Friday, December 27, 2013

Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories, by Ian Fleming

It’s amazing, when you consider it, how early in life our patterns are established; and more, how indelible they are when they’re established in our youths.  One of my favourite holiday traditions started when I was around 10 years old, and continues to this day.  When the Christmas commercials start playing on TV, and the malls drag out their trees and lights, my immediate response it to pop in a James Bond movie.  When I was a kid, there was an American TV network that would run Bond marathons throughout the month of December; I remember fondly being 11 or 12 years old, and getting to stay up to 2am watching movies on a weekend.  I didn’t get the sexual innuendos, and the plots often went over my head, but those marathons became as important to my Christmas as putting out milk and cookies for Santa.  It only lasted a couple of years, but it’s remained unchanged since.

So, when I was looking for my latest read, I was immediately drawn to the work of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.  The only work of his that I have is a collection of short stories, but as I’ve never read anything of Fleming’s before, it seemed as good a place as any to start.  Out came Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories collection, and I tucked in.  The book contains nine stories, many of which have lent their names to Bond films in the past (like For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and The Living Daylights); some have elements that were later used in the movies that bear their names, or other movies all together; and some have absolutely nothing to do with the James Bond that the movies have made so popular.
Fleming’s Bond, as he comes across in the stories, is very different from the Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig, and even Lazenby Bonds we’ve gotten to know.  If anything, I would characterize the literary Bond as more of an administrator that a gun-toting, womanizing bad-ass.  I mean, there are some elements of that in these stories, but Bond mainly comes across as a civil servant who is equally comfortable behind his desk as acting as a sniper in Eastern Germany.  And, honestly, I kind of like the literary Bond more…. There isn’t much character development with him, but he seems richer – he’s not slapping a broad around (Connery), knuckle-dragging (early Craig), or trying to pick-up women who are young enough to be his grand-daughter (Moore).  The literary Bond, maybe because the reader can follow-along with his thought process, is more introspective and gives a better sense of his moral compass.  Admittedly, the current writers for the Bond film as starting to align with that sensitivity, but they aren’t quite there yet.
And yet, for all that, in a few of the stories, Bond is a fringe character.  He is present, or is the inciting factor in the story, but the actual story is someone else’s.  The best example of this, and the best story in the collection (in my opinion), is Quantum of Solace.  A truly horrible movie, but an amazing story that has nothing to do with the plot of the film, Quantum of Solace is a story told by a Caribbean British administrator to Bond at the end of a dinner party.  The story is about another administrator and his wife, who was unfaithful, and the lengths the husband went to to reclaim his dignity.  That, in a nutshell is the quantum of solace; what you have to do to reclaim yourself when the person you love has broken your heart.  There are no guns in this story, no violent death, no espionage – it’s a straight up study of human emotions, and it’s brilliant.  Don’t want to read the whole collection?  Then just read that one story – it’s worth it.
In terms of writing style and readability, these stories reflect the time in which they were written; there is casual racism thrown around, some pretty overt sexism, and a plethora a communists.  For the modern reader (well, for me at least), the first two induced some cringes, and the last was just par for the course if you’re familiar with the movies, but is still an interesting reminder of the Cold War era.
So, final verdict?  This book did exactly what I was hoping it would do - it’s a great introduction to Ian Fleming and the literary James Bond.  If you’ve seen the movies as much as I have, it takes some adjusting to get used to the more sensitive and less brash nature of the Bond that Fleming created, but it’s worth the effort.  I think in the future I’ll be seeking out more of Fleming’s works to see if my impressions of the author’s Bond run throughout his other works.  All that to say, I’d recommend this book. 

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