Mr Bond, I’ve been expecting you …

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Since picking up the Bond rights for last year’s Fleming anniversary, Penguin has treated the series with real ambition and class. True, Sebastian Faulks’ anniversary novel, Devil May Care, was better at aping Fleming’s style than his substance — James Bond playing tennis? — and failed to provide 007 with a worthy adversary; but there are always the originals, and they have rarely been so beautifully produced. Designing a Bond novel has never been an easy task. There are Richard Chopping‘s classic originals, for a start; then the sensationalist Pan covers by Sam Peffer; and, less an inspiration than a warning, the actively embarassing “girl on gun” covers of the Eighties. But following last year’s beautiful hardback Collected Stories to tie in with Quantum of Solace, Penguin has now released The Blofeld Trilogy, bringing together Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the truly deranged You Only Live Twice, in which a heartbroken Bond hunts down his nemesis in a Japanese torture garden. Simple, elegant and evocative, it’s a terrific piece of cover design, with a new introduction by Nick Lezard.

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From Goldfinger (1959) by Ian Fleming

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“The ice tinkled cheerfully against his teeth. That was it. That was an idea. He would spend the night in Miami and get drunk, stinking drunk so that he would have to be carried to bed by whatever tart he had picked up … It was time he let himself go. He was too tense, too introspective. What the hell was he doing, glooming about this Mexican, this capungo who had been sent to kill him? It had been kill or get killed. Anyway, people were killing other people all the time all over the world. People were using their motor cars to kill with. They were carrying infectious diseases around, blowing microbes in people’s faces, leaving gasjets turned on in kitchens, pumping out carbon monoxide in closed garages. How many people, for instance, were involved in manufacturing H-bombs, from the miners who mined the uranium to the shareholders who owned the mining shares? Was there any person in the world who wasn’t somehow, perhaps only statistically, involved in killing his neighbour?”

Quantum of Solace

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Quantum of Solace is a terrific James Bond film. It’s also the least like “a James Bond film” — no “Bond, James Bond”, no “vodka martini: shaken, not stirred”, not even a casino scene — and one of the most like an Ian Fleming novel, both for better and for worse.

For worse: like the novels, it’s sketchily plotted, erratically paced, and the villain’s grand plan never feels like much of a threat.

But for better, and also like the novels: it’s short, punchy, and violent. Bond is a lone operative, uncertain of the bigger picture, improvising as he goes along. He likes good clothes, smart hotels and straight-talking women; and he’s self-loathing, angry and drinks too much. The film’s dialogue also, at best, captures the crisp simplicity of Fleming: Bond in this film talks like Fleming’s Bond, and the humour comes from his character, not the cheesy one-liners of old. 

Quantum of Solace also has more location filming than any previous Bond, and it shows. The film has Fleming’s journalistic eye for detail: the locations feel authentic (though many double for somewhere else) and the extras have been carefully cast. In the old days, if you wanted Moscow you’d put up a Cyrillic sign in Borehamwood; here every place Bond visits adds its own distinctive tenor to the story.

Quantum is essentially an emotional journey for 007 as he hunts down those responsible for his dead love Vesper’s betrayal and death. Along the way, however, he discovers the sinister Quantum organisation, a secret society of global power brokers who manipulate governments, undermine leaders and no doubt go on holiday with Oleg Deripaska. They also enjoy the opera, using the spectacular lakeside theatre in Bregenz as a cover for their annual convention in one of the best staged sequences in the film.

The second unit director of Quantum of Solace was Dan Bradley, the stunt maestro of the Bourne series, and it shows: this is more action movie than suspense film. One element I missed from Casino Royale is its sense that Bond is not immortal, and that when he’s hurt he bleeds. Here, while often damaged, he feels unstoppable, raw wounds healing at the click of the editor’s mouse. But what we lose in physical vulnerability we gain in emotional power. This is an angry, damaged, vengeful Bond — if a licence to kill were a loyalty card he’d be hitting the top tier by the second reel — who is still trying to figure out who he can trust, and where his loyalties lie. The film plays like an action variant on Eyes Wide Shut: a series of encounters with M, Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, Mr White, Agent Fields, Dominic Greene (a splendidly slimy Mathieu Almaric) and Camille, each of which tests Bond’s moral and emotional judgement, until the bleak but tender coda, in which at last we feel that he has found some peace — and a renewed sense of purpose. 

And I guess that’s what I love about this film. It’s not perfect — the villain’s plot is rather fumbled, and some of the action is clunkily staged — but it’s a proper movie, with interesting characters, some wonderful images, and space, despite its brevity, for its emotional moments to breathe. And at last we have a Bond we can believe in, both as a man and as a hero. If there’s one thing I would ask for in the next installment it’s the one thing Fleming never failed on: a truly worthy adversary for Bond. Deliver that, and with Daniel Craig’s commitment to the character the next Bond movie could be the best so far.

Knowing vs. knowing about

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of Sam Gosling’s new book Snoop, which is subtitled What Your Stuff Says About You. The central thesis is simple: that the objects we surround ourselves reveal more of our character than perhaps we would wish. 

It’s not a new idea, but it’s an interesting addition to a number of current debates about the way in which we define ourselves, or come to be defined by others. In fiction, of course, there are various ways to delineate a character. Ian Fleming could be counted as a Goslingist: James Bond is more defined by his his choice of cocktails, clothes and cigarettes than by his spiritual quest for meaning. Superheroes, on the other hand, tend to be determined by a single but defining moment: Bruce Wayne, for example, only becomes Batman because of his sense of injustice at his parents’ death. In literature, Paul Watkins’s characters are determined by the age in which they live, victims of history, whereas Nabokov’s are prisoners of a single but obsessive psychological drive. 

All of these are valid, but all are too easily cheapened into the kind of fridge magnet drama so familiar from bad television: Haunted by his tortured childhood/ past as a soldier of fortune/ father’s madness, former surgeon/ vet / sommelier turns detective while battling alcohol addiction / schizophrenia / penchant for fairy cakes. In reality, of course, past experience is pretty simplistic as a determinant of future behaviour. It also leads to predictable drama, in which every character has a secret past that explains exactly why they behave now as they do. 

One of the reasons that reality shows can be so gripping is precisely the absence of this kind of cause and effect psychology. We don’t know the pasts of these people — we rarely even know their second names — so our entire judgement of them as characters is based on their actions and reactions to the people around them. It’s easy for writers of fiction to rail against the proliferation of reality shows on TV, but more useful, I suspect, to see what we can learn. I was reminded of this recently while reading Michael Frayn’s The Russian Interpreter, in this exchange between Manning, the hero, and his best friend Katerina:

“Surely it’s right [says Manning] for us to try to understand our fellow human beings?”

“You don’t come to know people well by knowing about them. I know you very well, Paul, without knowing anything at all about you. I don’t want to find out what you’ve done in the past, or why you did it. That would be idle curiosity. The answers would be irrelevant to what you now are. They might even conceal you from me … Don’t you know that God washes out the past each evening, as if it had never been, and that we are born again each morning? What happened yesterday is just gossip, Paul, just empty gossip.”

The truth, surely, is somewhere in between. People’s pasts do help determine how they act today. But Katerina has a point. It’s too easy, writing fiction, to reach for the cause-and-effect solution: what Sidney Lumet dismissively calls the “rubber ducky” effect (“he had his rubber ducky taken from him as a child, and that’s why he turned to crime”). You don’t know people well by knowing about them: you know them well by what they do.

The One from the Other

In choosing Ian Fleming as a hero of this site I compared him to such masters of genre fiction as Eric Ambler (James Bond’s favourite writer) and Raymond Chandler. One of Chandler’s contemporary heirs is Philip Kerr, whose Bernie Gunther trilogy transposed the detective novel to pre-war Berlin, as Bernie uncovered dreadful secrets against the even darker backdrop of the Nazi party in its pomp.

Now, in The One from the Other, the war is over but the world no less murky, as former Nazis mingle with new enemies in Allied-occupied Germany. Bernie is now in Munich, assisting in the post-war clean-up as his clients search for their lost relatives, lost property and lost morals. As with Chandler, the joy of the Bernie Gunther novels lies as much with the prose as with the plotting, in particular the way he introduces characters. Here are three of my favourite examples from The One from the Other: if you like these you’ll love the book.

“The man in the chair was heavyset with longish, fair hair and a beard you might have picked for an important chat with Moses. The moustaches were waxed and left his face like the quillions on a broadsword … On his feet were black Miesbacher shoes with a high heel and a fold-over tongue. They were the kind of shoes you wear when you want to slap someone wearing leather shorts.”

“If Heidi had grown up she might have looked something like the nurse of the man in the wheelchair … She was blonde, but not the sunny kind of blonde, or the gilded kind, but the enigmatic sulky kind you might fond lost in some sylvan glade. I tried not to notice her bosom. And then I tried again, only it kept singing to me like it was perched on a rock in the Rhine River and I was some poor, dumb sailor with an ear for music … Some women look more like nurses than others. And some women manage to make being a nurse look like Delilah’s last stratagem.”

“Being a detective I spotted Father Gotovina within a few seconds of going through the door. There were a lot of things that gave it away. The black suit, the black shirt, the crucifix hanging around his neck, the little white halo of his collar … The thick dark eyebrows were the only hair on his head. The skull looked like the rotating dome roof on the Gottingen Observatory and each lobeless ear resembled a demon’s wing … He had a mole on his left cheek that was the size and colour of a five-pfennig piece and walnut-brown eyes, like the walnut on the grip of a Walther PPK. If the Medici had still been siring popes, Father Gotovina would have been what one looked like.”

The craft of … Ian Fleming

This year is, of course, the centenary of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond: not only do we have Quantum of Solace to look forward to in November but also the new novel by Sebastian Faulks and an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Fleming was the consummate creative craftsman, both in his journalism and his novels, and he gave these insights into his working methods in a meeting with the Belgian master of crime fiction, Georges Simenon, in 1965:

‘I try to write neatly, concisively, vividly, because I think that’s the way to write, I think that approach largely comes from my training as a fast-writing journalist under circumstances in which you damned well have to be neat, correct, concise and vivid. My journalistic training was far more valuable to me than all the English literature education I ever had.

‘My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable not, I think, beyond the possible. To anchor my fantastic plots I employed the device of using real names of things and places. The constant use of real and familiar names and objects reassures the reader that both he and the writer have their feet on the ground in spite of being involved in a fantastic adventure. That is why I started using the technical device of referring to say, a Ronson lighter, a 41⁄2-litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger, the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of even the smallest details. All of this gives the reader the feeling of feasibility.

‘I think that communicating enjoyment is a very good achievement even in the fairly modest seam of literature that comprises thriller writing … I think a writer should try to get an accurate ear for the spoken word and not, so to speak, put on a top hat when he sits down at his typewriter. He mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that literature has to be literary.’