Kingsley Amis Reviews John Pearson's Life of Ian Fleming

DIAL M FOR MOTHER (The Observer; Oct 23, 1966)

by Kingsley Amis

John Pearson was a journalist for some years, and this biography is journalistic in method: factual, well-documented, thorough in its presentation of surface events. With Ian Fleming only a couple of years in his grave, to fault such an approach would not be easy. The study in depth, like the definitive critical analysis, will have to wait. So it may be unreasonable to complain that this book does little more than fill out the impression of Fleming that can be gained from already recorded interviews and such, and from a close reading of the Bond novels.

The journalist is given jobs, or undertakes assignments, as distinct from the biographer or critic who, presumably, chooses his subject for some more emotional reason. Mr. Pearson’s last book, it seems, was an account of that perennially unburning issue, the activities of Donald Campbell with his motorcar. At times, the journalistic necessity of sharpening, vitalising, jazzing up not very dramatic material, of making a story out of a non-story, lies heavy on this biography. A chapter headed “Enter Chandler” promises more than a short account of an unsuccessful lunch party and an assertion that Chandler’s encouragement helped Fleming to decide against closing the Bond saga after the fifth novel.

One probably expects nothing very much from “Eden at Goldenye,” and one certainly gets it. The positive information in these 10 pages could be boiled down into, and would have been perfectly acceptable as, a catty paragraph about the prime-ministerial couple’s relaxed stay at the luxurious Jamaican home of famed Bond creator Ian Fleming and sparkling hostess Anne Fleming being enlivened by a rat-hunt organised by gallant Sir Anthony and his two detectives—seven rats reported missing. Elsewhere, the gossip columnist’s chronic drizzle of names becomes a downpour.

The interesting, or at any rate piquant, scraps of information here could not be worked up into any sort of story. I read with a sense of shock, as if life had suddenly revealed itself after all as a monstrous charade, that in 1948 or so Fleming was planning a book on Paracelsus, the sixteenth-century philosopher, in collaboration with Edith Sitwell. And yet, reconsidered, the pairing is not so unlikely. The man who had studied Rilke and Thomas Mann as well as Sapper had the markings of a secret highbrow as well as being, quite out in the open, a romantic pessimist with faint Wagnerian overtones; see the poison-garden scenes in You Only Live Twice, the most haunting and vividly realized locale in any of the books, not excluding Dr. No’s Crab Key.

When it comes to what some readers will regard as his main task, that of suggesting links between Fleming and his work, Mr. Pearson is uninformative. Fleming smoked a lot. Bond smokes a lot. Fleming liked cars. So does Bond. And Darko Kerim (From Russia with Love) is partly based on a real person, and Donovan Grant (same book) is named after a real person. The only striking identifications are of Aleister Crowley—whom Fleming tried to call in to interrogate Rudolf Hess—with Le Chiffre (Casino Royale), and of Fleming’s mother with M: get your teeth into that one, chaps.

The trouble is that Mr. Pearson fails to take Fleming seriously enough as a writer. Predictably, he finds the characterization two dimensional and repetitive. This sounds fair enough until one starts wondering how it could have been deepened without distraction and losing pace, and recognizing the powers of invention that gave each successive villain the appearance of frightening novelty, and remembering Honeychile Rider (never mind her name for now), Hugo Drax in his non-villainous moments, Darko Kerim, whether “based on” somebody or not. And, of course, Bond himself is found to be a mouthpiece, a dummy, a zombie, etc., etc., as if that mattered.

Mr. Pearson subscribes, with a modification, to the fashionable view that the universal success of Fleming’s novels is not specially connected with their literary qualities. The standard line is that, by some more or less discreditable—and very mysterious—process, the books appeared at just the right time to seize the collective imagination and all that. (In fact, as is demonstrated here, it took five years and five books for the seed to strike, for Fleming to create the taste by which he is enjoyed.) According to Mr. Pearson what did the trick was the depth of the author’s identification with his hero. Such identification, however deep, would explain and guarantee nothing. Fleming succeeded because within the limits he set himself—and nobody has ever understood that part of the job more clearly—he was a popular writer of genius who, like all such, made no attempt to gauge his public and understood very little about the appeal of his work.

The book has some well-chosen photographs and a hideous plastic-and-floodlight Jekyll-and-Hyde cover illustration.

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