The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
Why I read it
When it comes to Bond, I’m a long-time watcher, first-time reader.
I’ve loved the series of films since I was a kid, and I’ve been lucky that as my critical awareness has developed, so has the franchise. Casino Royale is my current favourite: the first Daniel Craig movie, and full of all the greatest Bond-isms (high-stakes gambling, beautiful heroes and heroines, deformed villains, violence and guns, international intrigue, fast cars, exotic locations, stunning title sequence) without any of the fluff (Moneypenny, silly gadgets, cheesy one-liners, overt misogyny).
Given that Casino Royale is also the very first Bond novel, it seemed to make sense to choose it as the first one I’d read. When it showed up in a second-hand bookshop as a recently published Vintage paperback (unblemished matt minimalist white cover and all) I bought it.
What I expected
I know Ian Fleming is a sexist old dinosaur. I know the literary Bond is a conservative, racist, homophobic, old-empire stereotype.
I know this from various reviews and juicy extracts I’ve happened across in old magazine articles and what-not. But you can excuse a lot in the name of a good page-turning thriller.
I wanted to find out for myself just what a Bond novel was like.
Book Bond: more gritty, less glamorous
The very first shock is in sentence one: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ This is no helicopter establishing shot of glamorous Lamborghinis parking in front of a Monte Carlo building. It’s not showing you a blonde Russian in a high-slitted dress coyly smiling at you across the Baccarat table as she fondles the revolver in her garter suggestively. This is jarringly unlike the movies. It’s more like a Raymond Chandler novel.
There are a lot of similarities between this Bond and Chandler’s hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Both are forced by their work to mix in the seedy, amoral worlds of the ultra-rich and ruthless. Both find things therein that sicken them. Both have their own moral codes challenged when they find themselves getting mixed up in these grimy worlds. But it’s when they start to philosophize on this that their differences become very apparent.
An example. In The Big Sleep Marlowe comes home one night to find coy little rich girl Carmen Sternwood lying completely naked on his bed. He turfs her out and in a rage rips the sheets off his bed. In invading his private space to try and seduce him, she’d made personal all the lies, murder, blackmail and deception he’d been trying to investigate impartially. He’s already been grappling with the question of whether a good man can stay good when surrounded by decay. He’s not a perfect guy (he makes some pretty homophobic judgements, for example) but at least he can respect aspects of people’s struggles (Sternwood senior and his desire for a quiet life; Vivian and her wish to protect her younger sister) while condemning their bad behaviour.
Bond, by comparison, is like a very good middle-aged tradesman who has only just, for the first time, been given a basic philosophical conundrum (e.g. ‘What is patriotism, and is there an inherent value in fighting for something just because it’s what you’ve grown up with in your country?’, and it’s BLOWN HIS MIND. He is proud of having identified that it’s even a question. He indulges in letting himself feel jaded about it all:
‘You see,’ he said, still looking down at his bandages, ‘when one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. […] The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn’t a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up.
‘Of course,’ he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, ‘patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out of date. Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.’
But there is no coherence to his rant. On the next page he ends up implying that Le Chiffre (who really is evil, as evidenced by him having just beaten Bond’s gentleman’s area to a bloody pulp) is worth rooting for solely because we need the concept of ‘evil’ otherwise ‘good’ would have no meaning (at least I THINK that’s what was going on; it was all a bit mad). Nothing to do with the politics of whether Le Chiffre’s communist agenda had some kind of philosophical merit. Nothing to do with whether there should be room for thinking versus killing in Bond’s role as a government agent.
Also, while Marlowe kicks Carmen out in a rage that she’s tried to compromise his ideals, Bond actively throws aside any professionalism at the first hint he might be up for a shag. More on that later.
What’s more: there seems to be no personal development as a result of any of this. Like an oaf, the only response he has to challenging questions is to let his anger grow at those who’ve forced him to think (villains, women, foreigners) and become a colder, harder brute. Yay!
This book is full of absolutely hair-curling paragraphs. A few for your entertainment:
Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for her eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical.
[This is the first and only description of her, and it’s given in terms of her potential sexual appeal.]
Bond was not amused. ‘What the hell do they want to send me a woman for?’ he said bitterly. ‘Do they think this is a bloody picnic?’
[On hearing his back-up will be female.]
And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were there for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.
‘Bitch,’ said Bond, and then remembering the Muntzes, he said ‘bitch’ again more loudly and walked out of the room.
[Just thinking about women and how they force him to have sex with them and cloud his judgement makes Bond so angry he has to talk to himself in an empty room.]
This was just what he had been afraid of [Vesper being kidnapped and probably raped/tortured]. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men. And now for this to happen to him, just when the job had come off so beautifully. For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ransom like some bloody heroine in a cartoon strip. The silly bitch.
[Note ‘for this (i.e. her abduction) to happen TO HIM’. Secondary note: he is about to get kidnapped and tortured soon too.]
There was something enigmatic about her which was a constant stimulus. She gave little of her real personality away and he felt that however long they were together there would always be a private room inside her which he could never invade. She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit. And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
[Having sex with a woman who has a personality of her own is so foreign to Bond that he feels like he’d be raping her… and he likes it.]
The most amazing thing about all this is that after accusing women of being useless due to their ’emotional baggage’, Bond goes on to behave hugely unprofessionally, and make DISASTROUS DECISIONS THAT PUT LIVES AT RISK (including his own), based on his emotions.
What emotions? Are they the debilitating grief and terror that lead Vesper to sell government secrets to the Russians who are torturing her lover? No. It’s because he reckons he might be LIKE TOTALLY IN THERE with Vesper.
She hints that she might be up for a shag if he plays his cards right:
‘She looked into his eyes and said nothing, but the enigmatic challenge was back. She pressed his hand and rose. ‘A promise is a promise,’ she said. This time they both knew what the promise was.
Just four paragraphs later Bond is writing lies in official reports to the British Government, covering up tell-tale signs that might have revealed hints she was a double agent, and doing it merely in order to make her look good so he can hang out with her for longer:
He made light of what he still considered amateurish behaviour on the part of Vesper. […] He praised Vesper’s coolness and composure throughout the whole episode without saying that he had found some of her actions unaccountable.
Every day Vesper came to see him and he looked forward to these visits with excitement […]
Later, when she’s behaving really weirdly, making secretive phonecalls and voicing suspicions about a shadowy man with an eyepatch she thinks is following them, Bond’s certainty that she’s being an over-reacting, shallow flibertigibbet (subtext: like all women) means that he misses all the obvious signs that something’s not right.
The book ends with her committing suicide and leaving him a heartfelt confession. Bond calls in the news to headquarters. His line ‘The bitch is dead now,’ delivered with no sense of irony or self-awareness, is the last sentence in the book.
Why this book is good for feminists
It would have been hard to read this book as a feminist in the 1950s. Nowadays at least you know that you’re not the only one who sees Bond as the misogynistic dinosaur he is. Hey, one of the more recent Bond movies even called him that outright in a self-aware gesture to the old franchise. Reading this book makes you realise that even though there’s a long way to go for gender equality, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Why I liked it
I liked the book because of the good bits (the page-turning pace, the drama, the action, the unexpected character notes) and also because of the bad bits (the delicious out-datedness, the relish with which luxury goods are described, the simplicity of his spying techniques e.g. hair-across-the-door, the relative ordinariness of the locations, the uncomplicated view of the world).
I also really liked the fact that the movie is better than the book. It’s got more action, more glamour, more three-dimensionality of character (yes, really), more self-awareness, more intelligence (again, yes, true), better cars, and a better opening sequence.
It’s nice to find out you haven’t been missing much by not reading the original novels.
This book was mostly read in cafes in Radelaide.