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James Bond books, still brilliantly unsettling

06-May-2008 • Literary

Snobbery of various kinds surrounds Ian Fleming's 007 spy stories, but few readers find them easy to put down - writes Sam Jordison in The Guardian.

As the 100th anniversary of his birth approaches, it's tempting to characterise Ian Fleming as The Man With The Golden Pen, as a calculatingly commercial author of absurd misogynistic fantasies. Even his own wife Ann icily described him as "hammering out pornography" when he spent his disciplined three-hours a day writing the books in their Jamaican home.

There's some justice to that attitude, but also more than a suspicion of literary snobbery, which remains to this day, as pointed out by Bond aficionado Ben Macintyre when discussing the vague surprise that greeted the revelation of the supposedly serious writer Sebastian Faulks's engagement to write a new Bond book. An attitude neatly summed up by Martin Amis who derided his own father's attempt to write a Bond novel as a cheapening of his art, saying that: "After he divorced my mother, Kingsley was so churned up emotionally that he couldn't write anything more serious than James Bond."

Nevertheless, just like Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett before him, Fleming is slowly being adopted into the literary fold. In 2002, a trio of Bond books were given the honour (a "cheeky" one, as the LRB approvingly described it) of a release in the Penguin Classics range with a typically bombastic introduction by Christopher Hitchens (who bellows happily about the book's "immense adhesiveness"). At the beginning of this year, meanwhile, The Times declared Fleming the fourteenth greatest British writer (in any genre) since the war, ahead of Anthony Powell and John Fowles, no less, even if Tolkien and CS Lewis mysteriously seem to have topped him.

There's certainly good reason to take Fleming seriously as a creator of "literature" in the approving, FR Leavis sense of the word. There are few more atmospheric literary routes into the misery (I'm thinking especially of the descriptions of the drab life in the USSR at the beginning of From Russia With Love), as well as the reliably exciting paranoia of the Cold War years. Thanks to the cartoon violence of the films it's also easy to forget just how effective the sadism in the novels can be. Fleming's books are creepy and chilling and this graphic cruelty, combined with painstakingly accurate descriptions of high-living, fine eating and the pleasures of quality consumer goods must make Bond a direct ancestor to characters like Patrick Bateman and the unnamed protagonist of Fight Club as much as the promiscuous father of so many lesser pulp-thriller spies. It certainly merits him a place in the canon.

But the trouble with that kind of analysis - as well as its pretentiousness - is in its discrete expression of a snobbery only slightly less extreme than that of Martin Amis: the belief that the books have to somehow be more than mere thrillers to be worth preserving.

Although he was hardly a man burdened by false modesty, Ian Fleming never fell into such a trap himself. His aim, famously, was simply to write "the spy story to end all spy stories" and he happily talked about his "pillow book fantasies of an adolescent mind." He was right. Bond does have an edge, but the novels are essentially lightweight, adrenalin pumping and frequently and gleefully absurd.

But that's not to disparage them. A good thriller is worth more than its weight in gold - more even than the multi-million industry that Fleming created. There's a magic to the brooding enigmatic James Bond, his glamorous lifestyle, his vast range of pervert foes and their crazy weapons. Fleming also has perhaps the greatest benchmark of writerly talent in spades: unputdownability.

This intuitive talent is neatly demonstrated by his biographer Andrew Lycett in his quotation from the writer's early drafts. The first attempt at the opening sentence of Casino Royale was: "Scent and smoke hit the taste buds with an acid thwack at three o'clock in the morning." The second: "Scent and smoke and sweat can suddenly combine together and hit the taste buds with an acid shock at three o'clock in the morning." The third - and the one that stuck was: "The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

What's better about that third attempt? Hard to say. The nice muted sibilance is more or less present in the other sentences, but perhaps the increased simplicity makes it work better ... But really, it defies explanation. It's just intangibly, undeniably, an improvement. A level of quality that snares readers right up until the brutal final words: "The bitch is dead now."

Whether Bond would have survived so long without the enduring film franchise is moot, but writing as nasty and unsettling as that is always going to be worth reading.

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