The summer reading season is officially underway. This past week I intermittently picked up Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel that started it all: Casino Royale. It was a relatively brisk read given that this was the 3rd if not the 4th time I visited the fictitious Royale-les-Eaux in the south of France, to say nothing that the book itself is not very long, barely lasting 165 pages.
This being a Bond blog, I don’t believe intricate plot synopses will be very necessary, but for those visiting that actually have not ventured into the literary world of 007, CR relates James Bond’s fantastical covert operation in a small French coastal town of Royale-les-Eaux where he is assigned to outplay at the baccarat table a Soviet agent by the mysterious name of Le Chiffre (The Number, The Cipher). Le Chiffre has been using his organization’s funds to pocket some extra profit, but his investments have recently gone sour, and he is now forced to earn big winnings at the casino before the Soviet assassination branch named SMERSH locate and liquidate him. During this mission and afterwards Bond, a cold and severe man, sees his rough exterior slowly melt away as he falls in love with special envoy Vesper Lynd, she too somewhat an aloof personality. Through it all, Bond learns some very important lessons about love, allegiances, and betrayal.
So much has already been written about Ian Fleming’s work by vastly more educated and savvy individuals, it therefore becomes a bit of a challenge to bring some new ideas and arguments to the table. Prior to sitting down to type this article I had to take a moment to remind myself that this is a blog I do for fun, not something I take too seriously. However daunting it may be to tackle Fleming and the iconicity of his creation, I should just go with the flow. As such, this series of literary reviews will be somewhat free flowing as I jot down arguments that feelings that come to me as I go. Sometimes I may even come back to a book and write a second instalment to the review.
This visit to the world of Casino Royale proved a worthwhile reminder of two things more than any others. The first is Fleming’s incredible style, his command of the English language for descriptions being a true highlight of reading any of his novels. The book’s actual plot is, to be fair, somewhat ordinary save for British Intelligence’s audacious decision to actually go along with an operation that involves investing millions of pounds in a card game in the off chance that they might hurt the Soviet reputation. The A, B, and C of the story are perfectly competent but nothing that will leave reader’s jaw dropping, at least I don’t believe. A fairly straight spy story, all in all.
Conversely, the prose carries the book to great heights, injecting almost everything with colour, passion, and suspense. I found myself thinking more than once in the past week that this could have been a very ordinary novel. In the hands of someone less adept at florid, creative descriptions, CR could have been perfunctory at best. But with Fleming’s linguistic imagination smashing down the letters on the famous golden typewriter, countless events, locations, and characters are given a life of their own.
Consider the moment when Bond’s Bentley, giving chase to Le Chiffre’s Citroën, runs over spiked chains. Unable to control his vehicle, 007 totally wipes out, but here is how Fleming paints the Bentley’s calamitous crash.
“…and then, facing back up the road, it reared slowly up, its front wheels spinning and its great headlights searching the sky. For a split second, resting on the petrol tank, it seemed to paw at the heavens like a giant parying-mantis. Then it slowly toppled backwards and fell with a splintering crash of coachwork and glass.”
The praying-mantis part is a brilliant touch. Fleming does this time and time again throughout the novel, finding inventive ways to compare regular objects to, such as relating how cards being tossed out of the baccarat shoe are like crabs scuttling together. For those that enjoy well written, vivacious prose, Fleming is an excellent writer to explore. His description of Bond’s writhing pain when le Chiffre rocks his crown jewels with the carpet beater is a thing of beautiful despite how horrific that experience itself ifs
The second element that struck me was the characterization of Bond himself. It is at times very focused and narrow, whereas other times the author injects little surprises that keep the reader thinking there is perhaps more to this rugged man than meets the eye. More than once Bond engages in a bit of laughter with René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau and Felix Leiter of the CIA. Bond very rarely laughs in the films, if at all. This humanizes the protagonist in a different way than do the movies. At the same time, Fleming certainly makes him a difficult person to swallow as far as his opinion of women is concerned. Anyone who bemoans 007’s treatment of the opposite sex in the movies should best stay away from the books. Despite having read CR a couple of times already, I was still surprised by some of the passages. He literally thinks that instead of being sent on missions to assist men, they should remain in the kitchen with their pots and pans. Ouch.
But of course, CR being part love story, the purpose of the journey is to witness Bond shy away from that philosophy a little bit (and only a little). Once the baccarat game has been won and Bond has recouped from his ungodly beating at Le Chiffre’s hands, Fleming continues to throw in passages that both reinforce Bond’s confined beliefs on love and women, as well as reveal that the solitary figure may be softening to a degree. There is a brief line saying that “Like all harsh, cold men, he was easily tipped into sentiment.” The picture of James Bond one takes away from CR is that of a complicated individual, trapped in an era where misogyny was par for the course, yet whose armour cracks a little as the story evolves. Some might see this as a character arc, while others will shun feeble attempts at humanizing the man and prefer to criticize his decidedly antiquated mannerisms.
I’ve always said that I would try to be personal on this blog, just as most blogs attempt to be. So what of James Bond? I suppose I’m stuck in the middle. I honestly, genuinely do not take kindly to his inner thoughts about the female of the species. Frankly, I find them disgusting. On the flip side, having read some interviews with the author, I don’t believe Fleming actually held such beliefs seriously. In one interview he gave Playboy magazine shortly before his passing he admitted to missing chivalry and gallantry. Surely Fleming was more sophisticated than what Bond thinks at times in CR. As such, his characterization of 007 was, I believe, for mass appeal, to give readers a frisson, a rush of perverted excitement in a society that was rather prude at the time (and may still be to this day). Strategically, he decided to go in the complete opposite direction and make Bond a sexual beast that likes the ‘sweet taste of rape’. It’s harsh stuff, making for a trying read in 2017, and yet those hints are dropped that he’s isn’t a complete monster.
A 2nd review of Casino Royale is sure to come in the near future. Stay tuned for Live and Let Die soon enough.