Jump to content


The forums are moving

Please head over to our new forums at https://quarterdeck.commanderbond.net/ as these forums will soon be converted to a read only archive.



Photo

Philip Larkin on Gardner, Fleming, and the "Batman from Blades"


  • Please log in to reply
9 replies to this topic

#1 Revelator

Revelator

    Lieutenant

  • Crew
  • PipPip
  • 572 posts
  • Location:San Francisco

Posted 13 March 2014 - 06:30 PM

Philip Larkin, the greatest English poet of the second half of the past century (and a genuine Bond fan), reviewed Licence Renewed in the June 05, 1981 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. His review is really about Fleming's legacy and he makes the case--with more eloquence and insight than anyone since--for why Bond-continuation novels can never fully succeed in recapturing the old Fleming magic.

 

The Batman from Blades

By Philip Larkin

 

John Gardner: Licence Renewed

 

    The first pseudo-Bond novel appeared in 1968, four years after Ian Fleming’s death: here, thirteen years later, is the second. At first this suggests, hearteningly, that James Bond has joined that small but select club of characters who have been brought back to life after the death of their creators simply because their readers want more of them. But thirteen years is a long time, and during it there has been ample reason to fear that Bond had floated (literally at times) out of the world of fiction into that of cinematic fantasy, which is not quite the same thing. As everyone knows, the Bond novels were an adroit blend of realism and extravagance, and both were necessary: the one helped us swallow the other. Because Sir Hugo Drax had red hair, one ear larger than the other through plastic surgery, and wore a plain gold Patek Phillipe watch with a black leather strap, we accepted that his Moonraker rocket could blow London to bits. The Bond films, on the other hand, dispensed with the realism and concentrated on the extravagance, becoming exercises in camped-up absurdity. In this way there became two Bonds, book-Bond and film-Bond, each with his own separate public. And a certain hostility arose between them: for the readers, the films were ludicrous and childish travesties; the viewers, if they had ever heard of the books, saw them simply as material to be guyed, perhaps deservedly. Since Gresham’s Law operates in the world of entertainment as well as anywhere else, it looked as if the films were winning. But here is another novel. Is book-Bond making a come-back?
    Looking at the original canon after some twenty years confirms their almost mesmeric readability. “I ask weekly at the library for another Fleming,” wrote George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis in 1957, “but they are always out”:

How bad, and at the same time compellingly readable, [his] thrillers are! The pattern of all four that I have read is identical. Bond does not attract  me, and that man with brains on ice and pitiless eye who organises the secret service in London seems to be a monument of ineptitude. Everything about Bond and his plans is known long before he arrives anywhere. But I cannot help reading on and there are rich satisfactions…

Indeed there are: the first sixty pages of Moonraker, culminating in the bafflement of grand-slammed Drax; the giant centipede in the bed in Dr. No; the meeting with “Captain Nash” on the train in From Russia With Love; all these and many more are vibrant triumphs of excitement. And the villains seem as grotesquely menacing as they ever did: Dr. No with his metal hands, Le Chiffre with his “obscene” Benzedrine inhaler, Mr. Big and his great grey football of a head. Fleming was, in short, a natural writer with a vividly bizarre imagination and mastery of tension. But what strikes one most about his books today is their unambiguous archaic decency. So far from being orgies of sex and sadism, as some outraged academics protested at the time, the books are nostalgic excursions into pre-Carnaby Street values, Gilbert and Sullivan as opposed to the Beatles. England is always rights, foreigners are always wrong (Fleming’s best villains are all foreign). Nobody, at least on our side, is a double agent, or has the remotest connection with Philby and Co. Girls are treated with kindness and consideration , lust coming a decorous third. Life’s virtues are courage and loyalty, and its good things a traditional aristocracy of powerful cars, vintage wines, exclusive clubs, the old Times, the old five-pound note, the old Player’s packet. Not for nothing did Kingsley Amis, in his affectionate, knowledgeable, and perceptive study The James Bond Dossier (1965), class Fleming with those “demi-giants of an earlier day, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle” (he might have added John Buchan):

Ian Fleming has set his stamp on the story of action and intrigue, bringing it a sense of our time, a power and a flair that will win him readers when all the protests about his supposed deficiencies have been forgotten. He leaves no heirs.

The last sentence has a double irony, for within three years Robert Markham’s Colonel Sun was published, and Markham was Amis himself. The experiment was an interesting one: Amis was both a first-rate writer and a Bond fan, and what he produced was a workmanlike job, though one reader at least blenched to find Bond drinking rosé with his cold beef, or with anything else for that matter. The local colour (Greece) was well boned up, and Amis gave the politics an original twist: Bond ends by receiving congratulations and thanks from Comrade Kosygin (shades of Rosa Klebb!). But in fact Amis could no more write a genuine Bond novel than Fleming could write a genuine Amis novel: literate pastiche and respectful avoidance of parody were no substitute for Fleming’s innate virtues. Nor was the experiment repeated: book-Bond was left in full retreat from film-Bond, the Batman from Blades.
    The choice, now, of John Gardner to reverse the situation overtops the first irony by several miles, for, talented and experienced thriller-writer though he is (and already a resurrection-man: remember the Moriarty books), he came on the scene with the Boysie Oakes series, which in his own words were meant as “an amusing counter-irritant to the excesses of 007”:

This seemed to be the way to provide an antidote to the snobby pseudo-sophistication of the Bond business. Looking back on it, that aim seems pretentious and, happily, Bond changed direction, the books becoming amusing send-ups of themselves when changed to film.

The enormity of this statement in the present context needs no underlining. For Fleming’s publishers to hand over book-Bond to a self-confessed film-Bond man is like the MCC handing over Lord’s to Mr. Packer. Despite the reassuring Chopping-style jacket of Licence Renewed, one fingers it fearfully, uncertain only as to how dreadful it is going to be.
    Fortunately Mr. Gardner is not as bad as his word, though he gets off to a stumbling start. Bond has, disastrously, moved with the times (Mr. Gardner only just avoids admitting that he must be pushing fifty). The double-O section has been abolished (though M only just avoids saying “You’ll always be OO7 to me, James”: shades of Bond Strikes Camp), and Bond drinks less, smokes cigarettes “with a tar content slightly lower than any currently available on the market”, and has abandoned the Mark II Continental Bentley for a foreign car with tear-gas ducts in all four wheels. On the other hand, May still reigns in the flat off King’s Road, the breakfast routine is unchanged, and press-ups and target practice are regularly observed.
    Bond’s adversary on this occasion is Dr. Anton Murik, who is planning to justify his own rejected Ultra-Safe (it isn’t) Reactor by causing six existing reactors to go wild by switching off their coolant systems. Murik, who is a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge and “not unlike…the late Lord Beaverbrook,” is Laird of Murcaldy in Ross and Cromarty, and is helped in his fell designs by Franco, an international terrorist, and Caber, a sort of Harry-Lauder Oddjob (“I’m still behind ye, Bond, with the wee shooter”). Bond has a wrestling-bout with Caber at the Murcaldy Games, and lays him out with a whiff of Halothane thoughtfully provided by Q Branch, but even before this has given him the Ganges Groin Gouge, a tactic seemingly in defiance of the Cumberland or Lancashire styles more likely to be observed there.
    Q Branch also provides a girl, who seduces Bond perfunctorily (“Well, James, the bed’s still there”) before the story really starts. He then rejects Murik’s mistress (“a trained physicist”) in favour of the Laird’s ward Lavender Peacock, whose face is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall and who has firm, impertinent breasts (“under the dress”) in splendid proportion to the rest of her body (since she is tall and slender, splendid disproportion might have been better). Lavender, or Dilly as she likes to be called, is actually the “wronged heiress” of Victorian fiction (Dr. Anton has fiddled the Lairdship), and holds out till page 218, when she and Bond are twice “united by passion.” Pallidly pally, as a Bond girl Lavender is a non-starter even though she does put paid to Caber at a crucial moment: she ends up by going to “one of the major agricultural colleges.”
    The action is of the Diamonds Are Forever pattern: Bond sells himself to Murik as a potential accomplice, and learns what is going on, or going to go on, at Murik Castle before being rumbled. A vain attempt to escape is followed by torture; being carted off to Perpignan, which seems to be the nerve center of Operation Meltdown, as the nuclear reactor project is called; and finally a “ring-side seat” at that event in Murik’s giant Starlifter aircraft. It all briskly enough done, without too many film-Bond absurdities, but the temperature obstinately refuses to rise. It is hard to see why. Mr. Gardner has created a simulacrum of the Bond world with none of the threatened mockery, but despite his sincere and conscientious efforts it just will not come to life.
    The obvious reason for this is that Mr. Gardner is not as good a writer as Fleming. It is not so much the small illiteracies (“ravage” for ravish, “a fine patina of flour”) or the slightly larger clichés (“Bond so far had not been able to savour the views or delight in the beauties of Scotland”), nor even the occasional echoes (Murik’s ultimatum to the world recalls Blofeld’s in Thunderball); it is simply that Mr. Gardner cannot command that compelling readability noted by Lyttelton in 1957 and yielded to by many millions since. The foiling of Operation Meltdown is stolidly achieved; the separate fate reserved for Dr. Murik has none of the satisfying ghastliness attending the demises of Dr. No and Mr. Big.
    The trouble is that to resurrect Bond you have to be Fleming, for he was his creator in a way that Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes or Billy Bunter clearly weren’t theirs. It was Fleming who smoked seventy cigarettes a day, wore dark blue Sea Island cotton shirts and loved scrambled eggs and double portions of orange juice for breakfast; Bond was a kind of döppelgänger sent out to enact what Fleming himself had never achieved (this relation is convincingly analyzed in John Pearson’s masterly Life of Ian Fleming).  The ease with which Bond appeared (Fleming, forty-three, never having written a novel before, sat down and wrote Casino Royale in eight weeks) suggests the tapping of deep imaginative springs. And the novels that succeeded them drew on the same dark source: “the next volume of my autobiography,” he would call the book currently in progress, masking his personal involvement by mocking it. Of course, the springs were not inexhaustible; by Thunderball (1961) Fleming admitted he had “run out of puff,” and his last five books are not as good as his first seven. But since they were instinct with a personality much more complex, much more imaginative than Bond’s—the personality, in short, of Fleming himself—they remain alive in a way that Colonel Sun and now Licence Renewed cannot hope to do.
    Why then persist in trying to raise book-Bond from the dead, if such efforts can never succeed? The prospect, no doubt, of making money for somebody; perhaps—the ultimate grisly irony—the necessity of providing new vehicles for film-Bond.  But one would like to think that there is also an element of homage, and a faint hoping-beyond-hope that one day the sorcery will really work, and we shall be rewarded with another unmistakable installment of the latest—perhaps the last—of the Byronic heroes.

 


Edited by Revelator, 13 March 2014 - 08:34 PM.


#2 Jim

Jim

    Commander RNVR

  • Commanding Officers
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 14266 posts
  • Location:Oxfordshire

Posted 13 March 2014 - 06:59 PM

Fascinating.

 

The others are writers. Fleming is Fleming.

 

Deep.



#3 Major Tallon

Major Tallon

    Lt. Commander

  • Veterans
  • PipPipPip
  • 2107 posts
  • Location:Mid-USA

Posted 14 March 2014 - 01:08 AM

"[A] faint hoping-beyond-hope that one day the literary sorcery will really work, and we shall be rewarded with another unmistakable installment of the latest-perhaps the last-of the Byronic heroes."

 

I can relate.  I can't count the number of times I've waited for a new Bond continuation novel with intense anticipation that this time they'll have gotten it right, only to find again that, however talented the author, however the author has been immersed in Bond's world, the book just misses. 

 

This isn't fair to the Young Bond or Moneypenny Diaries series, both of which I thoroughly enjoy, but it does, alas, set out my feelings about attempts to recreate the adult Bond.  Someday, someone will pull it off.  I keep telling myself that.  It is, after all, better to travel hopefully than to arrive.



#4 plankattack

plankattack

    Lt. Commander

  • Veterans
  • PipPipPip
  • 1385 posts

Posted 14 March 2014 - 12:18 PM

Larkin, love the man. The product of a classical education......

 

I tend to be on his side when it comes to continuation novels (I'll exempt Young Bond/Diaries as I've never felt the slightest inclination to pick them up). With the exception of Amis, who just seemed to just dive in and grab it, everyone else I think has borne the burden of Fleming shadow, never quite knowing what/how to copy, homage or leave well enough alone. It's why each effort has been a mixed bag, IMHO. It must be almost impossible deciding how to handle the heritage that you've inherited; Amis perhaps had the advantage of writing so close to the end of Fleming's work, as well as having an unquestioned self-confidence. I'm not saying Colonel Sun is a masterpiece, but it displays absolutely no ambivalence about itself.

I'm not sure the same can be said about those that have followed.



#5 glidrose

glidrose

    Lt. Commander

  • Veterans
  • PipPipPip
  • 2469 posts

Posted 14 March 2014 - 07:52 PM

"[A] faint hoping-beyond-hope that one day the literary sorcery will really work, and we shall be rewarded with another unmistakable installment of the latest-perhaps the last-of the Byronic heroes."

I can relate. I can't count the number of times I've waited for a new Bond continuation novel with intense anticipation that this time they'll have gotten it right, only to find again that, however talented the author, however the author has been immersed in Bond's world, the book just misses.


Reminds me of reading Gardner in the 1980's as each book came out. I'd think maybe he'll finally get it right this time. By Win, Lose or Die (1989) I realized he'd never get it right.
 

This isn't fair to the Young Bond or Moneypenny Diaries series, both of which I thoroughly enjoy, but it does, alas, set out my feelings about attempts to recreate the adult Bond. Someday, someone will pull it off. I keep telling myself that. It is, after all, better to travel hopefully than to arrive.


I still say Amis, Pearson and to a certain extent Wood got it right. Hell, the Harvard Lampoon parody Alligator certainly got it right.

I read somewhere the reason why so many writers have had problems replicating the Fleming feel, missing it by a country mile is 'cos of the films, you see. Any attempt to write a Bond novel and you immediately think film Bond. Further, Fleming could write about, say, a ten hour flight and infuse it with a sense of wonder. In today's world how could you write about any kind of flight and infuse with anything even resembling enthusiasm. "Bond sat in a silent rage. He had never liked air travel. The stale sandwiches, the putrid coffee. The annoying brat sitting behind him who kept kicking Bond's seat, asking his neglectful mother every thirty seconds, `Are we there yet?'. Bond was tempted to exercise his license to kill but restraint got the better of him. That and the fact that a bullet would probably depressurize the plane. While it might be a quick way out of his immediate troubles, he had England to think of. Always England. Bond grumpily bit into his mustard and ham sandwich hoping that it would improve. It did not."

#6 plankattack

plankattack

    Lt. Commander

  • Veterans
  • PipPipPip
  • 1385 posts

Posted 14 March 2014 - 11:48 PM

I read somewhere the reason why so many writers have had problems replicating the Fleming feel, missing it by a country mile is 'cos of the films, you see. Any attempt to write a Bond novel and you immediately think film Bond. Further, Fleming could write about, say, a ten hour flight and infuse it with a sense of wonder. In today's world how could you write about any kind of flight and infuse with anything even resembling enthusiasm. "Bond sat in a silent rage. He had never liked air travel. The stale sandwiches, the putrid coffee. The annoying brat sitting behind him who kept kicking Bond's seat, asking his neglectful mother every thirty seconds, `Are we there yet?'. Bond was tempted to exercise his license to kill but restraint got the better of him. That and the fact that a bullet would probably depressurize the plane. While it might be a quick way out of his immediate troubles, he had England to think of. Always England. Bond grumpily bit into his mustard and ham sandwich hoping that it would improve. It did not."


Oh I don't know Glidrose, that's not a bad stab at continuation.......

#7 Revelator

Revelator

    Lieutenant

  • Crew
  • PipPip
  • 572 posts
  • Location:San Francisco

Posted 15 March 2014 - 12:12 AM

I agree. Air travel is much less luxurious and glamorous than it was in Fleming's day. 



#8 billy007

billy007

    Sub-Lieutenant

  • Crew
  • Pip
  • 162 posts
  • Location:Delaware USA

Posted 15 March 2014 - 04:47 AM

All valid points.
I'm re-reading Pearson's 007 "autobiography" now and I stated in a previous post that I consider it an excellent continuation novel.
Alligator is worth tracking down. Yes we know it is a parody but it has a Fleming feel. Does anyone know who wrote it?

#9 glidrose

glidrose

    Lt. Commander

  • Veterans
  • PipPipPip
  • 2469 posts

Posted 15 March 2014 - 08:42 PM

All valid points.
I'm re-reading Pearson's 007 "autobiography" now and I stated in a previous post that I consider it an excellent continuation novel.
Alligator is worth tracking down. Yes we know it is a parody but it has a Fleming feel. Does anyone know who wrote it?

 

Um, yeah... Michael K. Frith and Christopher Cerf. Do shows like Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock mean anything to you?



#10 billy007

billy007

    Sub-Lieutenant

  • Crew
  • Pip
  • 162 posts
  • Location:Delaware USA

Posted 16 March 2014 - 03:34 AM

The only other recorded incident where 007 used the Smith & Wesson .38 Special




0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users