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Bond analyst Simon Winder discusses Ian Fleming`s legacy

25-May-2008 • Literary

Ian Fleming, James Bond's creator, would have turned 100 on May 28. Fleming, who died in 1964, gave England its most enduring hero of the 20th century, and England belatedly is showing its gratitude by turning Fleming's 100th birthday into a yearlong celebration. The occasion has been marked with a set of postage stamps, museum exhibits and weekly rounds of retrospective newspaper articles - reports SunTimes.

In America the celebration is more subdued, limited to the publication of Sebastian Faulks' new Bond novel, Devil May Care (coming out this week) and the build-up to the November release of the next film, "Quantum of Solace" (named for one of Fleming's short stories).

Yet echoes of the Fleming revival have carried across the Atlantic. Less than a decade ago the original Bond books were out of print here, but today all 14 are available in trade paperbacks with snazzy pulp-art covers from Penguin.

Bond fan and British author Simon Winder has observed the events surrounding Fleming's centennial birthday with the same admiration and bemusement found in his 2006 book, The Man Who Saved Britain. The book is a snarky, politically tinged memoir of an adolescence immersed in Bond. Winder also compiled an anthology of Fleming's prose titled, My Name's Bond, James Bond, published in 2000.

Speaking from London, Winder shared his thoughts on the Fleming centenary.

Q. In the preface to My Name's Bond, you write that Fleming is "oddly taken for granted and particularly worthy of celebrating." Is he still taken for granted?

A. I think he's had a real renaissance, actually. When that anthology was done, the novels sold very few copies. They weren't even in print in the U.S., I don't think, and it was really a low ebb. People had forgotten about them and just were interested in the films. And I think that the success of the movie "Casino Royale" changed that.

Q. Why did "Casino Royale" lead fans to Fleming when other Bond films didn't?

A. The way that the movie of "Casino Royale" was based so closely to the book gave people a legitimate opportunity to go back and see what the fuss was about. Daniel Craig was great, but the real reason I think that film worked was because it was based on a real book and so it had a real plot, and the previous films obviously had been completely terrible -- a series of dumb chases and explosions. Whereas this film ... had this great plot [and] this idea that Bond fails. The idea that Bond is vulnerable rather than someone who smirks and kills people also was a big improvement, because that's in the book itself.

Q. Casino Royale differs from the later books because Bond comes off as a loser.

A. Yes. He gets everything wrong. I always think of the way John le Carre used to attack Fleming and say, "How unrealistic and snobbish." But that's not really true of the first book. In the later books, as in the films, there's the effortlessness in the way in which this one hard-drinking, chain-smoking Englishman oddly manages to survive and defeat all these bad guys in a way that is less realistic and less fun.

Q. I once heard le Carre say in an interview that the problem with Bond is that he's a Cold War spy pursuing his job as if it were a hot war, but isn't that the point of Bond?

A. Yes. In fact, Bond's doing all the things no one would dare do, and that's kind of fun, given it's fiction. I tend to think of le Carre's fiction being just as implausible. Its sheer coldness and bitterness -- I don't buy it for a moment. They're enjoyable to read, but they're no more plausible than Fleming.

Q. What do you think -- aside from the sex and the violence -- that we get out of reading Fleming that we don't get from reading contemporary thriller writers?

A. We have the huge advantage of time going by that you plunge into the 1950s in a way which is really refreshing. That does give him a huge jump up over modern writers, just because they are doomed to write about now. Even when his plot's going completely wrong, you're still enjoying the kinds of things he's describing: the kinds of cars, the kinds of attitudes, what people are wearing, eating and so on.

Also, it's interesting coming face to face with those Second World War values. It's strange to come up against a figure who is genuinely so patriotic, who is extending the emergency of the Second World War into the Cold War world. It's quite bracing. It's interesting to read such certainty of the evilness of evil people, the desirability of the female people, the entertainment of being abroad, the way he's so competent in his Britishness.

Q. How long do think it will be until a set of the original 14 books is issued as The Annotated James Bond with footnotes explaining, say, what the KGB was?

A. I think it would be really a fun idea. It would be really great to do Casino Royale with a really big apparatus of notes. It's true that on every page he's referring to something that's ...

Q. Gone.

A. Yeah, absolutely. It's not there anymore. What was the French Communist party and so on? As time goes by there's definitely a layer of silt building up on the books.

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