by David Alexander
People seem to think I have a James Bond complex. They want to know if I'm carrying a Walther PPK in my hip pocket, or they ask if my car's equipped with an ejector seat. They want to know, if I'm really from Brooklyn, where I got that "British accent" from, and when I tell them it's a Brooklyn accent (albeit twice or thrice removed) they say, come on, stop kidding me -- maybe you got it on Her Majesty's Secret Kings County Service, huh?
While it's true that unlike some Brooklyn-born authors -- and I'm thinking specifically of Irwin Shaw here, who carried the Brogue to his grave (even in his latter years living in a chalet high in the Swiss Alps) -- I tried to chuck the Brogue at an early age, principally as a byproduct of trying to lose what I viewed then as my rather embarrassing provincialism, by traveling to Europe and elsewhere, and then discovering I had people in London whom I could badger until they let me stay. Truthfully, my English relatives are the least of the connections that have, again and again brought me back to the UK, which is the country I've spent most time in than anyplace besides the good ole USA. I've walked the length and breadth of London, and have at least once even given a London cab driver directions (and a shortcut) to an address in the City, which is, I believe, a feat that even Bond himself could never accomplish.
Anyway, my digression serves a purpose, which is to lead me back to the supposed subject of this little bit of autobiography: my so-called James Bond complex. I don't really have one, anymore than I have an ejector seat in my Aston Martin (that was a joke, it's not that make). James Bond, after all, isn't a real person, and only a lunatic would try to be a fictitious person, the flight of a writer's fancy. Nevertheless, I will admit without blushing that I've always tried in some ways to be like a real-life person, the author who created the Bond character, Ian Fleming.
Having recently, and after a fairly long absence, reread Fleming in Ian Fleming (Octopus; 1980), a volume of collected works that contain all the Bond books (the only books besides Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a children's book, and some miscellaneous travel books, that Fleming ever wrote) to make sure that my early impressions of Fleming weren't unduly influenced by the furtive thrills of reading about titillating things Bond did with the assorted femme fatales, seductresses and others of that sort he ran into in the course of devil-may-care derring-do and gentlemanly espionage (like biting their "Mount of Venus," whatever the hell that is), my impression remains that Fleming is one of the major inventors of modern action-espionage thrillers, and an author whom others, without, to my knowledge, paying him even lip service by way of recognition of this fact, have very deliberately styled themselves after.
Ian Fleming is also a bridge between the early definers of the international intrigue and action-suspense genres and the authors who followed him. The characters and situations that have become characteristically associated with the Bond cycle existed in the category before Fleming came along. Authors like E. Phillips Oppenheim, and Richard Harding Davis, to say nothing of Wilkie Collins, developed many of them in prototype -- and made themselves famous as a result. Oppenheim, for example, practically invented the baccarat-playing bad guy with an eye patch in a white tux high-rolling through the posh salons of Monte Carlo -- with a handy yacht anchored offshore from which his nefarious henchmen could sally forth to do evil things in the dead of night. Bondian heroes were embryonically present in those pages as well.
Oppenheim invented what might be termed the "Casino Royale concept" at the turn of the twentieth century, long before Fleming picked it up again and modernized it (1954). Let me boast for a moment that I was fortunate to have stumbled upon the complete works of both Oppenheim and Davis in first edition form some time ago, and could read them in the original (many of their works are available free through the Gutenberg Project, though.) With this having been said, let me add that Fleming's further development of the literary prototypes of earlier authors was in the best literary tradition; to paraphrase Shakespeare, he bettered the instruction of a series of predecessors.
The names of those authors who've since tried to write in the Fleming mold should be obvious to readers of the categories. I don't include Eric Ambler, who was a contemporary and colleague of Fleming's, and is even mentioned in From Russia With Love (1957), in which Fleming has Bond take a volume of Ambler's along for the ride behind the Iron Curtain on the Orient-Express to help while away the long hours of traveling and womanizing. Many of those authors who have studied Fleming but only acknowledged the influence of Ambler have probably had good reason for not having given Fleming his due.
For one thing, Fleming died young and before his time. For another, the Bond movies effectively overshadowed the books, which seemed to pale by comparison to the sound and fury of the cinematic portrayals. The fact that he'd sold all the rights -- lock, stock and barrel -- to the Bond film production team didn't help matters either. For yet another, and perhaps more seriously, some of Fleming's otherwise excellent writing seems dated; worse yet, much of it is laced with a casual sexism and racism that worked when the books were written but now seem singularly offensive. This is not to say that Fleming was alone in his denigrations of women, minorities and in his apotheosizing the white Anglo-Saxon male as a being superior to all others. He wasn't. His contemporaries and predecessors in the US and UK are just as guilty of such sins.
These include Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, James Joyce, and a host of others as well or lesser-known who, as an English major, I was expected to revere in college, and who are still held up in lit classes today as icons of literary style and masters of craftsmanship. (Curiously, I find that "tough guy" writers Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler stand out as extremely non-sexist and non-racist by comparison, probably because the two of them actually interacted with women and minorities on a daily basis and on professional levels instead of inventing characters amid the rarified circumstances of a self-styled and expatriate "Lost Generation." To digress further, I find Zelda Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical Save Me The Waltz, which has been derided by many, to be a minor tour de force.
Anyway, my point, and I hope one well-taken, is that Fleming, while a product of his place, time and social milieu, remains today an author still worth reading. Apart from being a master of mood, Fleming produces sometimes astonishing passages that while accurately depicting a particular scene, at the same time convey an appropriately creepy miasma of danger, lurking evil, the very presence of imminent doom, whose paranoia creeps into the mind of the captive reader. Ambler has a gift for this as well, but Fleming is just as good when he gets rolling, such as he does in depictions of the gypsy camp and scenes of Yugoslavia behind the Iron Curtain in From Russia with Love.
Another of Fleming's strong points lies in his depiction of the Bondian hero, which differs considerably from the movie version exemplified by Sean Connery and others, acted from scripts penned by several, but notably by Richard Maibaum. It seems to me that action heros break down into two basic, and very ancient types. I'd call these, on the one hand, the Achilles type, and, on the other hand, the Ulysses or Odysseus type, taken, of course, from the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.
The Achilles type could be described as the classically macho warrior who prevails primarily by might of main. The Ulysses type, on the other hand, while capable of the most deliberate and calculated violence when called for -- such as in the final scene of the Odyssey, where the returning Ulysses cold-bloodedly wipes out a palace full of slimy suitors out to purloin his Penelope -- prefers to use cunning whenever possible, and is only brawny by default. "I am No Man," Ulysses said to the Cyclops, and thereby brought about the escape of himself and his crew. Bond, as originally created by Fleming, exemplified the Ulysses type of action hero. An example can be seen in the difference between Bond's portrayals vis-a-vis the evil Odd Job in the book and movie versions of Goldfinger.
In Fleming's original portrayal, Bond realizes pretty much from the outset that he's no match physically for Odd Job, whom Bond takes for granted can beat him in a fight. In order to take Odd Job out in the book's final scenes, Bond resorts to a last-ditch stratagem or dodge -- sitting beside Odd Job on a high-altitude jet, Bond shatters the airtight window resulting in Odd Job's being sucked out into the void. In the movie, of course, there was a knock-down drag-out fight in Fort Knox, whereas doing away with Goldfinger's villainous henchman by sucking him out into the vacuum was reserved for the considerably less formidable Goldfinger himself during the latter's attempted getaway.
Fleming's other main failing is his frequently resorting to rather facile deus-ex-machina stratagems, better worthy of Inspector Clousseau than a top-flight action hero, to get Bond out of tight places and wrap up the books. In Doctor No (1958), for example, Fleming has Bond escape becoming a tasty morsel for No's pet giant squid by plunging a diver's spear into its eye -- naturally the thirty-foot squid's sucker-festooned tentacles, which are on the point of crushing Bond to death, instantly let go -- yeah, sure. A little later, Bond wraps things up by sneaking up on Dr. No with a big hopper full of bird guano (No's secret lair is on a guano island off the coast of Jamaica, shades of Lord Jim) dangling from the business-end of a giant construction crane, and burying the evil doctor (as in "I been a frikkin' evil doctor for the last frikkin' thirty years, OH-KAY!) under a ton of -- well, I guess you'd pretty much have to call it shit.
On the other hand, many another writer's been guilty of the same sin -- beginning, I might add, with the immortal Homer whose "I am No Man" ploy in the Odyssey always struck me as being so frikkin' evil doctor stupid that even the dumbest Cyclops wouldn't be expected to have fallen for it, let alone Polyphemus, king of his one-eyed breed. Only the strange people I had as professors in my many classics classes in college seemed to think this kind of junk represented the art of plotting at its zenith of perfection, but then again, you know what they say about classics professors. (Well, maybe you don't, but I'm not going to say it here.) Anyway, in my humble opinion the foregoing is more than balanced by Fleming's introduction of the literary device of having the action hero evade the clutches of the bad guy and his evil henchmen by finding a handy ventilation shaft, crawling into same, evading pursuit (despite many hardships and dangers) and re-emerging to counterattack and win the day. The invention of what might be called "the old ventilation shaft ploy" has been the saving grace of a thousand books and movies that have followed in train. It's a plot device that's been used in one form or another in almost every action flick ever made (viz. every "Die Hard," for example.)
But, to conclude; even if I did in fact have a James Bond complex, it might not turn out to be the worst thing. After all, Bond is a gentleman, is knowledgeable about fine wine and haute cuisine and beautiful women fly to him like moths to a flame. He doesn't curse, dresses well, yet is capable of beating the living crap out of punks and smartass bad guys from rank goons to those slickly noxious "sharpies of the underworld" that used to be referred to in the slogan of every teaser that began every Kojak episode. And, oh yes, Bond is always on the side of civilization over anarchy. Let's not forget about that. Yeah -- you could definitely say that in light of said foregoing respects, Dave is every inch a Fleming, and in fact, in one or two other particulars I can think of, maybe even a couple of inches a Bond.
Copyright (C) David Alexander. All rights reserved.