The Spy Who Loved Me

by Ian Fleming

 

The Spy Who Loved Me was an experiment for Fleming, who felt it so different from his other Bond novels that he claimed in the prologue to have received the book as an anonymous manuscript. He also seemed to have regretted publication, later ensuring that the Bond movies wouldn’t adapt the novel. (They did not: the film producers took The Spy Who Loved Me for their title, but used an entirely new story, new characters, new settings, and a new plot. Luckily, we got a great song out of it.) Maybe Fleming was right; the book was seen as a break in the formula–which it absolutely was–that failed to live up to the high standards set in previous books.

The main departure for this book involves James Bond’s own presence, or lack thereof. He is, in fact, absent from about two thirds of the novel, which follows French Canadian Vivienne Michel’s unfortunate decision to watch over a secluded motel for the last week of the tourist season. But the first chunk of the novel isn’t about that, either. The Spy Who Loved MeAct one recounts Vivienne’s life story, from Canada to England and up to her travels through the mountains of upstate New York. The trouble then begins when two gangsters show up with orders to burn the place down. Bond makes his entrance when the gangsters, who have no incentive to let Vivienne live, are deciding exactly what they want to do with her.

As a Bond fan who’s been critical of both the rigidity of the formula and the inconsistency of its results, I actually welcome this change. Waiting around for Bond to receive his assignment, get the lay of the land, and start working his way towards the villain gets a bit stale after a while. Spy solves this problem by showing us the action through the eyes of someone else, and by having Bond simply stumble upon the plot, which is entirely self-contained. Actually, Spy has an appeal similar to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only, with smaller threats and cozier casts of characters. Vivienne, Bond, and the two gangsters are the only characters in the novel, and their motivations are neither grand nor complex. Simple characterization isn’t always a positive, but to me it was a breath of fresh air.

The bad guys are just two mobsters, Sluggsy Morant and Sol Horror, who are sent to the motel in order to burn it down for their boss. While I admit that they’re not the most well-rounded villains of all time, or even of the Fleming oeuvre, it’s nice to have a different set of tensions and stakes than in, say, Goldfinger or Thunderball. Since we’re introduced to these characters through the eyes of a young foreign girl, who has no idea who the men are or what she’s gotten herself into, I’d argue that they’re scarier than the supervillains Bond usually faces. Sure, Bond has been tortured and whatnot–pretty regularly, actually–but he’s a double-oh agent. He knows what he’s getting into every time he leaves his desk in London. Vivienne, though confident and self-assured in other ways, is simply not equipped to handle these things. From this perspective, regular gangsters can be just as scary as megalomaniacs, especially when they plan to kill Vivienne and show no qualms about raping her in the meantime.

If you think it odd that Fleming writes from a female perspective, and that he uses rape as a threat to this heroine, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable for me too. But to me, Vivienne is Fleming’s attempt to write about a woman who’s had to deal with dicks like Bond (and Fleming) her whole life. By the time we meet her, she’s a self-sufficient woman in her twenties, but in her earlier years she got involved with dudes that undervalued and mistreated her. To me, that sounds a lot like how Bond treats the average Bond girl throughout the series. Maybe Fleming is absolving himself here, by making Bond the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue Vivienne from the big bad men of the world, the run of the mill kind as well as the gangsters. Maybe Fleming just sucks at writing women, and can’t imagine a woman that could resist Bond’s charms. I don’t pretend to know what he was trying to do, but I found the shift in perspective to be a welcome change, though it might not work for everyone.

The last thing I’ll say is that Fleming creates a mood that is much more consistent than many of his other outings. Again, it reminds me a lot of the short stories, which seem to be a real strength of his. It’s not as if the Bond novels are weighty tomes, but they push Fleming’s writing style to its limits. Spy is an intimate and concise novel with clearly defined boundaries, few characters, and a tense plot, making it a unique entry into the series, and one which showcases the strengths of Fleming’s writing.

In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming breaks the mold and creates a new kind of Bond novel. Whether you like the end result probably depends on how much you liked the formula to begin with.

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For Your Eyes Only

by Ian Fleming

 

A change of pace for Bond, Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only significantly deviates from his formula for the first time. From Casino Royale to Goldfinger, Bond’s adventures spanned about two hundred pages, in which he usually got the girl and rarely missed his man. (Some girls die too, but that’s just how things are. Bond should know by know that mixing business with pleasure doesn’t end well.)

What’s more, Fleming drops a bit–just a bit, mind you–of Bond’s imperialist-misogynist-racist crap, in favor of a more introspective, contemplative secret agent. Sure, perhaps three of the five stories are just condensed versions of what we would normally get in a Bond novel, but the other two switch up the structure pretty drastically. Shit, they even show Bond’s compassionate side. Yes, I said it, compassion; not exactly a trait Bond’s known for.

Alright, here are the short stories:

From a View to a Kill–A NATO courier is intercepted by enemy agents. Bond, being in Paris mostly for plot reasons, is approached (by a young female agent) and asked to find out what happened.

For Your Eyes OnlyFor Your Eyes Only–Some friends of Bond’s boss, M, are killed in Jamaica. M tests his relationship with Bond, trying to gauge whether he’d be willing to find out what happened as a personal favor. Bond jumps at the chance, given his unquestioning loyalty to M and his utter disregard for MI6 regulations.

Quantum of Solace–Bond makes a dumb remark at a party, the kind of outlandish thing you say when you’re bored with your surroundings and yourself. A companion latches on to the remark, and asks Bond if he’d like to hear a relevant story. Looking for any distraction, Bond agrees.

Risico–MI6 sends Bond on a mission to disrupt the drug trade in southern Europe. But things are not as they seem! Well, mostly they are, I guess.

The Hildebrand Rarity–Our hero accompanies an American businessman and self-styled philanthropist on a hunt for a rare type of fish. En route, he develops sympathy for the man’s abused wife, and has to decide whether he should take some action against his host.

The first, second, and fourth stories are more or less what you expect from 007. He gets a mission, runs into the occasional problem, and generally shoots his way out of it. For Your Eyes Only at least injects some moral ambiguity into the equation; the personal nature of M’s request changes things a bit, or at least it should. For Bond, though, and perhaps for Fleming, M is England. Loyalty to the nation necessitates loyalty to the man, and vice versa. The resolution of this ethical conundrum seems to suggest that there’s nothing Bond wouldn’t do for his superiors or his government, and Fleming seemingly presents his as the morally correct way of viewing the world. This very imperialistic ideological stance shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, and it’s hard not to see the Jamaican origin of this plot as relevant.

On the other hand, the last story, The Hildebrand Rarity, is surprising and somewhat confusing departure from the tried-and-true formula. Bond isn’t on a mission, and never finds one; instead, he’s confronted with a more mundane form of evil, and must decide what his personal obligations are. To elaborate on our admittedly meager explanation above, Bond embarks on a journey with Krest, the businessman, and his English wife Elizabeth, who is often beaten at night with a stingray tail, an illegal and especially cruel form of spousal abuse. The group finds the fish they’re searching for, but on the way home, Bond is finally fed up with his host’s rude and condescending manner.

There are two interesting points to be made about this story, other than its lack of a mission for 007. First of all, Bond is placed in a legitimately murky situation and has to figure out on his own what should be done. In contrast to For Your Eyes Only, nobody is sitting across a desk from him, telling him what’s right and wrong. There is no MI6, no M, no England in the Seychelles; Bond is no longer an agent of the Crown, and thus has to reconcile with his own humanity for once in his life. It’s also unclear where exactly Bond’s distaste for Krest comes from: Is it his boorish manner? His abuse of his wife? His phony philanthropy? His quintessentially American disregard for Europe? All of these things grate on Bond but, taciturn man that he is, even in thought, we never get an answer.

Secondly, Fleming’s caricature of an “Ugly American” betrays a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness on his part. James Bond, “her majesty’s loyal terrier, defender of the so-called faith,” isn’t exactly a social justice warrior. If he was, we wouldn’t be left to wonder whether he really cared about Krest’s spousal abuse, or took umbrage with other aspects of his host’s personality. After all, Bond has at times been “forceful” with women himself, and takes a pretty blase attitude toward their feelings. Perhaps we can conclude that Bond hates Krest because he represents an imperialistic America, arrogant towards other nations and their citizens, caring little for the natural environment, believing he can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. It’s not a coincidence that the abused wife is English. Of course, I’ve spent the last few years chronicling the ways in which Bond, often considered an idealized version of Fleming himself, represents English imperialism. Whether Fleming is completely clueless to this hypocrisy, as I suspect, is impossible to determine. Possibly, he believes in English superiority to such an extent that this sort of behavior is acceptable, provided one has the right “blood.” Nonetheless, the dynamics at play make for an interesting new look at Bond.

The best of these stories, or at least the one I enjoyed most, was Quantum of Solace. The entire story consists of Bond listening to another man speak, only occasionally interjecting with comments or questions. A man and a woman fall in love and fall out of love, very publicly and very drastically. It doesn’t sound interesting, but it’s exactly the kind of story Fleming’s great at telling, filling in the details perfectly and satisfyingly. (It didn’t hurt that I read this story on the porch of a New Orleans mansion in July, buttressing the lazy, tropical atmosphere that Fleming so adeptly projects.) Importantly, Bond admits, for once, that he’s wrong. Not only does he realize that his mean, unsupportable comment was an insensitive way to treat his company, by the end of the tale his absolutist view of the people around him has been shattered. And yes, he might even experience a feeling that one could describe as compassion.

For Your Eyes Only is an uneven collection, but Fleming elevates a couple of the stories by probing parts of Bond’s personality that readers hadn’t yet seen. Honestly, I might even recommend this to be a newcomer’s first foray into 007’s world. If you can’t find something to like here, I don’t think any of the books would do it for you.