Books April 2006

Bottoms Up

Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond, was a sadist, a narcissist, and an all-around repressed pervert. But he also saw past the confines of the Cold War
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I want to suggest that the anal anxiety of Diamonds is primarily important not as a textbook illustration of the Rat Man's particular obsessions, but as a surface trace of a deeper phenomenon. I'd like to argue that the Bond universe is premised on a certain obsessive-compulsive logic, but a logic that can more profitably be understood as Althusserian and ideological rather than as simply Freudian and psychological, a logic that is less about regression to infantile sexuality than about the hopes and anxieties spawned by postwar culture.

—Dennis W. Allen, 'Alimentary, Dr. Leiter': Anal Anxiety in Diamonds Are Forever"

The above is excerpted from the essay collection Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007, which was also the name of a symposium held at Indiana University in 2003. Bloomington, of all places, is the repository of the bulk of Fleming's books and papers. These, according to an excellent biography by Andrew Lycett, include State of Excitement, Fleming's only unpublished work—disappointingly enough, an account of a trip he made to Kuwait in 1960. (The book failed to meet with the approval of the Kuwait Oil Company, which had commissioned it but did not care for its tone. So it is not the case that Fleming invariably romanticized British post-colonialism.)

Now consider this:

The point of Felix Leiter, such a nonentity as a piece of characterization, is that he, the American, takes orders from Bond, the Britisher, and that Bond is constantly doing better than he, showing himself, not braver or more devoted, but smarter, wilier, tougher, more resourceful—the incarnation of little old England with her quiet ways and shoestring budget wiping the eye of great big global-tentacled multi-billion-dollar-appropriating America.

—Kingsley Amis, The James Bond Dossier

I cannot think of anyone more likely to have ridiculed a "postmodern" conference on the work of Fleming and the semiotics of Bond than the author of this passage. Yet it seems that even Amis felt that Fleming's novels could not be taken at face value. Bond's triumph over Leiter in Diamonds—he tells him where to look inside a corpse for hidden stones—is perhaps an instance of British "guts" rather than British anality. Bond himself is almost always described, and describes himself, as "English," but in the premature Times obituary that is printed in the late-bloomer You Only Live Twice, he is described as having had a Scottish father and a Swiss mother and thus cannot be said to be English at all. Still, there is no doubt that the CIA man Leiter is made from indigestible cardboard—a sort of Jamesian foil for Bond's superior sophistication. (My own very small contribution to Bond studies has been to point out that "Leiter" was the family name of the rich American woman who married Lord Curzon, in the great age of matrimonial alliances between Churchills, Vanderbilts, and Astors, thus helping to secure his fortune and her position in society.) Other than that, Felix Leiter can indeed be read as a sort of signifier or cipher.

And "cipher" is the nom de guerre of Le Chiffre, the numbers-man racketeer of the French Communist Party and perhaps the most odiously sadistic of Fleming's villains. He features in the first of the published Bond books, Casino Royale, which is the only one that has not been made into a "serious" film. A farcical and noncanonical version of it was made starring Peter Sellers and David Niven, which causes one to reflect upon what might have happened had Fleming got his way and secured Niven instead of Sean Connery as the original Bond. (Role selection was not Fleming's strong suit; he invited Noël Coward, his neighbor in Jamaica, to take the part of Dr. No—picture it if you will.) Now it seems that a fresh Casino Royale will be made, and the new casting will give us Daniel Craig as Bond. You may have caught Mr. Craig playing a hopelessly sinister and useless South African Jew in Steven Spielberg's laughable Munich ("the ownly blid thit mitters to mee is Jewish blid"). We are, so to speak, back where we started.

My own adolescence coincided perfectly with the emergence of the somehow brilliantly named Ursula Andress from the foaming Jamaican breakers, in Dr. No. (Fleming gave stupid mock monikers to many of his cock-fodder heroines, from Pussy Galore to Kissy Suzuki, but Ursula Andress is a natural porn name if ever I've struck one.) One noted various things about Andress, from the knife belt around her waist to the blade hanging against her thigh, and then feverishly consulted the original text, only to discover that it adhered to a constant theme and also awarded her a boy's rear end. Concerning this decision, Coward wrote to Fleming, "I know that we are all becoming progressively more broad-minded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?"

Anyway, for the first time in my life I had found a book that everybody else, including my pustular contemporaries, had also read. And this was very handy for the give-and-take of textual criticism. Today, however, I can be virtually certain that most Americans below a certain age know of Fleming solely, or chiefly, through the movies. It is under this guise only that the product has been bonded for universal export.

People like to condescend to the brand-name snobbery and Savile Row (or Bond Street) affectation, but these are only the outward show of two of the books' most important elements. When Fleming started to publish his stories, Britain was only just emerging from a long period of postwar austerity and uniformity, and it was beginning to be possible to emphasize luxury and style again without having a bad conscience. This development was somewhat identified with the return of the British Conservatives to power, and helped enable Fleming to be more frankly Churchillian and pro-imperial than would have been possible a few years previously.

The second element, namely a distinctive blend of fine leather, good tailoring, and club-land confidence, was of huge importance in appealing to American Anglophilia—perhaps most especially the sort of Anglophilia that had led the United States to clone the Office of Strategic Services, and later the CIA, from the British MI5 and MI6. Fleming himself had played a supporting part in this process, visiting wartime Washington for the British Naval Intelligence Division and writing a lengthy memo on the ways in which London could be of help to "the Cousins." He was to pay another call in 1960, to meet John F. Kennedy and discuss a number of demented schemes for the elimination of Fidel Castro. (In 1961, Life magazine printed the boy president's list of "top ten" books, with From Russia With Love coming in at No. 9; we have paid dearly for this juvenile taste.) In the interim, however, British imperialism had come to a humiliating halt at Suez in 1956, as a direct consequence of President Eisenhower's refusal to support the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Fleming had every reason to take this personally: the British prime minister at the time, Sir Anthony Eden, had gone at least temporarily insane and been forced to take a long rest—which he did at Goldeneye, Fleming's private Jamaican retreat.

Thus, the central paradox of the classic Bond stories is that, although superficially devoted to the Anglo-American war against communism, they are full of contempt and resentment for America and Americans. And not just political contempt, or the penis envy of a declining power for a burgeoning one, but cultural contempt as well. And not just with cultural contempt in general, but more specifically disgust about America's plebeian interest in sex and consumerism, the two Bond staples. "Baseball, amusement arcades, hot dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting" is how Tiger Tanaka mouths the anti-American trope in You Only Live Twice. And how does Bond react when praised by the exquisite Tatiana Romanova for his resemblance to an American film star? By barking, "For God's sake! That's the worst insult you can pay a man!" This and other revulsions from the Hollywood ethos (a similar distaste is evinced in For Your Eyes Only) are an irony in themselves. And notice, please, that emphasis on "hideously large bosoms." Some displacement seems to be involved here. For Fleming, it was the southern hemispheres that counted, and size mattered like hell.

I am afraid that the mention of Tatiana Romanova obliges me to record that Fleming described her otherwise peerless behind as "so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's." Not quite like a boy's, in other words. How is one to deal with the blizzard of information on this point? From Lycett's biography we learn that the young Fleming had not only a mentor whose pseudonym was Phyllis Bottome but also a lover named Monique Panchaud de Bottomes. This might be coincidence (it could hardly be conspiracy), but in that same premature Times obituary, ostensibly written by "M," we are expected to believe that the newly orphaned Bond was sent to live with an aunt in the "quaintly named" Kentish hamlet of Pett Bottom. "That was just a love-pat," says the boorish Australian "Dikko" Henderson in For Your Eyes Only, after he's floored a Japanese chick. "What's a girl's bottom for, anyway?" Fleming himself appeared to have a ready answer to this question. As he wrote to his complaisant future wife, who seems to have shared some of his tastes, "I am the chosen instrument of the Holy Man to whip some of the devil out of you, and I must do my duty however much pain it causes me. So be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days."

When one really reflects on the memorable scenes in the fiction (shall I say those that stick out?), it becomes obvious that Fleming expended much more careful thought on torture than on sex. It is true that Bond's bottom is never threatened (Coward would have put a swift stop to any of that), but the other menaces and taunts and practices are distinctly lascivious and lovingly rehearsed. Even Simon Raven, giving Casino Royale an admiring review, protested that the torture scene was essentially unpardonable.

But there is no point in being prissy about this. If Fleming had not been quite a heavy sadist and narcissist and all-around repressed pervert, we might never have got to know Rosa Klebb or Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And, having said that Bond was originally a figure designed to hold up the British end of the "special relationship," I ought to add that the cleverness of the series lay partly in how it saw past the confines of the Cold War. The transition probably begins after From Russia With Love. Who would have believed a paranoid tale about the Bulgarians shooting the pope in 1982 if it had not been for the memory of Moscow's Bulgar robots in that adventure? The stories are a kind of bridge from the period of ideological warfare to our own, where the fear of a frigid colossus or a nuclear "exchange" has been deposed by the fear of an uncorked psychopath and a "dirty bomb." However anal that last stupid expression may be (a toilet-trained bomb is perhaps more a wish than a possibility), it was Fleming who first conjured it and who reached beyond the KGB into our world of the Colombian cartel, the Russian mafia, and other "non-state actors" like al-Qaeda. "SPECTRE," I noticed recently, is an anagram of "Respect," the name of a small British party led by a power-drunk micro-megalomaniac called George Galloway, a man with a friendly connection to Saddam Hussein.

Also rather contemporary, at least from one end of the special relationship, is the cold dislike of France that keeps recurring. Le Chiffre and Goldfinger both act for the French Communists. Rosa Klebb can operate in Paris with ease, thanks to the climate of treason that pervades the place. Bond finds Paris empty and hypocritical, like a cynical whore. "It was its heart that was gone," Fleming writes, "pawned to the tourists, pawned to the Russians and Rumanians and Bulgars, pawned to the scum of the world who had gradually taken the town over." That reflection occurs in "From a View to a Kill," published in 1960 in the short-story collection For Your Eyes Only, where even Castro's rebels are granted some grudging sympathy (the Caribbean then being Britain's backyard, thanks all the same, and not some polluted Yankee pond).

Fleming once confessed that he hoped to "take the story along so fast that nobody would notice the idiosyncrasies." Fat chance. His "idiosyncrasies" jut out like Tatiana Romanova's ass. What he ought to have said was that he hoped to pile on the pace and thereby hustle the reader past the point where belief has to be suspended. The smaller details, of products and appurtenances and accessories, fulfill the function of the conjuror's other hand. They distract attention from the glaring lacunae in the plots, the amazing stupidity of the supposedly mastermind villains, and the reckless disregard for his own safety that this supposedly ice-cold agent displays by falling for every lure. Another critic whose exegesis might have startled Bond's creator was Umberto Eco, who wrote:

Fleming takes time to convey the familiar with photographic accuracy, because it is upon the familiar that he can solicit our capacity for identification. Our credulity is solicited, blandished, directed to the region of possible and desirable things. Here the narration is realistic, the attention to detail intense; for the rest, so far as the unlikely is concerned, a few pages suffice and an implicit wink of the eye.

The movie industry saw through this trick and learned, with such a big wink, how to replicate it for the masses and to make even Fleming's pulp fiction look like literature. Fleming was angling for Hollywood, however much he may have despised it.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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