In what will surely prove a long but trilling road to becoming a Double-0 Aficionado, I recently cracked open a book I had purchased at around this time last year, The James Bond Archives: Spectre Edition, published by the fine people at Taschen in late 2015, edited by Paul Duncan. I had my eyes set on purchasing the titanic volume ever since it was revealed Taschen would be releasing a more affordable and updated version of the first edition that came out in the fall of 2012 for the film franchise’s 50th anniversary. Believe me, having leafed through the 2012 edition, it was extraordinarily tempting to bite the bullet, but the price kept me at bay. Not so with the 2015 edition, which, while smaller in dimension, is nonetheless handsomely crafted and of course offers an extra chapter entirely dedicated the Spectre.
Before getting ahead of myself, I chose to start in chronological order (for now). Even before delving into the movies themselves, the book features an extensive interview Ian Fleming accorded Playboy in the summer of 1964, published posthumously some months later. For reasons I cannot really explain, despite my unfathomable love for 007, the life and personality of its creator is not a subject I’ve studied in much depth. I know who Ian Fleming was and generally what he did in life: newspaper reporter, world traveller, stock broker, partook in WWII by aiding Britain in Naval intelligence (which understandably inspired the James Bond novels afterwards), loved his cigarettes, loved his women, loves his eggs, loved his Jamaica and his Goldeneye home there. At this point I feel I may be long overdue to read much more on the man and his life.
When reading a Bond novel or two (I encourage anybody to read all of them!) one is encouraged to extrapolate several conclusions about the author, just like with any book and its author. Bond the character is a violent man, mostly dispassionate with the exception of fine dining and voluptuous females, and protects British interests time and time again against mostly foreign antagonists. Rarely are the villains in the novels English. Conversely, they are extraordinarily amusing reads, written with an incredibly detailed and colourful attention to idiosyncrasies of people and places, fast paced, and often peppered with a penchant for such absurd violence it becomes comical. What kind of man writes like this?
Having seen a handful of short television interviews in which Fleming was the subject (one is included in the DVD and blu-ray special features for FRWL), I formulated a few ideas about his psyche and morality, but nothing terribly conclusive. This brings me to the aforementioned 1964 Playboy interview. Quite honestly, Fleming comes off as much more sophisticated, level headed, and even tempered than what one might deduce by reading his novels. Mind you, I didn’t have a negative view of the man, only that perhaps my subconscious kept poking reservations into my mind given the occasionally dubious qualities he awarded non-British elements to his stories. The interview is rather extensive, giving the lauded author the opportunity to talk about his upbringing, his education, his professional career as a writer and the many other jobs he undertook before, his exciting wartime experience, and several topics that prowl into the minutia of what went into the style of the 007 books.
Sexual politics, foreign nationalities, violence, these subjects are broached smartly by both the interviewer and interviewee, with Fleming sharing precious opinions on each in such a manner that I was, at least in some respects, comforted. In no way does he hide the fact that he writes for money (while admitting that his stories offer himself a certain level of entertainment), intentionally painting James Bond as something of a blank slate around and to whom so much happens. The point is to offer the reader some frisson, some excitement at a time when Britain was slowly picking itself up in the sordid aftermath of WWII. Keep it simple, keep it exciting, keep it broad. Fleming himself laments the replacement of courtship with pure seduction, admits he has no taste for killing, questions the virtues typically associated with national pride and, perhaps most surprising, doesn’t really care much for guns at all. Knowledge bomb: Fleming thought the Chinese and Russians were rather nice people when one gets to know them a bit. All the details he inserts into the novels are to make them as thrilling and impressionistic as possible. In essence, Fleming was a raconteur, one with a penchant for international intrigue.
Not the sexist, misogynist, racist, violent dinosaur some might be tempted to describe him as after all. He was a man of his time and place: very British man with a very real curiosity for the world. Times change, just like people along with them. Obviously, the way people thought and saw the world in the 1950s was not like how we see it today in the young 21st century. There’s material in the novels that unquestionably read as antiquated, make no mistake about it. That being said, like most people on the face of this planet, Fleming was a complicated person, replete with nuances. In short, kind of like James Bond.