Mystery and loathing

Are you becoming a little tired of James Bond? Perhaps that is nothing to how sick Ian Fleming got of him. It’s all prefigured in the weary disgust that saturates the first lines of the first book to feature the hero: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of fear and greed and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.’’

Hardly, you might have thought, an auspicious beginning.
But this was always an essential element of the Bond novels, or the best ones at least, because it was an essential element of their creator. Fleming’s transferred feelings could hop from hero to villain with ease: “Mister Bond, I suffer from boredom. I am a prey to what the early Christians called—‘accidie’, the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated ... ” (Mr Big in Live and Let Die.) “Bond ... lit his 70th cigarette of the day ... ” (Casino Royale.)

I have not seen the new film of Casino Royale. That is meant to be a back-to-basics Bond, relatively gadget-free and faithful to the book. Well, if you want to go back to basics, and be really faithful to the source material, why not read it? Apparently the film is set in a variety of exotic locations and has Bond being beaten about the genitals with a knotted rope. The book, though, never strays from its northern French setting (the town Royale-les-Eaux) and Bond suffers his intimate thrashing courtesy of a carpet-beater.

You may wonder why anyone should be reading Bond novels nowadays, or why I should be recommending one. After all, the films, however enjoyable, are rubbish. And weren’t the novels themselves denounced, even as they were appearing, as “sex, snobbery and sadism’’ by Paul Johnson in the political weekly New Statesman? Here is Bond, in Casino Royale, contemplating his new secret service contact, Vesper Lynd: “He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his. Bond’s eyes narrowed and his face in the mirror looked back at him with hunger.’‘

You will note the deeper tensions: Bond’s face may have a hungry look because he is thinking of Vesper Lynd, but it may also have one because he is looking at himself. With the self-loathing comes an unsettling auto-eroticism, and that is certainly one aspect of the book that I gather the makers of the new film have got right.

“We don’t want to have Bond to dinner or go golfing with Bond or talk to Bond. We want to be Bond,’’ wrote Kingsley Amis in The Bond Dossier, an early championing in the face of outraged disdain.

You should also read this because, without doing so, you will never have a complete picture of the imaginative postwar life of the United Kingdom. It is odd to think that people watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II could take a break by reading the newly published hardback edition of this book. When Larkin said that sexual intercourse began in 1963, you may think that he was exactly a decade out. And in his hugely enjoyable study of Bond, The Man Who Saved Britain, Simon Winder points out that the key moment in the novel is when Bond orders an avocado pear (“with french dressing’‘) for dessert. We forget how exotic and desirable the avocado was in 1953; and how hard it was to take money out of the country. When Bond is gambling with thousands of pounds at the baccarat table, British readers must have been boggle-eyed with envy. And even northern France, while a modestly dipped toe in the waters of Abroad, was still a start.—Â

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