Tuesday, 16 January 2018

On re-reading Live and Let Die

Christmas brought me the set of three Bond novels – Casino Royale, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die – published by Vintage Classics. The last I was particularly keen on reading. Not only does it have an excellent introduction by John Cork (as do they all), but the edition comprised a never-before published version of the text.



As the introductory note to the text states, the Vintage Classics edition is a combination of the standard UK edition and the US edition. Fleming’s original American publisher, Macmillan, made several changes to the UK edition, with Fleming’s approval, mainly relating to the American scenes, descriptions and language. For this Vintage Classics edition, the two original editions were compared and combined, and what could be described as a definitive edition has been produced.

The most obvious difference between this edition and the UK edition is that chapter 5, perhaps the most problematic part of the book (to say the least), is shorn of the lengthy conversation at Sugar Ray’s between a black couple that Bond and Leiter listen into. The chapter is also given its US title, Seventh Avenue. Along with other, smaller, changes, this gives the book a fresh, pacier, feel, and makes the reading experience very much less uncomfortable. 

Some other thoughts came to mind as I was reading the book. Superficially, the film version of the book diverges significantly from the book, but a surprising amount of the book survives to lesser or greater extents in the film. Bloody Morgan’s treasure is replaced by drugs, but the book’s essential plot elements – voodoo, the Harlem setting, the train journey, Mr Big’s cave and his network of agents, Bond’s capture, the disappearing table in the bar, sharks, the mine that destroys Mr Big’s operation, Solitaire and Bond being tied up together at the denouement of the book, and so on – are also on the screen. Some of these elements were, of course, picked up again and filmed more faithfully for For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill, but there’s more of the book in the film than one may think. 

I was reminded of some of the quite ordinary things Bond does in this novel. Eating cornflakes is one. Catching a bus is another. It’s almost impossible to imagine Bond waiting at the bus stop, boarding the bus, fiddling with change, buying a ticket, looking for a spare seat, and keeping an eye on the stops. Would any continuation Bond novelist dare have Bond catch a bus? Probably not, and if they did, they’d risk writing a parody in a similar vein to Sebastian Faulks’ piece in his Pistache volume that describes Bond in a supermarket. The episode is reminder that Fleming could make even the most ordinary acts sophisticated and exciting (the New York setting helps), and that he created a hero that his readers could relate to. Bond may not quite be one of us, but he’s far from the upper-class, ‘clubland’ hero of the earlier 20th century. I wouldn’t mind betting that Fleming took the same bus journey. There is a bus ride in the film version, but the use of the bus is far from being of an ordinary nature. 

It is worth noting, too, that Live and Let Die contains the first use in a Bond book of the phrase, ‘all the time in the world’. Bond tells Solitaire, ‘When the time comes I want to be alone with you, with all the time in the world.’ Fleming was evidently much taken with the phrase. It’s not only used in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, appearing in the final chapter and serving as that chapter’s title, but is used twice in Diamonds are Forever: ‘But now there was all the time in the world’, and ‘Bond suddenly felt they had all the time in the world.’ So associated is the phrase with Bond that it would be my choice for the title of the next Bond film, although the fact that it has already been used in a film title – being the sub-title to Spy Kids 4 – might rule its use out.

A final point to make is that the Soviet connection in Live and Let Die seems very weak. As John Cork points out, at no point does Mr Big spout Soviet ideology, nor does he mention the Soviets in respect of his operations. Indeed, the Soviet angle is barely mentioned again after M’s briefing. One wonders why Mr Big would need the Soviets at all. His operation is self-financing, and he’s in control of a business and crime empire. Ian Fleming could be considered as much a crime fiction writer as a spy fiction writer, and Live and Let Die certainly joins Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger, The Spy who Loved Me, and the short story 'Risico' in the crime category.

Are any more Vintage Classics editions of the Bond novels planned? I hope so!

5 comments:

  1. I'm very skeptical about Vintage's claim that Fleming “likely preferred many of these edits to the original British version.” If Fleming preferred the American edits, why didn't he incorporate them into the British versions? He had many opportunities to do so, especially after the books became best-sellers.

    It’s clear that Fleming was eager to break into the American market and agreed to any edits suggested by American editors. That’s why the first American paperback edition of Casino Royale was retitled You Asked For It, and Moonraker was christened Too Hot to Handle. Fleming approved of those changes too.

    In any case, Fleming’s letters suggest that he did NOT prefer the American edits. For example, there’s the letter sent to his American literary agent Naomi Burton in May 1955 (quoted in Chapter 19 of Pearson's biography):

    “By the way and sucks to you, I had a drink with Raymond Chandler last night and he said that the best bit of Live and Let Die was the conversation between the two negroes in Harlem, which he said was dead accurate. Perhaps you remember that you nearly sneered me into cutting it out on grounds that ‘Negroes don't talk like that.’”

    Chandler's copy of LALD came directly from Fleming, and thus was the British version. The American edition was published in April, so perhaps Fleming either forgot or didn’t know the conversation had been cut. In any case, the letter makes clear that Fleming was proud of the scene and suggests he preferred the original British version.

    To further the case of the prosecution, notice Vintage’s statement about the British and American text incorporating "one minor factual correction (regarding the manufacturer of a brand of perfume)." This refers to a line from chapter 11 that now reads: "Solitaire called for him. The room smelled of Balmain's Vent Vert."

    Fleming originally wrote "Dior's Vent Vert" and was embarrassed by this error, as a letter of his demonstrates: "Alas, attributing Vent Vert to Dior [as opposed to Balmain] was nearly as bad as when, in one of my books, I made Bond eat asparagus with sauce bearnaise instead of mousseline."

    So this correction to Live and Let Die was definitely requested by Fleming, and it raises the question--if Fleming requested this change in the British edition, why didn't he request the American racial edits as well, if he supposedly preferred them? Given the opportunity to make those edits, Fleming only chose to correct his perfume mistake.

    I agree that the title of chapter 5 and the conversation at Sugar Ray’s now make uncomfortable reading (though Bond’s comment “Seems they're interested in much the same things as everyone else” actually denies racial differences) but the time for censoring them passed long ago, when Fleming allowed the British edition to stay as it was, aside from the perfume correction.

    In America the censored text was the only available one until the Penguin editions arrived in the early 2000s. It’s now the dominant text here, so Vintage’s retroactive censorship makes even less sense, especially since there’s no evidence that Fleming preferred the American text. What Vintage has created is certainly not a “definitive edition.” It has taken advantage of edits Fleming accepted in a foreign market to bowdlerize the novel and has cooked up a spurious justification for doing so.

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    1. Hi,
      You ask a very good question when you write, "If Fleming preferred the American edits, why didn't he incorporate them into the British versions?"
      We don't know that answer, but we do know that Fleming did absolutely prefer "many" of Al Hart's corrections to the British text.
      Fleming, for example, did not want technical errors in his writing. Thus, Bond stays in the penthouse in room 2000 in the American edition rather than 2100 at the St. Regis in the British edition. In that hallowed UK edition, Felix Leiter tells Bond never to say "taxi," which was in far more common usage in New York at the time than Fleming realized. Fleming was also mystified that he had gotten the colors of the trains wrong. He also liked that Al Hart had corrected other technical details on train, geography, and food.
      Fleming's response to these factual corrections was gratitude. So why didn't he demand the inclusion of these agreed-upon technical changes to the British text? Why did he alert Cape, Macmillan and Pan to the singular correction of the brand of perfume rather than some of the other corrections?
      We cannot reasonably refer to edits approved by the author as "censorship." Writers work with editors. Both editions are legitimate as they represent Flemings' text published during Fleming's lifetime. Fleming allowed both the American and the British editions to stay as they were for nine years, during which time his stature as an author grew by leaps and bounds, and as noted, he was able to insert a change into both editions. So in either case, he had the chance to revise, but he seems to have been content to let both editions stand side by side.
      That leaves the question: did he prefer one to the other?
      In a way, the evidence suggests that whether or not he preferred them, he certainly acknowledged the reality the edits or racially insensitive language represented in Diamonds Are Forever. Diamonds was written in 1955 just before the US hardback publication of Live and Let Die, and shortly after Fleming had dealt with Al Hart's suggested edits. In DAF, Fleming wrote:
      'Bond had a natural affection for coloured people, but he reflected how lucky England was compared with America where you had to live with the colour problem from your schooldays up. He smiled as he remembered something Felix Leiter had said to him on their last assignment together in America. Bond had referred to Mr Big, the famous Harlem criminal, as'that damned nigger'. Leiter had picked him up. "Careful now, James," he had said. "People are so dam' sensitive about colour around here that you can't even ask a barman for a jigger of rum. You have to ask for a jegro."' Not a great joke, but a way to say to his readers, hey, I realize this is a very sensitive topic, and I won't be so careless in the future.
      That passage is the last time Fleming ever used "the n-word" in a Bond novel or short story, British or American editions, to refer to a person. That is evidence in and of itself that the edits to the US edition of Live and Let Die were warranted and, even if reluctantly, embraced by Fleming.
      The American edition was legitimate when Fleming authorized it and approved of each and every suggested edit, just as the original British edition remains legitimate today. Whether you read Live and Let Die with Vent Vert attributed to Balmain or to Dior, you are still reading a novel where every word is Fleming's approved text.

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  2. Thanks for your comments. You make a good case for the defence (of the original LALD). And I wouldn't swap the first edition for anything, definitive or not.

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    1. Not that I have a first edition, I should add!

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