What are the ingredients of a “good” James Bond?

The last James Bond just released today Wednesday October 6 in theaters. On this occasion, Read Literary Magazine analyzes the novels of Ian Fleming and reveals the keys that made them successful.

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A literary niche to find

French publishers have never quite known which foot to dance with James Bond. Marcel Duhamel, founder of the Série Noire collection at Gallimard, admitted that he had missed the boat: he had indeed translated for his collection. Diamonds Are Forever in 1957 and, a year later, Moonraker, but, faced with the lack of interest aroused by the publication of these two works, he did not go further. It must be said that, to respect the codes of the Black Series, we had seen fit to rename them in French Hot ice cubes! and Entourloupe in azimuth… In doing so, we had simply drowned in the mass.

Portrait of Ian Fleming in the early 1970s, the “father” of James Bond. © CENTRAL PRESS / AFP

Same error in 1960, with the editions of the Presses Internationales, which boasted of proposing, unpublished full length novels, but who, not content to take liberties with the original titles – Goldfinger became so Chloroform operation – did not hesitate to review and correct Fleming’s prose. Besides, if Casino Royale became Spies make your bets, it is quite simply because, in this first Bond adventure, Royale-les-Eaux, a fictitious town, but inspired by several towns in Normandy (including Deauville), had been replaced in the translation by Nice…!

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Cure of youth

It took the success of the film Dr. No in 1962 so that Fleming’s novels could find a publisher who could offer them a regular publication: it was Plon’s White Collection, which can still be found in second-hand booksellers, with on each cover the bust of Sean Connery, arm across chest and pistol in hand.

In the decades that have followed since, various publishers have wanted to take up the torch, but, with the exception of the two volumes of the “Bouquins” collection prefaced by Francis Lacassin and which group together in 2,000 pages all of Bond’s missions, the torch s is always very quickly extinguished.

When in 2006 came out Casino Royale with Daniel Craig, the Bragelonne editions proposed a new translation and absolutely faithful of the original novel, promising the same makeover for all of Bond’s adventures. The cure was interrupted after three volumes.

Station literature, or just literature?

These editorial hesitations are not specific to the French market: in the United Kingdom, the policy now consists of republishing only certain titles in the series. Behind all this, there is only one question, basically: Fleming’s “Bonds” have sold millions of copies around the world, but it was mostly in the wake of the films; do they have a literary value which allows them to continue to exist eternally by themselves, which makes them classics?

Station literature, or literature in short? Umberto Eco had asked the question as early as 1963 in the article he had written for a collective work coordinated by himself and Oreste Del Buono and entitled The Bond case. The book as a whole has never been the subject of a French edition, but Eco’s article is included in its collection. From Superman to Superman (Grasset). Bond rubbed shoulders with various mythical figures such as the Three Musketeers, but Eco easily demonstrates that all of his adventures can be reduced to narrative structures that relate them more to industrial productions than to true literary creations.

Nine essential ingredients

Each novel, therefore, is presented as a “game” that is played in nine moves:

A. « M. » [le patron des services secrets] play and give Bond a mission.

B. The Villain plays and appears to Bond (possibly in a substitute form).

C. Bond plays and inflicts a first check on the Villain – or else the Villain inflicts a check on Bond.

D. The Woman plays and introduces herself to Bond.

E. Bond blows the Woman; he owns it or undertakes possession.

F. The Villain takes Leap (with or without the Woman, or at various times).

G. Le Méchant tortures Bond (with or without the Woman).

H. Bond defeats the Villain (he kills him or kills his substitute or witnesses his death).

I. Convalescent Bond talks with the Woman, whom he later loses.

photo of daniel craig and ana de armas in

Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in “Dying Can Wait”. © Universal Pictures International France

Despite its appearance of an infernal machine, this diagram – respected to the letter, or almost, in Casino Royale, Goldfinger Where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – should not, however, make us forget the dual nature of Fleming’s novels.

Bond, he said, was born in his imagination in January 1952, in Jamaica, as a way to escape the shackles of his marriage – a late marriage, since he was already forty-three – which was to be celebrated for two months. later. Fleming was, it is true, a licensed ladies’ man – his schooling at the prestigious Eton College had even been cut short because the boarding supervisor felt he was spending too much time seducing young girls.

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Stories inspired by lived experiences

But certain credible testimonies indicate that for a long time he had the idea of ​​writing fictions directly inspired by the experiences he had lived, because of his mastery of French, German and Russian, in as a journalist-grand reporter and, during the war, as an officer in the British counterintelligence service.

Fleming himself was well aware of the cocktail that served as the basis for each of his novels: My stories are fantastic stories, although they are often based on real facts. These fantasies, always condemned to repeat themselves (according to the diagram spotted by Eco) since they are never totally detached from reality, would hardly attract attention if they were only those of the individual Ian Fleming, but they are also those of the post-war UK, with its inevitable contradictions.

Fleming and his character, between love and hate

England was undoubtedly one of the victors of the war, but it was clear that she would no longer occupy the position in the world which she had held until then. In the early 1950s, Her Majesty’s subjects were still subject to ration tickets when they needed to stock up, and the caviar, champagne and cigarettes that seem to be Bond’s common lot were more of a dream than any other. thing. Hence the love and hate relationship between Fleming and his character.

Starting with the name James Bond, borrowed from the author of a treatise on ornithology, but above all chosen for its banality. Fleming’s real twin brother in his novels is not Bond, moreover, but his sworn enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (since Fleming gave birth to him, like him, on May 28, 1908). Fleming even wanted to kill his hero like Conan Doyle wanted to kill Sherlock Holmes: at the end of Good Kisses from Russia, Bond, poisoned by the needle that sprang from one of the ignoble Rosa Klebb’s shoes, is literally dying, and we do not know the result of what miracle he can resume service with a perfectly healed leg at the beginning of Dr. No.

Save something from the old world

Taken to extremes, fantasies of past grandeur could be suicidal, but Fleming, like – all things considered – the Chateaubriand of Memories from beyond the grave, is a conservative lucid enough to understand that the old world, whatever his attachment to it, is doomed to disappear and that we must see further if we want to save what can still be Safe.

This sense of history, of the irony of history, is present in what launches the plot of Casino Royale, the first novel in the Bondian saga: the wicked Le Chiffre that Bond must defeat in baccarat seeks to remake himself because he had placed all the money he was managing for the Reds in French brothels, without providing that the law Marthe Richard was going, overnight, to destroy both these establishments and her fortune at the same time.

A visionary saga?

At the beginning of Dr. No, published in 1958, a character clearly announces that Jamaica will not remain the property of the United Kingdom forever. In fact, it gained its independence four years later. The attack on the Fort Knox reserves organized by Goldfinger in the novel, published in 1959, to which this villain gives his name, can be seen as a premonition of the end of the gold standard twelve years later. “M.” at the beginning ofOperation Thunder, lectures Bond on his diet, giving him speeches that could be those of a 2020 organic activist.

And if Bond is undoubtedly a chauvinist at heart, he sometimes floats in the perfume novels of #MeToo before his time. When Bond suggests to Kissy, heroine ofWe only live twice, that she could remake cinema, this one rears: No way. I hated it – all those disgusting Hollywood guys who thought that just because I was Japanese I was kind of an animal and my body was available to everyone.

We could also cite all of The Spy Who Loved Me, renamed in French Motel 007, written by Ian Fleming with the collaboration of Vivienne Michel : this perfectly imaginary collaborator is none other than the heroine who tells in the first person how Bond (who does not appear until Act III) came to pull her from the clutches of two thugs.

Is Fleming a great writer? He was in any case a visionary journalist: each time, the abundant documentation he gathered before writing a novel served him to report on the news of tomorrow. And if the films risk eclipsing his original creation, there is much more of a resurrection than a disappearance. Jean Renoir explained that, if there are not many people left to read theOdyssey in the text, everyone knows who Ulysses is and that this is what really matters.

This article was originally published in February 2020 in Read Literary Magazine. The complete special edition can be found on the shop Read Literary Magazine .

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