Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation

Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation
No month stated, 1965  Three Star Books

Here’s an early critical study of the James Bond novels, one that seems to have been completely forgotten. This is most likey due to the publisher: Three Star Books, which was only around for a short time and no doubt had poor distribution. Ian Fleming’s Incredible Creation is definitely worth seeking out, though, and offers a unique appraisal of Ian Fleming’s novels (to say the least!). Compared to the other Bond studies of the day, I’d put it just beneath Kingsley Amis’s The James Bond Dossier, but above Ann Boyd’s The Devil With James Bond and O.F. Snelling’s 007: A Report.

This slim paperback – 128 pages of big print – is comprised of two “Parts.” The first, which only amounts to 9 pages, is by Paul Anthony, identified on the back cover as “Ian Fleming’s drinking partner.” Folks, I only wish I had a drinking partner who could write an essay about me after I’ve bought the farm. Instead I drink alone once my 14 month-old is finally “asleep” (which still only amounts to one-hour stretches on a good night) and I play a record or watch a few minutes of a movie and completely tune out of the world. Anyway Anthony’s essay is titled “My Friend, Ian Fleming.”

This short and sweet essay offers a few memories of his various discussions with Fleming, most of which occurred at various hotel bars. But the moral of Anthony’s story is this: Fleming regretted getting married, stayed married only for the sake of his son, and it was his unhappiness with his wife Ann that ultimately caused Fleming to create James Bond. So, as Anthony sums up, if it wasn’t for Ann Fleming, there would never have been a James Bond – Fleming was already wealthy, had everything a man could want. But he was unhappy with his marriage to this woman, who in Anthony’s view comes off as a domineering shrew more interested in climbing the social ladder. Thus Fleming decided to live vicariously through a globetrotting secret agent who dispatched larger-than-life villains and picked up larger-than-life babes.

As for Fleming himself, Anthony says he was as different from Bond as you could get; constantly “nervous,” due to his frustrations over Ann, to the point that he smoked “60-100 cigarettes a day.” Anthony presents himself as the babe magnet Fleming only wished he was, and also states – without much evidence – that Pussy Galore might have been based on a woman who attended Anthony’s “Judo Club,” and whom Anthony introduced to Fleming. Anthony theorizes that Fleming losing his father when he was eight years old stunted him emotionally – “On one occasion I found him reading a boy’s comic with obvious amusement.” The piece wraps up with the bashing of Ann Fleming, where Anthony states that, while she was responsible for the creation of James Bond, she was also responsible for Ian Fleming’s early death!

Next up is the meat of the book: “The World Of James Bond,” by Jacquelyn Friedman. Frustratingly, we are given no background on Ms. Friedman – who she is, what led her to this critical study of Fleming’s novels, etc. And for that matter, Friedman herself is maddeningly vague; she implies a few times that she actually knew Fleming, and conversed with him about the books, but offers up no details. Otherwise, her multi-chapter essay is very much along the lines of Amis’s magesterial The James Bond Dossier, and at times nearly as good – with one glaring difference. The James Bond Dossier brims with Amis’s enthusiasm for the novels, but one gets the feeling that Friedman really isn’t too fond of them, despite the fact that she proclaims herself “a creature in pathetic Bondage.” 

Another glaring difference is that Amis’s book is a pithy, cogent overview of the series as a whole, with little in the way of critical appraisal. It’s also not a literary study of hidden elements in the novels; Amis’s work started life as a magazine article, and the book itself retains that vibe, but make no mistake this is not meant as an insult. Friedman on the other hand does make a critical study of the novels, while at the same time she brings up many of the same points Amis did in his book, which came out in hardcover the same year.

But while Amis’s Dossier is still much beloved by Bond fans, Friedman’s study has so dropped off the radar that you seldom even see it mentioned. As stated this is most likely due to its scarcity, given the obscurity of Three Star Books, but it’s also perhaps because a huge chunk of Friedman’s analysis would be considered inappropriate today. You see, Friedman is very focused on race, and racial elements in Fleming’s novels, and discusses the subject in a manner that is as “pre-Politically Correct” as you can get. Indeed, a large portion of her study would be considered wildly offensive today, certainly more so than Fleming’s actual novels would be.

The gist is, Friedman sees James Bond as the bearer of “the white man’s burden” (her actual phrase), defending fellow white people from the encroaching minorities of the world. But Bond’s lot is a miserable one, his task ultimately pointless – something that gradually becomes an inescapable reality for him as the series progresses. The British Empire has fallen, leaving only a soulless ruin of past glories, and Bond is more so a protector of the “Wasteland” it has become. He is a destroyer of life, his goal to prevent (non-white) “families from getting through” (in the parlance of Steinbeck, more of which below), and while the early books see him fighting “non-whites,” the last two volumes see him protecting them. This is because post-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service James Bond has finally accepted the meaninglessness of his service as Agent 007; while the “white world” is in its death throes – as represented by Bond himself and skeletons like M, not to mention the various “father figures” who serve as Bond’s sidekicks, most of whom are older men who can only relive the glories of their past – the “non-white world” is young and vibrant and soon to take over.

So as you can see, this is a damn unique look at the world of James Bond!

The first chapter, “The Feelings and The Troubles,” gets this particular ball rolling posthaste. Friedman states that James Bond never actually does anything; rather, he stops others from doing things. Bond is defined by his enemies, at least in the early books – he must always wait until they make the first move, and then he acts to stop them. In the last two novels, though, Bond has experienced such a character progression that he must make the first move, otherwise he will slip fully into despair. This is mostly due to his realization and acceptance of the racial elements outlined above. “In every case, the first thing we learn about the villain is his race.” So Friedman begins her analysis of race in Fleming – and indeed, one gathers that she is a bit too focused on this element.

But race, as Friedman points out, only matters so far as the villain is concerned; James Bond has no racial prejudices when it comes to his various female conquests. In fact, it’s with a non-white woman that Bond conceives a child, in You Only Live Twice. “This [racial] division is not between white men and dark men, but Englishmen and others.” Friedman brings up the Nazi edict that “race means soul,” and proclaims that this edict is completely true in the world of James Bond – the villains in particular are defined by their race, even when Fleming goes out of his way not to expressly state things. Such as the case, Friedman argues, with Goldfinger being a Jew, even though Fleming skirts around the fact (hence Goldfinger’s quest to steal all the gold of the world – what more, Friedman argues, could one expect from an outrageously-overdone Jewish caricature?). She also argues that Red Grant is a member of the IRA, even though Fleming pointedly never refers to the IRA.

Next up is “Earth Mothers and Living Dolls.” Here Friedman presents the second unique element of her Bond appraisal: that James Bond is both repelled by and terrified of the maternal force, that strong adult women are anathema to his entire world view. The “girls” Bond prefers are “nearly interchangeable” in Friedman’s view – she honestly sees no difference in them – and while they may each start off as strong female figures, when they become the latest “Bondgirl” they are reduced to weak refelctions of their former selves. This, Friedman states, is the only kind of woman James Bond will tolerate. Strong women, she argues, only exist in the Bond films, as in the case of Fiona Volpe of Thunderball, a strong female character who was not even in the novel.

In Friedman’s analysis, the women in Fleming are divided between “girls” and “mothers,” and the latter represent everything James Bond is against – because, we’ll recall, Bond is a destroyer of the life-cycle, whereas mothers are the creators of life. Fleming’s adult women are “creatures whom [Bond] hates and fears,” and “adult women destroy James Bond whenever they meet.” Only two women represent the “mother” figure in Fleming – Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt – and Friedman ranks them as “the most important people in the world of James Bond,” because Klebb kills Bond at the climax of From Russia, With Love (or at least seems to in the cliffhanger ending), and Irma Bunt kills Bond’s wife at the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Here we have a fascinating look at how Rosa Klebb served as Red Grant’s “mother,” avenging the death of her “son” at novel’s end, and how Irma Bunt gained vengeance on Bond for ruining her family – and Blofeld, as Friedman argues, was clearly stated as being a “family man” with Irma in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Friedman wraps up this chapter with the observation that “The power of the Earth-Mother in Fleming is often mystic,” but “maternal protection [in Fleming] is a force of evil, not good.” This leads into a further discussion of the topic in the next chapter, “Steinbeck, Solo, and 007.” Here Friedman brings up the concept that “the family must get through,” as displayed by Steinbeck in The Grapes Of Wrath: the mother is the core of the strong family, which must prevail no matter what. The book shows its age with Friedman’s enthusiasm for The Man From UNCLE (in fact she clearly prefers it to Bond!), and here we get a rundown of various Season 1 episodes that demonstrate the strong family dynamic of UNCLE.

But James Bond’s goal is to ensure the family does not “get through,” as he is a killer of life, and since the mother is the central figure of the family, then the mother is the central villain of Fleming’s oeveure. “No children are born in the world of James Bond,” Friedman states, explaining away Bond’s son with Kissy Suzuki as the product of a time in which he didn’t even know he was James Bond. “While a girl is admired for her manly qualities…any show of womanly, maternal strength must be punished without remorse, no matter how well-intentioned.” Bond instead serves “father-figures” who are “relics of the past,” men who demonstrate their macho attitudes with a “vulgar cruelty.” Here Friedman broaches the same observations Kingsley Amis did, vis-à-vis Bond’s “father-son” dynamic with M, but whereas Amis sees M as a cold-hearted bastard, Friedman instead sees him as overly bound by tradition, and thus unable to openly proclaim his fatherly love for Bond.

“Fun and Games in the Wastelands” follows, and here Friedman overviews Fleming’s power in details, how he didn’t belabor his novels with “overwhelming description.” In other words, pages and pages about a fancy sports car would actually say less than the mention of a lady’s scarf sitting in the passenger seat. We’re told of the “luxury” of James Bond’s world, with the caveat that none of it actually belongs to him, and indeed much of it is untouched by his passing through. Bond himself is presented as a ghost, haunting his dying world – even his “flat” is just a place, not a home actually lived in by Bond; it’s just a place he stays between assignments. And his infrequent plans to make more of the flat are always ruined – a la Tracy’s murder at the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

“We feel that Bond is protecting a barren and empty world,” states Friedman, making the compelling observation that we never see any people in this London of Fleming, other than the employees of the Service. Crowds, such as in Moonraker, are kept in the background, and Bond and his companions seem to exist apart from the rest of mankind. This is the isolation of the Service, something Fleming often hammers home in the series. Here too we get the first of those now-offensive observations on the “doomed” element of Bond’s role as the bearer of “the white man’s burden.”

“Dignity and Grace: The Morality of the Wasteland” goes over “the morality of dignity,” in which the villain must pay for his bad acts, even if Fleming never outright states what the villain’s plans are. Such is the case, Friedman posits, with my man Dr. No; but given that Dr. No puts Bond through a grueling obstacle course, that alone justifies the vile death he is delivered. From here though we jump back to the luxurious settings of Bond’s world; Friedman describes Bond himself as “the perfect arbiter of elegance.” In a humorous note that could’ve come straight out of Kingsley Amis’s book she states, “Let [Bond] land on a deserted island and he will wind up in Dr. No’s palace!”

The next chapter, “James Bond: Portrait in Black and Tan,” finally turns the sights on Bond himself. And the picture Friedman paints isn’t flattering. She brings up the Black and Tans of British history, English criminals who were freed from prison, given uniforms, and sent to Ireland to kill with impunity, and says that James Bond is their modern representation! As more credence she notes that Bond always blots out memory of his past, preferring to promptly forget the cruel things he’s had to do. But the villains of the novels revel in their own pasts; this, Friedman argues, is an inversion of the standard form, which is the other way around.

“Physically, James Bond resembles the villain more than the hero.” This argument I don’t buy, particularly Friedman’s cheesy call-back to the “Black and Tan” stuff; ie, Bond’s “black” hair and his “tan” skin. Here’s one of the parts where Friedman casually and vaguely mentions that she knew Fleming, stating that Fleming once told her he named his character “James Bond” because he wanted the blandest name possible. But Bond’s code number, Friedman claims, furthers this idea – “seven is good luck, but before it comes two zeroes, meaning, nothing! Fleming tried to convey his hero’s basic emptiness by his names.” Methinks the lady doth exaggerate too much.

But if Bond is “empty,” even more so is the “Wasteland” he protects – this is Friedman’s designation of the fallen British Empire, where everything is now “devoid of meaning” and all that remains for its representatives is a futile catering to an accepted form. Pre-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond could enjoy the “soft life” between assignments, but upon his realization and acceptance of the futility of his overall mission, only “constant danger” keeps him from despair. Now his enemies, in the last two novels of the series, are “chosen for him” because they would make for good opponents, not due to any particular world-threatening plans. Here we get Friedman’s argument that, instead of being presented as the enemy, as they once were, the non-white characters in these last two books are people who need Bond’s assistance.

“James Bond In Another Country” is the longest chapter in Friedman’s study. In this one she dissects one novel as a representative of the series as a whole; she says she was tempted to focus on From Russia, With Love, but instead decided on Live And Let Die. One wishes she’d maybe picked Doctor No instead – actually, maybe not, as I could just imagine what she’d have to say about the Chinese and the “Chigroes” of that novel. Folks, this chapter alone would have the sensitive readers of today running for the hills, so be forewarned – you aren’t likely to see the word “Negro” used more frequently than it is here.

However, Friedman makes it clear that Fleming, for once, went out of his way to “appease” black people in this novel; while Mr. Big was the villain, he was not presented as a racially-offensive stereotype, but had all the hallmarks of your standard “white” villain. And too the blacks of Harlem were not shown to be racial caricatures. Friedman throughout notes that Fleming never did anything like this for any other race in the Bond books, citing for example how Felix Leiter hoodwinks one of his captors into a false sense of friendship by discussing jazz – she notes how ridiculous it would’ve been had Bond attempted something similar with Red Grant in From Russia, With Love, and started discussing an Irish folk song with him.

But here we come to that stuff I referred to as “wildly offensive” in today’s climate, so be warned. In particular when discussing Bond and Leiter’s voyage across Harlem, Friedman states, “The sight of the dark race in all its animal energy leaves our hero stunned and helpless.” Yikes! But it is this vibrant, non-white energy, so different from the decayed death-throes of the white world (again, as represented by M and all the other old dinosaurs) that so befuddles Bond he is easily captured by Mr. Big here in the Harlem nightclub. Throughout this chapter Friedman often wonders what the eventual film version of Live And Let Die will be like; clearly this book was written early in the film franchise, as Friedman is not yet aware that the films would greatly diverge from their source material.

You want more bizarre theories presented as fact? How about that there “are only two beautiful women of serious potency in the series,” “vampires” who destroy men: the “Jewess” of Thunderball and the “Negro stripper” of Live And Let Die? It’s all about race with Friedman, and she proclaims that these two powerful female characters get their power due to “their closeness to their race.” Indeed she wishes that this stripper had been the “Bondgirl” of the book, seeing her as a much more powerful female character than actual Bondgirl Solitaire.

And speaking of Solitaire, Friedman only gets even more outrageous: “In [her] first appearance, Solitaire illustrates the white race in all its grandeur helpless in the grip of the dark.” As if that wasn’t enough, Friedman also details how Mr. Big ignorantly plans to marry Solitaire, “not realizing that marriage to a Negro is the ultimate offense to a white woman’s dignity, demanding punishment whether conscious or not.” Gee, I wonder why Ian Fleming’s Incredible Creation has never been reprinted?

When she gets away from the racial stuff, Friedman does make compelling points, like how each Bondgirl makes a “descent into insignificance” once she becomes Bond’s latest conquest. As is the case with Solitaire; when we meet her she is a compelling, strong character, but by novel’s end she has become “absurdly childish,” this being how Fleming describes the sight of her in oversized pajamas. Looking back on the Bond novels I’ve recently read, as well as the ones I read as a youth, I see the merit in this argument – all of these “Bondgirls” are weakened by Bond, and indeed those that aren’t weakened by him end up being killed off.

In my review of Live And Let Die, I complained about Bond and Solitaire’s arbitrary ranting against the “oldsters” in Florida. Friedman though sees all of this dialog as yet another indication of the “white man’s burden” edict of the series. The oldsters of Florida sicken Bond because they are proof that the white race is old and dying, whereas the black characters, as depicted in the Harlem section of the book, are young and vital. Bond is sickened because his role as “protector of the white race” is meaningless – the white race is dying, anyway, as evidenced by these decrepit Florida oldsters, and thus not worth fighting for. And here I was thinking all of this stuff was just pointless dialog! 

Friedman quickly wraps up her analysis of Live And Let Die, glossing over the climax; she makes a telling confession, later on, when she admits, “No great fan of the adventure novel, I often find myself reading the first 2/3 of a James Bond Thriller avidly, then skimming through the climax.” Instead she focuses more on Solitaire, again pointing out how lessened of a character she has become by novel’s end, and regrets that her fate will be the same as all the other Bondgirls: “Doubtless [Solitaire] will commence the vague wanderings which are the fate of all those James Bond has loved. None of them seem left with enough will to seek him out.”

Here Friedman again casually mentions she knew Fleming, and that he agreed with her assertions that Mike Hammer or Sam Spade could’ve “mopped the floor” with James Bond. She argues that Bond is not a super-hero, and Fleming never intended him as one. In fact, Bond in the novels is prone to making dumb mistakes (things for which he later chastises himself), and Friedman jokes that the reader of the novels has figured out the villain’s plan long before Bond himself has. This brings her to the more superheroic (yet more sadistic) version of Bond from the films; in her brief overview of the movies, which she sees as “much racier” than Fleming’s novels, Friedman discusses how the “coldness” of the literary Bond has become “sadism.”

In particular Friedman is put off by the cruel acts the film Bond commits in Dr. No, like his sleeping with Ms. Taro despite knowing he is about to have her arrested, or when he cold-bloodedly shoots Professor Dent. Friedman notices though that the films quickly backed off from this, and that many of the elements of Dr. No where whittled out of the ensuing movies – and, wouldn’t you be surprised to know, one of those elements is race. Whereas Quarrel was presented as a typical movie “Negro” in Dr. No, such racial caricatures were avoided in later films, as the producers realized no doubt they ran the risk of offending a sizeable chunk of their viewing audience. As for Oddjob not being toned down in Goldfinger? Doubtless “there were few Koreans in New York” the producers were afraid of offending(!).

Friedman also reveals that, as of the writing of her study, Thunderball had yet to be released, and all she knows about it is from pre-release material. This must explain why she constantly refers to that movie’s henchwoman as “Fiona Kelly” instead of “Fiona Volpe;” the character was originally intended to be Irish, until the last name was changed to accommodate the Italian actress who eventually portrayed her, Luciana Paluzzi.  Friedman also predicts the film franchise’s descent into gadgetry, greatly diverging from the source material: “James Bond’s weapons [in the novels] have the same elegant simplicity as his taste, for the author wants us to pay attention to the man, not his gun.”

“Coming of Age in the Wasteland” wraps up the study, and is the shortest chapter. Here Friedman briefly looks at the final Bond novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, and suspects that Fleming knew it was to be his last. Most Bond fans see this novel as a sort of misfire, a first draft that Fleming didn’t get a chance to complete, but Friedman instead sees it as a completion of the series. “James Bond must confront not only his world, but himself.” In the opponent of Scaramanga, Bond faces a version of himself – a fellow killer for hire – and also, for the first time in the series, prepares to enforce his “007” status: to finally kill someone in cold blood. Previously his kills have only been made in self-defense.

“To complete his cycle of novels, did Ian Fleming show James Bond at last arriving at some peace with himself through understanding?” Friedman doesn’t dwell on this, no doubt because she is reaching even more than normal, but she tries to argue that, “In his man-to-man confrontation with Scaramanga…Bond has accepted…the basic humanity of his enemies.” In his preparation to finally kill in cold blood (something he doesn’t have to do, after all – for Scaramanga has some hidden weapons and Bond must again kill in self-defense), Bond “accepts” who he is. And, really reaching now, Friedman also claims that this finally allows Bond to also “accept” his cruel boss: M has always been tough bastard “Mailedfist” to Bond, when what Bond has been wanting from him was to instead be fatherly “Miles Messervy.”

And that’s it – probably one of the more interesting analyses of the James Bond novels you could hope for, but one that might upset most readers of today. I can’t say I agree with all of Friedman’s arguments – she is guilty of reaching in many instances – but I do appreciate her enthusiasm. Also she admits her analysis of the series is her own interpretation, and thus perhaps not even correct(!), but she states that the one thing you could never claim about Ian Fleming’s work is that it doesn’t have meaning.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Very interesting. I'd never heard of that one. The depth of your knowledge and your great posts always amaze me.

Grant said...

I've never read it, but the description of the Paul Anthony part of the book is interesting. The idea of Fleming creating Bond out of frustration over his marriage sounds almost exactly like the comedy "HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE." In that story, the creator of a "swinging spy" comic strip character changes the spy into a bumbling comic strip husband when he himself gets married, then when he becomes bitter about the marriage, he brings the character "out of retirement" and makes him back into a spy (after murdering his wife!).
(The funny thing is, I kind of doubt the writer of that film (which is from about ' 65) could have been influenced by that essay.)

TC said...

I actually had a copy of this thing, which I found in a second-hand book store many years ago.

I remember almost nothing of the first section, that is, Paul Anthony's reminiscences. For some reason, some of Ms. Friedman's assertions stuck with me more. And, yeah, I do agree that she over-intellectualized things, and read more into it than was likely intended. Especially the racial subtext. And how she repeatedly compared Bond to Solo, and M to Mr. Waverly, and always unfavorably. She seemed to be much more of an U.N.C.L.E. fan than a Bond fan.

I don't get the impression that she actually "knew" Fleming as a friend or acquaintance, although she apparently met him in person. Maybe she was a reporter, and interviewed him once or twice.

Felicity Walker said...

FWIW a few Bond villains are of mixed ethnicity, such as Drax (German-English), No (German-Chinese), Blofeld (Polish-Greek), and Scaramanga (Cuban-English). I don’t know whether that was significant to Fleming, or what Friedman would make of it.