Another Centenary

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Recognizing the incorrigible tendencies of two of TC‘s bloggers (including the one he sees in his non-Tuzun Thunian mirror), Leo has added “Tolkien” to his list of blogpost-categories (My guess is that Finn, never furry of foot though occasionally hairy of eyeball, will probably avoid the new category like a Sarin leakage site).

Another of my favorite writers, whose acquaintance I made several years before that of Tolkien (1971), or Howard (1972), just might merit a post here inasmuch as like the other two, he left the dreamlife of the 20th century very different than how he found it. Plus big doings are promised for his Centenary next year: Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on May 28, 1908.

Penguin, the current publisher of all 14 of Fleming’s Bond books, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Charlie Higson’s surprisingly successful Young Bond series (not to be confused with the Saturday morning-blighting stopgap 1991 animated series about James Bond, Jr.), is launching a Bondian imprint, Penguin 007, with its own website. Together with Ian Fleming Publications Limited, Penguin is organizing “a large programme of celebratory events that will run throughout 2008,” a centerpiece of which will be “a major exhibition featuring never-before-seen materials.” No word yet on whether annual Fleming Days will be inaugurated at Goldeneye, the author’s Jamaican hideaway, but the Centenary will also be marked by a specially commissioned one-off Bond novel, Devil May Care, by British writer Sebastian Faulks. Here’s hoping it’s way superior to Conan of Venarium, the Harry Turtledove pastiche that plopped onto bookshelves a couple of years before Howard’s Centenary and against all odds managed to be more even more unreadable and indefensible than Conan and the Spider God or the worst efforts of Steve Perry.

Is it possible that the literary Bond could be revitalized even briefly the way the cinematic Bond was by Casino Royale? Faulks, who put in 5 years of hard labor researching Victorian psychiatry, such as it was, for his novel Human Traces, is at least talking a good game: “On re-reading, I was surprised by how well the books stood up. I put this down to three things: the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero, a certain playfulness in the narrative details, and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated.” Of his own approach he confides “I developed a prose that is about 80 per cent Fleming. I didn’t go the final distance for fear of straying into pastiche, but I strictly observed his rules of chapter and sentence construction.” Of course anyone who remembers Lin Carter’s Beyond the Gates of Dream account of the prodigies of painstakingness he demanded of himself in an effort to replicate the DNA of Howard’s prose when he was assigned to turn an REH fragment into “The Hand of Nergal” will opt for salutary skepticism until Devil May Care can be field-tested, but at the very least Faulks made the right call in setting his Bond adventure in 1967, after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun and the only canon-worthy non-Fleming Bond novel, Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun: “Bond is damaged, ageing, and in a sense it is a return of the gunfighter for one last heroic mission. He has been widowed and been through a lot of bad things. . .He is slightly more vulnerable than any previous Bond but at the same time he is both gallant and highly sexed if you can be both. . .I hope that Ian Fleming would consider it to be in the cavalier spirit of his own books and therefore an acceptable addition to the line.” One of the settings will be Paris — Fleming devotees will recall the highly quotable disenchantment of Bond, by no means a Francophobe, with that city at the outset of the short story “From A View to a Kill.”

Never mind the elasticity of cine-Bond’s timeline; book-Bond belongs in the Fifties and Sixties. It isn’t so much that the Cold War is a mandatory backdrop; Fleming himself put the Soviets and SMERSH out to pasture when he introduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in Thunderball (1961). No, the key conflict is actually World War Two. Fleming’s repertory company would be sadly understaffed were it not for the Nazis and ex-Nazis who tread the boards as his villains and their henchmen time and again (most spectacularly in Moonraker, but even that Space Age relaunch of the Yellow Peril Doctor No is only half Chinese — the other half is German) But for the hackwork-Bonds of John Gardner and Raymond Benson to operate, however unconvincingly, in the Eighties and Nineties the character’s roots in the dark and bloody soil of the Second World War had to be yanked up

When Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun he enjoyed some of the same advantages that worked in KEW’s favor with The Road of Kings and Poul Anderson’s with Conan the Rebel — he was a major talent his ownself and had written perceptively about the author he was pastiching: Amis’ The James Bond Dossier (1965) is still the best, and far and away the liveliest, study of Fleming’s achievement. Whenever a REHupan of my acquaintance complains that the books are slow-moving and action-starved, I bethink me of what Amis had to say:

On my computation [Bond] shoots, throttles, stabs, buries in guano, causes to be blown out of the broken window of a high-flying aircraft, or in some other way directly encompasses the deaths of thirty-eight-and-a-half bad men: he and a barracuda share responsibility for the death of a thirty-ninth. Spread over thirteen books this is not a large figure, and Bond’s range looks restricted when we notice the seventy or so other individuals who, without his intervention, are blown up, burned in wrecked cars, eaten by piranhas, cyanided, pushed down a bobsled run without a bobsled, buried in an avalanche, chopped up in the snow-fan of an Alpine locomotive, choked with a fish, hurled into a river by the dynamiting of a railway bridge, hit on the nape of the neck with the brim of a hurled steel hat, and so on. There’s a further loss of life, difficult to compute accurately but amounting to perhaps 500 persons in all, in the battle at Fort Knox and when Drax’s atomic bomb lands among shipping in the North Sea.
The effect of this ground base of violence is partly to entertain the reader by showing him glimpses of a semi-fantasy world he might like to inhabit, but dare not. In addition, however, he is also the more likely to admire Bond as one who not only inhabits such a world by choice, but survives the worst it can do to him and comes out on top.

Those last two sentences are applicable to Conan, but I quote the passage as a whole in order to concede that Bond comes nowhere near the body-counts of, say, grim reapers like Mack Bolan (the Executioner) and Richard Camellion (the Death Merchant). But looking back on those down-market Pinnacle Books series, did any of the deaths therein turned out to be memorable? Hint: to devise memorable sendoffs, it helps to create memorable characters first. Mr. Big and Red Grant and Oddjob come to life on the page, so we remember when they come to grief. Fleming, who learned much from Hammett and especially Chandler, specialized in the action scene as short sharp shock; his set-pieces usually go on for a couple of paragraphs rather than a couple of pages. He had a gift not for beautifying the ugliness of violence, but for rendering it beautifully ugly through a reportorial selection of telling details.

I can’t revisit Dr. Shatterhand’s suicide gardens in You Only Live Twice (1964) without equating them with the horror-haunted catacombs beneath Tsotha-lanti’s Scarlet Citadel or Maal Dweb’s domicile in “The Maze of the Enchanter,” bountifully stocked with life forms straight from “some teeming and exuberant hell.” Dunno if Amis ever read CAS or Howard, but he was thinking along similar lines in The James Bond Dossier:

Blofeld’s Japanese establishment was an enchanter’s castle, one of the most elaborate and meticulous in the whole of modern fiction, and for this reason one of the most memorable. . .And perhaps we shouldn’t complain too vociferously if [Bond] defeats the wizard only by virtue of being lucky and brave and — comparatively — righteous. His mythical forebears frequently had little more on their side than that. . .In almost every book there’s a transition of milieu or mood that’s more than a simple variation of setting, an episode that, though proferred as always with the utmost verisimilitude, has no logical justification. . .[Fleming] has an odd knack of disconcerting us more than the apparent terms of his story would warrant. He does his share of pointing out that not all fantasy is wish-fulfilling; that a very nasty little bit of fantasy may be waiting just round the next corner, all ready to get itself enacted. . .

I went ellipsis-happy with that citation in the hope that condensation would demonstrate the convergence of Amis’ insight with Don Herron’s Howardian fairyland. Fleming let himself get outrageously pulpy with Bond’s death-duel with a giant squid in Dr. No, and another area of overlap might be the extent to which the conversations of Kathulos and Stephen Costigan in “Skull-Face” or, at a higher level of artistry, that of Xaltotun with Conan in The Hour of the Dragon, read like forerunners of the mock-paternal semi-monologues to which the great Fleming villains invariably subject the captured 007. Lastly, easily as much nonsense goes unchallenged about Bond (especially whenever a new film triggers arts-section thinkpieces) as it does about Conan; the misstatements that he is an “aristocratic” or “upper-class” hero, and that Fleming’s novels are devoid of humor, are maddeningly unkillable.

Anyone who might enjoy Fleming in the equivalent of a greatest hits compilation format should order the Simon Winder-edited chrestomathy ‘My Name’s Bond…’–From the Fiction of Ian Fleming (2000) from Here’s to one hundred years of Bonditude and a Centenary as successful as Howard’s, stirred rather than shaken by Sebastian Faulks’ novel and Daniel Craig’s second outing.