Monday, September 30, 2019

From Russia, With Love (James Bond #5)

From Russia, With Love, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1957)

It’s clear from the outset that Ian Fleming has something grander in mind for this fifth James Bond installment. It’s almost like he’s attempting the War And Peace of the espionage genre. Bond himself is almost secondary to the plot and the supporting characters, in particular the villains. Overall the novel is certainly the best so far in the series, but at the same time it lacks the pulpy spark of Live And Let Die.

Fleming seemed to have followed a “serious/pulpy” pattern for the Bond novels, ie Casino Royale, the first one, being a serious affair, and Live And Let Die, the second one, being a bit more pulpy. Whether consciously or not, Fleming mostly followed this pattern throughout the series (to wit, overall serious From Russia, With Love being followed by the pulp masterpiece Doctor No), with of course the occasional detour. I guess I’m supposed to say that now that I’m an “adult” and all (in fact I’ll turn 45 on October 6th) I prefer the serious, more meaty books…but I still love the pulp!

As mentioned Bond himself doesn’t appear until From Russia, With Love is well underway; we won’t see him until page 72. That doesn’t sound like very long until you consider the insanely small, dense print of this Signet paperback. Instead Fleming takes his time with the narrative, going to great lengths to bring his cast of villains to life. In fact the first character we meet is nutjob Red Grant, who is given a background much more elaborate than any previous Fleming villain. Now the chief executioner for SMERSH, Grant grew up in Ireland and got his jollies as a kid killing animals, then eventually moved on to people, always on nights of a full moon. Now he gets to indulge in his favorite hobby and get paid for it.

But then Grant leaves the narrative and we flash back a few months to an indordinate meeting among various Soviet bigwigs, chief among them “General G,” who challenges them to come up with something big to put Russian espionage back in the game. The question is where and who. After much discussion England is settled on, and someone brings up the name James Bond, who caused so much trouble for the Reds in the previous books. At this point Rosa Klebb, this volume’s main villain, enters the fray. A grotesque, toadlike creature with an “asexual” nature, Rosa is one of the few “mother figures” in the Bond world, and thus of course is the natural enemy of Bond, who is a destroyer of the life-cycle. (Uh, at least according to Jacquelyn Friedman!)

Klebb threatens to steal the show in her few pages, but I was more interested in Kronsteen, a master chess player who serves as a strategist for SMERSH. He is the one who comes up with the plot, which ultimately will be fooling the Brits into sending Bond to Turkey to collect a cipher machine, while in reality compromising photos will be taken of Bond in the arms of a Russian girl. When both Bond and the girl turn up dead on the Orient Express, victims of an apparent murder-suicide, and the photos are printed in the papers, the British government will be properly embarassed, and the Soviet intelligence network will be back in the big leagues.

I was impressed with how faithful the movie was to the novel. Of course SMERSH was changed to SPECTRE, and a little more action was added, but really the film is quite close to the book. Even things I assumed were inventions of the film, like Rosa Klebb “testing” Red Grant with a brass knuckled suckerpunch to the breadbasket, occurs in the novel. But bringing it back to Kronsteen, at least the film gave him a conclusion. In the novel he appears at the opening and that’s it. This is a shame, as I found his storyline very interesting; called away while in the midst of a big chess competition but briefly ignoring the urgent summons so as to defeat his opponent.

Klebb’s job is to find an appropriate “girl” to woo Bond, and ultimately this brings us to brunette beauty Tatiana Romanova, who is given more narrative time than any of the other “Bond-girls” (as  Kingsley Amis calls them). But to tell you the truth, friends, Tatiana really got on my nerves and she was my least favorite Bondgirl yet. But this is only later, when she finally meets Bond and becomes his traveling companion. In her opening sequence she’s more tolerable, called out of her innocuous but safe existence by a summons from Klebb, who offers Tatiana the assignment (of course not telling her about that whole “killed on the Orient Express” part) – and then comes on to her. (“She looked like the oldest and ugliest whore in the world.”) Interestingly, Raymond Benson states in The James Bond Bedside Companion that Fleming’s first draft ended with Rosa asking Tatiana to have a seat beside her; in the final novel Tatiana runs away.

At this point we finally reunite with James Bond, who is performing some morning calisthenics in his apartment. It’s “nearly a year” after Diamonds Are Forever, late August, and Bond broke up with Tiffany Case in July. It’s notable we’re informed of this because it’s the first time we’ve ever been told what happened to a previous Bondgirl. Unfortunately we won’t be told what happens to Tatiana, but late in the novel Bond muses to himself what likely will happen to her upon her entry to England, and my bet is we’re to understand this is exactly what will happen to her: grilled for info in various government safehouse and then shipped off to Canada to live an anonymous life. Here we also meet Bond’s housekeeper, May, and learn a little more about the protagonist of the series, who isn’t nearly the cipher that is his filmic counterpart.

The M-Bond sequence is as enjoyable as the others, particularly M’s comment here that it’s best to stay away from “neurotic” women like Tiffany Case! His attempts to convince Bond that this situation in Turkey could be legit are also humorous. But Bond immediately disbelievies this story of a Russian code girl approaching the station man in Turkey and telling him she’s in love with James Bond and wants to leave the USSR and live with him in England, even offering a highly classified SPEKTOR cipher machine as part of the bargain.

There is a romantic flavor to the novel, one that Fleming consciously develops with his usual scene-setting and florid description. When Bond arrives in Turkey this is especially pronounced, but first we get a reminder of Bond’s fear of flying. Similar to the flying sequence in Diamonds Are Forever, Bond has a panic moment when his plane encounters severe weather, and here we learn he has a “hurricane room” within himself, to which his mind flees when danger outside of his control arises. 

Bond’s ally in Turkey is Darko Kerim, whom Kingsley Amis deemed the “most appealing” of all Bond allies in The James Bond Dossier. I would certainly agree with that, as Darko steals the show. He’s much larger than the film version of the character, taller and broader than Bond, with curly black hair, a bulbous nose, and a vagabond-esque earring. He gets all the funny lines and all the grandiose statements, but curiously Darko nearly being killed by a bomb in his office – which goes off while he’s having sex with one of his many female companions – happens off-page in the novel, and is only related via dialog.

My favorite part of the novel is Darko and Bond’s journey beneath Istanbul, through a rat and bat-infested tunnel, a sequence nearly as chill-inducing as Rambo’s crawl through the bat cave in First Blood. The hackle-raising journey has a goofy payoff: Darko reveals a periscope in the tunnel, one that provides a view into the meeting room of the Russian Embassy above. This sequence of course made it to the film, but one thing that always bugged me – admitedly after I’d seen the movie a few times and even pondered such trivialities – was why this tunnel and periscope were even there. A movie of course can just cut to the next scene and pass over real-world explanations, but a book can’t, and Darko’s explanation of the periscope answered a question I’ve had for a long time.

Action is, as you’ll note, sporadic. I felt more like I was reading a classic of literature than a spy thriller. The focus is more on suspense and character; Bond’s first view of Tatiana, through the periscope lens while she comes into the Embassy office above, is very memorable in this regard. Particularly given the strange, almost resentful looks she gets from the bigwigs there. Again Bond’s suspicions are aroused, but ultimately nothing comes of it – Bond really is caught unawares in the climax, whereas he was a little more on the ball in the film. Speaking of which, the firefight in the gypsy camp occurs here in the novel as well, and Bond shoots down two men, his first kills in the book.

Fleming is a bit more risque this time around; the novel’s sole sex scene occurs when Bond and Tatiana first meet. Per Amis’s template in The James Bond Dossier, she’s nude when she meets Bond, but Fleming adds some kinky details like a choker and stockings. We get a bit more detail on her ample charms than I recall being in the previous four novels, but nothing too extreme by today’s standards. She’s beautiful and built and all that but she still gets on my nerves; she complains about everything (“that is not kulturny” being a constant snobbish refrain) and keeps things from Bond.

The final quarter takes place on the Orient Express and here Fleming goes fullbore into romantic adventure fiction, detailing the various scenic stops on the exotic ride. As in the film this will be the last we see of Darko Kerim, and he has mostly the same exit dialog, probably one of my favorite speeches yet in the Bond series – to the effect that one might know the rules of the game he is playing, but outside forces could intervene and change the game itself. Darko’s loss is felt by the reader; he is by far the most colorful character in the novel, given to grandiose speeches and flamboyant actions.

At this point Red Grant finally returns to the narrative, in disguise as Gerald Nash. The novel diverges from the film in that Bond assumes “Nash” has been sent by M, so this means that Grant fools him entirely. Whereas the film Bond has a measure of distrust for the obnoxious Nash, thus catching him when Nash tries to drug Bond on the train, the novel Bond is caught unawares, and curses himself for a fool when Grant gets the drop on him. The fight between the two isn’t nearly as elaborate in the novel, but more brutal – Bond makes use of the knives hidden in the special suitcase Q Branch made for him, jamming one of them into Grant’s crotch! Also per Amis it’s the villains who mostly use the gadgets in the novels, and here Grant uses a gun hidden inside War And Peace, shooting Bond but hitting his metal cigarette case; Bond manages to get hold of the weapon and unloads it on Grant’s face for a gory coup de grace.

I enjoyed Bond’s confrontation with Klebb even more. It’s a bit hard to buy – Bond’s able to talk the French authorities into letting him surprise Klebb in her hotel room, having learned from Grant that she’d be there the following day at a certain time – but still very entertaining. Klebb pretends to be a harmless old woman and Bond’s somewhat uncertain if he’s really dealing with the head of SMERSH’s execution wing. It all climaxes with Klebb trying to jab Bond with poison tipped needles, and Bond’s silenced Beretta gets stuck in his pants so he has to pin the madwoman down with a chair, like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something.

The end of the novel is where it really diverges from the film: Fleming leaves Bond’s fate in question, as well as Klebb’s. She manages to cut him with a blade hidden in her shoe, and last we see of Bond he’s collapsed onto the hotel room floor. Last we see of Klebb she’s being loaded onto a stretcher and strapped down, meaning she lives and Bond, apparently, dies. Of course this wasn’t to be, as Bond would return a year later in Doctor No, which was the first Bond novel I ever read and was always one of my favorites. I look forward to re-reading it after all these years.

Speaking of which, I know I read From Russia, With Love back in the summer of ’86, when I was 11 and had been bitten by the Bond bug, but it must not’ve made much of an impression on me. I suspect I probably skimmed it at the time, considering it slow-paced, and was content to just stick with the film version, given how similar the book was. Or, sadly, I was probably more excited to read the newest John Gardner Bond novel! Well, I very much enjoyed it this time, and would say it’s the best installment of the series yet. Light on action, but heavy on atmosphere, character, and suspense – and Fleming’s writing, always excellent, seems even more refined.


Matthew said...

I remember this being one of the stronger Bond novels which are somewhat uneven. I'm unusual in that I'm more familiar with the novels than the movies.

Gary said...

My favorite Bond book!