On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming
A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 64, with some references to books number 62 and 63, and an explanation of why it’s been so long since the last column.
Not to begin on a Jim Anchower-esque note, but I want to start by explaining why it’s been so long since this column appeared. It’s not because I lost interest. In fact, writing this column is one of my favorite parts of the job, and though I’ve nearly exhausted my original box of paperbacks, I have plans for a slightly modified follow-up feature to keep it going. Here’s why I’ve been gone: Last year was not a good year. But if you don’t mind indulging me as I get into some off-topic personal reflection, let me back up a few years further. (And if you do mind, just skip down to the break to get to the column proper.)
In August 2007, my then-79-year-old father was in a serious car accident in my hometown, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. After three months spent in the hospital, then a nursing home, he was able to come home. He never fully recovered, either physically or mentally, but for a long while, he seemed stable, though fragile, and still fundamentally my dad. That stability started to slip last spring around the same time I stopped writing my column. (There were delays in previous years, too, some of which I would attribute to my father’s health, some to the demands of the Inventory book and other projects.) I hope, in other ways, you didn’t notice this. I was still able to carry on with my usual A.V. Club duties, even attending Comic-Con and taking the week after it to work on a non-A.V. Club writing project that had me driving across the Southwest. (I called home frequently, and dad would answer and end the call with his familiar “Be careful,” but I had a feeling this wouldn’t be true on future trips.) But dealing with my father’s worsening situation, which started to require frequent trips from Chicago to Ohio as summer turned into fall, started to take up the time usually dedicated to the writing I do outside of my core editorial duties, not to mention the time usually spent reading books for this column. And, frankly, on the weeks when it didn’t take up that time, I didn’t really have it in me.
My father died this past October at the age of 81. That’s not a tragic age to die, and I believe he lived the life he wanted to live for most of those 81 years. I hope whoever’s left after I’m gone will be able to say the same of me. But I still miss him, usually at moments when I least expect to miss him. He was a man of few words, but of admirable, tough-to-match kindness.
Two more things before we get to James Bond. First, I’d like to publicly thank Onion Inc. and especially my A.V. Club colleagues for being so understanding and picking up my slack while this was going on. Second, I’m going to ask a bit of indulgence from you, my Box Of Paperbacks readers: Don’t make me write about the remaining Lensman books. I read them, as promised by the header of this column. I swear I did. I just hate them. Sure, I can see their influence in everything from Green Lantern to Star Wars, but the series reads to me as an endless parade of flat characters talking in a future-by-way-of-the-mid-20th-century tough-guy dialogue, with some hard-to-follow descriptions of technology interrupted by the occasional battle between supreme good and supreme evil, the former only slightly duller than the latter. I know this series is beloved by some, so maybe it’s my problem. I didn’t like Avatar either, and I’ve been scratching my head over its near-universal adoration. (Really universal; the Chinese are flocking to it, too.) Then again, the simplicity of the story and the flatness of the characters are what bugged me in James Cameron’s film. The Lensman series makes Avatar look like Middlemarch by comparison.
Now, let’s go on to some French navels, shall we?
“They flaunted their bodies,” Ian Fleming writes of two young Frenchwomen who walk in front of James Bond early in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, “paused and chattered to see if he would respond, and, when he didn’t, linked arms and sauntered towards the town, leaving Bond wondering why it was that French girls had more prominent navels than any others. Was it that French surgeons sought to add, even in this minute respect, to the future sex-appeal of girl babies?” I’m not sure how seriously Fleming wants us to take Bond’s medical theorizing here, or even how seriously Bond takes it. (Or, for that matter, if it bears any relation to actual French navels circa 1963.) But it speaks to something in his character. For all his encounters with the rough end of the world, he still views it as a procession of treats to be savored. It makes sense to him that others would see it the same way, and try to shape it accordingly. Or at least that’s how he feels as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens. By the book’s end, Bond is looking like a changed, broken man.
Life has had its stings. The book opens with a visit to the grave of Vesper Lynd, the woman who won his heart, then betrayed him, in his first adventure, Casino Royale. It closes—and we’re entering spoiler territory here—with an even more cutting blow, with Bond losing his wife even before the wedding champagne has lost its fizz. As a man skipping across the surface of the world, sampling women and food between missions, he finds a shallow sort of happiness easy to maintain. Any time he tries for something deeper, he gets hurt.
I’ve read the original Bond books in order over the course of this series, not counting The Spy Who Loved Me, since that wasn’t included in the box. (Though Fleming didn’t care for it, it sounds interesting, and I do plan to check it out someday.) If Fleming has a master plan for his super-spy, it’s to evolve him by degrees. After unsuccessfully killing him off in From Russia With Love, Fleming seemed a little bored with his most famous creation over the next couple of books, Goldfinger and Dr. No. But Thunderball brought in some new shades, opening with a section in which M fears for Bond’s health and sends him off to a spa. Death makes its presence felt in OHMSS, too, primarily in the brutal final chapter. Did Fleming, who died at age 54, a year after OHMSS’s publication, feel the specter looming in his own life?
Trying to make Bond a deeper, more interesting character has one problem: He’s almost completely resistant to introspection. Emotions other than pleasure and anger confuse him. Here, his romance with Tracy, the woman he marries, has less to do with the feelings most people associate with falling in love than it has to do with a pragmatic recognition that the latest sexually damaged woman to share his bed seems well-equipped to be a jolly long-term companion. It makes Bond a bit inflexible as a character, but that inflexibility carries its own sort of interest, too. Small changes upset him. Big ones leave him wrecked. Fleming was reportedly fed up with Bond and ready to abandon him—again—when he died, but I sometimes wonder what an older Fleming could have done with an aging Bond, one increasingly out of touch with the times around him, time whose tastes in the finer things are already starting to diverge wildly from his own.
In the other direction, Fleming had no shortage of backstory to fill out. We learn here—for the first time, I think—of Bond’s Scottish/Swiss heritage, the Scottish father a likely nod to Sean Connery. (There’s also a winking reference to Dr. No Bond girl Ursula Andress.) And that tells us… Not much, really. In some ways, it’s Bond’s lack of psychological depth that makes him intriguing. He really is, to come back full circle to Casino Royale, a blunt instrument of the state.
I’d seen the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a couple of times before reading this book. (Quick take: I long for a world in which Connery stayed on as Bond, since, apart from the lead brick of George Lazenby in the title role, and the unthrilling bobsled-chase finale, it’s one of the series’ best entries. It’s got all that skiing, an amazing supervillain lair, and Diana Rigg, one of the few women in the series to hold her own against the hero. She’s a truly fine actress—I had the pleasure of seeing her play Medea in the ’90s—and a crush object of mine ever since A&E started showing reruns of The Avengers when I was in high school.) I wasn’t expecting the book to bear much resemblance to the film, whose plot is pretty outré even by the series’ standards. I was wrong: It’s all there, from Bond’s Corsican-mafia-endorsed courtship to the beautiful girls being programmed for biological warfare by way of hypnosis. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the most faithful Bond adaptation there is, with the possible exception of From Russia With Love.
On its own, it’s one of the best Fleming-penned Bond adventures, too. Fleming sells the tension of Bond’s undercover mission to take down Blofeld, his antagonist in Thunderball, whom he’ll face again in You Only Live Twice. (The three books form an unofficial trilogy.) He doesn’t really sell the romance between Bond and Tracy, but it’s an amusing departure whose tragic turn sets up the character for added dimension in later books. (Having not read those yet, I don’t know if Fleming builds on that possibility.) One moment has Bond dreaming of a scene of domestic normality and calling it a nightmare, but the real nightmare comes with Tracy’s death.
Whether he would have traded the loss for dull domesticity remains an open question, and one for which I don’t think Fleming had an answer. Could Bond be Bond if he had a warm hearth to return to? Here, Bond takes a gamble on the affirmative, but he never has a chance to find out if the bet would pay off. Fleming shares a lot with Bond, from his taste in eggs to the sudden, violent loss of a lover; the London Times has an excellent article on the connections. Yet as much as he presents Bond’s life as a fantasy, he also offers frequent reminders of the tragedy at the core of his hero’s existence. For all the joy he takes in its incidental pleasures, he’s doomed to play a loser’s game.
The Last Starship From Earth, by John Boyd
“Rarely is it given man to know the day or the hour when fate intervenes in his destiny, but, because he had checked his watch just before he saw the girl with the hips, Haldane IV knew the day, the hour, and the minute.”
The Metal Monster, by A. Merritt
“In this great crucible of life we call the world—in the vaster one we call the universe—the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean’s shore.”