The Enduring Thrill of Sex, Sadism and Snobbery

By Churchwell, Sarah | The Independent (London, England), May 28, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Enduring Thrill of Sex, Sadism and Snobbery


Churchwell, Sarah, The Independent (London, England)


According to a 1958 New Statesman review of Dr. No, the James Bond novels consisted of "three basic ingredients, all thoroughly English": "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two- dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult."

These ingredients no longer seem particularly English; sex, snobbery and sadism are a global phenomenon, while the schoolboy bully, frustrated adolescent, and snobbish suburban adult sound like Hollywood market research. Umberto Eco once likened Fleming's plots to a chess game, in which the same moves will occur in the same patterns, as two conflicting forces (not just characters, but also ideologies and value systems) battle it out.

It is hard to disagree: the Bond stories are catalysed by conflicts between individualism and authority, loyalty and betrayal, heterosexual desire and misogyny, and luxury and sacrifice, to name just the most overt, and the most enduring, of the themes. But sex, snobbery, and sadism remain the bedrock of the Bond mystique.

It seems unlikely that Sebastian Faulks's eagerly awaited Devil May Care, with its rumoured Middle East setting, heroin-running plot, and presumably double-dealing female (wonderfully named Poppy), will deviate far from this formula. Faulks has said that in writing the novel he followed Fleming's advice from his essay How to Write A Thriller, which advises drafting 2,000 words without re- reading them, in order to avoid getting distracted by such bagatelles as whether your prose is any good or you've got your facts straight - which might explain the critical disdain for Fleming's books.

He famously described Casino Royale to his publisher as banal and miserable, and told Raymond Chandler (a terrific stylist, at his finest): "Probably the fault about my books is that I don't take them seriously enough ... if one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond."

This statement alone is sufficient evidence of Fleming's snobbery. One need not take Bond seriously as a character in order to take seriously the impact of Bond as a cultural phenomenon. The question, as ever, is whether Bond can continue to register with a new generation of audiences.

The Bond stories were embedded in Cold War moral certainties; they were instruction manuals in conspicuous consumption for a newly aspirant middle-class; and they offered fantasies of continued supremacy for the citizens of a former superpower that had not come to terms with its newly subordinated role in world affairs.

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