A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing 79 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. These are books numbers 77 and 78.
Like James Bond, Ian Fleming ate heartily, drank enthusiastically, and smoked constantly. Unlike Bond, Fleming never figured out how to cheat death. Fleming was still at the height of his popularity—and Bond was just getting started in the films that would make him an international icon—when Fleming died of a heart attack, his second, at age 56. That fact casts a pall over 007 James Bond: A Report and Thrilling Cities, two pieces of Fleming miscellany that round out the bottom, or what’s next to the bottom, of the Box Of Paperbacks. The former, by O.F. Snelling, examines the James Bond literary phenomenon as a work-in-progress, unaware that it was about to reach its last entries by its original author. The latter, which collects a series of travel columns Fleming wrote for the Sunday Times in 1959 and 1960, captures a middle-aged man eager to explore the world and sup its wares, even if his travels sometimes leave him desiring home. He takes in the world with open, judgmental eyes, not knowing it’s his farewell tour.
I was prepared for 007 James Bond: A Report to be a bit of an outdated slog. Here’s a book authorized by Fleming and his publisher, and rushed to market to compete with a similar book by no less than Kingsley Amis (a friend of Fleming who would write the first post-Fleming Bond novel, Colonel Sun, under the pen name Robert Markham). And who was this O.F. Snelling, anyway? I’d never heard of him.
Nor do I have any reason to have heard of him. But he still lived an interesting life. A cartoonist, critic, journalist, soldier, and biographer with a particular interest in boxers’ lives, Snelling was best known for his work as an auctioneer’s clerk in the antiquarian-book trade. Specifically, he worked at a venerable firm called Hodgson’s, which dealt in rare books from 1861 until it closed in 1981. Employed there from 1949 until its last day of business, Snelling took its end as a signal for his own retirement, though he kept writing until his death in 2002. His work allowed him to brush up against real-life spies, thanks to his acquaintance with some double-dealing booksellers in cahoots with Russian spy Gordon Lonsdale. Snelling later worked with Lonsdale on his memoir. Even had he never entered the world of international intrigue, I think he still would have had a colorful history. But I’m predisposed to think that of any life spent around old books.
It’s likely that Snelling met Fleming as a player in the antiquarian-book trade. Fleming used to collect first editions of books he considered particularly influential in changing the course of human history: The Origin Of Species, Mein Kampf, and so on. In A Report, however, Snelling doesn’t mention knowing Fleming except through his books. And he writes of those books with fondness that doesn’t preclude criticism, first comparing Bond to predecessors like Bulldog Drummond, then cataloging his women and villains. Though A Report is hardly the final word in Bond scholarship, Snelling brings a light touch and a critical eye to each subject.
On women’s tendency to fall in love with Bond and want to change their lives, for instance, he writes:
To me, this sort of talk doesn’t ring true. I have always been a trifle cynical about the idea of the domesticated showgirl, popularized in Hollywood, and also, in passing, by the golden-hearted whore, exemplified in the whimsicalities of Steinbeck. But perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life.
Well, perhaps. But the book is at its most interesting when exploring some of the implausibilities and inconsistencies in Fleming’s universe. And when it looks beneath the surface. In discussing M, Snelling suggests that “either M is undersexed or that he sublimates like mad.” Or, Snelling suggests with extreme delicacy, that he’s gay.
Frustratingly, Snelling doesn’t dig too far beneath the surface, never getting much further than assertions before moving on to the next topic. But when it comes to the big picture, Snelling understands that Bond has become something more than a mere fictional character. Even chance encounters remind him of this:
I am observed reading Moonraker by a total stranger at a pub buffet. “So you read Fleming, too? Good yarn, that. But have you ever tried working out the speed that submarine was travelling at to be anywhere near the spot that the rocket fell?” My book was open. Its title was not printed at the top of the page: neither verso nor recto. I submit that very few Bond addicts are able to identify a complete stranger’s current reading from sidelong glances.
Only the most devoted, sure, but how many books could inspire that sort of devotion? Sometimes icons emerge over time. But sometimes you just know what’s going to stick around. Even in 1964, Bond was bigger than the books and films that contained him. Fleming was a good, sometimes very good, writer. But he tapped into something bigger than his own imagination when he created Bond, just like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before him, and J.K. Rowling afterward. Sometimes writers and artists summon up creations destined to leap beyond the bounds of their own imagination.
That’s true even of characters who have a lot in common with those who brought them to life. Snelling ends the book with a chapter called “His Future,” unaware that Bond’s future was soon to be without Fleming. Bond has enjoyed a long, variably healthy existence following Fleming’s death—although one that isn’t looking so certain these days. And yet reading Thrilling Cities makes it easy to appreciate Fleming’s unique, though sometimes frustrating voice.
For his ’round-the-world tour, Fleming made sure to pack his obsessions and prejudices. In each leg—seven cities stretching from Hong Kong to New York, and then a second round of seven in Europe—he offers a full report on food, alcohol, sleeping arrangements, and local vice. It’s a fascinating picture of the world that was, limited in scope but intense in focus. In Hong Kong, for instance, Fleming finds a city whose prostitution trade has been reshaped by Richard Mason’s 1957 hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold bestseller The World Of Suzie Wong. Mason has sent others looking for Suzie at the real-life Luk Kwok Hotel, but to no avail:
If you enquire after Suzie herself, you are answered with a melancholy shake of the head, and the sad, dramatic news that Suzie’s marriage failed and she is now back “on the pipe.” When you ask where you could find her it is explained that she will see no other man and waits for [World hero] Lomax one day to return. […] But there are many other beautiful girls here just as beautiful as Suzie. Would you care to meet one, a very particular friend of Suzie’s?
Fleming knows a thing or two about the tricky way fiction and reality wrap around each other. The Thrilling Cities excursions informed the Bond books that followed. A Tokyo sojourn found its way into You Only Live Twice, and in Macao, Fleming meets a man named Dr. Lobo who keeps a tight grasp on the local gold trade. Whether he’s a real-life Bond villain or Fleming has nudged the facts to make him seem like one, I’ll leave to others better versed in the underworld of mid-century Macao to determine.
Fleming provides plenty of concrete evidence of mid-century Western cultural attitudes, however. “This was my first experience of Oriental Woman,” he writes of attending a Macao dance parlor, continuing, “Oriental ladies have an almost inexhaustible desire to please.” You can probably finish the rest yourself, though it’s worth noting that he ultimately ends up writing less about Asian womanhood’s supposed desire to please men than what he perceives to be a waning of the same desire in the West, where “women—and this applies particularly to America—take a ferocious delight in cutting the man down to size.” Frightful, these modern women. No matter so many men went in search of their own Suzie Wong.
Fleming is unapologetically, even knowingly stodgy in his attitudes. If he’d lived further into the 1960s, I wonder if those attitudes, and Bond’s, would have shifted? I suspect not. In fact, I suspect both would have dug in, if only out of amused cussedness. In the New York chapter, Fleming plays the part of disapproving Englishman to its fullest, writing mournfully of a city—and by extension, country—that’s “losing its heart.” Why? The usual reasons, really: the dissolution of the family, self-congratulation, and escapism. (And, curiously, something he calls “Momism,” his word for “the vast economic power (via alimony, inheritance, and other factors) held by women,” whose ill effects apparently need no further explanation.) But his reasoning seems vague. Really, he just sounds like he’s grown alienated from “the world’s stripling,” the “heir to world supremacy.” But was it America, or the future America represented that left him so out of sorts? He never got a chance to find out. And so neither will we.
Next, and finally:
The Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein