On a balmy morning in January 1952, Ian Fleming, an ex-stock broker, intelligence officer, journalist and unabashed womanizer, had just finished breakfast and taken a swim in front of the villa he called Goldeneye.
He sat down at a brown, roll-top desk and began typing at a 2-year-old Imperial portable typewriter and began to write the novel that was to become James Bond’s debut –Casino Royale.
As John Pearson, a friend and colleague, wrote “…he had no notes, had made no preparations. He simply began to type, and the next seven weeks he kept at it steadily.”
On March 18th, six days before his marriage. he had finished the novel that was to launch his new career as a novelist and introduce a cold, similarly womanizing British agent named Bond – after the author of a book about the birds of the West Indies.
The novel begins at a casino in the town of Royale-les-Eaux. “The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling — a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
Fleming’s inspiration for the novel came from his experiences at the French seaside resort Deauville in 1938. He discovered the “Greek Syndicate,” a partnership of wealthy Greek financiers and ship owners who purchase from a casino the right to run a baccarat game.
In Casino Royale, the syndicate is Egyptian. Fleming immerses the reader into the scent and smoke of the tense, late hours of the casino.
“Bond lit a cigarette and settled himself in a chair. The long game was launched and the sequence of these gestures and the reiteration of this subdued litany would continue until the end came and the players dispersed. Then, the enigmatic cards would be burnt or defaced, a shroud would be draped over the table and the grass-green baize battlefield would soak up the blood of its victims and refresh itself.”
Most critics aren’t particularly kind to Fleming. But his admirers like John F. Kennedy and Raymond Chandler appreciated the Fleming touch like Bond appreciates a well-shaken martini.
The author and critic Christopher Hitchens wrote that “Fleming was able to peer beyond the Cold War limitations of mere spy fiction and to anticipate the emerging milieu of the Colombian cartels, Osama bin Laden and, indeed, the Russian mafia, as well as the nightmarish idea that some fanatical freelance megalomaniac would eventually collar some weapons-grade plutonium,”
”Bond is actually rather a cardboard guy,” Hitchens continues, ”He doesn’t change much. It’s a series of affectations and poses and designer elements. I’ve always found it difficult to really visualize him. That’s why he’s so protean in the movies as well. But the villains are always extremely good. I think that’s true without exception. They are quite believable even though very incredible.”
One only has to peruse the index of Andrew Lycett’s 1995 biography, Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond to get a sense of Flemings mercurial personality.
“Characteristics: Moodiness and melancholy, conformism, self-centeredness, complexity and contradictions, deference to older men, superciliousness, attitude toward women, self-consciousness, enthusiasm, Puritanism, domineering personality, aloofness, coldness, remoteness from life around, rudeness, xenophobia, caution, generosity.”
Generosity is the only positive characteristic to counterbalance this litany. Many of the unsavory traits made their way into Bond’s DNA. Here is a revealing passage from Casino Royale:
‘With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair.
The conventional parabola –sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness – was to him shameful and hypocritical.
Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the weekend by the sea, then the flats again, then the furtive alibis and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain…”
It is nearly impossible for today’s reader to escape of the sheer pull of the cinematic Bond. Sean Connery as 007. The unmistakable Bond music that still resonates 50 years later.
Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan; Fleming is less famous than his creation. In the United States, nervous publishers even changed the title to You Asked for It.
The critical reviews were mixed. The New York Times wrote:
“The first part of the book is a brilliant novelette in itself, dealing with the unlikely but imaginative plot to ruin a Communist agent by gambling against him for high stakes…but then he decides to pad out the book to novel length and leads the weary reader through a set of tough clichés to an ending which surprises no one save operative 007.”
But tough cliché’s and weary readers aside, the character Fleming created on that January day in 1952 still reigns as the most famous “secret agent” in fiction.
In the first chapter, Fleming etches the Bond character in our memory with a single sentence. “Then he slept, and with the warmth and humor of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.”
Bond is a guilty pleasure, made guiltier over time by Fleming’s unveiled attitude towards women. “And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On the job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.”
So what are we to make of the ironical, brutal, cold and sexist Bond in our modern age?
I will play the Joseph Campbell card and say that Bond has become a mythic hero. Despite his Achillian flaws, we know that he will save the day. No matter how dire the circumstances, Bond always triumphs over adversity.
Sure, it isn’t plausible or real. But that’s what being a mythic hero is all about.
In just seven weeks, Fleming created his own kind of miracle. A character that hasn’t merely survived, but endured.