"Ian Fleming: The Complete Man" by Nicholas Shakespeare

UK: 5 October, '23
US: 6 March, '24

"A fresh portrait of the man behind James Bond, and his enduring impact, by an award-winning biographer with unprecedented access to the Fleming family papers.

Ian Fleming’s greatest creation, James Bond, has had an enormous and ongoing impact on our culture. What Bond represents about ideas of masculinity, the British national psyche and global politics has shifted over time, as has the interpretation of the life of his author. But Fleming himself was more mysterious and subtle than anything he wrote.

Ian’s childhood with his gifted brother Peter and his extraordinary mother set the pattern for his ambition to be ‘the complete man’, and he would strive for the means to achieve this ‘completeness’ all his life. Only a thriller writer for his last twelve years, his dramatic personal life and impressive career in Naval Intelligence put him at the heart of critical moments in world history, while also providing rich inspiration for his fiction. Exceptionally well connected, and widely travelled, from the United States and Soviet Russia to his beloved Jamaica, Ian had access to the most powerful political figures at a time of profound change.

Nicholas Shakespeare is one of the most gifted biographers working today. His talent for uncovering material that casts new light on his subjects is fully evident in this masterful, definitive biography. His unprecedented access to the Fleming family papers and his nose for a story make this a fresh and eye-opening picture of a man whose life was overshadowed by his famous creation."

6 Likes

Yes, I have read about this book, it’s around 800 to 900 pages, so it’s not a simple book written in one weekend.

Out next week…

2 Likes

A Fleming biography written by Shakespeare.

4 Likes

Got it last week, but didn’t find the time ro read it.

Of course this won’t be out in the States for another few months yet. :frowning:

2 Likes

You can buy it right now on the English Amazon, or on the Dutch Bol.com (where I did buy it).

Luckily I was able to order it from amazon.de – which means that I don’t have to pay an additional tax upon arrival (Thank you Nigel, Thank you Boris). Unlike “On His Majesty’s Secret Service”, which I had to order from amazon.co.uk. Actually, it’s not the tax that I’m mad about, it’s only a few cents. It’s the extra fee of 6 Euros Deutsche Post is charging, for paying these few cents in advance on my behalf. :roll_eyes:

4 Likes

Utterly bizarre act of self-sabotage there. If Smersh conceived a plan to kick the *#%+ out of Britain’s economy - especially the hugely important small-firm sector - they couldn’t have done much better.

Just one example: Startup label “&sons” (so-called ‘rugged wear’ whatever one may imagine under that moniker) now has to go the whole customs/import duties clearance for two thirds of their customer base - but are too small for their own clearance branch or to open a EU sub-department that acts as importer like competitors (Barbour, Peregrine). They had to outsource this to a service provider for a fee that customers have to pay.

So now their stuff has become not only more expensive compared to bigger players in the market. Even US labels like Filson have easier access to the EU than this small company. And this is the case for practically every sector and industry: small to midsized players pay the price.

All this we’ve known for years, no secret about it. I’ve seen projections from 2015, well before the referendum, that predicted just this outcome of ‘hard Brexit’* - and I know my opposite numbers in London, Bruxelles and any number of other EU capitals have had the same impact assessment reports on their desks. That’s why we called it lunacy and didn’t believe anybody was stupid enough to go this route. Well…

A good kick to the teeth is what it is. May I suggest to call this doctrine henceforth the ‘Drax-Moonraker-dogma’’ in honour of its spiritual ancestry?

*It wasn’t called ‘hard Brexit’ back then, the term had not been coined yet. But the general idea of a market player wilfully cutting off its own position was considered so wildly absurd as not to merit its own label, simply for lack of need.

3 Likes

https://twitter.com/RaymondBenson/status/1724438657031966865

Raymond Benson has read it, and given it his approval.

1 Like

U.S. cover art, because we can’t have nice things

2 Likes

Really looks underwhelming. Bit like they took the intern’s first try to boost their morale rather than getting a decent cover on their product.

2 Likes

The reviews have been very good overall:

Sunday Times

Guardian

Literary Review

The New Statesman

The Spectator

The Economist

Financial Times

The Telegraph

5 Likes

A negative review has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement. Some excerpts:

Since last year marked the seventieth anniversary of the publication of his first novel, Casino Royale, it may be worth taking a necessarily brief look at what Fleming achieves in it.

The passage of time has not treated it kindly. The creakiness of the plot is all too visible. The initial premiss that the villain, Le Chiffre, an accomplished player, could be best dealt with by being ruined at the baccarat table seems implausible. As is the appearance of the Russian assassin from Smersh as the deus ex machina who saves Bond from certain death. The role of Vesper Lynd, Bond’s colleague and sex interest, is unclear. She provides an unlikely ending by her implausible suicide…Characters are flat and description is uncompelling…There is little dramatic action, largely limited to what occurs at the baccarat table, where Bond’s triumph is a matter of chance. What he mainly does in the novel is experience suffering in both body and spirit. Given such enforced passivity, it may be suggestive that what is probably the most engaged writing is in the account of Bond’s torture by flagellation.

What was the evident appeal of the book to its first audiences? Possibly an important aspect of the answer lies less in either character or plot than in the nature of the material world Fleming creates for Bond to inhabit. It is a world that is underpinned by its tone of vicarious consumerism, which opened up an exotic world outside the experience of most of his readers. First, most obviously, but significantly, it was Abroad, at a time when there were still severe restrictions on the possibility of getting there…And it was Abroad in a way that insisted on specifying the minutiae of luxury…None of this detail is relevant to plot or character. But it does establish a narrative voice, authoritative, informed and shaped by a sense of what are the good (that is, expensive) things of life, mostly unattainable in postwar austerity England.

This aspect of Fleming’s prose…shows the historical, cultural and economic distance that separates the modern reader from James Bond’s experience of things. France is an hour away from London; champagne comes from the supermarket. Cigarettes, caviar and expensive cars are politically incorrect; Abroad is an established part of our experience. The element of vicarious consumer engagement that formed an important part of Casino Royale’s appeal for its initial readership has been diminished, the careful calibrations of Bond’s snobbish environment having little relationship or relevance to modern experience…

…Fleming was a minor literary talent who posthumously became a cultural phenomenon. For all the scrupulous diligence of Nicholas Shakespeare’s researches, and the detail he is able to amass and make highly readable, he cannot make Fleming’s life or his writings assume great significance. It is the afterlife of the novelist’s alter ego that matters today.

4 Likes

I’d predicted that American reviews would be a cut below the British ones and it looks like I might be right. The New Yorker has reviewed the book alongside a biography of Franz Fanon, so the emphasis, reductive in the extreme, is on empire. Excerpts below.


…Today, they are probably the most enduring authors on decolonization, Fanon for and Fleming against…They saw the end of empire as a wrenching psychological event. Healing its wounds, both believed, would require violence.

…Fleming remained, to use Fanon’s phrase, “sealed in his whiteness.” His novels teem with outrageous stereotypes: Blacks are “apes,” Koreans are “lower than apes,” and the Japanese are a barely civilized “separate human species.” The thought of such people coming into their own was, for Fleming, alarming. The great powers will “reap the father and mother of a whirlwind by quote liberating unquote the colonial peoples,” one of Bond’s allies warns. “Give ’em a thousand years, yes. But give ’em ten, no. You’re only taking away their blow-pipes and giving them machine guns.”

It’s a fear that haunts Fleming’s novels. Supervillains of complex hues menace the world from breakaway spaces: islands, large ships, secret fortresses, newly independent countries. “Mister Bond, power is sovereignty,” Doctor No, a half-Chinese criminal with a Caribbean island, explains. It falls to Bond to restore No’s island to British rule.

This was imperialist escapism, and the more territory Britain lost the more Fleming’s sales grew. But Fleming struggled, amid success, to stay upbeat. In the final Bond novel, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1965), written in the wake of Jamaican independence, the villains allude to a looming “big black uprising,” which Bond does nothing to forestall. He kills a Rastafarian (“He smelled quite horrible”) and forces some Jamaican women to dance naked. Yet he ends the book hospitalized, recovering from poison and, like [Anthony] Eden, “acute nervous exhaustion.”

…In the novels, Bond’s personal woes and Britain’s political ones are linked. They are resolved only when Bond, with his license to kill, rouses himself to dispatch the Empire’s enemies. This was Fanon in reverse: bloodshed as balm not for the colonized but the colonizer.

…Fleming wrote a terrible Bond novel from a woman’s perspective (“The Spy Who Loved Me”), and Fanon discussed Muslim women who infiltrated settler spaces…Yet, mostly, their protagonists were men, with women serving occasionally as props in men’s psychological journeys.

…Both authors redirected violence onto their partners: Fanon publicly struck his wife and Fleming practiced sadomasochism. And both saw women as complicit… “All women love semi-rape,” [Fleming’s] lone female narrator explained. “They love to be taken.” After Bond kills Doctor No, his dark-skinned (yet white) Jamaican companion throws herself at him, demanding “slave-time.” Such passages are cringeworthy, but they weren’t misfires. Rape, torture, subjugation—this was empire, red in tooth and claw.

…Fleming also inserted references to the real-life C.I.A. director Allen Dulles, a known Bond admirer, into three of the books. Yet this flash of reality only highlights how much of Bond—the shark tanks, the loquacious villains, the endlessly up-for-it women—is consoling fantasy. Perhaps the largest consolation is the idea that, in the actual Cold War, a British spy would be allowed at the adults’ table.

…In 1962, the British, in a flurry of self-congratulation, allowed Jamaica to go free peacefully. Fleming insisted that Jamaicans still carried the Queen in their hearts, but the gin-soaked ruling class to which he belonged washed out with the tide.

5 Likes

I’m getting a sneaking feeling that newspapers are using the opportunity to review the book to instead review the man and, by extension, colonial Britain…

3 Likes

Wo, wo, wo…are they saying colonialism was bad?

Amazing how they come up with such radical notions.

2 Likes

Kids these days.

2 Likes

That must trigger someone!

3 Likes

On the TLS article: the reviewer is listed as the editor of anthology of 15th century poetry, which makes you wonder why the editor chose him.

The reviewer’s objections to Casino Royale are easily disposed of. Implausibility? Better arraign Hitchcock and everyone else who’s worked in a genre that depends on implausibilities. As Fleming wrote, assassinating Le Chiffre would make him a martyr, so better to send the service’s best gambler to bankrupt him and force Smersh’s hand. The appearance of the Russian assassin, is less “implausible” if we remember it had been prepared in chapter two, when we learn Smersh will certainly kill Le Chiffre if he can’t return the money.

Nor is the role of Vesper “unclear.” She’s been sent as Bond’s assistant, was chosen because she’s a radio expert and speaks French, and works for the Head of the Soviet Station, who recommended the whole operation to begin with! Did the reviewer skip a few chapters ? Nor is her suicide “implausible”: she betrayed an organization devoted to hunting down and killing backsliders, she sent her old boyfriend to his death, and she knows she’d have no future with Bond after he learned she was a traitor. Suicide is plausible option in those circumstances!

Flat characterization? Certainly not deep, but why has the reviewer said nothing about Bond’s speech on the nature of evil, his doubts about his job, and how he undergoes a character arc, threatening to turn from a “wonderful machine” into a human being, and then reverting at the end? And while some of the most engaged writing is indeed in the torture section, what about the gambling scenes, some of the most dramatic and compelling in the entire book?

The reviewer suggests the appeal of Fleming, supposedly based in consumerism, has faded, thanks to “the historical, cultural and economic distance” that separates the modern reader Bond’s world. By the same logic, we should turn up our nose at the Sherlock Holmes stories, since those also have implausible events, shallow characterization, and take place in a world very far from our own. All that distance between us and 1895!

But fixating on consumerism is a dead-end. Fleming did not simply list whatever the most expensive goods were; he picked what what he personally thought best, so the books are an idiosyncratic record of one author’s mentality. Beyond that, “consumerism” was part of Fleming’s larger fixation on objects and detail, which he relied on to give his novels grounding in the real world and suspend the reader’s disbelief in more fantastic elements. This focus on detail, whether in operation of a card game or dinner at a casino, allowed Fleming to capture a now-lost mid-century world just as successfully as Doyle captured the London of 1895. Part of Fleming’s current appeal is precisely in his presentation of a now-distant world.

Also, if expensive cars are politically incorrect, why is Bond still driving them in the movies and why are they selling so well? Even eco-friendly Teslas can be pricey. The reviewer’s final point, that cinema Bond is supposedly all that counts, doesn’t mention that the most important and influential Bond films, the first three and the sixth, the ones that set the series template, were all relatively close Fleming adaptations. And even NTTD, the latest film, has plenty of Fleming references and inspirations.

As for the New Yorker piece, the reviewer is not even a literary critic–if he was he might have been more wary of quote-mining and treating characters’ dialogue as if it spoke for the author. There’s a good book in the subject of Fleming’s relations with Jamaica and colonization–and it’s already been written. Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye is also far less heavy-handed and belitting than this review.

The reviewer’s aim of viewing the Bond novels primarily through the lens of colonialism doesn’t go terribly far in explaining Fleming’s appeal. Bond might make Jamaica safe for the British in three books, but what about the rest, the majority of the books? You’d have to strain pretty far to present something like Goldfinger as a story about colonialism. It’s very easy to say the Bond books are imperialist escapism (many have), yet much less easy to account why they and the films were and are so popular outside the UK (almost no one has).

But these reviews are valuable in reminding us that those who chalk Fleming’s appeal down to a single factor, whether commercialism or colonialism, are missing the bigger picture.

11 Likes