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
In the realm of the senses…
Gosh! Fastidious gentleman gambler / demented pedantic psychopath and harbourer of extreme views James Bond (trademark, Danjaq LLC) 007 (trademark, Danjaq LLC) returns, and he’s in a bit of a pickle and no mistake. Our first 007th chapter gave us our hero (picky), his lifestyle (camp), his theories (…challenging) and his bestest lovely chum (what rumours?). This time around, we get peril, the grotesque, the villain and the girl. The experiment could stop now, but I know that will only please you, so onward with drivel (trademark, me).
Odd staccato opening paragraph, punches of very short sentences, glimpses, snapshots, a (literal) passage of time.
Ah, time to deal with the voodoo god in the room, the door having been opened by a “negro in evening dress” speaking in a curious patois. Live and Let Die, the Bond novel that comes with its own burning cross, a wildly offensive paranoid racist screed setting the Civil Rights movement back a thousand years, embarrassingly prejudiced and uncomfortable to read. But no – or “Shaddap” – say others: it is merely of its time and one cannot judge it by current societal norms.
I don’t think it’s either of those things, which are ultimately two sides of the same Edward IV Rose Noble hallmarked with “these are genuine opinions that you either excuse or you don’t”. They’re not, are they? Just as James Bond’s actions are beyond the limit – mashed up nadgers, boiled alive in a steam-shaft, bits eaten out of him by a barracuda; if real, he’d be dead – so are his reactions. The whole enterprise is fictional. Why would one accept the physical action as impossible fantasy and not the rest of it? As extreme as the fights are the views, and the depiction of the world. Why would Fleming stop at exaggerating what Bond does and not also apply that absurdity to what he thinks? Why should it be any different to accept – be it in the 1950s, the 1980s or the 2010s – that James Bond is a diverting concept because he does things I cannot possibly do, or have done, than to accept – be it in the 1950s, the 1980s or the 2010s – that James Bond is a diverting concept because he observes things I cannot possibly see, or have seen?
It’s no more a truthful insight into, or emanation of, the 1950s as it is of the 1450s. Just as breaking Bond’s finger, or keelhauling him, or having him crawl through tarantulas or kicking him to near-death with footer boots or shoving a buzzsaw between his legs are all there to mischievously shock, so is this sort of stuff. Fleming may well be giving us lurid details of a place and a time, but they’re both ones he’s made up. As with the lead character, start it in realism and push it beyond. Is this “Harlem” any more real that the fictional Royale-les-Eaux, a flamboyantly idealised recreation of initially genuine experiences?
James Bond is an unreal character and therefore the only convincing milieu for him is one of equivalent fabrication. What he does is not real; nor is what he thinks, or sees. The author is fan-fictionalising himself, fetishising his physical self beyond depressingly limiting human capacity; the relentless smoking, the over-drinking, the capacity to love and leave ‘em and be admired for it and not have caught a nasty, human, enfeebling disease from all or any of these activities. Similarly, he’s indulging in fantasy views that the norms of frail social reality hold him back from expressing lest he incite some sort of race war. In mind and deed, the character demonstrates parallels of fantasy. A life sensationalised, everything – every action, every thought – turned up to 11 and beyond.
I don’t want Bond’s world tangible, to have these things within my grasp, because they’re joyously comic. Fleming accentuating his experiences to put this supercharged version even beyond his own reach – ultimately, his frustration – is my entertainment. I neither want nor need James Bond to be “real” or tell me anything precisely accurate about tradecraft or the social mores of the times in which it’s set. The author is fleeing from the disappointment of himself, and I’m happy to join him. He has to make it unreal to make his escape and escape the blubbery arms of the soft life from dragging him back. I don’t need James Bond brought down to my level. I’m well aware that Fleming on occasion has Bond eating ham sandwiches and skulking around a damp London, but he escapes to adventure soon enough, and adventure escalates the senses. This is not a world within the experience of the contemporaneous reader; it’s not a world within anyone’s experience. As such, for example, I don’t get Bond in a SAAB. Too easily achieved. My mother drove a SAAB. My gardener (no pun intended) currently does, although I understand that he’s looking to trade up to a bicycle. Would driving a SAAB render me James Bond, or simply make the domestic help?
Criticising the “Harlem” of Live and Let Die as racist is as credible as criticising Narnia for having a poor public transport infrastructure, or Slytherin house for being total bastards, or believing that what someone writes about themselves on the internet is somehow real or that by arguing with such persons you are in receipt of their genuinely held views. Ian Fleming had no internet on which to exaggerate his worldview in order to puckishly provoke people he’d never met. His only recourse was to publish, sell several million copies and allow his heirs to live well. I’m “sensing” that he probably won that one.
Likewise, defending it as “of its time” persists in the delusion that Live and Let Die is a documentary or sociological record, either of the place it depicts or the views it expresses. Dissecting a fantasy seems pointless. Ultimately, it’s a joke. It might not be a very wise joke, nor a very funny one, but it’s no more a study of the genuine nature of the period and place – or the genuine view of the author – than Batman is a realistic depiction of the life of an orphaned paedophile. Or that that’s a realistic opinion of Batman. I appreciate that “but it was only a joke” is the empty defence of the racist, or sexist, or homophobe – all of which labels have been applied to Ian Fleming at one time or another – and that’s why I put my observation no higher than an argument, not a conclusion. I do think it’s arguable.
The distinguishing factor – you may think this too thin to pass muster – is that in the “racist joke”, the ostensible joker is passing observation on things as they are in a subliminal assertion of superiority, of mock: Live and Let Die is a record of things as they never were, never have been, and its descriptions are of fascination at what is fictionalised. I suspect even if this view has merit, it’s difficult to reconcile it with the stuff about Koreans and Zer Beastly Hun that infiltrates later books. Ian Fleming may well have been a racist and expressed racist views, but the depiction of race in Live and Let Die is so lavish, so cartoonish, so engaged and full of curiosity, of the same nature as his depictions of Japan or the undersea world, that I don’t take it as a racist text. It’s where he’s blunter and less imaginative that I find it much harder to – if this is the word – tolerate. I accept that likening it to his observations of the Technicolor underwater realm is to compare this “Harlem” to the animal kingdom and thereby make it an inappropriate allusion at a surface level, but I’m prepared to argue that the general spirit, the intention of the presentation, is in parallel.
I seem to recall that towards the end of the book, Fleming has Mr Big self-indulge about being the first of the great Negro criminals. One benevolent reading of that is that Fleming is stating that there weren’t any prior to 1954, which is jolly unracist of him and not what Fox News beams into my brain as da troot. A less gentle reading is that the race is peculiarly susceptible to Communist interference, which tends to swing the paravane the other way. Still, the whole of Great Britain was taken in by Sir Hugo Drax, so nobody’s perfect.
Being of the international beige persuasion myself, if only since birth, it took me a while to reconcile myself to this book, and given the opportunity now to freely articulate my view of it at its strongest, the frailty of my “defence” may expose that I still have yet to. Being a spineless hypocritical liberal, live and let live unless you say something I don’t like, I wonder if I would be quite so sanguine about it were I lolling about in a parallel dimension where its Live and Let Die didn’t depict “Negro” villains but women, or homosexuals or the Welsh (Llive and Llet Dai) and dealt with them in an equivalent manner. I would admit that the slightness of my proposition might well be exposed and not withstand a similar depiction of, say, a villain with Down’s Syndrome or equivalent. I haven’t yet averred whether I think the references to “those clumsy black apes” or describing a dancer’s face as “chienne” (bit steep, that) is nice – it isn’t; it’s jawdropping, pejorative and outrageous caricature. I’m only explaining it; I’m not excusing it. Ah, you might say (if you had the temerity to interrupt me), you there, yes you, you in Uncle Jim’s Cabin, do you not realise that’s how extremists thrive, lofty disinterested disdain of the flanneur treating them as buffoons, and then suddenly tomorrow belongs to them, or never dies, whatever, and they’re in power? To which I respond: Aw, honey; dey ain’t no use tryin’ tuh git mad at me. Ah done nuthen tuh give yuh reacsion tuch ack dat way. Guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listen’ at yuh. Whyn’t yuh hush yo mouff’n let me ‘joy mahself ‘n peace ‘n qui-yet.
Preposterous. And really rather exhausting. Ectually. All pretty puerile.
“Puerile? Perhaps, after all, not to be dismissed so easily.”
On reflection, is it sane to be offended by something so evidently exaggerated? Or by a handful of (off) colour references but not by the incredible amounts of physical violence in the book inflicted no matter one’s skin; sticks and stones… and sharks may break/chew my bones but words will never hurt me. No saner than anyone seeking to rely on its deranged sentiments as justifiable or fair comment, or the basis of a view we need to which we need to give heed. It’s plainly unfair comment and it’s plainly fantastical. In this hypersensed world, it’s the type of sense called “non”. To react offended is to invest it – and anyone expressing themselves this way – with far too much credibility. It’s only uncomfortable if you impose upon it that there should have been a tangible comfort drawn and Fleming was obliged to give us reality. That was never going to happen. The author wants us shaken up, witnesses to an alien world; only then will we buy what’s actually happening here: mediumistic hotties, man-eating sharks, voodoo death cults and pirate treasure. So extreme is it that the fact there’s a demon standing in the room throughout the chapter is just noted incident rather than completely bloody ridiculous.
Rant over. I may have exaggerated my view. Seemed wholly appropriate, in the circs.
Aaaaand… we’re back in the room, where…
“…Mr Big sat looking quietly at them.” One wonders how he could look noisily. Anyway, they’re meeting in a library so, y’know, Ssssh! Bond has a nice sit down in a swanky leather and tubular steel chair that Solitaire foresaw as becoming all the rage for set design by 1973. Handy person to have around, that, when you’re thinking of redoing the lounge.
“Bond at once realised that the photographs had conveyed nothing of this man, nothing of the power and the intellect which seemed to radiate from him…”
Yeah, I get that a lot, too.
Mr Big, the great black communist, the last chapter’s rouge et noir turning tricks once more. What we’re all getting is a regulation Fleming mutant, with his “over-size” features, and “football” head, presumably the association variety rather than the throwy-egg one. Everything’s been inflated and insanely out of proportion so far, so why not this guy? The manner of the description – the eyes far apart in a huge head on a huge body – leads one to speculate whether the way the similar (ish…) character in the film dies is unforgiveable sacrilege, or ectually a very sly homage, albeit one with a comedy farty noise flurped all over it. A ghastly misfit, then, bulging and huge and animalistic and awe-inspiring, with (ahem) golden eyes. Oh, har de har har, Ian old lad. Swift glance suggests he’s not one of the good guys, then.
Second in a long line of Fleming grotesques, ugliness equating to villainy, one’s aesthetic sense engaged and repulsed in equal measure. Not just in the physicals – we’re invited to react just as disfavourably to the man’s vanity, the showiness of the diamond studs as offensive as the absence of eyelashes or [insert German title for The Living Daylights… here]. Obviously Bond has his potentially debilitating affectations and that’s one manifestation of the parallels Le Chiffre was at pains to point out in the last book, but Fleming excuses those, even if they’re just as unlikely and just as daft. Send a hyperbolized loony to catch a hyperbolized loony. It is arguable that in pointing so readily at the freakshow there’s much of the school bully in the manner in which Fleming lingers on the physical aberrations and unedifying personal habits of Bond’s foes – this is expressly acknowledged in Bond’s subsequent taunting of Drax – but, again, the deformities are so exaggerated and pumped-up, it’s hard not to laugh at the nerve of it. He’s not picking on realistic afflictions, just as he’s not picking on real, um, “Negroes”.
“The smell of the room was neutral”. Diminish one sense, more than one with Bond’s arms starting numb, but accentuate another – the chapter is primarily about the visual, on three bases. Firstly, in scene-setting. The expansive description of the distorted Mr Big aside, there’s a long passage about the lair, lined with “bookshelves, packed with books” (as opposed to – what?), a contrast between the comfort zone traditional depiction of the library of a millionaire and unsettling us all by decorating it with a voodoo erection; not the sort of thing one usually sees at Cliveden, unless The Rolling Stones or Pat Robertson are in town. Solitaire gets her own leeringly OTT description, a brutally unsubtle white/black juxtaposition. Also, lest we forget, a syncretic monster with a “gold knob” (fnarr) kicking about, just to remind us that Bond has descended from [Quentin Tarantino’s Most Favouritist Special Naughty Word] Heaven, via Table Z, to a particular vision of Hell, several interpretations of “criminal underworld” liberally flung around.
Secondly, consider how much of this chapter is about sight, and the eyes. Bond and Mr Big spend considerable time simply scrutinising each other, likewise Solitaire and Bond. The attendant henchpersons’ whites of the eye bloat when in the presence of their demon. The eye of the desk-gun threatens. Mr Big has blazing, animal (yeah, yeah, golden) eyes with their own mild deformity of an absence of brows and eyelashes, eyes that can go opaque when in thought. The villain has seen through Bond and Leiter’s cover story. Solitaire, oversensed via the luxury of second sight, demonstrates her skill through observing the captive’s eyes and her initial allying signal to Bond is through her “alight and disdainful” eyes alone. Her reaction to being whipped is similarly only ocular, eyes blazing and then opaque in a manner that suggests she and the villain are indeed spiritually joined, or their mutual creator is a bit lazy. Mr Big expressly states that he has “not seen” a member of the secret service since the War, rather than “not met”. Just look at the wordcloud for this 007th chapter – eyes feature big here, and not just those bulging at the sight of Baron Samedi. Whilst towards the end of the chapter there’s some “touching” of both the brutal and sexualised variety (some of it in the same swish of the riding-crop), the eyes have it.
Thirdly, perhaps most contentiously, Fleming lets the mind’s eye see unsettling things, deliberately provoking us when, having described the respective physical attributes of Mr Big (impressive but loathsome) and Solitaire (impressive and vair naice), he causally invites us to contemplate their children and, by implication, renders our imagination witnesses to the manner and means of (re)production. Tickling out the reader’s prejudices: I can’t see (o-ho!) any other reason to even mention this. Oh Ian, you big old naughty. Is it this “Harlem” and its inhabitants being mocked, or the reader?
For all of this, throughout the chapter Bond is a monument to cool reason – you, reader, might be disturbed and thrilled but James Bond takes it all in his stride, or at least until Solitaire turns up. It’s only at the end of the chapter that Bond experiences excitement and a thrill, and it’s nothing to do with his mission; just turned by a pretty face and a nicely valleyed arrangement of breasts. Again, a sense similar to that in the 007th chapter of Casino Royale, that the job itself is not the thrill. Where the excitement emerges is in the ancillary stuff that comes with such a role: in the previous book, gambling and in this one, the opportunity to meet hot babes. His attitude to having his life threatened is remarkably nonchalant, as is the effort he can bother putting into his cover story (which he proceeds to blow on the first page of the next chapter, anyway). The “spy” job is totally incidental to the benefits-in-kind. Whereas other Bond authors may have delivered more coherent and carefully-constructed tales of espionage, more doubtful whether they put life and experience first, and spying and all that silly guff very much a bothersome second? Well, we’ll see.
“I found her in a cabaret in Haiti, where she was born”. Her mother’s novel twist on the old ping-pong ball act, then. Yet more exaggeration still in the suggestion that Solitaire is telepathic – the film may be daft in places, but even that stops at suggesting that she’s only pretty good at interpreting carrrrddss. I can’t recall in the rest of the book whether we witness her exercising her specialness on anyone other than Bond (whom she plainly fancies rotten as this 007th chapter makes abundantly clear) and it’s therefore not a totally honest demonstration. Does she read Felix Leiter’s mind? Ah, probably best not. Bit of a sewer. She doesn’t seem to bother reading the minds of the men who shove her into a crate, for example. Why not? I’m always suspicious of callers, stood there pretending to serve court papers or claiming they’re my children when it’s evident they’re trying to rope me into their crackpot religion; that one with the talking snake sounds daft. Towards the end of the book Fleming bothers to remember her “powers” as risking giving away Bond’s escape plan through fear-of-death hysterics, but as they’ve just been menaced for a solid half-chapter by Mr Big promising oblivion, it’s no more foresight than anyone would have in the circumstances. She’s a total fraud.
A lover who can read your mind? Uh-oh. Not surprising Bond drops her asap.
Solitaire’s physicals besport unusual descriptions. The delicate and finely cut jawline shows an iron will “repeated in the straight, pointed nose”. Eh? The face has a “lack of compromise”. Uh? Vivid, no doubt; punchy, oh yes. Ectually meaning anything – questionable. Still, she does have a wide, sensual (ha!) mouth, with a hint of cruelty, which all sounds eerily familiar for Bond in meeting his perfect woman, slightly narcissistic really, and overall, it’s the face of “a daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner”. Pick the irony out of that one.
The brief, violent assault the black man unleashes upon the white woman with the black hair wearing the white dress with a (presumably) white ivory riding-crop at least gives us some (bizarre) action in an otherwise sedentary chapter, and suggests a couple of points. Firstly, if she is anything more than a cabaret act and is actually telepathic, surely Solitaire should have foreseen the blow coming and ducked? No wonder Mr Big’s upset: he’s been had. Secondly, albeit it’s a different context to, and point in, the film, there’s a credible enough parallel between the respective scenes that demonstrates a ) Eon was more faithful to the spirit of the book than comedy Sheriffs may suggest and b ) what an underrated performance Mr Kotto gave. As for the “thong” whistling through the air, a hilarious image in a modern context, I suspect that’s simply the passage of time decaying the primary meaning of a word. Similarly, the cheerful and friendly Felix Leiter seems very gay.
And yet, Mr Big doesn’t seem too bothered. Next chapter in, he’ll bang on about his boredom, which one could already have guessed at given that he’s named one of his henchpersons “McThing”, which is shocking laziness. Despite all his ostensible Spooky McDook awareness of everything that’s going on, he seems to ignore the stuff about Solitaire making the knave of hearts kiss the queen of spades. Queen of SPADES. Yeah: shock and awe subtlety-bomb, that. Well done, Ian. Bet you coughed up a lung chortling at that one. Do hope so. Whatever it was, I hope it hurt. Better get to the end of the chapter quickly otherwise I might rapidly revise my earlier theory about whether Fleming was a racist…
…but not my view of the overall intention, the pounding delivery of sensual atmospherics. Other passages in the book, other 007th chapters, may emphasise the sounds or smells of a place or person or incident, but this one’s about seeing. What one can get away with.
James Bond will return in the 007th Chapter of Moonraker. Jacques Stewart shall now retire to slip on his lemon-coloured gloves and polish his gold knob.