A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
In an act of stool-loosening snobbery, in 1957 Ian Fleming wrote a financial-suicide note to CBS.
“In hard covers my books are written for and appeal principally to an “A” readership, but they have all been reprinted in paperbacks, both in England and in America and it appears that the “B” and “C” classes find them equally readable, although one might have thought that the sophistication of the background and detail would be outside their experience and in part incomprehensible.”
A modest missive, amusingly provocative in using the letters ABC when writing to a competitor, and a curious proposition when “the background and detail” of Live and Let Die I would suggest is beyond anyone’s experience, unless they’ve eaten too much cheese before beddy-bye. Slightly thick – a.k.a. “C” – letter to write to a maker of television, that most plebian of media, even if hindsight rewards him with Eon Productions hoving into view. It’s unclear why he considered Bs and Cs incapable of tackling hardback books, unless he feared their using them as trays from which to eat their gristleslop whilst… watching television.
Perhaps I’m being literal rather than literary. Insofar as the 007th chapters so far have slipped us this Class A drug, it’s been roulette, fancy drinks, very wild gambling, very mild spycraft, intensity of sensual experience, nice blond American lads, telepathic lovelies and exaggeration heaped on exaggeration, so even using those as a rough shapshot of what he asserts, his claim has potential.
The 007th chapter of Moonraker renders it unarguably true.
I’ve never played Bridge. Nor have I looked up how to. No, tell a lie; in shoving this rot together I browsed Wikipedia’s explanation but couldn’t grasp the rules, much like Rugby Union or An Argument with Mrs Jim. Like those, it is “in part, incomprehensible”. Must be getting C-nile. This absence of experience isn’t “not wanting” to know; it’s not needing to. Trepidation, though, when it dawned on me that the game of Bridge against Sir Hugo Drax would feature in this experiment in modelling an exemplar Bond novel. Not in the nature of what occurs: Bond bests the villain at his own crooked game, and as this happens in several others – Goldfinger, Zero Minus Ten, Devil May Care to name a few – it establishes itself as an ingredient as habitual as those suggested by the previous two 007th chapters. It’s just that I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on. Accordingly, this piece could bear witness to the stultifyingly under-informed (hello) commenting upon a matter about which they’re shamelessly inarticulate. Perhaps no change there, then (ooh, you bitch), but with particular reference to my relationship with Bridge, think Fox News and European politics, Piers Morgan and American politics, or internet message boards and both. It appears to involve carrrddds. Well, turbo-Yay with double cream, I s’pose.
Without suggesting it of everyone, I suspect I’m not alone, either at the time or now, in feeling shut out by the Bridge game. It’s something of a dilemma: do I want Ian Fleming to explain every detail to me, to indulge my All C-ing Eye, in the same way as – say – Mr Benson’s High Time to Kill explains the very, very (very)basics of golf? Or am I happy enough to accept that Fleming is writing for those in the know and, for the rest of us grubby saps, he renders whatever-the-Hell-it-is terribly exciting, pounding along to an ending one may or may not understand. You there, you Bs and Cs, stand straight when I’m addressing you; just do try to keep up, yes? You run along at Fleming’s pace, understood?
Contemplating the quote at the head of this nonsense once more, perhaps there is more humility than first appears. The reason the Bs and Cs buy your stuff, Ian old freckle, is because you convey it with such impact. He’ll write it with efficient momentum so you don’t drop off, a terribly underrated skill of his given that one reaches the end of the chapter excited but without knowing why, but he’s not going to pander to your baser lives by stopping to explain it as if you were a child, or a woman. The pains taken to explain Baccarat in Casino Royale is through the narrative device of Vesper Lynd not knowing the game; all the players in the Moonraker situation are familiar with how to play, so it would be artificial to pause and narrate the rule-book. You just get sadistic teases of comprehension now and again but suddenly, it’s gone, once more out of your brain’s yearning grasp, leaving you chasing the words, chasing the game until, your senses captured, you reach the climax, exhausted, a bit sweaty and cross-eyed and gleeful. [Dubious sexual metaphor – here]. Aspiration by alienation, colossal snobbery against his reader.
Alternatively, what Bond does might be technically impossible so Fleming hasn’t given the full detail because there isn’t any and he was too bored to make it work. I prefer the first theory, largely because it feeds the next one.
Which is: the chapter is not about Bridge. It’s is a gaudy display of humungous snobbery in “club”land, the sort of ferocious clubbing requiring a blunt instrument (guess who). The whisky and soda drops when the ugly, buck-toothed truth dawns: there is no credible evidence whatsoever of Drax’s cheating. I know he admits it later when ranting himself into ridicule as the world’s first openly Communist Nazi, but blinded by hindsight, or absence of foresight not to read that bit lest it undermine my point, the evidence present at the time of the game itself is lissomely thin. Bond swallows it because M instructs him Drax is a cheat; his blessed club is “suspicious” – woo-hoo – and, since Bond isn’t the freest of thinkers, he’s primed as a weapon by these scions of society to simply look for the worst in Drax. Bond, telling M precisely what M wants to hear, is rarely more manipulated by his masters, than here. The silver cigarette-case is suspicious, but it’s circumstantial not conclusive: there’s still no direct evidence, and the key prosecution witness is a corrupted man primed to believe the worst, a loaded gun with a history of substance abuse who then proceeds to get off his noddle on Benzedrine and non-vintage champagne. It doesn’t promise watertight reliability or safety of the conviction. Particularly the non-vintage champagne bit.
The protracted preparation for tearing Drax apart satisfies two of the frequent criticisms of Fleming’s work: snobbery and sadism. The third, sex, is absent, unless the “Hugger” stuff is leading somewhere. The ruthless old bastards of Blades have decided they don’t like Drax – he may have amused at first, but now they’re tired of the noisy oaf who is not one of their own but happens to be better than them, the rampage of New Money right through their ostensible standards; he had the temerity to approach The Queen, damn the man – and they are going to unleash their pet yobbo to destroy him. Excusing the carrrddds pun, these are trumped-up charges. Devil May Care comes in for criticism for having M inflict Bond on Dr Gorner on flimsy grounds; this is not markedly different. Mr Faulks may have been writing more “as” Ian Fleming than one immediately thought.
Bond is simply (blunt) instrumental in the takedown. They don’t sully their own hands; unleash the prole. You there, Shouty Ginge, we’re going to get you. You and your little Jewish chum, Meyer. All of this, this is our game sunshine, our world, and we’re not going to allow you in. We’re going to Grand Slam the door behind Drax, sending him straight back to “the Liverpool docks, or wherever he came from”. If I were treated like this, I’d be tempted to plunge a nuke right down their wobbly gullets, too. It’s a shame that Drax does turn out to be just another loony Russian/Nazi/wha’evah. He’s much more interesting as a victim of class snobbery and the school and social bullying meted out by the “good guys”. Is Fleming deftly slipping us this card, whilst on the surface giving us all a jolly good laugh at the demento-Kraut? I do wonder how much of Drax’s revelatory tirade against the English isn’t echt Fleming-Think (the sentiments have to come from somewhere), forcing his hand into making the villain completely mad by the end lest the author’s mockery of his milieu be too easily spotted, resulting in his lovely clubbing chums never letting him back in, either. Vivid though the eventual wartime backstory is, would Drax have been any less colourful a villain if there wasn’t any of the madness about his personality change, he was indeed an Englishman after all and it had been purely the lifetime of snooty bullying that had driven him to it, class war rather than a cold one? If not persuaded, can’t I tempt you into evaluating this argument by dangling that we’d have been spared Die Another Day, that way?
The irony of Drax’s observations about requiring the “façade” of a gentleman is punched home in this 007th chapter: for all of them, it’s façade. There’s no such thing as a gentleman. Avoiding public exposure of suspected cheating is not to protect Drax, about whom they care not one damn, but to protect their own reputations. They cover up the abhorrent villainy at the end, too, for the same reason. Bond is the dispensable hired help for both. These are not nice persons. The gentility of the surroundings masks utter cruelty, a quiet brutality. It’s time to scrape the pooh from the shoe, and we’ve got just the right pliant stooge to do it for us. No, he’s not a member. Lord, no. Should it go wrong we can deny him, just as we would were he caught by a foreign government.
“Useless, idle, decadent fools, hiding beneath your bloody white cliffs while other people fight your battles”. Ian Fleming Sir Hugo Drax.
No-one appears to complain that the people and the rituals of the society on show here look as inherently savage or as open to ridicule as anything written of the” Negro” world in Live and Let Die. This may be because Fleming’s motives are different, I’ve read far too much into it and he isn’t seeking to expose in the manner suggested above. However, so blunt and punchy does the writing get towards the end of this 007th chapter, plain evidence of an intention to depict this ostensibly genteel game as having the violent impact of a gunfought duel, the quickness of the hand in drawing the weapons – it’s only a short hop from that to contemplating the merciless conspiracy against Drax, however many chandeliers and lamb cutlets one flings about. The later business with the rocket etc., this lot just bring upon themselves. They really are their own worst enemy. Well, apart from the whacked-out loon with the moustache fetish, “obv”.
And if you think I’m doing a “Bond made this rubber (fnarr) too hot to handle (ho-ho!)” joke, you’re better off ignoring this sentence.
The 007th Chapter – Moonraker: The Quickness of the Hand
Ah, Meyer. Already identified by M as “Nice chap. Jew.” Um, OK. Given that he’s granted few if any additional aspects to his personality, it’s a touch uncomfers, that. Interesting companion for Drax given the villain’s true history, I suppose, although that of itself is a sweeping generalisation. Definite impression that we’re witness to a Max Meyer, having infiltrated this world of Porterfields, Grimleys and Lords Basildon, more than a little spineless whilst so doing, cringing and miserable, about to be crushed. I wonder what this Mr Fleming is trying to tell us by making Meyer the weakest of the quartet around the table, albeit I do such wondering in some despair.
More interesting, and less dodgy, Fleming gives us Meyer’s direct thoughts, rather than Bond’s interpretation of what the man might be thinking. This happens a few times between Meyer and Basildon, Drax even, and it’s a notable device, distancing us from the relentless focus of BondBondBond, Fleming trying out another character for size. Ostensibly, it rounds the character of Bond to have others’ impressions of him and their reactions to what he does, not just those of Fleming or Bond himself. Admittedly phoney, as it’s the narrator putting thoughts into their minds, but a distinct technique . Additionally, this is Fleming giving us an “in”, the ordinary player caught up in the lunatic gamble, albeit Meyer puts the pathetic into empathetic. Perhaps, alternatively, this is Fleming bored with only writing about bloody James Bond. First to admit I haven’t re-read the Flemings thoroughly, but so far in the two-and-a-bit novels, have we seen this approach used in scenes where Bond is present? I’m not sure we have. Pretty certain everything to date has emanated from Bond himself. We haven’t had, say, what Felix Leiter thinks (just as well: obscene). Are we lying on our tea-trays hurtling down the slippery slope to The Spy who Loved Me? All the major players are given first person thoughts and reactions, even M who otherwise remains – despite our having found out his first name – as secret and unknowable as ever. That might be the joke.
“[Bond] knew exactly what he had to do, and when, and was glad that the moment of decision had come.” Come on, he’s only playing carrrddds, not preparing to kill a man…oh, I get it now.
The paragraph or two about the ghosts of dead gamblers approving of the “rough justice” raises another potential touchstone of Bond: referencing the supernatural. We’ve just been through a novel where this is front and centre, but from memory it’s also reasonably frequent that Fleming invests his villains with eeriness of adjective or demeanour and, these particular passages taken at their most literal, James Bond would appear to believe in ghosts. Perhaps it’s going too far to suggest it’s so unshakeable a belief to manifest itself as a major character trait but despite his ostensible theory of luck as articulated in the 007th chapter of Casino Royale, he’s patently a superstitious man. Little else explains the routine and unvarying garb and breakfasts, beyond mental disease. There’s an argument that this fragment of the Bond persona is exploited by the villain at the start of Mr Benson’s DoubleShot by hurling the ghost of Tracy his way, or throughout the nightmarish (interpret that how you wish) Never Send Flowers; there are, I am sure, other examples.
Bond’s reflections as he stares around the grand room simply add to blunt analogy: “triumph”, “smoke”, “honours”, “cries of victory and defeat”; this is a warzone and, just in case you were unconvinced, in due course Basildon will walk over from his game to this battlefield. “For Bond, who loved gambling, it was the most exciting spectacle in the world”. I suggested in the Casino Royale piece that Bond is gambler first and “superspy” by ancillary accident, expressing no great enthusiasm for the role beyond its opportunities to allow him to live well and, indeed, do the sort of thing on show in this chapter. On reflection, it’s too blunt to suggest these as distinct parts of his make-up. He loves gambling because it is an outlet for his innate violence even if no-one dies. Except socially, which is more lingeringly sadistic than any gunshot wound. Tracy is rescued from it; Drax, tortured.
“Had he and Meyer got the clubs?” … “Would Drax try and force him too high and risk a double?” No good asking me, old darling. Not a Scooby. Struggle a bit with Buckaroo, to be honest.
Amusing imagery with Bond’s waving of his white handkerchief not being in surrender, but the signal to attack. “The trap was set”. Erm, I think. We’re not told actually how he does palm the fixed deck of cards; presumably we have to rely on the chapter’s title for an explanation. Bond has nothing but “five clubs to the ace, queen, ten, and eight small diamonds to the queen”. OK, so – that’s… bad or somefink? Dunno. More predictably in my line is the one about Bond almost feeling Drax “stiffen”. You C what I did there? It does seem to be the case that Drax has a lot of the carrrddds with the pretty pictures on them, although probably not pictures as pretty as that set I acquired in Antwerp when I was fifteen. Bond’s capacity to “almost” feel is, presumably, a by-product of his chemically sharpened senses; we rely on the author to sharpen ours.
“He took an almost cruel interest in watching the greedy fish come to the lure.” Almost cruel? Almost? Whole chapter is an exercise in unutterably cruel violence.
Lovely bit of braggart rudeness from Drax, just to remind us all why we’re gathered here today, and helping to justify the absolute clubbing (on many levels) that Bond is about to unleash. Equally smashing, the sharp description of Bond’s performance in being “nearly very drunk”. May have another ingredient of “Bond” right there – rarely uses disguises but is a decent enough actor to pass muster? The Sir Hilary Bray stuff lasts a reasonable amount of time, after all. There may not be that much difference between spies, gamblers, actors, gentlemen – all require pretence. We might be veering dangerously close to Never Send Flowers again, so best halt the thought and return to the game.
“Er – seven clubs”. 007 clubs. Right round the head, that’ll teach you some manners. Whack. Whack. Whack.
Whack. Sir Hugo getting whacked by government assassin James Bond. Not that Drax doesn’t deserve it; he’s so whack.
Greedy, too. The hairy heel of Achilles of most of the Bond villainy, surely? If not their absolute undoing, then at least a sore that Bond can sadistically press, just as here. Exploiting Le Chiffre’s desperate money-grabbing, distracting Grant, buying Goldfinger’s interest – there will be others. Sometimes it’s not lust for money – Blofeld’s undoing is an avaricious social-climbing – and on other occasions it’s more amusing than sinister, such as with Largo’s treasure hunt being the cover-story for even greater greed. Whilst there are passages in some of the books when Bond is contemplating his own finances, it’s out of concern for personal security – with the occasional expensive treat – rather than grasping for more. He gambles for the thrill, not for the winnings. Bond may indulge from time to time in six of the deadly sins to a greater or lesser extent (possibly little envy; the obsessive breakfast is evidently pride, however) but what sets him apart – if ultimately little else – from his antagonists is that he isn’t inflicted with the seventh, greed, presumably because he knows how it can be exploited, having done so himself on a number of occasions. Insofar as the character embodies a morality, it may lie there. Lashings of wrath, lust. sloth and gluttony, though, to compensate for greed’s absence.
A swift series of paragraphs provides the other players’ attitudes to Bond’s apparent foolhardiness, and although they are much as expected (albeit M’s “strangulated” voice suggests even he thinks it’s going too far), the first-person thought – at least for Drax and Meyer – rather than Bond’s guess at what they would be thinking, heightens the emotion of what happens, and what will. Drax’s eventual rage – both at the end of the chapter and towards the end of the book – is more impactful, more palpable, because we’ve spent a little time in that great ginger head of his. Not a technique unique to Ian Fleming, of course, but he’s unafraid to immediately change it. Having immersed us into the individuals with one authorial trick, hopping from brain to brain, straightaway we get another that drags us to an opposite pole; the diagram that shows us what (most of) the participants don’t know.
Reading the chapter through, it’s amusing that for such a sedentary occasion, how pushed and pulled around the action the reader is: with the diagram, we’re raised above it. The mind’s eye camera is never still, the editing from style to style is all choppychangey. Oh, Quantum of Solace, you Flemingy old lovely. Arguably all writing – especially fiction – requires manipulation of the reader but here it’s positively manhandling, the quickness of the (typing) hand altering the perspectives to keep us engaged. The diagram is a notable example: Fleming could just have prosed the players’ hands, simply telling us what each had. Straightforward enough. But a ) there’s been plenty of that already, so it would risk the tedium of repetition and b ) it’s cavalier, storytelling bravado – cheek, even – to stop writing and draw us a picture instead.
Seems to often go unacknowledged how adventurously written these adventure stories are, at least the first half-dozen or so. In a couple of books’ time, we have a tale in which James Bond doesn’t appear for ten chapters. Casino Royale’s structure is unusual, the adventure over by two-thirds through. Here, we have a polite pastime injected with violent metaphor and structural playfulness to liven things up. Even the more superficially straightforward narratives of Live and Let Die and Diamonds are Forever have their authorial experiments. For the one, a supersensed descent into a vision of Hell; the other, a wide-eyed celebratory road-trip meshing the two major contributions of the USA to popular fiction: the gangster story and the Western. Not to say the later books are bland, The Spy who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice are anything but, but the likes of Dr No, Thunderball and OHMSS strike me as more “normal” in their structural novelty and ambition. I may, of course, reach a different conclusion once I reach their respective 007th chapters but I’m happy enough concluding that this Moonraker one does demonstrate a tangible element of a Bond novel – a fearlessness to muck about with expectations of narrative. If that holds, it may indeed be that those continuation novels that come with the slightly devastating backhanded compliment of “experimental” – the likes of The Man from Barbarossa, COLD, Doubleshot or (with its peculiar pace and weird ending) Solo – whatever their merits (or otherwise) as immediately engaging reads, hold truer to being attempts at Bond novels than some of their “easier” brethren.
“Then, in between clearing trumps, finessing of course against Drax, he would play two rounds of diamonds, trumping them in dummy and catching Drax’s ace and king in the process.” Well, I’ll take your word for it, old love. Just in case we’re more cromagnonly BC-shaped in our cultural evolution, and haven’t appreciated the point, “It was sheer murder”, a sadistic whipping of “thirteen separate lashes”, all a very “terrible punishment”. Potentially a miscarriage of justice on the strength of the evidence to date, but what the hell: he’s greedy, noisy and vulgar and has to be thrashed to within an inch of his life, the ill-mannered brute. Even when “Bond trumped on the table…” they don’t throw him out. Still, that’s Benzedrine for you and he did have asparagus earlier in the evening.
Bringing his A-game, Fleming likens Bond’s behaviour to the manner of the chess champion Paul Morphy. I had to look him up. Feeling even more C, all of a sudden, or wearing a hat with a huge letter D emblazoned on it. In part, incomprehensible. More wholly comprehensible is the efficient, rat-a-tat manner in which Fleming brings the lengthy persecution to its conclusion, spitting out the final hands as viciously as Drax’s allegation against Bond, a fair comment that only earns him a further whiplashing from Basildon. They really do have it in for this guy. Still, he’s no help to himself, with his look of contemptuous triumph that Bond finds “curiously disturbing”, as if any of the rest of the man isn’t. With his inhuman elements of splayed teeth, oddly scornful expressions and deeply sinister method of saying goodnight, as he scuttles away to die another day, Sir Hugo Drax would be even unhappier knowing that his killer payoff was wasted on as C a villain as Kamal Khan.
Insofar as Drax is taught a lesson by this incident, it appears to be If you were having second thoughts prior to tonight about nuking London, don’t: they’re swine and deserve everything they’re going to get.
So, true to the form already emerging in these 007th chapters, we have a villain with a body as warped as his psyche, we have grand living for which to yearn and the picking-apart of a group of people that is both forensic and exaggerated at the same time, looking through a “magnifying” glass in every sense. What this one also demonstrates is that this list of what is done, engaging as they are, is accompanied by something of equal, if not greater, significance in a Bond’s make-up, exemplified in the turning of mystifying incident into exciting brutality. Take the word as you will.
James Bond will return in the 007th Chapter of Diamonds are Forever. Jacques Stewart once had a lot of queens in his hand but that’s [massively libellous]. Er… Yahtzee?