Friday, 23 October 2015

The Man with the Golden Typewriter: some thoughts about the letters of Ian Fleming

I've just finished reading The Man with the Golden Typewriter, the volume of Ian Fleming's James Bond-related letters edited by his nephew, Fergus Fleming, and published by Bloomsbury. It's a wonderful read, and no fan of the Bond novels should be without a copy.

The volume includes correspondence that is likely to be familiar to aficionados, for example the exchanges between Ian Fleming and gun-enthusiast Geoffrey Boothroyd about Bond's armoury, and Fleming's letters to the wife of the real James Bond, the ornithologist whose name Fleming borrowed. Even these, however, include previously unseen material.

Much of the volume is taken up with Fleming's responses to the comments of his readers at Jonathan Cape – principally William Plomer, Daniel George and Michael Howard (Howard was initially lukewarm about publishing Casino Royale, but became a devotee of Bond's adventures) – which followed Fleming's submissions of the first drafts of his novels. Then there are Fleming's good-natured (and at times weary) replies to members of the public, who'd write triumphantly about errors they'd spotted.

Three aspects in the book fascinated me in particular. One concerns Fleming's celebrated writing style, which, as the letters reveal, developed over a number of novels with the help of Cape's readers. For example, in one letter to Fleming about the manuscript of From Russia, with Love, Daniel George pointed out the number of sentences beginning 'there was' or 'there were', and reminded Fleming of the excessive ands and buts and other conjunctions that resulted in long sentences. Comments such as these helped to tighten Fleming's writing and hone his style.

Another intriguing aspect were the ideas mentioned in correspondence that would eventually appear in some form in the Bond books. For example, in a letter written in 1954 to Somerset Maugham in which Fleming describes out-sized posters featuring Maugham as part of a Sunday Times promotion, Fleming imagined Maugham emerging from the lips of Maugham's own image. Fleming remembered and used the idea when he came to write From Russia, with Love (1957).

Similarly, in one of his letters to Fleming written in 1956, Geoffrey Boothroyd happened to mention some experience of archery. Fleming was intrigued, and asked Boothroyd who he (Fleming) might be able to approach for advice about technical aspects of archery. In the short story 'For Your Eyes Only', published in book form in 1960, the heroine Judy Havelock's weapon of choice is a crossbow.

Finally, something I hadn't appreciated before reading Fergus Fleming's volume was that Ian Fleming was responsible for writing the blurb that adorned the dustjackets of his novels. I had assumed it was someone on the staff of Jonathan Cape who wrote the text, but as the letters make clear, the blurb was usually Fleming's own words. For instance, evidently asked to amend his blurb for Thunderball, Fleming wrote to Michael Howard to say he didn't think his re-write was a great improvement. And in a letter to Anthony Colwell, also at Cape, Fleming admitted a spelling mistake in his blurb for The Spy who Loved Me.

The fact that Fleming wrote the blurb for his novels means that the Cape – and the Book Club editions, which carried the same blurb – have slightly more of Fleming's writing than any subsequent editions.

Fergus Fleming's The Man with the Golden Typewriter is a superb collection that complements Mark Amory's volume of Ann Fleming's letters, and joins Jon Gilbert's Ian Fleming: The Bibliography and Andrew Lycett's Fleming biography as an essential work of Fleming reference. The only question is, why have we had to wait so long for it?

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