Sunday, January 5, 2014

From Russia With Love

For me, crime writing is often all about the seduction of the first page.  I always seem to assess after a few paragraphs: am I in or out of this one?   Has it grabbed me, transported me, or left me wanting more?  Ian Fleming/James Bond knows a thing or two about seduction.  To wit:  "The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead."  (1)  Now that's an opener!

From Russia With Love (1957, Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd., this edition 2012, Thomas & Mercer) is not Ian Fleming's first book about James Bond.  And it certainly isn't the last, given that there have by now been several authors now who have written Bond stories with the official approval of Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd.  But it is the one that appears most often on those ten-great-detective-or-spy-stories-you-should-read lists, and indeed it is a great old classic of the genre.
We can dispense with the plot pretty quickly because it is pretty thin.  The Russian organization SMERSH (a contraction of Smiert Spionem - Death to Spies) wants to embarrass and hurt another country's intelligence operation.  They choose Great Britain, and James Bond as their target.  As Bond is known to have an eye for the ladies, SMERSH decides on a honey-trap with assassination as the chaser.  I don't need to tell you how it ends, because even if you haven't read this particular one, or seen this particular movie, you already know.  

But who cares about plot when you are having this much fun because what really soars about From Russia With Love are description and characterization.  It turns out that Fleming is all about description, perhaps to mask a nondescript writing style and that lack of plot complexity.  Still, it works for me.  Fleming claims that his description of SMERSH's conference room (ch. 4) is faithful (Author's Note, ix), and given the detail - wall color, furniture and window placement, phones - who am I to judge?  Even down to the various medals on the Russian chests, it all contributes to a  series of vivid visuals.  Recline to enjoy this one:
  "Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him.  Moonlight filtered through the curtains.  He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table.  He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower.  He thought how much more eventful Saturday the fourteenth had been than Friday the thirteenth.  He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.
  Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon.  The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his naked body.  He looked at his watch.  It said two o'clock.
  Bond gave a shuddering yawn.  He let the curtains drop back into place.  He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table.  Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.
  There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room.  A girl's voice said, 'Poor Mister Bond.  You must be tired.  Come to bed.'"  (180-181)
You saw it coming, but it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the scene one little bit, does it?

Let's take a moment for an aside, especially for the ladies, because you know you're thinking about it after that scene.  Who's your Bond?  If you've seen a few James Bond movies, you will inevitably find yourself with a particular Bond in your mind's eye as you read these.  Now I myself am a Daniel Craig gal - in my opinion he is a one-man tourist bureau for the Bahamas.  But but but . . . when reading From Russia With Love, I saw a young Sean Connery.  As described by Fleming, Bond is in fact dark-haired, and he likes a good breakfast with a fine egg, and it's all very Cool Britannia when we first meet Bond and he's in his swell flat in Chelsea, and so on.  So Daniel, while I'll watch you until the end of time, it seems that my literary interpretation belongs to that dapper Scot.

Back to more literary matters.  Fleming establishes his genre bona fides by having James read some Eric Ambler (A Mask for Dimitrios) on his way to Istanbul.  Ambler is arguably Fleming's superior when it comes to crafting a tale, but the nod for general fab-ness surely goes to the latter.  There is also that nice British erudition, an assumption of a base level of intelligence and schooling that permits the use of a richer vocabulary.
  "The paper was handed up to him.  He took out his pen and scratched out what he had written.  He wrote again, speaking the words slowly as he did so.
  'To be killed WITH IGNOMINY.  Grubozaboyschikov.'
  He looked up and smiled pleasantly to the company.  'Thank you, Comrades.  That is all.  I shall advise of the decision of the Praesidium on our recommendation.  Good night.'"  (53)
One does not find the word "ignominy" (meaning disgrace) as often as one would hope in mass market literature today.

Characters are delightful, if uneven.  One can't help but like Kerim Bey, Head of Station T, as much as Bond does (although given Bond's general cluelessness throughout, one can be forgiven a frisson of suspicion as to his loyalties).  M is there, just as imagined, and Miss Moneypenny, but no Q yet - just a Q Department that offers one whiz-bang briefcase, little of which Bond actually uses. The Russians are all predictably horrible, especially the repulsive Rosa Klebb, and even if you haven't seen the film of "From Russia With Love" you would immediately suss her out as an inspiration for Frau Farbissina.  Still, the women are either motherly (Moneypenny, May) or ghastly (Klebb) or wild viragos (the Gypsies) or so beautiful and sweet as to make a man lose his head (Tatiana).  I guess you don't read Bond stories for character nuance.

There is one significant downside to reading the story, as opposed to watching it.  That is that when you read the story, you hear what is going on inside Our Hero's handsome head.  So, now you know, what he is thinking. You know when he is unsure, or guessing wrong, or being misled, or just making a bad decision.  See above, when his heart misses a beat.  I don't want to know when James is not on his game; I want him not only handsome and suave, but infallible, as he always is on screen.

Having said that, the written James does offer unexpected pleasures.  Everyone knows, for example, that Bond enjoys his tipple.  On his way to Istanbul alone he has two Americanos (during a stopover in Rome), two ouzos (during a stopover in Athens), two dry Martinis and a half-bottle of claret (with dinner during the Athens-Istanbul leg).  All in a day's work.  But who knew that he was a breakfast man as well?  
  "Breakfast was Bond's favorite meal of the day.  When he was stationed in London it was always the same.  It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar  The single egg, in the dark blue egg-cup with a gold ring round the top, was boiled for three and a third minutes.
  It was a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens owned by some friends of May in the country.  (Bond disliked white eggs and, faddish as he was in many small things, it amused him to maintain that there was such a thing as the perfect boiled egg.)  The there were two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree 'Little Scarlet' strawberry jam; Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum's.  The coffee pot and the solver on the tray were Queen Anne, and the china was Minton, of the same dark blue and gold and white as the egg-cup."  (100-101)
Breakfast of Champions!  He is similarly pleased with the yoghourt, figs, and Turkish coffee in Istanbul.  (124)

Before all else, Fleming is a patriot.  He is not subtle in his comparison of the dour, harsh, fear-mongering and terror-motivated Russians and the smooth, jolly, Queen-and-Country-driven Brits.  It is an interesting cultural note that when the film version of From Russia With Love was made (1963), the bad guys were made a Russian-like criminal ring, rather than actual Soviets, in order to avoid political controversy.  But there is no pussyfooting around the message here.  Fleming makes the point in this little speech from one of the Soviet generals about the relative merits of the sting operation.
  "The English are not interested in heroes unless they are footballers or cricketers or jockeys.  If a man climbs a mountain or runs very fast he is also a hero to some people but not to the masses.  The Queen of England is also a hero, and Churchill.  But the English are not greatly interested in military heroes.  This man Bond is unknown to the public.  If he was known he would still not be a hero.  In England, neither open war nor secret war is a heroic matter.  They do not like to think about war, and after a war the names of their war heroes are forgotten as quickly as possible."  (48-49).
War/pain/terror = Soviets = bad.  There'll Always Be An England = Good.  Well, it's more complicated nowadays, isn't it?  Since 1957, we've learned a lot about our former enemies and ourselves, and it is not all so easy.  But we may derive some small comfort knowing that the Queen , at least, can always count on Mr. Bond

No comments:

Post a Comment