Twayne’s English Authors Series – Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming was a mediocre writer and a reporter with poor instincts who penned a series of novels which were despised by literary critics, and only become popular because President John F. Kennedy offhandedly mentioned one on a list – we don’t know if he actually liked it – and the phenomenal success of the film series that ensued made Fleming and his estate very rich even though the films have very little to do with Fleming’s writing.

Um, okay.

That’s basically the overriding theme of a biography/literary assessment of Ian Fleming by Twayne’s English Authors Series, published in 1989. Other English Authors profiled in this series include Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Barbara Pym, Graham Greene and Daphne du Maurier.

The authors of the Ian Fleming book were a husband and wife team – Bruce A. Rosenberg and Ann H(arleman) Stewart.

The preface to the book begins:

By all the usual standards of belles lettres, Ian Fleming was a mediocre writer. His characters were improbably and often poorly realized. His plots — they have been called “science fictions” — were unrealistic and seldom credible either within individual episodes or throughout the entire economy of the narrative.

Two paragraphs later:

The personality of this fictional secret agent –and not a brilliantly drawn one at that — has impressed itself deeply in our consciousness.

Six paragraphs later:

Ian Fleming, who will never be on anyone’s all-time distinguished authors list,

and

How does a mediocre writer create characters that live on for decades?

With that, the tone for the rest of the book is pretty well established.

This book was written in 1989, a quarter of a century after the death of Ian Fleming. This, the authors claim, allows them to take a more objective look at Fleming and his writing. They say that most of the books about Fleming and his writing were done in the years following his death, when the James Bond craze was at its peak, and that this blinded reviewers to the flaws in Fleming’s writing and indeed, in his life.

Chapters are devoted to Ian Fleming’s life, his time during WWII in Naval Intelligence, his ability as a writer, his inspirations, whether or not the James Bond novels can actually be called “Spy novels”, the women and other characters in the books, the villains (one of the few areas Fleming receives high marks) and an attempt at Fleming’s psychological issues and how the books reflect them.

The authors rely heavily on the analysis contained within Umberto Eco and Oreste Del Buono’s collection of essays contained within Il Caso Bond (The Bond Affair.)  Among the essays noted of those of Fausto Antonini (The Psychoanalysis of 007), Furio Colombo (Bond’s Women), Romano Calisi (Myths and History in the Epic of James Bond) and Eco himself (The Narrative Structure in Bond).

The writings of John Pearson, Kingsley Amis and O.F. Snelling are cited, but treated as more lightweight fare. Raymond Benson’s The James Bond Bedside Companion is cited in the bibliography as “Superficial, adoring, but entertaining.”

While the book is scathing in its criticism of Fleming at times, curiously the authors fail on a number of occasions to get their facts correct. On at least two occasions, they mix up events in novels with those that take place in the film version. At one point when discussing how Fleming used Bond as wish-fulfillment they write:

James Bond is portrayed as an expert skier, scuba diver and hang glider, jet and helicopter pilot, high speed racing driver, sky diver, motorcyclist and all-around acrobat; in Fleming’s mature years, golf was the extent of his physical activity.

Fleming never has Bond using a hang glider, nor does he ever pilot a jet or helicopter. I can’t recall sky diving being among his hobbies in the novels, either. He does all of those things in the films.

In a discussion of Goldfinger, the authors cite the film version of events as Fleming’s.

He will irradiate the gold in Fort Knox with a small atomic explosion, thus depriving the American government of its use. In the ensuing financial chaos, he, Goldfinger, will profit financially, while SMERSH gains politically.

In Fleming’s Goldfinger novel, the plot was to actually steal the gold. A small ‘so-called “clean” atomic bomb’ was used to blow the door of the vault, but the goal was then to load the gold onto trains and trucks and steal it.

The final chapter of the book begins as follows:

Few writers in this century has angered their readers as much as Ian Fleming. In general, critics have taken offense at the ethics and morality of James Bond and by extension, of his author. Nearly all of the critiques have been variations of elaborations of the “sex, snobbery and sadism” charge of Paul Johnson (New Statesman, April, 1958). not much has been written about Fleming’s writing skills (or lack of them).

The closing paragraphs describe Fleming as “insecure, limited, exploitative, even despicable” but then a change is made in tone. Sympathy for his upbringing and lack of “emotional nourishment” during that time is cited. Much of the book was spent on Fleming’s flaws, as a person and as a writer, but then talks about how Fleming was able to overcome these by developing “his innate gifts – personal charm, the ability to make friends easily, the ability to write rapidly and clearly.” He was, according to the authors, in his final years able to come to terms with himself and accept his life “as the only possible course he could have taken.”

The book ends:

Out of an enormous pain, he produced more than a dozen books that have brought pleasure to millions of readers.

That isn’t the final sentence I saw coming as I spent the time going through this tome on the life and works of Ian Fleming.

twaynes

 

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Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man

When Ian Fleming passed away in August of 1964, there was something of a rush to document his life in biographies.

In 1965-66, no less than four biographies of Fleming hit the shelves, led by John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming. Also coming out was Henry A. Zeiger’s Ian Fleming: The Spy Who Came In With the Gold,  Eleanor and Dennis Pelrine published Ian Fleming: Man with the Golden Pen and then finally we have Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man, by Richard Gant.

In addition to the biographies, works such as Kingsley Amis’ The James Bond Dossier and 007 James Bond: A Report by O.F. Snelling also appeared during this time.

I’ve read Pearson several times, as all Ian Fleming fans undoubtedly have. Within the last year, I’ve acquired and read the other three as well. In time, hopefully I’ll do writeups on the Zeiger and Pelrine efforts, but today, I wanted to bring you a look at the work of Richard Gant.

ian-fleming-the-fantastic-007-man
American paperback version. Lancer Books 1966.

 

First of all, who was Richard Gant?

No, it wasn’t the actor who wrote the book. If you did a search for Richard Gant the writer, you wouldn’t come up with much. Wikipedia would tell you that Richard Gant was a pseudonym for Brian Freemantle.

Yes – the Brian Freemantle who has written the Charlie Muffin MI5 series, including Red Star Falling as recently as 2013.

I love Wikipedia, but realize it isn’t the omniscient oracle that we may wish it to be. Thus, I contacted Freemantle’s agent to see if I could get confirmation that he actually wrote Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man.

I was pleased to receive a direct response from Mr. Freemantle himself. His answer to my inquiry was rather interesting.

It turns out that he did NOT write our Ian Fleming biography. It was actually written by a close friend of Freemantle’s, another well-known novelist; Leslie Thomas, probably best known for his comic novel, The Virgin Soldiers. (and later, Stand up Virgin Soldiers.)

Stand-Up-Virgin-Soldiers

In 1964, Thomas published his first book, This Time Next Week about his life as a Barnardo orphan. The following year he wrote the Ian Fleming bio under the name Richard Gant. He was then approached about doing a followup to the book, this one about Sean Connery. As he was then in the midst of writing Virgin Soldiers, he suggested that Freemantle write it, as they shared the same agent, but keep the Richard Gant name, which is what happened. Freemantle wrote Sean Connery: The Gilt-Edged Bond  which was published in 1967 under the name Richard Gant.

Need more confusion? The Fleming book was published in the UK as The Man With The Golden Pen.

richard-gant

It appears however, that in the U.S, they changed the name to Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man, because there was already a book out in that country called Ian Fleming: Man With The Golden Pen. (Which we’ll talk about in a later post. Maybe.)

In terms of the actual biography, how does this one hold on up today?

Just as the James Bond novels are viewed by some as relics of another age, this biography might be viewed the same way. It is a product of its time.

The book is a pleasure to read. The writing is smooth and obviously the work of a talented author.

It is very polite and gentleman-like in its approach to documenting Fleming’s life. Nothing too salacious, criticism is directed only at the work, not the man, and in many ways the commentary on the novels mirrors what the critics at the time were saying.

Ian Fleming is framed as a mild-mannered, cultured gentleman who was self-effacing, yet able to navigate about in the world with command. His life from childhood to schooldays to his time in Naval Intelligence and as a stockbroker and newspaper editor is chronicled faithfully and quickly.

There are times however when the book isn’t as accurate on certain topics, particularly when it comes to the relationship of Ian and Anne Fleming.

The book says that Anne and Ian met while she was still Lady Rothermere, but we know their relationship went on well before that point, back to when she was with her first husband, Baron O’Neill.

When writing about the well-known parties that Anne often held, Gant says

That these gatherings never appealed to Fleming either before or after they were married–‘Gabfests’ he called them–did nothing to detract from the rightness of the marriage which was happy from the first day to the last.

While Anne and Ian certainly had a special love and devotion for each other, their marriage really couldn’t be categorized as ‘happy’ in any sense of the word. Gant does however, point out the disdain that Anne had for James Bond and the low regard in which she held Ian’s novels.

I do recommend the book for the Fleming/Bond enthusiast for a quick read, and also for some details which were new to me. For example, a James Bond comparison that I had not come across before was this:

Visually, Fleming always regarded Bond as looking like Henry Cotton the golfer, in his young days.

Hmm. I can see it. It’s not perfect – no comma of hair falling down – but you can see that face as Bond.

There are other details, even about Jamaica (Dr. Drew) which I hadn’t come across before, and quotes and insight from Fleming on his working methods which I found intriguing. There is even a reference to the island owned by Nina Dyer, which Fleming had swum out to frequently. Dyer had committed suicide in 1965, a fact which is noted in the book.

On the other hand many other details are lacking, as in Pearson’s bio, the name Blanche Blackwell does not appear in this book. Nothing about the other loves of his life, or details of Anne and Ian’s relationship before their marriage. This is perhaps the most obvious sign of the times, as back then, a person’s private life was not as aggressively delved into as it is now.

In addition, when biographies are written so close to the subject’s death, many of the principals in the life of that person are still living, and thus could be embarrassed or scandalized by details coming out. That was a large factor in the John Pearson book, and so when Andrew Lycett wrote his Fleming biography many years later, many of those people had since passed away and he was able to chronicle the more seedy aspects of the life of Ian Fleming.

The book winds down with a look at the films, and the Thunderball court case and then into Fleming’s final days and hours. It ends with Fleming’s own epitaph.

In closing, Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man or Ian Fleming: The Man With The Golden Pen if that is the version you come across, is a very smoothly written, interesting yet brief look at the life of the creator of James Bond. For the casual Fleming fan, I’m not sure I would go to the trouble of tracking down a copy of the book, but if you happen to come across it, it’s definitely worth a look.

Perhaps if only for the endpages of my copy which promote a series of books called “Ted Mark’s Swinging Adventures ” as “The Man From O.R.G.Y.

Seriously.

Review of Matthew Parker’s “Goldeneye”

IAN-FLEMING

 

The image of Ian Fleming pecking away at his typewriter at his tropical retreat while sounds of the surf pounding and warm breezes flow through the open windows is an idyllic one, especially for anyone who has dreamed of writing the next bestseller.

Those familiar with Ian Fleming know that his life was usually far from idyllic. A complicated, stubborn man of iron routine, who could be charming, but mostly preferred to avoid social entanglements, Fleming struggled with marital discord and declining health for much of the time in which he spent in his beloved Jamaica writing the James Bond novels.

Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica is a deep-dive into Fleming’s time in Jamaica. This is Mr Parker’s second book about the West Indies, having previously written The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies  the knowledge gained from that first book was almost a springboard to this one, as he discovered Goldeneye in the course of researching The Sugar Barons.

It’s worth noting that an adjustment in expectations for the book may be in order, though that is by no fault of Mr Parker. The book title after all tells us that it is about Ian Fleming’s Jamaica – not solely Ian Fleming. Thus there is much in the way of background and history of the island, all of which is fascinating and informative. If you were looking at 320 pages of Ian Fleming and James Bond, that’s not what this book is. In fact, it is not until page 124 that Fleming even begins writing Casino Royale.

All the background information is vital to the story of Ian Fleming and his creation, because there is so much of it in the writings of Fleming. This includes all the Bond novels, not just those in which the setting includes time in Jamaica – Live and Let Die, Dr No, The Man With the Golden Gun and the short stories For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. All the books and stories reveal the influence of Jamaica, if not directly than by means of a look into the political climate of the time, especially when it comes to the decline of the British Empire and the breakup of the Colonial holdings of the Empire. Fleming’s views on Britain, the United States, colonialism, politics and race are all explored in the context of the influences on his life and it is shown how these views make it in the James Bond novels.

Mr Parker expertly connects passages within the novels with events in Jamaica at the time and within Fleming’s own life – sometimes amusingly. Errol Flynn was a prominent figure around Jamaica in the late 1940’s and it seems that Fleming and Flynn had no use for each other, even as they were vying for the crown of “Jamaica’s most noted expatriate lothario.” Flynn felt Fleming ‘pretentious and full of himself,” while Fleming apparently didn’t care for the Hollywood legend of Flynn either. Mr Parker notes that in From Russia With Love, when Tatiana Romanova tries to compliment Bond by telling him he looks like an American film star, Bond snaps back at her ‘For God’s sake! That’s the worst insult you can pay a man!’

The relationship of Ann and Ian Fleming is also crucial to the account, as once again, the ups and downs of this relationship are reflected in Ian’s writing. (See the views of marriage as written in Diamonds Are Forever.) Ann came to hate and avoid Jamaica, which left Ian free to carry on affairs with the likes of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, Lady Jeanne Campbell and Blanche Blackwell. Ann meanwhile carried on with Hugh Gaitskell in much the same manner in which she had carried on with Ian when she was married to someone else. Despite this, the pair never divorced, and would still write affectionately to and about the other. Ian’s friend and Jamaican neighbor Noël Coward even created characters in his plays which were obviously based on Ian and Ann, and Blanche Blackwell. Mr Parker draws these connections for us in Coward’s work, while detailing the unlikely friendship between the men.

Mr Parker spent extensive time interviewing those who actually knew Fleming. As the years go by, these accounts become even more precious, knowing that in the not-so-distant future, this generation will be gone. Blanche Blackwell, still going strong at 102, her son Chris Blackwell, who now owns Goldeneye, Jamaican swimming champion Barrington Roper, who Fleming used as a guide, and surviving members of the Fleming’s extended family were among those who assisted Mr Parker with his research for the book.

There are numerous photographs throughout the book, both in-line and as part of a color collection in the center of the book. I cannot stop looking at the photo on page 253 which shows Ian sitting on a windowsill in Goldeneye, and sitting next to him, on his right is Blanche and on his left is Ann. The contrast is startling. Blanche is wearing what looks like a button-down shirt over presumably a swimsuit, with her bare legs dangling down. Ann, on the hand is more formally dressed, with a high neckline blouse and long skirt and you see no leg from her. Ian is sitting up straight, arms crossed on his lap, with something of a sheepish look on his face.

Both Jamaica and Ian Fleming changed during the time he kept his residence there. The island gained in popularity as a tourist spot and won its independence from Britain, Fleming bought his land in 1946, was married there in 1952 as a ‘sleek’ 44-year-old and a dozen years later was a dying man having exhausted his body from years of living too hard. Mr Parker captures this period for both Jamaica and Ian Fleming, giving us a view that has not been seen in this detail previously.

The book was released in the UK last August, but is not set for a US release until March 11th of 2015.

On the image below you can preorder the book for its March US release:

If you can’t wait until March, you can order the book through Amazon UK, just be prepared to pay a bit more for the shipping – it’s not too much though. Click here:

This book is a most welcome addition to my James Bond/Ian Fleming library and I’m sure it will be to yours too.