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"James Bond, Author: The writer Ian Fleming invented" (Spectator)

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#1 Revelator



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Posted 17 December 2013 - 12:10 AM

Here's a nice surprise--an article by someone who definitely knows his Fleming. The article was published in the Dec.14 issue of The Spectator. I'm unfamiliar with the author but I hope we hear more from him. Without further ado:


James Bond, author: The writer Ian Fleming invented, and his literary influences
By Matthew Woodcock

There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.

It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?

Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.

The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.

One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.

Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.

None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.

It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.

Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!


This is a refreshing article, since ninety-five percent of everything written about Fleming in the mainstream press is ignorant, reliant on wrong-headed generalizations, and interested only in quote-mining. Mr. Woodcock's article is the exact opposite, and handy rebuttal to those who think Bond is a philistine (and to the Solo reviewer who thought Fleming's Bond would never read Graham Greene).


Bond's literary tastes are really Fleming's. He was a fan and friend of Raymond Chandler (and later used information learned from Chandler in Goldfinger). He was also a devotee of Stout's work and semi-seriously proposed a Nero Wolfe-James Bond crossover. Lastly, Fleming also liked and admired Ambler, who spoke warmly of Fleming and anthologized "From a View to a Kill" in his anthology To Catch a Spy.

Though Yates, Buchan, and Sapper must have influenced Fleming, he listed his chief influences as being E. Phillips Oppenheim (the now forgotten "prince of storytellers"), Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu is a clear forerunner of Dr. No), Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett (which accounts for the Bond books having their peculiar blend of classic British thriller tropes and hardboiled sex and violence). Jeremy Duns has also made a good case that Dennis Wheately was a strong influence.

It was a definite pity that Fleming didn't live long enough for Bond to finish "Stay Alive!" Perhaps a future Bond film will make use of the idea. The screenwriters could easily work in a scene where Bond mentions that he's writing a book but withholds revealing the content and title until the end. By then the audience, eagerly wondering if Bond has written a novel or memoir, might get a chuckle from realizing that Bond has actually written a combat manual.

Edited by Revelator, 17 December 2013 - 12:23 AM.

#2 Major Tallon

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Posted 17 December 2013 - 01:22 AM

Excellent, Revelator, well done!  An enjoyable article, and I appreciate your additional comments.

#3 billy007



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Posted 17 December 2013 - 05:49 AM

If Honor Blackman could write a book on self-defense why can't Daniel Craig?
Didn't Bob Simmons write a stunt manual?

#4 Jim


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Posted 17 December 2013 - 06:13 AM

Tremendous article.

#5 Dustin



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Posted 17 December 2013 - 07:01 AM

Great article, fine work. Though I wonder if STAY ALIVE, had Bond finished it, would ever have found its way out of the small Secret Service library for which it was intended. 'Publishing' it was not actually in the cards, I suppose. But perhaps one would be able to read it online today alongside GET TOUGH, that other Unarmed Combat manual on which premise Bond's anthology obviously was based.

Re Ambler, I like to think Bond would have sympathised with the likes of Kenton, Graham, Vadassy, all ordinary characters who only by the strange twists of fate end up in the world of espionage and would have lead entirely different lives, were it not for happenstance and blind - or bad - luck. To me Bond himself never is entirely the 100 per cent professional he's introduced as in the first chapter of CASINO ROYALE, so he might relate to those outsiders of his world and their reaction to it, a mix of curiosity, fascination and repulsion.

Edited by Dustin, 17 December 2013 - 07:03 AM.

#6 ggl



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Posted 17 December 2013 - 01:47 PM

Thanks, Revelator. Really good and interesting article.


Actually, that quote from DAF was one of the reasons I started this thread: http://debrief.comma...s/#entry1272590


Another reason could be to explain what the article tries to do: that Ian Fleming was a really interesting reader and, obviously, that should and is reflected on his work.

#7 JamesBondBlog



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Posted 21 January 2014 - 10:04 PM

Outstanding. Thanks for posting this.