Sunday, 10 October 2010

James Bond PI: the American origins of 007. Part 1

The admixture in Ian Fleming’s novels of exotic consumption, available women and violence was famously dismissed by Paul Johnson in 1958 as ‘sex, sadism and snobbery’; Johnson saw Fleming instilling in Bond the characteristics of a schoolboy bully, a frustrated adolescent and suburban snob. Johnson admitted that these three ingredients were expertly crafted, but this was at the expense of plot and structure, which were ‘incoherent’ and ‘haphazard’. Fleming was, in Johnson’s view, a typically English writer whose writing was somewhat unhealthy and a product of his own Establishment background; Bond, a ex-Royal Naval commander and regular visitor to Blades, a London club, and exclusive French casinos, was no more than a fantastic, and rather nasty, projection of Fleming himself.

The problem that the critics faced was that they were comparing Bond with other English literary heroes, and found that Bond did not fit the mould. The differences between Bond and the standard clubman do-gooder were difficult to reconcile, and the solution for the critic was to dismiss Bond as the horrible little brother of Bulldog Drummond and the stories themselves as offering no more than fleeting escapism. This was to miss the point of Fleming’s creation; any comparison of Bulldog Drummond and Bond would have revealed that the two characters were cut from very different cloths.

It has been pointed out that Ian Fleming read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond adventures as a child and was enormously fond of them; the exploits of the daring army captain fresh from the Great War and those of others, such as Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda, provided the young Fleming with a release from the unpleasantness of life at Durnford School, which he attended from 1917 at around the age of nine. While some aspects of those stories – the sense of adventure, moral purpose, and not a little wartime spirit – may have found their way into Fleming’s novels, there was no direct transference of their form or characters. Put simply, Bond was no Drummond. In the first of his adventures, Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond, bored and restless at the end of the First World War, seeks adventure, possibly of a criminal nature. He accepts the plea of a pretty young woman to extricate her from marriage to an overbearing bully of a man and finds himself against master-criminal Carl Peterson and foiling a plot that threatens the very existence of England. Drummond tackles the villains with a cheerful recklessness armed occasionally with a gun, but mainly just his fists, and is helped by his ex-army batman James Denny, and a network of officer-friends, who leap into action like a over-enthusiastic pack of bounding labradors.

For Fleming, the lantern-jawed, stoical Bulldog Drummond types came from an imaginary past that lacked credibility and resonance: ‘I felt these types could no longer exist in literature’. Drummond is a thrill-seeker who pursues danger for its own sake; relying on his own resources and presumably substantial funds. His actions are framed by an unwritten gentlemanly code, and he tackles Peterson and his evil machine with the sportsman’s determination to play fair. This is an important point: the motif of a game or sport runs throughout the first novel. Drummond admired ‘a good sport’, and relishes the serious game. ‘The game has begun’, he remarks to his sidekick Denny, and, to keep them from danger, he tells his friends ahead of the final showdown with Peterson that there’s no call on them to remain in the game. He is even a member of the Junior Sports Club, where most of his friends reside.

Fleming rejects this utterly. Fantastical, certainly, but his novels are grounded in a reality that Sapper’s lacks. In Casino Royale, perhaps with his childhood reading in mind, Fleming has Bond recall that in school it was easy ‘to pick out one’s heroes and villains’, but in the real world the divisions were blurred. Killing was a necessary part of his job, but it could be messy and unpleasant where gentlemanly rules did not apply. Prompted by the words of Le Chiffre to reflect on the nature of his job, Bond considers whether is playing ‘Red Indians’. He does not like this thought – he takes no comfort from a description that recalls Drummond’s sporting metaphors – and by the end of his adventure, he has awakened to the dirty consequences of cold war espionage – evasion, killing, and betrayal. The end of Casino Royale marks a transition for Bond from wartime thrill-seeker to cold war killer, and in detailing this, Fleming severs any romantic connections Bond’s job might have had with Drummond-style escapades.

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