The Inner Life of James Bond

The publication of William Boyd’s new 007 novel, Solo, occasions a reexamination of the superspy’s character—or telling lack thereof.

Kevin Christy

It’s 1927 and Ian Fleming, age 19, climbs off a train in the small Tyrolean town of Kitzbühel. He’s under a cloud: you can almost see it, small and discolored, parked a foot or so above his head, intermittently shedding rain. Fleming moves gracefully, but there is a sense of encumbrance about him, a kind of private sluggishness or surliness of mood. In his face—austere brow, thick-lidded eyes, bruiser’s nose, prissy mouth—severity blends with the instincts of the pleasure-seeker, the lotus-eater: a sadist’s face, really. Fleming has been dispatched to these mountains by his mother (“M,” as he sometimes calls her) because he’s made a mess of his education back in England. Shuffled out of Eton for some small scandal, he has more recently exited, under his little cloud, the officer’s academy at Sandhurst. Now he is entering the maternally mandated care of a British couple named Forbes Dennis, progressive educators and acolytes of the Viennese psychiatrist Alfred Adler. During the next four years, under the guidance of the Forbes Dennises, Fleming will move from Kitzbühel to Munich to Geneva, inhaling as he goes the headiest drafts of High Europe: Rilke, Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, and the fathers of psychoanalysis. In due course, he will receive written permission from Carl Jung to translate one of the great man’s lectures, a disquisition on the alchemist and doctor Paracelsus. And 26 years later, he’ll sit down in his Jamaican villa and type The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

Was James Bond—neck-snapper, escape artist, serial shagger—the last repudiation of his creator’s cultural pedigree? Take that, fancy books; take that, whiskered shrinks. I, Ian Fleming, give you a hero almost without psychology: a bleak circuit of appetites, sensations, and prejudices, driven by a mechanical imperative called “duty.” In Jungian-alchemical terms, 007 is like lead, the metal associated with the dark god Saturn, lying coldly at the bottom of the crucible and refusing transformation. Boil him, slash him, poison him, flog him with a carpet beater and shoot his woman—Bond will not be altered.

The distinction has to be made, before we go any further, between the Bond of Fleming’s novels and the Bond of the movies. For that matter, distinctions have to be made among the various movie Bonds. You can’t really play him, because there’s nothing to play; you have to be him. Sean Connery had the darkness and the hairy chest. George Lazenby was a misfire. Roger Moore was a brilliant anti-actor, sleek with the absurd good fortune of landing such a plum gig. Timothy Dalton, the late-’80s Bond, trailed terrible whiffs of the ’70s: almost everything he did felt anachronistic. Pierce Brosnan had such a likable face, too likable, surely, for 007. But Daniel Craig, our current Bond, has a soured, turned-off quality that is very satisfying. He seems almost to be playing the role under duress, his features thickened and smeared as if goons from the Fleming estate have been working him over between takes.

The latest film, Skyfall, took us deeper into Bond than any of the previous ones, to the very brink of identifiable psychology. The death of the mother figure in the remote chapel, the plunge through the ice, the resurrection motifs: we seemed at moments to be entering the phantasmagoria of the Bond title sequences themselves, those underworld (undersea, sometimes) montages of flames and bullets and writhing women, occasionally churned by shock waves of Shirley Bassey.

Fleming’s novels, too, skirt the droning vacuum of Bond’s inner life. Is he human at all? From time to time he slumps, depressively—as, for example, in the opening pages of Thunderball: “Again Bond dabbed with the bloodstained styptic pencil at the cut on his chin and despised the face that stared sullenly back at him from the mirror above the washbasin. Stupid, ignorant bastard!” But this discontent is due to the fact that he has a hangover, he is between missions (traditionally a dangerous moment for Bond), and he has cut himself shaving. An immediate and physical ennui, in other words. He’ll be all right in a minute.

The theologian Cardinal Newman wrote that as we come to understand “the nothingness of this world … we begin, by degrees, to perceive that there are but two beings in the whole universe, our own soul, and the God who made it.” So it is with the Bond books, the difference being that in Bond’s universe the two great solitaries of existence are Bond himself and his controller, M: the vinegary omnipotence, the “shrewd grey eyes.” M sends him out; M calls him back; Bond will die for M. The books contain other characters, of course. The villains glow fantastically, fanatically, cranking their evil plots; the CIA’s Felix Leiter and assorted sidekicks come and go; and there are always the women, the beautiful women who cannot resist him. (Bond has to be irresistible—his irresistibility, his crude magnetic pull, is what he has in the place of charm.) But this is a ghost parade. It all comes down to Bond, and M, and the mission.

Ian Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels (and two collections of short stories), producing them at a rate of one a year, more or less, until the accumulated effects of a James-Bond-without-the-gunplay lifestyle did him in at the age of 56. The first post-Fleming Bond novel, Colonel Sun, was by the 007 superfan Kingsley Amis, who (under the pseudonym Robert Markham) gleefully submitted himself to the caprices of the Fleming style, with its stern limits and sudden, lurid inflations. Then John Gardner took over, writing 14 original Bond books. Then Raymond Benson wrote six, and Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver wrote one apiece. For the reader, the novels succeed in proportion to the ability of their authors to be generically and ritualistically Bond, to do—like Connery or Moore or Craig—the Bond thing.

In this respect, William Boyd, the author of the new Bond book Solo (to be published in the U.S. this month), understands his man very well. “He smiled grimly to himself, slid out of bed and walked naked into the en suite bathroom. The Dorchester had the most powerful showers in London.” This is Bond done right. The silky luxury, the sardonic virility, and then the ludicrous assertion of special knowledge—as if the relative strength of hotel showers has been tested all over London. (By Q Branch, perhaps.)

In the tradition of the Fleming novels, Solo is told from Bond’s point of view, and it is Bond’s habit and pleasure to break the world down into chunks of data—like the Terminator, if the Terminator were a huge snob and very fussy about his food, his cigarettes, etc. “On the other side of the room, next to a desk and a magazine rack by Gio Ponti, is a complete stereo system … by Sansui with six-foot Duntech Sovereign 2001 speakers in Brazilian rosewood.” This weirdly loving catalogue of goods is not from Solo, although it could well be. It’s from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It might equally (if the grammar were worse) be from Fifty Shades of Grey: the whip-wielding capitalist-fetishist Christian Grey is essentially James Bond without the sidearm.

In the authorial vision of Ian Fleming, there is a curious distortion, like a cyst or a kink in the lens. The objects around Bond are rendered with a strange particularity, but when it comes to the man himself, the edge of description is dulled. A few strokes, a tic or two: the cruel line of his mouth, his dark forward-falling comma of hair, and so on. When he talks, he says almost nothing. How did he serve his creator, this twanging nonperson? What did he have to do with Ian Fleming, the apprentice highbrow headed into the glittering Alps? “The past is a festering wound; the present the compress vainly applied, painfully torn off,” wrote Cyril Connolly, Fleming’s friend and the editor of the literary magazine Horizon. “We are all serving a life-sentence in the dungeon of self.” Not Bond. He’s breaking out. He has no history, he is untroubled by personality. Life itself is the evil plot—and he’s come to take it down.

Three Great Bond Novels Ian Fleming Didn't Write

Colonel Sun, by Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham), 1968. Bond with a fresh crust of elitist disaffection, so refined that he is upset by a too-forward sexual invitation from a female spy: “God! Bond’s gorge rose at the vulgarity of it, the confident obviousness.”

License Renewed, by John Gardner, 1981. Amis found it “so sodding tame,” but there’s a metallic directness to Gardner’s de-eroticized Bond. Its top-notch villain is the would-be world annihilator Murik: “His smile was as unpleasant and nerve-twitching as the lava look in his eyes.”

Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, 2008. So loving in its homage that it verges on pastiche, but Bond himself is in peak condition: “The scar on his cheek was less distinct than usual, thanks to the tanning effect of the Persian sun.”