For Your Eyes Only? James Bond’s creation and development in letters (Book Review)

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Title: The Man With the Golden Typewriter; Author: Fergus Fleming (editor); Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 401; Price: Rs.499

For all his flamboyance and charm, Agent 007’s journey from an idea to an actual and influential character (on the page) was no less different in its collective effort than for many others in fiction. For if Ian Fleming had been given his way, some of the most iconic of the James Bond adventures might have been named “The Undertaker’s Wind”, “The Wound Man” and “Goldenrod”.

Thankfully, the author heeded the wiser counsel of his editors and the titles remained “Live and Let Die”, “Dr. No” and “The Man with the Golden Gun”, as we earn from this book, offering a scintillating view of the story of the Bond stories.

Though the novels have been considerably overshadowed by the films, they still are popular – and have belatedly begin to influence the cinematic adaptions, with the most recent ones being more darker and the protagonist shown more human – as the author intended – than the suave superhero we have been accustomed to seeing onscreen.

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Though there are scores of attempts to analyse James Bond from every angle possible – from the main motifs of life and work in Kingsley Amis’ “James Bond Dossier” (1965) to more deeper considerations in “James Bond and Philosophy: Questions Are Forever” (edited by James B. South and Jacob M. Held) while Fleming and his extraordinary life has been well-served by biographers like John Pearson (1965) and Andrew Lycett (1995), there was so far no accounts of the “creation” process. But finally, a Fleming family member has chipped in here.

Fergus Fleming, a nephew (son of his younger brother Richard) and a writer in his own right, has assembled and annotated a collection of letters from his uncle to his publishers and editors, friends, and readers and admirers to show how the novels were researched, finalised (right from the plot to the cover art), marketed, and how Fleming responded to views of readers from schoolboys to suburban librarians to clergymen.

Noting that his uncle, who was veritably a household name in 1963, had for the year’s edition of “Who’s Who”, had tersely summarised his achievements as “several novels of suspense”, he says this was a “modest description of a career that not only gave the world its most famous secret agent, but was conducted at breakneck speed” as the 14 Bond books, three non-fiction works and a three-volume children’s book (“Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”) were completed between 1952 and 1964.

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Fleming was simultaneously a journalist (for various outlets), and publisher and actively pursued his “recreations” (“First Editions, spear fishing, cards, and golf” but also cars and treasure hunting). One he didn’t mention was letter-writing but that may have seemed a natural activity in the 1950s. And in this, he was prolific, regular – and most witty.

After a brief introduction about Fleming and the main points of his life, Fergus Fleming divides his “oposculum” – one of Fleming’s favourite words and one he often used for his works – into seventeen chapters: 14 which deal with each of the Bond novels, in sequence as far as possible, and concentrate on a single Bond novel and three special ones.

But given the extensive preoccupations Fleming had, some muddling in chronology is inevitable, cautions the compiler, while noting that the content related to a particular work may vary according to the material available (less in case of “Thunderball” which got embroiled in messy litigation). Letters to Fleming are, with three exceptions (such as Geoffrey Boothroyd who advised on Bond’s weapons), confined to those from his publishers and editors and close friends such as Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham “though the gist of other exchanges (wherever available) are supplied in the commentaries”.

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The whole work not only depicts how James Bond developed, or how even a successful author has to keep focus on issues like royalties, print runs, publicity budgets, reviews, and movie and television deals, but offers an unforgettable view of the creative process and how it has to deal with commercial considerations. Fans – as this shows, were diverse – will enjoy it and learn much and even those who find Bond a misogynistic dinosaur or worse may profit from it.

(06.05.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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