Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Human Bondage

Here's an article I wrote in 2008, about the Ian Fleming short story Quantum of Solace. At the time, the title of the story had just been chosen for the forthcoming Bond film, and there had been a lot of press about how 'unBondian' it was. The short story is often compared to the work of Somerset Maugham, but in my view is rather better than most of Maugham's work. In the article, I look at what I think Fleming was trying to achieve with the story, and how I feel it cuts to the heart of the humanity lurking within 007. You can read the original version of the article at James Bond fansite CommanderBond.net here, or you can read it below, where I've added some material and used a few different images. I hope you enjoy it.


On Human Bondage

Jeremy Duns takes a closer look at the Ian Fleming short story ‘Quantum of Solace’


‘James Bond said: “I’ve always thought that if I ever married I would marry an air hostess...”’

So begins Ian Fleming’s short story Quantum of Solace, first published in Cosmopolitan in 1959 and reprinted a year later as part of the collection For Your Eyes Only.

As with many of Fleming’s short stories, it is experimental – there is no space for our hero to foil the kind of major plot he does in the full-length novels, so instead Fleming treated his readers to an incidental episode in his character’s career – indeed, For Your Eyes Only was subtitled ‘Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond’ on its release.

The events in Quantum of Solace are only secret, it could be said, because nobody would bother to find out about them. The action is slight, and deliberately so. It is a story within a story; told by a British official in the tropics; at a dinner party he has given; about a scandalous and tragic love affair; that shows how cruel love can be; ending in a twist in which the characters are revealed to be other than who we thought they were; with the pay-off that appearances can be deceptive and that even the dullest most respectable-appearing people may have extraordinary life-changing dramas hidden in their past.

Each of these elements marks its debt to the short stories of the British writer W Somerset Maugham, who Fleming both knew and admired. In Maugham's 1934 collection Creatures of Circumstance – subtitled 'Fifteen Tales of Far And Near Places' – the stories A Casual Affair, The Happy Couple, A Point of Honour, The Colonel's Lady and Appearance and Reality all incorporate several of these elements, as do several others he wrote.


For those expecting a James Bond story to contain excitement and danger – in other words, everyone! – none of this bodes well: Quantum of Solace is essentially a piece of island gossip told to Bond in the wake of a dull dinner party by the governor of the Bahamas, with Bond reduced to the role of listener. Fleming was anxious at the time to sell film rights to his work, but it’s hard to think of elements less likely to attract such interest.

And yet the title of this story has just been announced as the name of the next James Bond film. Why? Is it simply because ‘it’s one of the last Fleming titles left’? Well, that probably does have something to do with it. Fleming’s name still has cachet – perhaps even more so this year considering the number of events planned by his estate to celebrate his centenary – and the massive success of 2006’s adaptation of Casino Royale seems to have emboldened the film’s producers. But Quantum of Solace means more than that. The concept of it is central to Ian Fleming’s work, and its success. The phrase is used by the governor to sum up the story he has just told Bond, about the cruelty of a young husband toward his unfaithful wife:
‘The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: “You’re not married, but I think it’s the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn’t care if the other is alive or dead, then it’s just no good. That particular insult to the ego – worse, to the instinct of self-preservation – can never be forgiven. I’ve noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I’ve seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I’ve seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster – all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I’ve thought about this and I’ve invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.”’
The power of the short story comes from the sincerity of the above speech. Fleming was an excellent mimic as a writer, and the story to this point follows the Maugham pattern perfectly. But while Maugham also frequently concluded his stories with a moral, Fleming – unhappily married when he wrote the passage – cuts free from the formula by speaking from the heart. The passage is remarkable for its contrivance, its precision: it is something important to the writer to get across, and we are conscious that it is in fact the writer’s view. While this should be a weakness, the message overcomes it. Fleming was appealing for compassion in human relations, for warmth and intimacy – and understanding from his wife.

The effect is hammered home when Bond, who through his previous adventures has repeatedly been described as cold and ruthless, and who earlier in this story appears laconic and jaded, immediately drops that customary mask and takes up the Governor’s theme:
‘Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.’
Cold, ruthless Bond is also, of course, the first to fall for a beautiful woman, and before long would marry (albeit to a countess rather than an air hostess). And that is perhaps a large part of Fleming’s enduring appeal: despite the weight of criticism judging him to be a sado-masochistic misogynist, there is a streak of romanticism in his work, and a consistent focus on what Graham Greene would later call ‘the human factor’. It is an oddity that those who condemn James Bond as a super-heroic fantasy figure with no relation to real life are sometimes the first to complain about a story in which Bond doesn’t go on any fantastic adventures. The poignancy of Quantum of Solace is that it shows how the seemingly mundane can be more powerful than the highest melodrama. ‘Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow,’ Bond thinks to himself at the end of the story. A half-hearted mission to stop some Castro rebels now seems ‘the stuff of an adventure-strip in a cheap newspaper’:
‘He had sat next to a dull woman at a dull dinner party and a chance remark had opened for him the book of real violence – of the Com├ędie Humaine where human passions are raw and real, where Fate plays a more authentic game than any Secret Service conspiracy devised by Governments.’
The reference to a newspaper comic strip may be a pointer to Fleming’s motivation for writing the story – The Daily Express had started running comic-strip adaptations of the Bond novels a year earlier. Fleming had initially been reluctant, fearing that such a move might lower his literary credibility. Quantum of Solace may have been his response to Bond’s growing success, and an attempt to move a character he was increasingly losing control over in another direction.

Regardless of its origins, it is an important piece in Fleming’s canon, partly because it serves as a counter-balance to the rest of his work. Without it, one could arguably see all Bond’s missions as the stuff of cheap adventure strips (and indeed, many have done and continue to do so regardless). But once one has read the story, Bond becomes a much more human and moving figure – no mere ‘cardboard booby’, as Fleming once disparagingly called him. As a result of Bond reflecting on the unreality of his mission here, his other adventures seem more real. The story deftly reverses the traditional relationship between author and reader in ‘escapist’ literature. Here, Fleming effectively tells us that our own lives are far more interesting than Bond’s, and Bond in turn longs to escape into our world.

Perhaps another layer still is the relationship between Fleming and Bond – what is their quantum of solace? Fleming famously felt constrained by his character as his work progressed, and frequently tried to ‘destroy’ Bond. This usually meant his physical person, as in the shock ending of From Russia, With Love. Here, Fleming purposefully set out to destroy Bond’s popular image, by denying readers the type of adventure for which they were now clamouring.

The governor’s speech, therefore, is a statement of philosophy from a writer who was already becoming tired, both of life and the formula of his art. Fleming was attempting to take Bond somewhere he had not been before. Not a jungle in South America or the wastes of the Arctic, but somewhere internal – ‘the book of real violence’, human emotions. It may be a failed thriller story because Bond ‘does nothing’, but it is a successful Maugham-style story because it is infiltrated by Bond. There is a friction between the two worlds that gives the tale that satisfying crunch of interlocking ideas that should conclude every short story. Despite being written off by most critics as simply ‘Maugham-esque’, the story is better written and more moving than much of Maugham’s work.

Fleming never returned to the experiment he began in Quantum of Solace; although James Bond became an increasingly human figure in subsequent adventures, they were all nevertheless adventures in a way this story defiantly was not. However, the message at the heart of the story informs all his work, and was also key to the revitalising of the character in the last film, Casino Royale (the final Fleming novel to be adapted). Although it appears that the short story will not be directly referenced in the film currently in production, the ‘rather high-sounding title’ is not merely a token nod to the creator of James Bond – it’s a very astute recognition of one of his signature themes.

2 comments:

  1. I can recall reading this article before, perhaps didn't know who Jeremy Duns was back then as I only just joined that website. It brings back memories of reading QOS. I loved the short story and you have done a great analysis of it. I found it quite powerful and was more than happy to go along with Fleming's storytelling. I liked it when he tried different things. One doesn't understand how deep the story goes until you read this article. Intresting observation about Flemings feelings and reason for doing QOS in relation to the Comic Strip.

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  2. Thanks, Nicholas - much appreciated. I'm also a big fan of this short story.

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