Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Goldeneye, Where Bond was Born

“Nothing propinks like propinquity.”

So remarked Felix Leiter to James Bond in Ian Fleming’s fourth Bond novel, Diamonds are Forever. It was propinquitous that someone at Pegasus Books thought that I’d reviewed another of Fleming’s books, For Your Eyes Only, a collection of five of Fleming’s short stories featuring Bond, and queried me about reviewing Matthew Parker’s newly released Goldeneye, Where Bond was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. I hadn’t reviewed Eyes Only anywhere, but asked Pegasus to send Mr. Parker’s book on anyway.  

I very rarely review biographies because the best-written ones I could not do justice to, whether or not they are worth recommending (or deep-sixing). Goldeneye is an exception, for it is about Fleming and one of my favorite thriller heroes, James Bond. I have read over a score of biographies of Fleming and dozens of books about Bond alone. Most of these are forgettable in that they are either bland or slyly critical of Fleming and dismissive of Bond or blatantly exploitive of Fleming’s cash value. I won't name names here.

But Parker’s book is a balanced melding of the biographies of Fleming, Bond and Jamaica. He weaves such an indelible and integrated portrait of all three that one can almost feel the heat of Jamaica and move through Fleming’s retreat from the world, Goldeneye, which he had built, and become one of his guests there. Parker has painted a compelling, colorful landscape that includes all three subjects.

This includes Fleming’s apparently insatiable appetite for women, married or not. But even when he was married, he did not believe monogamy was healthy for any marriage. Neither did his wife.

My passion for the Bond novels (not for the movies) is such that for years I spent not an inconsiderable amount of money on collecting a set of first editions of the Bond novels and short story collections published by Jonathan Cape. I have that complete set and early editions of his other fiction and nonfiction, such as The Diamond Smugglers, Thrilling Cities, and an illustrated children’s novel, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

As for the Bond movies, allow me to speak a heresy here: It has always been my opinion that the superb actor Patrick McGoohan (of Danger Man and The Prisoner fame) would have made a far better (and brainier) Bond than Sean Connery. He was offered the role, but turned it down because he thought the action in Dr. No, the first Bond film, was too violent and full of sex.

This is not to score Connery, a fine actor. But fine actors too often are not the best judges of the material they are asked to bring to life. The producers of Dr. No and subsequent Bond films, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, started a trend that would see the diminishing of the hero to a parodied, tongue-in-cheek joke in all the subsequent Bond films, including those based on all the bogus Bond novels written by others after Fleming’s death in 1964. I never cared for any of the Bonds that followed Connery’s, either.

I wrote a review of the fourth of these bogus Bond novels, License Renewed, for the Wall Street Journal in June, 1981. I was not aware then that there had been three previous pastiches. My literary philosophy concerning the cannibalization of another author’s works compelled me to excoriate the plot and more or less tell such opportunistic hacks to write their own damned novels, to conceive of their own ideas and not “borrow” others’ works.  

It’s a literary crime tantamount to having the brass to write a sequel to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (although the estate of Rand would come down like a ton of bricks on the heads of the author and publisher who tried). Numerous other successful authors, such as Raymond Chandler, have had their work “continued” by such writers. I have no use for them or their bogus books, and neither should anyone else who values originality in literature. Someone might ask: But how would Fleming’s James Bond remain current, relative, and in the public mind except to hire second-handers to write what Fleming never wrote?

Does durable fiction or art of any kind need second-hand hacks to perpetuate the durable? I don’t think so.

But, back to Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye. Parker’s easy prose draws one into the private and public life of Fleming as he discovers the charms of Jamaica. It would not be for years until he decided to try his hand at novels and created James Bond, a name he cadged from an ornithologist whose book he liked. The book is interspersed with chapters on the history of Jamaica as an outpost of the British Empire and a refuge for expatriates seeking to escape the constricting confines of British culture and society, to its rise as an independent country within the Commonwealth. When Fleming first visited Jamaica in the 1940s it was still the retreat of millionaires and eccentrics and retained the character and milieu of the old but vanishing Empire. By the time Fleming died in 1964, it had been “ruined” and dragged into a fast-moving world kicking and screaming. Well, at least it was the British social elite that kicked and screamed.

By 1955 it was a changed environment. Fleming and others, such as another eccentric, playwright and multi-talented Noël Coward, who built his own house and became a close friend of Fleming’s, bemoaned the political and social changes, but rolled with the punches. Jamaica was being “discovered” by hoteliers of every imaginable stripe. Racecourses disappeared and private beaches became public. Bridal paths became golf courses, and exclusive clubs and hangouts of the white elite were open to one and all.

But all this was to serve as the genesis of James Bond. Dr. No, a Bond novel that was written Fleming at Goldeneye. That novel is all about Jamaica itself, writes Parker.

The “repackaging” of the Bond character, in the written word as well as in the cinematic venue, continues unabated, and, frankly, gets worse and worse. I never much cared for any of the Connery depictions of Bond, except in Dr. No, but I was not enthralled by the senseless denouement in the 1962 film, in which the arch villain Dr. No is boiled alive in a tub of radioactive water instead of being smothered in a mound of guano dust. What was so difficult about shooting that scene? But, we had to have our gimmicks and toys and hokey technology.

The balance of the movies actually based on the novels that Fleming wrote were just “kinda-sorta” based on Fleming’s plots. The only memorable things for me about the films are most of the scores. After that, publishers and hack writers took Bond on rides Fleming never intended Bond to experience.

The cover art of the Thomas & Mercer editions of Fleming novels, including the bogus ones, look as though they’ve been designed by a computer, while the Penguin/Jonathan Cape Books covers are either intriguingly symbolic or feature lovingly drawn, come-hither, gorgeous women imagined by a human with a decided fondness for the female body. See this chronology of the Bond novels here, vs. here and here, and judge for yourself.

There is a sour note concerning Fleming’s estimate of his own work. Or perhaps it’s Parker’s estimate. We have only Parker’s assertion about what Fleming thought of his own work. Parker contends that Fleming didn’t take James Bond seriously.  Discussing Live and Let Die, Parker writes:

The story is framed by the Cold War and contains a nod to modern Jamaica with the mention of the strategic importance of bauxite. But with its lost pirate treasure, sharks and killer centipedes and black magic, it is really an old-fashioned Boy’s Own adventure story. One American reviewer would call it a ‘lurid meller contrived by mixing equal parts of Oppenheim and Spillane.’ Fleming concedes this with his soon-to-be customary knowing looks to the reader: Bond describes his mission as an ‘adventure’; one villain looks ‘like the bad man in a film about poker-players and gold mines’; Bond’s Jamaica colleague Strangways, on hearing that the heroine needs rescuing, exclaims, ‘Sort of damsel in distress Good show!’ (pp. 153-4) (There are no numbered endnotes, so I was not able to identify the cretin whom Parker is quoting, only that he took the quotation from “LLD 239” and “LLD 278.” The London Literary Digest?)

And, again on p. 184, discussing the reception of Diamonds are Forever,  Parker asserts that Fleming gave his readers the “knowing looks.”

There are some excellent set pieces in Diamonds are Forever – the drive-in, the mud-baths, the racetrack at Saratoga (where Bond appreciates ‘the extra touch of the negroes’), but the story misses the crazy central megalomania of the villains of the previous two books. The ‘knowing looks’ to the reader – ‘He had been a stage-gangster, surrounded by stage properties’; ‘Mike Hammer routine. These American gangsters were too obvious’; ‘That was quite an exit. Like something out of an old Buster Keaton film’ – feel more tired than arch. ‘For Bond it was just the end of another adventure,’ Fleming concludes, his weariness palpable. (p. 184) (These are cited in “DF,” whatever that stands for. There is no legend that identifies the various literary publications Parker quotes from. Otherwise, I would name that culprit, as well.)

I didn’t sense that “knowing look” in any of the Bond novels. I take Spillane as seriously as I have Bond. That will never change.

It is unfortunate that Parker spoiled his book by making these unsubstantiated assertions.

All in all, however, Goldeneye is a delight to read and educational, to boot, an contains information about Fleming and his work regime not otherwise available in other books about Fleming and his craft.

I  recommend Parker’s Goldeneye, not highly, but with the cited reservations.

Goldeneye, Where Bond was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, by Matthew Parker. New York: Pegasus Books. 388 pp.


Joe said...

Sounds interesting Ed. I'm glad you mentioned the music of some of the Bond films... In my opinion some of those scores outshine the actual movies.

Edward Cline said...

Joe: Yes, John Barry's scores to the Bond films are indeed memorable and in many instances more so than are the films themselves.