Please, sir, may we have James Bond back? Not the Bond of Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Daniel Craig. I mean the James Bond Ian Fleming wrote about.
The disconnect is now total. How baffling is the title of the latest movie, "Quantum of Solace?" What does that mean ? The term actually comes from one of Fleming's short stories about Bond. The setting was a dinner party in the Caribbean, during which the host spins the tale of a wayward wife who finally exhausted her husband's capacity for love and sympathy— his quantum of solace—so he took his revenge by abandoning her in the most brutal fashion he could devise. The woman, Bond learns after dinner, had been one of the other guests.
As a yarn, it's interesting mostly because it shows how much Fleming admired Somerset Maugham, a master of that sort of miniature. But its borrowed title is baffling when applied to the Bond of the explosion-packed movies in the past 46 years. (Or did the scriptwriters perhaps envisage that the death of his woman in Casino Royale had exhausted Bond's 'quantum of solace", turning him into a machine set on vengeance? If so, that reference remains on the cutting-room floor.)
So the disconnect. Because Bond—as Fleming envisioned him—wasn't a superman. He was a bureaucrat. In Britspeak, a civil servant. A man who, when he wasn't in action, might have been a guest at a stilted Caribbean dinner party at the house of the local British government official. That was what Fleming saw, correctly, as his seminal contribution to the genre: the agent as instrument of a government.
"Secret agents" as a literary genre were invented by E. Phillips Oppenheim, the wildly prolific (150 or so novels) and successful, 20th-century writer of thriller. But his agents were lone operatives —raffish cousins of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel. John Buchan took the genre a step further. His Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot were still lone Edwardian heroes, but now it was the British Foreign Office, the shrewd Sir Walter Bullivant, who set them in motion. Eric Ambler advanced it another step: His heroes tend to be innocents caught up in events they don't understand; but in the best of his pre-WWII stories—"A Coffin for Dimitrios," for example—the background and triggers of the plot are the well-depicted workings of national intelligence services.
Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden" was the breakthrough in the genre. Published in 1928, and a lightly-fictionalized memoir of his days working for the British Secret Service in Switzerland in World War I, Maugham's was the first yarn to depict an agent trying, usually haplessly, to carry out the impossible orders of his superiors. But, perhaps because Maugham's anecdotes featured no violence and were essentially comedies of manners, "Ashenden" had no successors. Until Ian Fleming.
When, Fleming—in urgent need of money to support his extravagant new wife—sat down, in 1952, at Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica, to write a thriller, he drew on his WWII experiences in British Naval Intelligence. Plot and characters can all be traced back to those years, the most intense of Fleming's life. (Goldeneye itself was named after a WWII operation Fleming had planned.) So Bond was born: a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve(wish fulfilment—Fleming himself only made lieutenant rank), who went into action on orders from his superiors. Even Bond's flinty superior, M, was modeled on Fleming's boss in wartime Naval Intelligence.
Bond, in short, was no lone operative. He was a lethal instrument on Her Majesty's service. Fleming's portrait of Bond was a composite of characters he had known from those WWII days. "Moonraker" gives the most extended depiction of the man. A loner in consequence, it's hinted, of a dislocated social background; now essentially affectless—making love "with cold passion" to any one of three complaisant married women— enjoying a life of comfort, tended by a "treasured" Scots housekeeper in his apartment on one of Chelsea's posher squares. Spending all he earns, because he knows that the price of 00 status is that he is unlikely to survive to retirement.
Between missions, though—which means for most of his year—Bond is a bureaucrat, sitting at a desk ploughing through intelligence reports, honing his marksmanship in sessions on the firing range. And when M summons him to another mission which will quite likely result in his death, he goes armed with nothing but his Beretta.
Fleming's Bond is a character of his time: the cold-war years of a brutal subterranean struggle between the rival intelligence services of the West and the Soviets' KBG and GRU. Fleming, never short of WWII friends, who were still in the business, drew on their gossip. Yes, there was in those days a small group of British agents used for killings, though 00 wasn't their designation. And at least one Bond short story—"The Living Daylights"—was so sufficiently close to an actual mission in Berlin that it raised eyebrows in Whitehall.
All that period setting vanished, inevitably, when producer Cubby Broccoli made the first Bond movie, "Dr. No," in 1962. Refashioned to suit a global popcorn audience, the movie-Bond was born. Fleming's Bond has never reappeared. (Though the opening sequence of Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig earns his 00 spurs by killing a traitor in the service, gives a glimpse of what might yet be resurrected.)
So I envision my favorite Bond movie of the future, in black and white, of course, not unlike "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold," the 1965 screen version of John Le Carré's classic tale, with Richard Burton, heartrending, as the agent who realizes he is doomed. (Le Carré is Fleming's successor in setting his agents so firmly within a bureaucracy. And in pillaging stories from the secret history of those times as the bases for his plots—though Le Carré adds the twist that the bureaucracy itself is the amoral betrayer of its agents' lives. Charles McCarry, the modern American master of the genre, toys with the same notion.) My favorite, yet-to –be-made Bond movie would be a period piece, but a cautionary tale, perhaps. A story that would give people a glimpse of the brutal struggles that went on, beneath the headlines, in the cold war. Struggles that the James Bonds of our own day are now fighting against Osama Bin Laden. A story worth telling. Daniel Craig, who so clearly models his Bond on Richard Burton's performance 40 years ago, would make a fine hero.