A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
Sense of adventure. (My emphasis).
I’m fibbing – can’t take the credit. Not my emphasis at all. The very first sentence of the Bond “thing” directly appeals to sense or, more precisely, the scents. Wiser minds than mine write of a Fleming Sweep; I prefer a Feel, and that’s not an invitation. Oh, put it away.
Even just over one book in, one can unimaginatively deduce that Ian Fleming is a sensual writer, and not so much in the commonly adopted sexualised understanding of “sensual”, despite this 007th chapter of Live and Let Die concluding with a 20-stone Negro, having leatherstrapped a man to a chair (an act described at excitable length), proceeding to whip a witch with an ivory riding-crop whilst a voodoo scarecrow leers on. Might have been yer average Tuesday round Goldeneye way but is an unusual domestic encounter for most, I’d wager, and would doubtless justify police intervention. I mean – ivory. Tsk!
A swift hand of bridge it is not. That’s in the next one.
Usually at its strongest when he’s neglecting the tedium of “plot”, look at where the detail frequently – if not, admittedly, universally – lies, in engaging the base senses. How often Fleming lets his descriptions fly towards (say) food and drink – the enjoyment of both the descriptions of the menus and the experiences of the tastes – and elsewhere, be it places or people or flowers, birds and weapons: the smell, the touch, the sound. The sickly zoo smell of Oddjob. Recognising countless perfumes and soaps. The sight of Honeychile Ryder emerging naked from the sea. Cars are not a means of getting to destinations but a sensual destination in themselves, an immersion in a highly tactile experience; there are very few passages of Bond driving when he’s not totally engaged in the sweat, the smoke, the blast of wind in the face, the supercharged sound of it. The “touch” of a carpet beater. Guns and engines don’t fire; they roar. That the sex never goes – never needs to go – beyond the first erotic touches. All five senses engaged in a midnight wander through Blofeld’s Garden of Death. As atmosphere, it’s thermosphere, so heightened is the delivery.
Then, the trick emerges, and the trap is set for those unwise enough to follow. The easy perception is that Fleming does “detail”; ooh, lots of “detail” in Fleming, there is. The failing is not acknowledging that he knew when to let it go, only wanting to describe those things that interested him. Once he has you by the senses, once you are immersed by his drowning you in the sights and the scent and smoke and sweat of wherever he’s placed you – Northern France, Japan, Istanbul, Jamaica, matters not – he can step back and leave you to wallow, enblissed floating. There’s a key example of this in the 007th chapter of Live and Let Die. He’s led us, whirling, through a turbo-fictionalised Harlem for a couple of chapters, soaking in its juices, and here, so drenched are we, we’ll just imbibe without question that Mr Big has a pistol masked by a drawer keyhole. We have been prepared for the ludicrous.
“Again, there was nothing absurd about this gun. Rather painstaking, perhaps, but, he had to admit, technically sound.”
Come off it, no it’s NOT. And yet, we gulp it down. It’s only later do we question what we’ve been spiked with. That is trust. Perhaps a trust abused, but you take it at the time, giggling slightly. There is no explanation of how this gun works. There doesn’t need to be. Your Clancys, your Lee Childs, closer to home your Gardners and Bensons, would tell us that the protagonist takes only an atosecond to work out – if not an atosecond to describe, unfortunately – how it was a Sillitoe-Bumpluck point 660 with a Horace flange and dingadong buttress and forty leveret hosiery and some such boring, boring unnecessariness. The skill is that one needs to know when not to describe, when to stop fact getting in the way of a good story. So convinced are these others that you would doubt what they say, they clobber you over the head with neanderthal factual detail to nail misguided veracity onto a patently farcical enterprise, thereby ironically undermining its allure, its success, rather than promoting it. Desensitising is counterproductive as a seduction technique: ask any lorry driver. It’s possible that Fleming was too idle to describe it “properly”; equally so that he rightly considered anyone actually interested in guns as a wee bit mental. Still, the evidence suggests that Bond is not about relentless description of every frickin’ thing. It’s about knowing when the trigger doesn’t need to be pulled. Probably because it patently wouldn’t work.
Damn damn damn damn.
Once you’ve been seduced, once he’s touched you, you can only give in and just snort it all up. Otherwise you’d realise that this is a tale in which one man threatens to shoot another with his desk.
The 007th Chapter – Live and Let Die: Mister Big