Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me: failed experiment or misunderstood classic?

As the authors of two recent introductions to the novel (Nick Stone in the Penguin edition and Douglas Kennedy for the Vintage edition) observed, The Spy Who Loved Me, first published in 1962, is anomalous. Written in first person from a woman's perspective, Ian Fleming's tenth novel hardly deserves the label of a James Bond thriller. When Bond does enter the narrative in the final third of the book, he walks into plot of a cheap crime novel featuring two hoodlums intent on fraud, violence, and murder. Yet, it is one of my favourite Bond novels. It was probably the second Bond book I read, and it was just as exciting as my first (On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

I've returned to the book several times over the years, and have never failed to be pulled in by its gripping, pulp-fiction-inspired narrative. And each reading has brought fresh insight. The latest re-reading is no exception.

Ian Fleming was avid reader of American hard-boiled crime fiction, and especially admired the works of its some of its chief exponents, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If Fleming was attempting to emulate those authors in his own work, then The Spy Who Loved Me is arguably his finest effort (Diamonds Are Forever also owes more to American detective fiction than it does spy fiction or Bulldog Drummond-style tales of derring-do). Fleming's intention seems clear enough when Bond finally appears. As the book's narrator, Vivienne Michel, observes, he is dressed in a “uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters – a dark-blue, belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down.” Later, when he introduces himself to the hoodlums, Sluggsy and Horror, Sluggsy exclaims, “This shamus is a limey dick! A gum-shoe!” In this novel, then, James Bond is less British agent, and more Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

There are other aspects of the novel that recently caught my attention. One of them was Vivienne's background. As she relates, her parents were killed in an accident (a plane crash) when she was eight, and she was subsequently brought up by her aunt. Sound familiar? Fleming gave Bond a similar back-story when he wrote Bond's obituary in You Only Live Twice (1964). If the origins of some of the ideas behind Bond's childhood lie in The Spy Who Loved Me, then this potentially gives the earlier novel enormous significance. Had Fleming never written The Spy Who Loved Me, his account of Bond's childhood might have been very different.

That is not the only possible connection between The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice. After Vivienne Michel escapes from Sluggsy and Horror, she is recaptured and is violently abused. Crawling into the kitchen of the motel, she makes herself some scrambled eggs and bacon (what else?), and slowly as the food brings warmth and nourishment, Vivienne regains her strength and desire to survive. “Love of life is born of the awareness of death, the dread of it”, she considers. Her statement seems to prefigure Bond's haiku expressed in You Only Live Twice: “You Only Live Twice / Once when you are born / And once when you look death in the face.” Both convey a similar sentiment.

Speaking of Sluggsy and Horror, it has often been claimed that while Fleming forbade the filming of his novel, a vestige of the novel survived in the character of Jaws in the film of The Spy Who Loved Me. The henchman's metal teeth seems to have been based on the steel-capped teeth worn by Horror. But I wonder whether Sandor, who appears in the film alongside Jaws, was written with reference to the description of Horror's co-conspirator, Sluggsy, who is short and hairless.

Of course, any novel or film set in an American motel cannot fail to bring to mind Alfred Hickcock's Psycho (1960), and indeed Fleming seems to have referenced the film in the novel. Vivienne ponders the criminal threats motels face, which include murderers who leave “corpses in the shower.” There is no record of Fleming watching the film, but it is possible that this sentence reflects at least an awareness of it.

The Vintage edition of The Spy Who Loved Me that I recently acquired is the fifth edition of the book I own. Comparing the editions, I noticed that there were two things missing from it. There is no co-author. The novel is by Ian Fleming only, whereas my Penguin, Triad Grafton, Book Club and Cape editions purport to be written by Ian Fleming with Vivienne Michel. The Vintage edition also lacks the short preface that begins, “The spy who loved me was called James Bond”, which reveals that Vivienne's co-author persuaded his publisher to bring out their book. Interestingly, these paragraphs are also absent in the Penguin edition, but present in preceding editions. I think it a shame that these aspects have been dropped, as they are important in setting up a conceit that justifies the style of the book.

Not that, in my view, its existence needs to be justified. The Spy Who Loved Me may be anomalous, but it is also a brave experiment, an exciting pulp-fiction crime thriller, and an important work in the development of James Bond, containing as it possibly does the origins of memes that would be expressed in later forms.

18 comments:

  1. I have to read TSWLM again because it's been a few decades. Interestingly, I tracked down a Dashiell Hammett novel twenty years ago called "Woman in the Dark" and it bears a very striking resemblance to the plot of Fleming's novel.

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    1. That's interesting about similarities with Hammett's novel. I'll have to track it down. More generally, the basic themes and structure of TSWLM correspond pretty well with classic pulp fiction of the 1950s.

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    2. Oh, most definitely. I've read everything by Hammett, Chandler, and most of the major players in the hard-boiled/noir genre and a lot of the classic pulp motifs and tropes are to be found in TSWLM.

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    3. I've just got Woman in the Dark on your recommendation, teeritz.

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  2. The basic premise of the novel - telling the story from the point of view of the Bond girl - is what makes this novel one of Fleming’s most interesting. Here we get an outside view of the Bond character, which is unique. And the fact that the story itself is pretty down to earth is why I would pick this one over more fantastic novels like Goldfinger and Dr. No. I never got why some fans dismiss this book. Fleming’s books where all based on the same structure (brilliantly analyzed by Umberto Eco) and that formula – entertaining as it is – can get a bit repetitive after a while. Therefore I like it when he experiments a little with his writing. He did it with this book and to a degree with YOLT as well (and of course the short stories).
    I have always viewed Jaws and Sandor as adaptations of Horror and Sluggsy. Their physical descriptions match (the most obvious is the metal teeth).

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    1. I completely agree - TSWLM is certainly one of Fleming's most interesting books. As for his short stories, I think they include some of Fleming's best writing. Octopussy is superb.

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  3. Definitely a misunderstood classic, and I'm glad you feel the same way. "The Spy Who Loved Me" rarely gets the attention it deserves. (There's an interesting article at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/26/when-ian-fleming-tried-to-escape-james-bond/) You do a great service in pointing out Fleming's hard-boiled influences and the possible Psycho connection.

    TSWLM shows Fleming at his most experimental and gutsiest. How many other blockbuster authors would so daringly tamper with a proven formula?
    Strange as it sounds, "The Spy Who Loved Me" might the most feminist of the Bond novels (if there can be such a thing). Ann S. Boyd (in "The Devil with James Bond!") called it "a devastating parody of the misuse and manipulation of sex"--the misuse and manipulation are entirely at the hands of hypocritical and callous men. The only truly good man Vivienne meets is Bond, an eternally unattainable figure. Fleming implies that the only good man is a fantasy one.

    The key passage is the grim scene of Vivienne losing her virginity in a movie theatre. This was based on Fleming's own experience, but--in a startlingly sympathetic reversal--portrayed from his partner's point of view. The reader keenly feels Vivienne's humiliation and Derek, an authorial self-portrait, is portrayed as a callow cad. Fleming not only viewed Bond "from the wrong end of the telescope," he viewed himself. Perhaps he was hurt by TSWLM's reception because the book was personal to him.

    Male reviewers displayed true misogyny in dismissing Vivienne as an "upper-class tramp", but TSWLM had a better reception from female critics. Esther Howard in "The Spectator" wrote that “except for some early sex in England (rather well done, this) only just as nasty as is needed to show how absolutely thrilling it is for… the narrator to be rescued from both death and worse...by a he-man like James Bond. Myself, I like the Daphne du Maurier touch and prefer it this way but I doubt his real fans will.”

    Fleming doesn't get enough credit for his "literary tranvestism"--he convincingly writes in a female voice and revels in his feminine side (the fanciful, coy side that loves shampoos, exclamation marks and melodramatic pronouncements). But that notorious line about "semi-rape" rudely breaks the illusion and gives critics a reason to dismiss thousands of convincing sentences because of one bad one. Why Fleming chose to include it is a mystery. What woman would think such a thing? The error glares in light of because of Fleming's prior success in establishing a female voice.

    TSWLM also shows Fleming’s complicated, ambivalent attitude toward his creation. In "Casino Royale" Fleming intended Bond to be a cold, blunt instrument, but as the series progressed he inadvertently fleshed Bond out, making him more heroic, attractive and human. Fleming wrote that in TSWLM he tried to deglamorize Bond, making him less heroic and attractive.
    He does so by having Bond's identity shift in the eyes of Vivienne (and the reader). When Viv first sees Bond, she assumes he's another gangster. She's later charmed by him, though his spy glamour suffers when he makes mistakes during the hotel battle. After Bond has slept with her and left, a fatherly policeman warns Vivienne to see Bond for what he really is--a cold-hearted secret policeman who is not much different from the criminals he fights. But this is immediately undermined by her knowledge that Bond is the only man who treated her with true affection and understanding. That is the chivalrous character Bond grew into. And so the tension between the idea of Bond as a blunt instrument and as a romantic figure remains unresolved. Writing as a woman in first person allowed Fleming to grapple with the problem of no longer knowing what to make of the monster he'd created.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. Really enjoyed reading them. I think you answer the question of my title better than I did! And I couldn't agree more. Easily dismissed and little appreciated, the book is certainly a more interesting and rewarding novel than critics and popular opinion allow.

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  4. It is definitely not a failure, let's get that out of the way, and I'm glad that those here seem to be in agreement on that count.

    Fleming seemed to want to challenge himself from time to time in the course of this series, or had challenges in coming up with full-length novels on an annual basis.

    TSWLM seems to be a challenge to himself, to look at Bond from a different angle, to try out a different type of story and style of writing while still being able to sell it as "A James Bond Thriller."

    He succeeds. As someone living in the northeastern United States, not too far from where much of the action takes places, it's always been enjoyable to read Fleming's faithful descriptions of the area and the people of this time and place. While the story itself is on a much lower scale than the villains of SPECTRE and SMERSH, they're terrifying nonetheless.

    And Bond is still Bond.

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  5. Very well written and interesting piece as always, Edward. I agree that TSWLM is a brilliant experiment from Fleming. I too would like to write an in-depth piece on my blog one day, especially looking at the influences on TSWLM and why it is so important to have it in the Bond canon. And yes, it is real shame that details were cut from the later editions, along with the footnotes found in the older Pan paperback editions.

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    1. Intrigued by the footnotes in the Pan editions. What do these say? They don't seem to be included in the Triad Grafton edition, whose typsescript followed the Pan editions very closely.

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  6. Oh, well there were just footnotes in the Pan 1960s paperback editions of LALD and MR - where Fleming had references to the novels that went before there were footnotes that said these previous Bond novels were available for so many shillings from Pan.

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    1. Ah yes, those footnotes. And then there are the footnotes in the early US paparback editions of CR and Moonraker.

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  7. What did those footnotes say, Edward?

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    1. Not sure about CR, but the footnote in Moonraker (the Too Hot to Handle edition) states, 'The English £ is equivalent to approximately $2.80.' This was with reference to Bond's salary of £1500 a year.

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  8. Oh, I see. Very interesting to note that. I don't have the US version of Moonraker I don't think, though I do have some of the others and there are rather substantial differences between some of them.

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  9. It's a great book. But one theory I have about it is that this is the book where Fleming intended to kill off Bond. During the fight he basically tells Viv good-bye with such finality that I don't think he expected to survive, and to have Viv report the death of Bond certainly could have made Holmes' own demise, also reported by another party, an inspiration. But Bond does survive. Perhaps Fleming changed his mind by the end, but it's all speculation. Fleming was quoted as saying he was getting tired of 007 however, and wanted to kill him off.

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    1. It's an idea at that (as Sylvia Trench would say). Well, certainly the novel shows that Fleming sought to break out of the literary straightjacket he found himself in. And of course he'd tried to kill Bond off before in FRWL (and in a way tried it again at the end of YOLT). Luckily for us, though, the break between novels was enough to charge Fleming's creative juices again, allowing him to keep writing. It's interesting, though. If Viv had reported Bond's death, I would like to have seen what trick Fleming pulled off to bring Bond back to life.

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