Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Casino Royale: Ian Fleming

Another confession, after the Alistair MacLean one: this is my first James Bond read. Since I am not much of a film buff either, the only Bond film I’ve seen is Octopussy, and my sole memory of that film is Vijay Amritraj focusing a close circuit camera on a woman’s cleavage. I was probably of that age then. But I digress before I begin.

I thought I’ll get a sense of the icon that James Bond is and so I decided to start from the beginning. (Am doing likewise with Modesty Blaise as well – that review shall follow later.) Casino Royale ushered in arguably the most famous introduction in the world of spy fiction, nay, in all fiction, with “Mine’s Bond – James Bond.” Spydom was never the same again.

Of course, hindsight is always perfect. So it’s easy to see why James Bond became what he was. But Casino Royale has rather unassuming beginnings, a touch overwritten and melodramatic even, quite in contrast to the suave protagonist.

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

But since you know it’s about a cult personality, you plough on. And you don’t get disappointed. The myth construction is massive, the image building is unmissable, the action is either looming or is on. (However, it would be interesting to read early reviews of Casino Royale, from reviewers for whom James Bond was not yet the James Bond.)

As you gradually delve into the book, the pieces come together. The first piece – the “women as sex symbol” attitude.

‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal, ‘you will be very pleased with your Number Two. She is very beautiful’ – Bond frowned – ‘very beautiful indeed.’ Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Mathis continued: ‘she has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid . . . er . . . protuberances. Back and front,’ he added. ‘And she is a wireless expert which, though sexually less interesting, makes her a perfect employee of Radio Stentor and assistant to myself in my capacity as wireless salesman for this rich summer season down here.’

Then comes the 007 car. As original as its owner.

Bond’s car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4 ½-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war. It was still serviced every year and, in London, a former Bentley mechanic, who worked in a garage near Bond’s Chelsea flat, tended it with jealous care. Bond drove it hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure. It was a battleship-grey convertible coupĂ©, which really did convert, and it was capable of touring at ninety with thirty miles an hour on reserve.

The legend of the Bond car is well and truly under way. Except, you wonder, if he were a secret agent, would he want such a conspicuous car, such an obvious giveaway? Well, I suppose if you are creating legends, you need the trappings.

Then the drink. ‘Shaken, not stirred’ is an expression we hear often enough. But what really is the secret recipe of Bond’s drink?

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?’

Ah, I’m thirsty.

As with most superstar character building, James Bond’s reputation is built on some of the cases he reportedly worked on successfully before the current one. In a classic reversal of the old dictum “show, don’t tell,” the superstar’s exploits are told to us from his past. The current case he handles is just one more in the long line, as it were. Quite a bit of the Sherlock Holmes legend also, if memory serves me right, was built this way.

I realize I’m long into the review but I’ve barely talked about the book. But that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? You read (or watch) James Bond for James Bond, not for the plot. Of course, Casino Royale has a plot – the hero busts a Russian spy by beating him at the baccarat table. And while he gets there, there are attempts on his life, he kills some Russian’s underlings along the way, and there is the odd twist with a beautiful woman. Of course, a lot of what he achieves is attributable to good fortune, but then James Bond is the kind of character who can charm the pants off lady luck, or so the legend got built.

With a character as memorable as James Bond, you could have a plot so thin it can be written on the back of a bus ticket, and still make for a great read. That’s Casino Royale for you.

I suppose it’s fair to assume that though Ian Fleming probably planned to create James Bond as a character who would travel through a series of books, he wouldn’t have realized what a cult he was about to create. But if the racy style of the narrative is anything to go by, he certainly intended a movie version of the book. Now the book carries an image from the movie. Did Ian Fleming succeed?

One last snippet on the personality of James Bond.

‘I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very pernickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally have to eat my meals alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.’

That to me defines the character. And its success.

1 comment:

Casino Royal Fan said...

Absolutely loved this film, could stare at Daniel Craig all day! How fantastic is that man, has the most amzing eyes i have ever come across. That suit at the end...... Stunning! If you'll want to watch it advice to take a look at Movie Downloads Library for it.