Appropriately, for May Day, the stirrings (not shakings) of a James Bond-related project.
J.C. Greenway, currently bank holidaying writer of the excellent Ten Minutes Hate blog, wrote about Moonraker recently, a piece I heartily endorse. Somehow, a discussion of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels – see the comments section here – was suggested.
Something for everyone to look forward to there. So, some considerations on Bond. The notion set me musing on the continuing appeal of the James Bond books. I’ve been a devotee since a while back, probably since I was about 11 or 12. It was a family holiday, a memorable trip for cultural firsts, as part described in the Simon and Garfunkel section here in this music bit of the Mortal Bath. I also became a fan of Fleming, working my way through the series as quickly as I could find the books in various second-hand shops around town back home. Readers who have been to Harrogate may understand the urbane appeal.
I ended up with a full set, as well as two Kingsley Amis additions, Colonel Sun, which faithfully referred to the Casino Royale template of violence, girl and food but was a bit boring, and The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007, which was hilarious. Crucially, it also provided context, a surrounding cosmos for the Bond solar system. Parodying a Playboy/How-To style, Amis used the simple device of quoting the original novels extensively, with dry observations skewering the contradictions, recurring tropes and brand snobbery. Also, Amis being a friend and fan of Fleming, it was clearly revelling in the pot boiler deluxe stylings of the best efforts in the series. This was probably the first time I realised that to parody something effectively you have to love it.
That’s where Bond ended for me, really, with the full set of Fleming and the Amis reductio. The first few John Gardner books I tried were interesting, but it seemed a dilution, somehow, not as compelling. I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Devil May Care more recently for the same reason. And, back in the day, prompted by the lurchings of the film franchise, I had begun to develop Bondsickness. The Book of Bond, at least, amplified self-reflexive, humorous subtexts already present in the books. Importantly, it managed this in a way that did not cheapen them, as Danjaq’s increasingly desperate efforts with the films sometimes did.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch an old Bond movie if it’s on, but some of them are pretty ropey.
Anyway, the books, the books. In a moment of teen fundamentalism, manifesting a disastrous decision to “move on”, thinking myself beyond Bond, I divested myself of all the books. I know, I know. If it’s any mitigation, the same period saw me ditching the Clive Cussler and Alistair Maclean collections as well, only one of which decisions is now vindicated. The folly of youth, etc. While having since found what I am convinced was my actual collection in an Oxfam in York, I still no longer have the Book of Bond. I had bought it for £1.00 out of Bell’s Bookshop (sadly defunct). I can’t find the paperback online for less than £15 now.
This reflects, I think it can be convincingly suggested, if not argued in any great detail, the cultural rehabilitation of the original series. The novels-as-objects are hot commodities, the pricing for even bog-standard paperbacks suggesting their desirability. Long since featuring introductions from, like, “proper” writers such as Anthony Burgess, they are also recognised for their contextual importance and lasting cultural impact. And of course, film tie-in, the novels are due for a re-re-release this year. This will no doubt further dent any hopes of ever recapturing my mis-streamlined youth without breaking the bank at Royale-les-Eaux.
It has always been ‘Bond-as-adapted-book’ for me. The films just aren’t as hard, funny, tasty, stupid and horrible as the books. The details and tone of the novels are unique. Still, as JCG notes, the return-to-canon approach of the last few outings has refreshed the movies, while providing new lights with which to re-examine the original texts. The Secret Service trope has been interrogated at length since the 1960s. Bond himself was always part of the deconstruction, at least in the books. One of the main points of appeal is his ambiguity, simultaneously the aspirational model man of tastes and the ‘blunt instrument’, post-war relic adrift intended by Fleming.
I look forward to an exploration of some of these ideas, as well as revisiting my favourite sections. Bondish events here in The Mortal Bath shall start at the very beginning, shortly, with Casino Royale. Fasten your lap-strap…