A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
Not that it matters, but a great deal of the background to this piffle is inaccurate.
Where would we be without James Bond? Before you bother me with “You do know he’s fictional, don’t you? We’d be exactly where we are, you meretricious clown”, I’m happy – no, overjoyed – to put on record that I am aware of it. Thank you. Well done on “meretricious”, by the way. Such a scrumptious word.
Never interrupt me again.
If From Russia with Love has a purpose beyond entertaining us with underdressed women all a-grapple, together with gleefully-grasped opportunities for Ian Fleming to be fabulously rude about ugly people, it is in pointedly inviting us to consider our dilemma, were James Bond forever face-down in the carpet of the Paris Ritz.
I suspect the answer to be extrapolated is “a Soviet colony, if you don’t buck your ideas up”.
Perhaps the most common observation about this book – apart from Phwoaaar! Lezzas and gypsies, which is undeniably very common (sorry) – is about its structure. In particular, the risk of encouraging boredom / bafflement in the impatient B / C reader with all the foreignistan-speak and by not immediately introducing our favourite overfastidious psychotic bigot. Y*b**nna mat!, you might say (if fluent in asterisk), what’s Peter Fleming’s little brother – Alan? – doing now? First he said an avocado was pudding, when everyone knows it’s a badger’s egg, then he taught one to speak like a (cover the dog’s ears, dear) Negroid – try that in Derry & Toms and see how far you get – and latterly he thought we’d indulge his turning it American, as appealing as their reprehensible remake of football or the abuse they mete out to innocent words like “aluminium”, “pants”, “pussy” and “fanny”. Now he’s not even put James Bond in it at all! l I won’t stand for it, it’s… ooh, a neuter porcine murderess in pink satin knickers. ‘Scuse me a minute; feeling a sudden urge to be non-kulturny.
Spend half the time banging on about a threat, build and build and build and then introduce said menace halfway through and gawp in horror at how – through immense luck and contrivance – he gets close to winning but at the last minute he is stabbed and crashes down. Still, he was being beastly to little Judi Dench, wasn’t he? Depending on whose side you take, From Russia with Love demonstrates a similar structure to one seen in (say) Dr No: we get to know the goodies first and they spend ages talking about how rotten the villain is and how he must be destroyed. Then the bad guy stumbles in, leaving us in thrall to how he nearly wins, so much so that everything comes down to a desperate conclusion in which he is finally vanquished and drowns in guano / headlong hits the wine-red floor. All we have here is a comedy reversal of an adventure norm. The mission briefing, the loveable cast of colourful scamps and the loonbag ladykiller with his odd little ways just happen to be Russian/Irish rather than British. I suggested in an earlier one of these that Fleming wasn’t an amusing writer. This, however, is one of his better jokes.
History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts, etc.
The structure is critical if what (I believe) Fleming intends to work, can. He’s scaring us. He needs us to swallow that the Russians are this determined, this meticulous, this horrid. Admittedly, with some (very) minor balancing sentiments from minor characters aside, the conspirators are invariably unpleasant and not the decent, well-meaning snobs of the British Establishment. Arguably, these Russians are more honest about what a grubby little trade it is in which they find themselves, rather than the chandeliers-and-Bridge crowd kicking around Blades, all dressed up as “gentlemen”, as if that’ll prevent the bomb from dropping. This crowd of beastly Commies have – need – no such pretence. A blemished mirror is being held up, and although one can read it as how much more decent “we” are at this spying malarkey, I tend to take it as intentional criticism. When Bond mucks up, he gets a mild rebuke from M, and then an invitation to dinner; when this lot fail, they’re shot. That’s how ruthless the Russians are, how devious, how they treat their own people never mind us, and they’re only a few hours away. They might already be here, if you let that bastard Gaitskell in. Don’t park your tanks on my lawn, Hugh, nor anything else in my wife for that matter.
Having told us in the preface that there are real officials who meet for purposes similar to the ones written about, Fleming demonstrates that the best the British can do to resist these true-to-life machinations emanating from number 13 Sretenka Ulitsa is unleash a fictional, none-too-bright drunkard who, even though he’s super, still can’t get through it unscathed. If you didn’t have my James Bond, you lot, yes you, sitting there all high-and-mighty and sniffy about what I’ve been trying to tell you, and you had to use a real person against the likes of General G. and Kronsteen, you’re doomed. All you have is Commander Crabb, not Commander Bond and even my superman nearly dies. Wake up; to arms! The Russians are coming, and this is what they’re like. It’s spectacularly paranoid to imagine them not just under the bed but in them as well, and few will come with a black velvet ribbon around the neck. Piano wire round yours, perhaps. When they do arrive from Russia, it won’t be with love. That’s why I’ve heroically run off to Jamaica and taken your pal Rothermere’s wife with me, so stick that up your marrowbone and good luck to you all.
Ultimately, it’s a propaganda piece lightly dusted with blistering lovelies and sexual deviancy, much like the first draft of The Communist Party Manifesto before the jokes were removed and Engels had a change of heart about all those car chases. A shift from having Drax lay into the British – well, he would say those things, wouldn’t he? – much of the dialogue between Bond and Kerim Bey is overtly barbed about a ) how much of a threat the Russians actually are and b ) how unprepared the British are for them, really and c ) how the Soviets have weapons of mass destruction capable of being launched in 45 minutes.
The first two, anyway. This is not the blinkered Union Flag-waving of many Eon films, although Skyfall comes close: a surface-level jolly adventure with the Bond saving the day that is quietly, but determinedly, prodding the open wound about how ready the country really is to cope with live threats, getting by (barely) on making it up as one goes along and trusting to dumb luck. Savagely exposing how exposed the nation is, exploited by its pretensions towards eccentricity by the willingness to walk into an colossally obvious trap because it’ll be an adventure, Britain’s weaknesses are capable of being horribly turned against it if it’s not very, very careful. In due course, Burgess and Maclean get a mention in this book and it’s none too subtle a reference when it happens. A lot of the opening is an exercise in picking Britain apart, far more brutally than any sentiment expressed about the Dark Races in Live and Let Die, and those ideas have come from somewhere in the author’s mind. It’s not an anti-British piece, though; these are the scared sentiments of a patriot who wants us equally fearful and needing to toughen up to meet the threat, to stand tall and face it all, together. Albeit a patriot who buggered off to the West Indies and left us to it.
Dark thoughts rise about why this book was so revered by President Kennedy, according to that famous list of his favourite reads. On the one hand, if he ever read it, he enjoyed it as lighthearted fiction, on which level the book is grubbily satisfying adolescent amusement, and putting it on the list give a pal of his a sales boost, which isn’t remotely corrupt. Alternatively, with its claims of veracity in depicting the ruthlessness of the Russians, it helps exaggerate one’s foe in the minds of the populace now encouraged to read the book, which is important for keeping them docile and in check and the opportunity to spend, without too much objection, their tax money on whizzbangs from your family’s arms dealing pals rather than repairing the potholes in the roads or putting half-a-dozen more Customs Officers on duty (****ing immigration queue: apologies to those practising their conversational asterisk). I wonder if he thought there was any truth in it? The Scarlet and the Black aside (rouge et noir… tingalings a bell…) the other books on that list were factual or (auto-) biography, and the Stendahl is intentional social commentary. Whilst John Buchan appears twice, they’re non-fiction rather than anything Hannay. Other than not wanting the President to appear worthy and dull – I mean, The Emergence of Lincoln doesn’t have many scorching gypsy women and bloodthirsty lesbians, Mrs Lincoln aside – From Russia with Love’s inclusion on the list seems readily explicable, if for slightly disturbing, manipulative and sinister reasons. With all the books expounding a political philosophy, it fits. Although if you think I’m only having a go at JFK because the administration at the airhovel now bearing his name is rampagingly inadequate, I couldn’t immediately contradict you. Anyway, he can’t sue; he’s dead (I think).
As a spy story, it’s one of the few in the Fleming series. As an adventure with persons exotic both of appearance and character to titillate us in scenes of overseasoned description, balanced with bothering with a plot this time, it’s probably the strongest. As a horror story offering us no redemptive solace at all by appearing to kill off the one man who can stop it, it’s bloody terrifying. Next time, Ian my lovely honeysuckle, how about taking us well away from it, perhaps a nice holiday in your favourite part of the world, and give us a medically impossible loony, space rockets, venomous centipedes, a nudey nature child and a truculent mutant cephalopod?
The 007th Chapter – From Russia with Love: The Wizard of Ice
H.Sc. @ 2014-05-06