelligent middle-class young woman of the 1950s. He allows Michel to tell her story in her own way, complete with the occasional girlish exclamation mark.
Perhaps Fleming hoped to use The Spy Who Loved Me to demonstrate that he could broaden his literary range. For all the artlessness of Michel’s voice, he kept hold of his ability to flood his story with beguiling incidental detail, tinged with his usual amused scorn for American habits. Here he goes easy on the brand names so beloved of Bond, the mention of Michel’s 150cc Vespa Gran Sport scooter and her Ferra-gamo sandals being among relatively few exceptions.
More important, this most easily and frequently parodied of authors also displays his seldom noted feeling for the cadence of sentences and paragraphs, something that emerges in all his books amid the passages of mechanical clunkiness, and which has steadfastly eluded the army of novelists, including Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and most recently Jeffery Deaver, attempting what are known as “continuation” volumes.
“I was running away,” Michel’s narrative starts. “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, although I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race. In fact, I was running away from almost everything, except the law.”
Not a bad opening, in anyone’s language, and there is more, including an amusing digression a few pages later concerning her vehement dislike of pine forests: surely Fleming’s own, since the Bond books thrive on his own prejudices and discoveries. This is the Fleming capable of phrases that could lodge themselves in the memory for life, such as his description of the platform of Istanbul’s Sirkeci station, as Bond prepares to board the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, “throbbing with the tragic poetry of departure”.
The lengthy denouement of The Spy Who Loved Me is clumsy and clichéd, as if telling Michel’s backstory had exhausted Fleming’s interest, but the book remains a worthwhile curiosity whose poor reception must have pained its author. The failure also forced him back into a more familiar mode. A year later Bond was present on the very first page of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in one of Fleming’s most effective opening sequences, set on the beach at Royale-les-Eaux, the invented Picardy resort where readers had first encountered him in Casino Royale. The experiment was over. And when, 15 years later, they came to make a film of The Spy Who Loved Me, the only thing they kept was the title. — © Guardian News & Media 2012
Skyfall is on general release