Monday, February 10, 2014

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

When people talk about how they came to know James Bond, the story I most often hear is that they were introduced to the movies by an older relative. When I was a kid in the pre-cable, pre-home video ‘70s, that meant catching the old movies as they aired on network TV. I remember those commercials well and my being intrigued about the suave hero who’d been around long enough to be played by multiple actors and whose adventures had awesome titles like Thunderball and Live and Let Die. The Bond films were family viewing for a lot of folks and it didn’t matter that they were only available sporadically and in whatever order the network chose to show them. There was no way to marathon the entire series in those days, but no one cared. They fell in love with Bond anyway.

I didn’t get to know Bond that way though. My folks were pretty strict about what we watched and the sexual nature of Bond’s exploits kept him off our TV. It wasn’t until I was 16 and able to drive myself to the movie theater that I saw my first Bond film. But long before then, I was able to enjoy his adventures in a different format.

For whatever reason, my folks never policed my books. If I could find it in the library, they were okay with my reading it. So while I was unable to satisfy my curiosity about the Bond films, the world of Ian Fleming’s novels were completely open to me and that’s how I met the superspy. And since I was a compulsive nerd about continuity even then, I had to start with the first book, Casino Royale. It blew me away.

Even today, having lost count how many times I’ve read it, I’m still amazed and impressed by the structure of the novel. It starts with Bond already on mission, then flashes back to the mission briefing, then flashes back again to what set that up. It doesn’t have a conventional ending either. The climax of the mission happens maybe two-thirds into the story and then has several chapters dealing with the aftermath. That ending shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does.

A couple of other things about Fleming’s style are also immediately noticeable. First, the man knows how to write chapters. This is an old trick by modern standards, but he was one of the first writers I encountered who wrote short, fast-paced chapters that always ended on some kind of cliffhanger – physical or emotional – to pull me into the next one. Casino Royale is a difficult book to put down.

The other thing people always talk about with Fleming’s writing is his attention to detail. The reason that the movie Bond seems to know everything about every subject from booze to butterflies is because Fleming writes with such confidence about those kinds of things, especially food and drink.

As Bond’s hanging out in the hotel before his mission’s really got started, Fleming doesn’t just have him eat breakfast, but explains that he consumes “half a pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon, and a double portion of coffee without sugar.” There’s more food porn later in the book when “Vesper busied herself with a delicious homemade liver paté and helped them both to the crisp French bread and the thick square of yellow butter set in chips of ice.” Turns out that she and Bond are both foodies with strong opinions about what they eat.

As well known as Bond is for alcohol, it’s mostly just a part of his food consumption in the novel. Fleming doesn’t give it a lot of extra attention, except of course that Bond’s invented his own Martini that he later suggests naming the Vesper. Other than that though he’s as likely to drink orange juice or an Americano as champagne or whiskey on the rocks. “Shaken not stirred” isn’t a thing yet and I’m curious to see when it becomes one. Part of the instructions for making a Vesper is to “shake it very well until it’s ice-cold,” so maybe that’s it? I’ll keep an eye out.

Another place where Fleming employs a lot of detail is describing Bond’s gambling, especially the game of baccarat. It’s an easy enough game, but Fleming has Bond explain it very well and I remember teaching it to my brothers after reading Casino Royale. Fleming’s not just indulging himself though; the game is important in the novel. The Daniel Craig movie follows the book’s plot pretty closely, so anyone who’s seen that has the gist of it. I won’t go into the differences until I get to the movie later on, but in the novel Le Chiffre is a Russian agent who’s made some failed investments with his organization’s funds. He now has to make back the money before his bosses learn what’s happened, and he plans to do that by gambling at the Casino Royale in the south of France. The British government gets wind of the plan and – with the cooperation of the French and US secret agencies – sends Bond to make sure Le Chiffre loses. Knowing the rules of baccarat is crucial to following the drama.

Fleming’s descriptions extend to his characters, too. His villains are almost always physically grotesque and that starts right here with Le Chiffre. He’s overweight and has a lot of nasty habits, but Fleming adds to the monstrousness with metaphors like comparing Le Chiffre to an octopus under a rock as he watches Bond from across the gaming table.

By the way, it’s thanks to Le Chiffre that we get a couple of tropes that are well-known in the movies: the henchmen and gadgets. Le Chiffre employs a number of helpers, but his two closest are a short, greasy guy Bond refers to as the Corsican, and a tall, thin man named Basil. They’re both dangerous, but Basil is especially so and sort of a prototype for future goons like Odd Job and Jaws. Since Le Chiffre is so gross and out of shape, he needs a guy like Basil who can take Bond on physically.

If Basil is the first real henchman though, it’s the Corsican who employs the first Bond gadget: a gun disguised as a cane. The camouflage is necessary to sneak the weapon into the casino and threaten Bond with it when it looks like he’s going to succeed. The other gadget is Le Chiffre’s: a car with a trick trunk that drops a carpet of spiked chain mail to blow out the tires of pursuing vehicles. Both gadgets feel very real and possible the way Fleming describes them, not at all like the fantastical craziness that Q Branch comes up with in the films. It’ll be interesting to see if Fleming’s gadgets stay that way.

Bond’s only gadgets are his guns. Not the famous Walther PPK at this point, Bond carries a “very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip.” He also hides a .38 Colt Police Positive under his pillow and carries a long-barreled Colt Army Special .45 in a concealed holster under the dashboard of his car. The car itself isn’t a gadget either. It’s a battleship-gray, convertible Bentley that Fleming describes as “Bond’s only hobby.” He’s had it modified for speed, but that’s about Bond’s personal pleasure, not the business of catching bad guys.

In writing about the vehicle, Fleming also reveals that Bond lives in a flat in Chelsea, not too far from the London mechanic who services the vehicle. Other than that, we don’t learn a lot about Bond’s personal life. He seems to love cold showers and he tells Mathis, the French agent assigned to his mission, that getting a Double O number simply means that you’ve had to commit cold-blooded murder in the line of duty. There’s nothing about it being a license to kill, so I wonder if that’s a movie thing or if it comes up in a different book.

Speaking of whether things are Fleming or movie inventions, Bond introduces himself to his CIA ally Felix Leiter as “Bond, James Bond,” so that classic line is all Fleming.

Fleming does tell us a little about Bond’s looks. He’s a good-looking guy and Fleming says that he has a black comma of hair on his forehead that he can’t do anything with. Vesper remarks at one point that Bond reminds her of singer Hoagy Carmichael, but she doesn’t actually say Bond looks like him and Bond rejects the comparison later on.

I usually try to imagine actors as the characters when I’m reading a book, but Bond novels are hard for me to cast. The only character I was able to nail down was Felix Leiter, who would be played perfectly by Matthew McConaughey. None of the movie Bonds adequately capture the emotional mess of Bond in this novel and I can’t think of a large actor who would be able to disappear into the role of Le Chiffre. We’ve already had our perfect M. in Bernard Lee, so I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.

Young Lois Maxwell was an accurate Moneypenny, not that Fleming spends much time on her. She “would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical.” In other words, she’s a knock out, but has too much going on upstairs for Fleming to be attracted to her. I’m going to try to refrain from commentary about Fleming’s personal life, but his idiosyncrasies do keep popping up, especially as Bond relates to women. There’s no flirtation between Bond and Moneypenny yet, but I don’t remember if Fleming builds their relationship as the series progresses or if that’s entirely a movie thing.

Of course, the most interesting woman in Casino Royale is Vesper Lynd. She’s the first “Bond girl” (a diminutive term I kind of hate) and I have to admit falling a little in love with her the way Fleming describes her early on. She’s a no-nonsense woman with a simple hairstyle and no makeup or nail polish. I don’t know if that matched tastes that I’d already developed as a young teenager or directly helped to form what I would come to find attractive, but I could relate to Bond’s being into her. Eva Green looks the part and is certainly “no-nonsense,” but she expresses it differently from Fleming’s Vesper.

Like the movie Vesper, Fleming’s is also quickly able to put Bond in his place, but she uses a different approach. She doesn’t have the disdain for Bond or his mission that movie Vesper does, but she does appear to be detached and unemotional about it. That intrigues Bond and calms the irritation he felt when he first heard that he’d been assigned a woman to assist him. (More on Bond’s misogyny shortly, I promise.) Once Bond warms up to her, she continues proving that she’s got a mind of her own. When he makes a presumptuous suggestion about what they should both drink, she’s amused rather than impressed. Hilariously, that kind of hurts Bond’s feelings.

There’s none of the verbal sparring from the movie, but this is still a woman – at least at first – who’s confident enough to call Bond out on his chauvinism. In most ways, she controls the relationship and I especially like a scene after the game where she’s cooled towards Bond and he can’t figure out why. I’ve been on dates like that and know Bond’s frustration there. In fact, I can relate a lot to his generally not being able to figure her out and being even more attracted to her because of it.

As Bond and Vesper’s relationship heats up, the sexuality in Casino Royale isn’t what movie fans are used to. In the aftermath of the mission, Bond and Vesper vacation at a seaside hotel, but get separate rooms. I know it’s the ‘50s, but I was surprised that they didn’t simply lie and say they were married. And as soon as they’re alone, the sexual tension that’s been building between them the entire novel is released by mad, furious… French kissing. It wears them both out and Vesper needs a cigarette afterward, but it’s awfully tame by modern standards. Then again, when they do get serious, Fleming isn’t shy about describing swelling buttocks and hard nipples, so he’s not a prude.

The confusion about sex fits well with Bond and Vesper’s relationship. She may have confidence and power early on, but once Le Chiffre has been defeated she changes quickly and becomes all about wanting to please Bond. There’s a reason for it, but I don’t know how satisfying it is. I think it makes sense, but I missed the old Vesper.

Bond’s not any more consistent with his feelings. He’s an emotional guy who seems to fall for Vesper quickly when the job is done. He calls her sappy things like “my love” and “my darling,” and while swimming he fantasizes about erupting from the ocean in a shower of spray for her to see. Hard to imagine Daniel Craig doing that.

Of course, by this time Bond’s been through hell. The torture scene from the movie is only slightly modified from the book and its affect on Bond is serious. He cries when it’s over and threatens to resign from the secret service. The experience has made him question his conviction and his world has become less black and white. In the midst of that uncertainty is Vesper, who feels responsible for Bond’s being captured and desperately wants to make it up to him.

It’s clear that they were attracted to each other earlier in the case, but Bond’s torture has turned sexual curiosity into full-blown co-dependence. Vesper wants to atone to Bond for screwing up; Bond is looking for something else to anchor to now that he’s uncertain about his job. It’s not a recipe for a great relationship, even if there weren’t other factors coming along to complicate things.

Besides some plot stuff, one of the biggest complications is Bond’s selfishness. He gets criticized a lot for his misogyny – and rightly so – but it’s just a symptom of a deeper problem. Fleming writes about the first days of Bond’s recovery after being tortured and how he accidentally hurt Vesper’s feelings by refusing the flowers she’d sent. “Flowers seemed to ask for recognition of the person who had sent them, to be constantly transmitting a message of sympathy and affection. Bond found this irksome.” Fleming goes on to clarify, “Bond was bored at the idea of having to explain some of this to Vesper.” Bond’s problem with women is that he can’t see past his own ego enough to consider someone else’s feelings. It’s made him an utter failure at relationships in the past, and I suspect that’ll be his downfall in relationships going forward. He appears to have real feelings for Vesper, but it’s an illusion created by his frantic need for something to replace MI-6.

Early in the book, Fleming writes that Bond “was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question-mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost.” That’s a great line: “the promise to pay before you have lost.” It’s about the lack of confidence that comes after you’re deeply, emotionally wounded for the first time. And that’s something that Bond’s never experienced. That’s really fascinating to me.

Usually, when we read about a character as emotionally cold as Bond, it’s because of some past hurt. His confidence is a mask for deeper pain. That’s not the case with Bond though. Fleming explicitly points out that Bond’s never been seriously, emotionally hurt. That makes his coldness and confidence not entirely human. He’s able to relax around and connect with other men, so he’s not a sociopath. It’s just that he doesn’t need to experience emotional loss for himself in order to see its effect on other people and to decide that he doesn’t want that. So he never lets himself become attached to women. Or hasn’t by the time Casino Royale takes place.

I argue that he doesn’t get there in Casino Royale either. He gets there later in the series, but not with Vesper. Look how quickly he gets over her with that famous, perfect last line of the novel. She hasn’t brought him to his knees in any permanent way. She left him before that damage could truly be done. He hadn’t even gotten around to resigning from his job yet, so all he has to do is go back to it. After all, that’s what the novel is really about. It’s not a love story; it’s a story about Bond’s crisis of faith in his occupation. Vesper is just an option he plays with while he’s working through those issues. I think that becomes even clearer in the next book, Live and Let Die.

What’s cool though is that Mathis presents Bond with another solution that he doesn’t take, at least not right away. As Bond is recovering and visiting with Mathis, his friend tells him, “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” That’s a fascinating thesis statement for the rest of the series and I’m extremely curious to see if Bond’s able to do that and if so whether the result will be as Mathis predicted. One of my favorite themes in books and movies is disengaged people learning to connect. I’m going to enjoy watching that at work in these books.


Kelly Sedinger said...

What a terrific post! I myself have only read half the books, and not in many years (a situation I plan to rectify in the next year or two).

Michael May said...

Thanks, Kelly!


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