The man who was only a silhouette

James Bond has one identity but many personalities. There’s Sean Connery’s suave savagery and there’s Roger Moore’s eyebrows wiggling their way through Confessions of a Secret Agent. Insofar as the books upon which these films were increasingly loosely based were subjected to serious consideration, it was widely accepted that the high living, promiscuous, invincible secret agent created by Ian Fleming in 1953 was nostalgia for an imperial age which was dying as the books went to print.

Fleming’s books were a publishing sensation. In 1965, as Thunderball became the fourth James Bond film to roar across cinema screens, 27 million Bond books were sold worldwide. Of the first eighteen books to sell a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond novels. They were avidly read by the Duke of Edinburgh, President Kennedy (who rated From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books), and Lee Harvey Oswald. They won some literary admiration. Raymond Chandler was a fan as was Kingsley Amis who wrote a Bond novel himself after Ian Fleming died suddenly in 1964.

But they drew plenty of criticism. While the sardonically downbeat spy novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré were critically lauded, those of Fleming, who had actually been in Naval Intelligence during World War Two, were dismissed as juvenile fantasies. Fleming once came home to find his wife (who had an open affair with Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell) and her literary friends reading aloud from the books and laughing at the naffest bits. In the New Statesman in 1958 Paul Johnson wrote a famous review of Dr No (“the nastiest book I have ever read”) titled ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’

There was plenty of sadism. Every book contains a horrific physical ordeal which wreaks havoc with Bond’s body, from the gruesome carpet beater scene in Casino Royale to Dr No’s grisly assault course. But Bond himself was not a sadist. As he mused in Goldfinger:

“It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare Double-O prefix — the licence to kill in the Secret Service — it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional — worse, it was a death-watch beetle in the soul[…]”

Is there snobbery? True, anyone who reads the books will emerge with plenty of tips on how to live high; they contain endless details of Bond’s expensive wardrobe, sports cars, and fine wines. But to a large extent this is just a function of Fleming’s penchant for detail which borders on the autistic. Bond’s various weapons are chronicled in minute detail. We are told the exact blend of custom made cigarettes he smokes, and 007’s dinner with M at the exclusive Blades club in Moonraker spreads over seven well stuffed pages. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond has to become an expert in heraldry, something you feel Fleming enjoyed researching.

There’s plenty of national snobbery. Fleming’s description of Harlem in chapters like “Nigger Heaven” in Live and Let Die and Bond’s views on Italian-American gangsters given in Diamonds are Forever will send many potential modern readers running.

“They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves[…]”

Bond sounded like Alf Garnett in You Only Live Twice when his Japanese friend dares criticise England:

“Balls to you, Tiger! And balls again!…Let me tell you this, my fine friend. England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars, our welfare-state politics may have made us expect too much for free, and the liberation of our colonies may have gone too fast, but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes. Our politicians may be a feather-pated bunch, but I expect yours are, too. All politicians are. But there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them[…]”

You can see how this went down well with a British public knocked about by the Luftwaffe and Suez. Fleming wouldn’t have bothered to respond to the charge. “My books are just out of step” he said “But then so are the people who read them”.

The sex, however, is central. Each book features at least one prominent female character who allies with Bond as much out of lust as a desire to defeat evil. No woman is immune to his charms; whether they are telepathic virgins like Solitaire or confirmed lesbians like Pussy Galore.

Bond’s views on women seem as one with his views on Italian-Americans. In Casino Royale Bond reacts to Vesper Lynd’s kidnap by asking “Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and their gossip, and leave men’s work for the men?” In Goldfinger he muses on the results of women’s suffrage:

“As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were[…]”

Possibly even more questionable to a modern audience is Bond’s attitude to sex itself. When he ponders life with Vesper Lynd he notes how her emotional distance will give every conquest “the sweet tang of rape”. Vivienne Michel, narrator of the offbeat The Spy Who Loved Me, reflects that “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful”.

Bond’s attitudes to women plainly weren’t any more out of step with the readership of the 1950s and early 1960s than his attitudes to foreigners. But James Bond is more than a compendium of late Imperial prejudices. If he wasn’t, he would be no more remembered now than contemporaries like Matt Helm or Our Man Flint. There is a complexity to Bond which humanises him and draws readers and filmgoers back nearly sixty years after Casino Royale. For all the irresistible invincibility there has rarely been a darker and more damaged hero than 007.

His love life illustrates this most clearly. The first of Bond’s women we meet is Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd. Casino Royale itself is an odd book. Two thirds of the way through its plot, the unsuccessful attempt by British Intelligence to turn a Soviet agent is over. Le Chiffre is dead and Bond is recuperating in northern France with Vesper, the agent who assisted him. With more than fifty pages to go, what’s left?

Fleming takes a devastating detour. Recovering with Vesper:

“His feelings for her were confused and he was inpatient with the confusion. They had been so simple. He had intended to sleep with her as soon as he could, because he desired her and also because, and he admitted it to himself, he wanted coldly to put the repairs to his body to the final test. He thought they would sleep together for a few days and then he might see something of her in London. Then would come the inevitable disengagement which would become all the easier because of their positions in the service. If it was not easy, he could go off on an assignment abroad or, which was also in his mind, he could resign and travel to different parts of the world as he had always wanted.
But somehow she had crept under his skin and over the last two weeks his feelings had gradually changed[…]”

Bond is in love. He resolves to resign from the Secret Service and marry Vesper. Immediately, the relationship collapses.

It is revealed that Lynd was a double agent being blackmailed by threats to her husband; a Polish RAF pilot in Soviet hands. Knowing the torture Bond, whom she also loves, suffered as a result, Lynd commits suicide. Bond’s terse response is “The bitch is dead now”

But despite the many other women, Vesper Lynd lived on somewhere inside James Bond. In Goldfinger, the seventh book, published in 1959, Bond is captured and drugged alongside accomplice Tilly Masterson and, believing himself to be dead, imagines his meeting with St Peter:

“There must be a whole lot of them, going up together. Would Tilly be on the same trip? Bond squirmed with embarrassment. How would he introduce her to the others, to Vesper for instance?[…]”

And ten years on from Vesper’s suicide in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,

“James Bond idled through the pretty approaches to Royale, through the young beeches and the heavy-scented pines, looking forward to the evening and remembering his other annual pilgrimages to this place and, particularly, the great battle across the baize he had had with Le Chiffre so many years ago. He had come a long way since then, dodged many bullets and much death and loved many girls, but there had been a drama and a poignancy about that particular adventure that every year drew him back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said ‘Vesper Lynd. R.I.P.”

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond finds a woman who lives up to Vesper; vivacious, beautiful but troubled Teresa di Vicenzo, called Tracy.

Bond meets a suicidal Tracy at Royale; “Oh lord! thought Bond. One of those! A girl with a wing, perhaps two wings down” He rescues her from a suicide attempt and her grateful father, head of Europe’s biggest crime syndicate, offers Bond £1 million if he will marry and look after her. Bond refuses the offer but agrees to continue seeing Tracy in return for information on the whereabouts of his arch enemy, head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

In one of the best novels Bond tracks Blofeld to a hideout high in the Alps. Blofeld, longing for legitimate recognition of the power he has gained by illegitimate means, is pursuing a claim to be recognised as the Comte de Bleuville. Posing as an expert in heraldry and genealogy, Bond gains access to Blofeld’s lair, rumbles his plan, and escapes in a thrilling night time chase down the mountain. At the bottom, exhausted, he is rescued by Tracy. Travelling home,

“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one. She’s got everything I’ve ever looked for in a woman. She’s beautiful, in bed and out. She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings. Above all, she needs me. It’ll be someone for me to look after. I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn’t mind having children. I’ve got no social background into which she would or wouldn’t fit. We’re two of a pair, really. Why not make it for always?

‘Tracy. I love you. Will you marry me?’
She turned very pale. She looked at him wonderingly. Her lips trembled. ‘You mean that?’
‘Yes, I mean it. With all my heart’”

Reflecting on this,

“Bond sat down. His breakfast came and he began eating mechanically. What had he done? What in hell had he done? But the only answer was a feeling of tremendous warmth and relief and excitement. James and Tracy Bond! Commander and Mrs Bond! How utterly, utterly extraordinary!

The voice of the Tannoy said, ‘Attention, please. Passengers on Swissair Flight Number 110 for London, please assemble at gate Number 2. Swissair Flight Number 110 for London to gate Number 2, please.

Bond stubbed out his cigarette, gave a quick glance round their trysting-place to fix its banality in his mind, and walked to the door, leaving the fragments of his old life torn up amidst the debris of an airport breakfast[…]”

But Bond’s old life won’t leave him. As he and Tracy drive away from their wedding they are ambushed by Blofeld:

“When he came to, a man in the khaki uniform of the Autobahn Patrol was shaking him. The young face was stark with horror. ‘Was ist denn geschehen? Was ist denn geschehen?’

Bond turned towards Tracy. She was lying forward with her face buried in the ruins of the steering-wheel. Her pink handkerchief had come off and the bell of golden hair hung down and hid her face. Bond put his arm around her shoulders, across which the dark patches had begun to flower.

He pressed her against him. He looked up at the young man and smiled his reassurance.
‘It’s all right,’ he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. ‘It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see -’ Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world’”

Bond’s romantic life is catastrophic. This is crucial for the character. In one of the rare moments when a Bond film has captured 007’s dark heart exactly Goldeneye’s Alec Trevelyan says:

“I might as well ask you if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed. Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect[…]”

It is because James Bond is exactly as vulnerable as he is invincible that we keep coming back to him; a man whose heart and soul are scar tissue.

Fleming recognised the flawed nature of his creation. To him Bond, who “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”, wasn’t a hero “nor is he depicted as being very likeable or admirable. He is a Secret Service agent. He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent. He enjoys the fight – he also enjoys the prizes. In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays they have pond water”

And Bond recognised it too. Moonraker ends with Bond rendezvousing with Gala Brand with whom he has shared the adventure expecting to consummate their relationship. Instead she indicates her fiancée and says goodbye.

“And now what? wondered Bond. He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure-the pain of failure that is so much greater than the pleasure of success. The exit line. He must get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The secret agent. The man who was only a silhouette[…]”

This article first appeared at Middlebrow Magazine