Tuesday, May 10, 2011

007 In Depth: Background reading

Who was Ian Fleming? Jeremy Duns suggest turning to two biographies of James Bond’s creator for answers

Ian Fleming led a fascinating life: born into privilege, he had three successive and highly successful careers: one as an intelligence officer during the Second World War; another as a journalist in the years immediately after it; and his final stint as one of the world’s most popular novelists. There have been several books and films about his life, but for a complete portrait it’s hard to beat the biographies by John Pearson and Andrew Lycett.

Published by Jonathan Cape in 1966, John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming was the first biography of the writer, coming just two years after his death. Pearson was ideally suited for the job, having been Fleming’s assistant at The Sunday Times. He also ghosted the autobiography of Donald Fish, Airline Detective, for which Fleming had written the foreword, and had written Gone to Timbuctoo, a thriller set in Africa, and Bluebird and the Dead Lake, about the British land speed record-holder Donald Campbell.

Helped by The Sunday Times’ Leonard Russell, who initiated the book, Pearson had access to a staggering collection of people for his biography. As well as members of Fleming’s family and former colleagues, he had the input of several world-renowned writers (Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Truman Capote, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham), politicians (Anthony Eden, Hugh Gaitskell) and other notable figures (Carl Jung, Alfred Hitchcock, Lord Beaverbrook). Unfortunately, the precise nature of their contributions are not given. This was very much the tradition at the time, but biographies have changed since: for instance, in his 2006 biography of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader scrupulously footnoted all his sources.

There are several arguments for Leader’s approach. Chiefly, information is rarely fixed. What a biographer takes in good faith at the time may later prove wrong – this is much harder to spot if one doesn’t know who said it, or in what context. As a result of this and a minimal use of direct quotes, Pearson’s is a highly stylised biography: the idea seems to have been to make the research seamless, so that the entire book reads as effortlessly as an extended character sketch. Tonally, Pearson’s prose is frequently reminiscent of Fleming in its lucidity and appreciation of telling detail, and one can’t help wondering while reading it how he would write a Bond novel (Fleming’s estate evidently felt the same, as they commissioned him to do just that a few years later).

A persistent theme in the book is Fleming’s attitude to women. We learn that he had a particularly domineering mother, and that after she vetoed his engagement to a French-Swiss girl in 1931, Fleming told his friend Ralph Arnold ‘I’m going to be quite bloody-minded about women from now on… I’m just going to take what I want without any scruples at all.’ Pearson quotes extensively from Fleming’s notebooks, and they often don’t make pleasant reading: ‘The woman likes the door to be forced’, for instance. But at what age he wrote these snippets, and with what purpose in mind, is not entirely clear.

It is tempting to see the roots of James Bond in Fleming’s life, and indeed that idea stems primarily from this biography: Pearson describes Bond as Fleming’s ‘dream-self’ and convincingly shows how Fleming’s attitudes and opinions informed the character. But it can occasionally be frustrating: was ‘M’ really modelled on Fleming’s mother? Surely the more likely explanation is that he was inspired by Fleming’s wartime boss, Admiral Godfrey, perhaps with a smidgeon of the Special Operations Executive chief Colin Gubbins, who Fleming knew and who was also known by that initial, and perhaps with elements of Fleming himself. Similarly, Pearson’s assertion that Le Chiffre was modelled on Aleister Crowley has become an unshakeable tenet of Bond lore, but it seems far more likely that Fleming used only a few very superficial elements of Crowley for the character. Pearson cites Le Chiffre’s use of the expression ‘my dear boy’ as evidence, but this was a common expression in the British upper classes of the day and was often used by villains in thrillers. Crowley was menacing, but Le Chiffre’s general physical appearance, presumed ethnicity, character and role in the book do not resemble him at all.

But these are rare mis-steps. Some writers, given the kind of access Pearson was afforded and the expectations surrounding such a project, might have pulled their punches and painted a portrait of a brilliant and kind genius. It is to Pearson’s great credit that, with a few exceptions, he didn’t flinch from discussing some of the darker sides of Fleming’s life, and was not afraid to criticise his writing. By doing so, he probably enhanced Fleming’s reputation on both counts, because the praise he does give seems doubly authoritative.

The result is a novelistic insider job, with Fleming a richly drawn protagonist: at turns ambitious and shockingly selfish, one can’t help hoping for the turning point in the book, when his persistent and shameless thrusts at best-sellerdom finally pay off. The ending is rather bleaker: Pearson presents Fleming as a somewhat Jay Gatsby-esque figure in later life, jaded by success but hinting darkly to people that he may have killed people in dastardly ways during the war.

Writing in 1966, Pearson had direct access to many of the key figures in Fleming’s life, but also had to adopt a certain amount of discretion to the living. This became clear with the publication of Andrew Lycett’s biography, titled simply Ian Fleming and published in 1995 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Lycett was something of a younger Pearson: he had also worked for The Sunday Times, and had written a non-fiction work about Libya. Although he by necessity repackaged much of Pearson’s material, his is a much more traditional biography. It is still not footnoted, but does have an index, and while Pearson was vague on some names and dates, Lycett is usually much firmer. As a result, the book is a lot less impressionistic, but much more useful as a reference manual on Fleming. A few tiny errors aside (and all books contain errors), it is very well researched, and makes two substantial additions to the picture provided by Pearson three decades earlier: the story of Blanche Blackwell, Fleming’s lover in later life; and a much deeper context for the success of James Bond that followed the writer’s death. Neither of these were in Pearson’s book, the first presumably for reasons of diplomacy and the second because most of it hadn’t happened yet. At times Lycett slightly overdoses on the connections and backgrounds of extremely minor figures in Fleming’s life, but he leaves few stones unturned. While the book is generally more sympathetic than Pearson’s, he spares us no detail, even of Fleming’s sexual preferences.

Ian Fleming was a much misunderstood man during his life, and remains an undervalued writer. The popular perception is that his novels are superficial fantasies, simple Boy’s Own adventures. His biographers reveal them to be deeply ingrained fantasies and rather complicated Boy’s Own adventures. These two books also give a context to the era in which Fleming lived and worked, and his achievement both in that time and beyond it. While no book could ever present the complete portrait of a writer, taken together one feels that Pearson and Lycett come very close. All Bond and Fleming fans should read these two books.

This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.