|Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews|
I love Ian Fleming.
Right now you are thinking I must be a James Bond fan, and while that is true (Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton in that order), I lost my heart to Ian Fleming long before I was old enough to understand the repartee between James and Honey Ryder, let alone Pussy Galore. Ian had me when I was in elementary school when my parents put a teal and orange book into my hands and said it was about a car. They gave me Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it was pretty much the best thing ever.
Fleming wrote Chitty in 1963 while he was convalescing from a heart attack. According to his family web site, it was based on a bedtime story he created for his son, Caspar. In the book the dilapidated car is rebuilt by the famous inventor Commander Caractacus Pott, who discovers, along with his wife and children, that it magically can both float and fly. They encounter a group of robbers (led by Joe the Monster) in some mysterious caves, and Chitty saves them and the day just in the nick of time.
Most of the plot was irrelevant though; the only part that mattered to me (and pretty much every other kid who reads it) was that the car could fly! It could float! It saved people! Think of a cross between the Batmobile and Herbie the Lovebug and you have Chitty. For Bond fans the car is immediately recognizable as the early product of gadget-loving Q. Clearly it somehow escaped from his lab and became lost in the English countryside until discovered by the Pott family. Fortunately Caractacus was himself a rural version of Q, so it all worked out in the end.
The first James Bond movie I remember seeing was For Your Eyes Only, although I'm sure I must have seen one of the Connery films on television long before that. For Your Eyes Only is memorable both for the Sheena Easton song (loved by every teenage girl in America) and the cool chick out for revenge with the crossbow. Regrettably it also has a bizarre subplot with an underage figure skater, but with the DVD I can happily fast forward beyond that and get back to the car chases and vengeance. Loving this particular film like I do, it was a surprise years later to learn that it is absolutely nothing like the story that shares its name. In fact, For Your Eyes Only is a Bond short story and the title of a five-story collection that includes The Living Daylights, vastly superior to the bizzaro movie of the late eighties that involves saving a whiney cello player (and that has the pitiful a-ha theme songódoes anyone even remember that?).
Watching Bond and reading Bond are always two very different things. While he is an icon, and has definitely taken on a life that transcends that of his creator, it is Fleming's words that make both Bond and the stories he inhabits so much more than the average thriller. Exotic places, good food, beautiful women and the darkness that lurks within the souls of all men fascinated Ian Fleming, and he knew how to write about them better than anyone. The opening line for Goldfinger is a perfect example: "James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death."
Fleming gives every character, no matter how minor, the benefit of his writing ability. "Donovan Grant was the result of a midnight union between a German professional weight-lifter and a Southern Irish waitress. The union lasted for a quarter of an hour on the damp grass behind a circus tent outside of Belfast." Grant was hardly critical to From Russia With Love, but still he had a history, a specificity that made him much more than stock plot filler. Even the most basic observations of people and place are lush under Fleming's pen from a setting in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, "It was one of those leather-padded bars, bogus-masculine, and still, because of its newness, smelling like the inside of a new motor-car. It was not, Bond decided, a place to get seriously drunk in," to the row of dedicated slot machine pullers in the casino of Diamonds are Forever: "For, as Leiter had said, they were mostly women, elderly women of the prosperous housewife class, and the droves of them stood at the banks of machines like hens in an egg battery, conditioned by the delicious coolness of the room and the music of the spinning wheels, to go on laying it on the line until their wad was gone."
Slot machine addicts as hens in a chicken factory; it is purely delicious to read lines like that, and utterly uncommon to write them.
Last year I was lucky enough to find a copy of Thrilling Cities, a collection of essays Fleming wrote for the London Sunday Times in 1959 and 1960. They are full of the type of descriptive passages he was famous for as well as the oddest bits of the most intriguing information. In Hong Kong he introduces his friend Richard Hughes, the founder of the Baritsu branch of the Baker Street Irregulars. As Fleming writes, Baritsu is "the only Japanese word known to have been used by Sherlock Holmes." Okay, I didn't know that. (This sort of obscure but fascinating reference brings to mind the title of You Only Live Twice. It comes from the writings of the 17th century Japanese poet Basho: You only live twice: Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face. Could I please have five minutes in Fleming's personal library? Heaven, here on Earth!) In Macao he meets the "gold king of the Orient," and in Tokyo he has lunch with Somerset Maugham, who is apparently a friend of Fleming's only because he wants to be married to his wife. What the two men talk about when they are together one can only imagine.
He tries to surf in Honolulu but in due course finds himself lying on the board admiring the "whizzing sunburnt nymphets flying laughing by, Venuses on the half-shell..." I think he would have been pleased to see Bond's more capable use of a surfboard in the opening sequence of Die Another Day. Although Fleming is unimpressed with the tourists who swarm Oahu, "the men either bulging or scrawny, the women unshapely, blue-rinsed, rimless-glassed and all with those tight, rather petulant mouths of the pensioned Americans," he still longs for when they were briefly considered British Territory, writing "we should have clung on to them as the 'Sandwich Islands.'" One for the Americans, I suppose.
From there he writes about LA and Vegas, Chicago and New York. The New York essay is notable for a passage from Bond's perspective, giving the lucky reader a few pages that most fans will never discover (in case you're wondering, they're great!). In Europe he stops in Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples and Monte Carlo. In Berlin there are flashes of anger and regret as "from this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1916 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother." Now we know the source for some of Bond's own barely concealed anger and his utter desolation in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (in which brilliant film casting put James together with Emma Peel, the only woman who could ever have realistically captured his heart).
In Geneva, Fleming has dinner with Charlie Chaplin and in Naples shares tea with Lucky Luciano. None of this is casual name-dropping, all of it is relevant and interesting and utterly believable. Ian Fleming is an urbane, intelligent man of the world; it makes sense that he would know equally fascinating people. The surprise is that he writes about all of it in such an enjoyable manner. After reading Thrilling Cities I have a new, and deeper, understanding of the 007 novels. It is obvious now that Ian Fleming was James Bond. All of those thoughts, all of those witty comebacks and sexy come-ons, are Fleming's. Less of an alter ego and more of a split personality, Bond is Ian Fleming at the top of his game facing the greatest of international dangers and always coming out on top. He must have had a blast writing this character.
Which brings me back to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Most children go to bed hearing stories of fuzzy little animals, prince charming or valiant train engines. These are comfortable, familiar tales that lull a child into sleep. Not so in the Fleming household. Caspar Fleming heard about a technological marvel that crossed with Eastern mysticism to create the impossible. In his bed there were battles with smugglers and thieves, hair-raising moments when escape seemed impossible. Caspar had a flying car!! He had adventure and limitless possibility and magic, which probably produced the kind of dreams that most children could not even imagine. How lucky for him, how lucky for all of us who discover this great book. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I loved the movie too!)
So this is why I love Ian Fleming. You can read him in grade school, in high school and long into adult hood. And for those of you who feel left out, too old for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but not quite ready to venture between the sheets with Bond and Mary Goodnight, (or Bond and Plenty O'Toole, or Bond and Holly Goodhead) take heart. Next year Penguin UK is releasing a new line of titles that follows the adventures of the young James Bond in 1930s England. Good riddance Cody Banks and those annoying Spy Kids. We've been waiting for you James, whatever took you so long?