A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
I found what follows knifed into my cranium one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman (it’s in the interests of keeping a consistent number of testicles to write “young”), evidently beautiful (and in the interests of my lovely, lovely face) and not unskilled in the arts of love (and of the joint account). According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically (but mostly perilously), with the same Jacques Stewart whose pointless exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed (in my blood) ‘Mrs Jeem’, assuring me that what she had written was ‘purest truth and from the depths of her heart; take out the bins and deworm the dog’. I was interested in this view of Ian Flemeeeeng, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of domestic bliss, I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication, otherwise she’ll make me sleep in the boathouse once again and its roof leaks.
Fnarr! Ten-line sentences! Ees what ma ‘usband does, ees eet not? Believe eet, talking to ‘eem is worse. I theenk ‘e breathes through ‘is plump skeen, jibber-jabber-jibber-jabber-bluh-bluh-bluh in that dialect of ‘is. Shaddap you face! Pigliainculo! We of Napoli can talk, but ‘e takes – as ‘e would say – the sheety biscuit. Not that ‘e is allowed biscuits, the fat ‘ippo; ‘e ‘as to lose twenny pound, figlio di puttana. I know, I know, ‘e would say the easy way to do that is to give me money for shoes. Is “man” (!) who theenks shoes cost twenny pound.
What does ‘e mean, “wrong end of the telescope”? I’ve seen ‘is telescope. Need telescope to see eet. Piccolo. ‘E likes James Bond. Is bambino, ‘asn’t grown up. Is path-et-eeec, no? Thees James Bond, ‘e marry a di Vicenza, no? She mad, she die, ees good: northern slurt.
[Mrs Jim interjects: Ectually, although Italian by birth, I (was) moved to England at three years of age and raised in East Sussex. I have no discernable accent affecting my pronunciation and certainly nothing like the preposterous depiction here. If anything, my English accent corrupts my Italian. My professional letterhead doesn’t read “screeching blowsy fishwife psychopath cliché” but rather “consultant surgical oncologist”. I appreciate, however, that this nonsense is about an Ian Fleming novel, so cohering with the style I must adopt heightened characteristics and a farcically impenetrable, offensive manner of speaking so that the reader appreciates that I am “foreign”. I am fond of shoes, though. And swearing. As for persons of the Veneto: no strong feelings. If they stay out of my way, I stay out of theirs.]
So, I do review-a. Thees Vivienne Michel – mignotta. End. Fine. Ciao!
‘As to be longer? Perche? Ma ‘usband makes ees longer? Is eet to compensate?
Part One: Mi
“I was running away”. Along with creetics, leetle-boy Bond fans and readers wan’ing good time (testa di cazzo! Not that-a sort-a good time). I don’t theenk woman, she writes eet. I theenk eet ees Ian Flemeeeeng in slurt’s dress and whore’s shoes (twenny pound). Ees man who pretends to be woman, like ma ‘usband does when ‘e theenks I’m no in ‘ouse. What is thees – Silence of Lamb? Non mi rompere il coglioni! Man should be man. Was ‘e at Eeeeeeeton? Ah! Explains eet. Mamma knew. Mamma said. If it wasn’t for the keeeds…
What-a can I tell you about-a my life? I was born in Napoli brothel to meeeeserable whore with ‘eart of lead and Latvian – how you say eet? – stevadore with an ‘ump. We were poor, but we weren’t ‘appy. I ‘ad to eat fish’eads until I was eight-a and then we shot-a the dog. I was urchina bella, stealing kerchiefs and inexplicably breaking into song and dance routines despite rickets and diurnal cholera outbreaks. Dio mio! And then wicked theatre producer, ‘e found me and put me in ees girlie show and [insert-a Tiffany Case life story…’ere. When done, insert-a Vivienne Michel life story where you goddamn-a like; I no judge you]. And now I am ‘ere, bird with a weeng down, feeeedled-with in cinema non-paradiso by thees Derek feelth and rejected by Aryan ‘omophobe and ridin’ my Vespa all a-carefree and leathered-up and alone which eeesn’t very wise for a veeectim of abuse at the rough ‘ands of men, save as moist sleaze fantasy by thees Ian Flemeeeeng. ‘As she not seen Psycho?
[A consultant surgical oncologist writes: Me accent’s slipping. Manchester? Liverpool? (Where?) No: ‘Ove. Sorry, darling – Hhhhhhove. Horrible Hairy Hove Hhhhhhaberdashhhhery. None of the above is true. My parents were doctors. I have never owned a Vespa. Like motorbikes, their only benefit is as a guarantee of imminent organ donation. I drive a Maserati. No, I aim a Masterati. It weeds out the weaker cars. I don’t believe I know a Derek – one doesn’t mix with the teaching classes – but you’d be surprised at the number of Aryan ‘omophobes one encounters in Hhhhhenley-on-Thames. Usually trying to get my vote]
Part Two: Them
When all thees ‘appens, eet ees Friday 13th. Ees no subtle, no? Ees like pulp gangster tale. Ees not very good pulp gangster tale. She gonna be raped! She just victeeeem. She a-knows she ees victeeeem. She prisoner of dirty old-a man in ‘er ‘ead. Thees Flemeeeeng, ees bad-toothed stinkeeng alcoholic middle-aged “man” tryin’ to get into body of young woman. Ees peeg! If he write eet today, bad man pretend to be young woman on eenternet and ‘e get-a locked up with other bad men and become rottinculo. This a-Flemeeeeng, he just a-drool, old-a cazzone. Bastardo!
Ees a gum-shoe novel, but in bad-a shoes.
Part Three: ‘Eem
Bond-a turns up! He dressed-a like gangster! Is no subtle. “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken”. No they don’t-a. What ees thees rubbish my ‘usband reads? Ian Flemeeeeng? Ian Flemeeeeng? You ‘ear me? Li mortacchi tua! You leetle boys all pretendin’ to be-a James Bond with your dreenking and seely watches and priddy cars, and thees is the sort of theeng you like! Merda! ‘E jus’ doin’ ‘eet to shock, like bambina when she excreta everywhere and seets there, all smiles. Ees disturbed child writin’ for stupeed children. What ees thees? ‘E theenks that because ‘e write as woman, ees okay to say eet? Sheet-weet.
[A consultant surgical oncologist writes: The sentiment is possibly criminal. Why have I allowed this revoltingly poor book into the house? There’s no ambiguity in what is expressed. It may be a inciting influence on the weak-minded i.e. the sort of people at whom it is aimed. I would say I thought better of my husband but on reflection realise I don’t and that this is well down to his usual standard. I shall have words with Jacques. I shall win]
The policeman, he-a called “Stonor”. Like-a Stonor ‘Ouse. Ees close to us. You weeel know eeet not for eets park and ‘istory but (I weep-a for you, you crumbs-a of livin’) because eet was in “Bond feelm”, a seely cartoon, one of the ones with ‘eem ‘oo look meees’rable, like he ‘ad rough end of cello up ‘is lady rose.
‘Ees all a nice-a chat thees Stonor ‘as with ‘er but it all comes to one theeng – she ees rough slurt, and she gonna end-a up in ditch.
I ‘ave ‘ad enough of thees. Thees book, ees feelth. Ees thrown in been. I shall ‘ave to ‘and back to Jeem to write rest of eet. You might not notice difference but I’ve trouble keeping eet up. As ma ‘usband would say, annoyeengly, fnarr.
What does eet mean?
[Sound of shackles being unlocked, bag removed from head, an overweight body being dumped in a chair and hasty removal of first edition of a misguided book from the “been”]
Thank you, scrumblenumpkin. Didn’t even have to say the safe word. Ooh, sore wrists.
[A consultant surgical oncologist writes: Indicative of girth of telescope that it’s only the wrists rather than the entire arms. My tragedy]
Enough with folie a deux. Time for folie a Fleming. What is this? The Spy Who Loved Me; the life of Vivienne Michel, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying..?
Perhaps all, but never convincingly settling on one as predominant.
Must have been “unexpected” upon receipt at Jonathan Cape, causing alarm that flicking through pages of Bond as if they were banknotes might end due to baffling authorial self-indulgence. Queries, too, about what was in the cigarettes Fleming devoured as ravenously as they devoured him. As with its namesake film, to unleash this in the teeth of litigation and when James Bond’s future might have been doubted, displays bravado. This tenth book is yet bolder than that tenth film which, gloriously, is a remix played at maximum volume, but mistakes confidence for excessive invulnerable boasting. Fleming had already done that with Goldfinger. This first person narrative, Jane Eyre meets Midwood Books meets critical outrage, teeters along the high, thin wire between bravery and stupidity. As conflicting motives tumble with it, I can’t decide which side it falls. Fall, however, it does.
Not dissimilar to the film, there’s self-awareness (that the films would not shake for decades), something that often accompanies outward swagger. Unlike the Eon series’ grisly backslapping knowingness of its own demerits, this book arguably backstabs. What is Fleming saying? This is all James Bond is; my tragedy is that this is what I have ectually achieved. Doused in champagne, caviar and scrambled eggs but understand, please – clear even for Bs and Cs – that it’s no better than equivalent sleazetrash in racks in the lobbies of motels and read by persons frequenting them. Ah, my legacy. This is all I can do, this is all I’ve been doing, and I am defeated by it. You simply thought it was better because there was Bridge.
Alternatively, is Fleming mockingly taking on US pulp and, finessing it through Bond norms, beating that lot at their own game? Is it just a piss-take? Of whom, though? If it’s of the reader, this is an act of brutal complacency, a writer overconfident that he could write rubbish and people would still buy it. However, such a charge is easier to sustain were this a more regular affair. Evidently some thought went into it, unlike Goldfinger’s easy cruise-control. Exhausted, then? The spy may have loved me, but has the author fallen out of love with the spy? Turning against his creation just at the point when others will take 007 and let him run completely out of hand? Like its heroine, psychologically it’s all over the place, hard to read, and that’s not a million miles from suggesting some of it is unreadable. Some distaste at its contents aside (albeit understandable), the benefit of The Spy Who Loved Me and its justified place in the series is that it’s a horrifyingly raw exposure of an author losing control of his creation. Possibly his mind, with it.
Several sources assert that Fleming was aghast at being read by juveniles. Given that he freely unleashed excessive! exclamation! marks!, Lower-Sixth common-room opinions, “Pussy Galore”, demented ex-Nazis hurling rockets at Her Maj, “homages” of books he enjoyed and a fascinated terror of women, one wonders what he reasonably expected. Perhaps, Ian old lollipop, you could have made them less juvenile in the first place? Ignoring that argument in favour of the income stream, he chose to deliver a cautionary tale about the lack of difference between James Bond and other two-bit rapey gangsters and how the superficial allure of that world is no place for nice young persons. Is it, accordingly… a children’s book – or at least one aimed at them? If so, it’s the second most salacious Young Adult fiction imaginable (after John Wayne Gacy’s Boy’s Bumper Book of Clowns). Not too surprising, given the decidedly mixedmessages of “James Bond and the Adventure of the Dirty Lady in the Motel” that he needed another go at junior storytime with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Spy Who Loved Me has plenty bang bang; as for chitty, depends how cleft one’s palate is. If you need help, Mrs Jim is handy with a scalpel.
Cramming this parable with the most explicit sex of his work – the “Me” part of the book is a wantonly grimy Hot Sleaze Shocker – with a heroine expressly depicted as loose and an exciting gunfought chase around burning buildings, suggests confusion, or hypocrisy, in the attempt to steer impressionable youthery away from Bond. For his next trick, Mr Fleming will magically eat a cake and yet still have it. Gangsters, girls and guns are real turn-offs for the adolescent, aren’t they? Like the end of a moralising cartoon, the child-catching violence sunk by an epilogued “message”, admittedly more commonly “to conquer Castle Greyskull, learn to work together as a team [buy our toys]” rather than “wanton sluts who have had an abortion only narrowly avoid a fiery hell”, but Fox doubtless has that in development. Strange to try to dissuade those seeking shocks by increasing the more shocking elements to overload. Bit like my father’s idea that, in finding one’s offspring (hi) taking a nip o’ booze, making the little swine finish the bottle to teach me a lesson; the lesson being that alcohol is smashing, and I’ve never looked back. Possibly counterproductive. Fleming should have just unleashed a 200 page version of Quantum of Solace and bored the little sods to death. The sensation is that of a tabloid berating television for shocking acts of Ban-This-Sick-Filth-Now-ness and proving its point by printing close-up stills over many moistly-worded, drooling pages.
The irony of the title – the spy doesn’t love her, he buggers off before a nice eggy breakfast, ordering her to change her soap, indicating she’s a skank (with just cause) – could suggest that Vivienne is an unreliable narrator. Put Bond in a (marginally) more normal scenario than Dr No and how does he behave, particularly to a young lady we have come to “know”? As reprehensibly as ever, even more so given that Vivienne is “real”, which I suspect is the point. And how does this woman, verderbt, verdammt, verraten, react? Does she loathe him, like a sensible person? No; it’s hero worship and another jumbling of what the message might be striving to be. Are we meant to sympathise with her, or think her daft? I don’t read empowerment – nor empathy, nor sympathy – in articulating the tale through this female voice, so “daft” it must be. Although that undermines the (possible) message, it does open up the idea that she represents a fabulously embittered critique of an unblinking hero worship of 007 (and puts the “semi-rape” stuff into the mouth of a cretin, the only place that can harbour it). Given that she’s the only one who ever slept with him, she’s Bond fan number one. Look at her. Just look at her. Learning nothing, off she will scoot and probably end up murdered. Bond fans. Too stupid to accept the truth, all a-gurgle at this terrible, terrible man. Biting the hand that feeds him, is Fleming, in between mouthfuls of that everlasting cake. Whether one is meant to tut at her struggle, or lick one’s lips precisely because of it, is hard to decide. The book might be a good idea, but query whether this was the right conveyance for it. A morality tale, but one that leers. What does Vivienne learn by all this? Sod all. An uncritical Dr Watson in motorcycle leathers, and now I’ve an image of Nigel Bruce that’s going to take some shaking out of me.
In having Bond seen through the eyes of another major character, the opportunity for finger-wagging presents itself handsomely, although given the content of the book, you just don’t know where that finger has been. Urr. On reflection, it had to be “the girl”; a villain’s (or more amusingly, a minor villain’s) perspective (as with From Russia with Love) would inevitably be skewed towards the “Well, they would say that about Bond, wouldn’t they?” but the impression of Vivienne is that she’s a bit thick to be deceived so easily by the obvious trap at the motel and her lovers: Derek, an old Etonian, and Kurt, whose views aren’t radically different from those Bond has himself expressed, and then 007 who encapsulates several aspects of both – and of Horror and Sluggsy – but is in some mysterious way “better”. The ongoing themes from chapter 20 of Casino Royale – which now looks like a manifesto for the series itself – that the heroes and villains get all mixed up… made as explicit as it ever will be.
In hindsight, fascinating timing. At the end of its publication year, we received the Eon-ised Dr No and – Professor Dent and swamp guard aside – the films would not (until recently) share the qualms of an author coming to terms with what he has done. Look at that merchandising, all those toy DB5s sold on the back of Goldfinger, in which a woman is taken to a barn and raped – or semi-raped (because she appears to like it) – or the model space shuttles that naturally emanate from a defenceless girl being ripped apart by Dobermans, or the opportunity to buy a watch whilst your misguided peamind prays that others will think you are James Bond as a result, a man who destroys homes in downtown St Petersburg with a tank, the git. Admittedly, Fleming expresses discomfort ten books in, money in the bank, a Presidential-endorsement made and multiple films on the horizon, which isn’t medal-level bravery but could be mentioned in dispatches for attempted gallantry, similar to J.K. Rowling bravely outing Dumbledore once all the enriching wizardry was done.
Just like Vivienne Michel, we didn’t want to listen. Faced with this borderline-rapist clumsy thug snob, what did we do? We embraced the monster and instilled him into Western culture to such an extent it would be hard to imagine it without him. We were “warned”, albeit by the very person who was as culpable of romanticising 007 just as much as Vivienne Michel.
The films doubtless boosted awareness of Fleming, but their jackbooting of what Bond “is”, appealing to the undemanding, easily deceived and product-placers offering budget if their baubles are shown in a benevolent arc-light, might not “get” what Fleming was saying with The Spy Who Loved Me (even if its execution doesn’t say it well). This is not a man to be liked, says Fleming, trying to wean us off any admiration we had, lest we be considered as gullible as Vivienne. Yet Eon turned him into the greatest hero-icon commodity of the century. The legacy of the (mostly) formulaic films haunts “James Bond” and whilst the Fleming estate doubtless benefits by association with the series, this book – others, true, but this one especially – demonstrates that Ian Fleming is underestimated by any parallel preconception that he is a writer as formulaic as the committee-minds that puked up Octopussy or GoldenEye. The Spy Who Loved Me may not be a successful departure, but as a day-release respite from the prison of “James Bond”, it has appeal.
Then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like “semi-rape” and, stunned, one argues that it should be locked up forever and the key not just thrown away but melted down.