December 13, 2006

Between The Covers

Aside from the fact that Daniel Craig is proving that there's Bond box office life after Sean Connery, Simon Winder's witty — and uproariously nasty — critique of Ian Fleming's 007 warrants attention not just because of the new Casino Royale but because, on its own, Winder's book, The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, evidences the kind of smart, pungent, pithy prose not often met with these days.

Winder is beyond right or wrong — he is just savagely good. And instructive, a certified historian and certifiable Ian Fleming follower who wears his British heart on his sleeve as he wipes his nose on it as well. The Man Who Saved Britain is at once devilishly critical as post WW II history and unapologetically quirky as a self-deprecating memoir and trenchant movie analysis.

For Americans who may know Bond mainly or perhaps only through the movies — the good ones, From Russia With Love (a favorite of JFK), Goldfinger and Thunderball (oh, that hypnotic music by John Barry), the bad ones, anything with Roger Moore and subsequent Bonds — Winder provides a fascinating glimpse into what the 14 Bond books were all about. By all means, see the new Casino Royale (it's pretty good), then read Winder's book.

Winder, a highly successful publishing director at Penguin UK, nails his thesis with both title and subtitle. The Man Who Saved Britain is indeed, a "personal" look at the "disturbing" Bond phenomenon. As Winder contends, Fleming appeals to those who, like him, prefer to forget that by the early 1950s, when the first Bond book (Casino Royale) came out, Britain was no longer Top Nation.

As the years progressed, "Bond's ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed." Empire was dead, and America and Russia, by way of the Cold War, were the only global players around.

A UK rife with domestic and international failure was a humiliating aspect, especially to upper-class right-wing "toffs" such as the handsome, philandering, aristocratic Fleming, lolling away on the island of Jamaica, with his drinks and women. (Winston Churchill, a friend of Fleming's Conservative father, comes off poorly here as a drunk and ineffectual statesman who scored big by default.)

Fleming would restore the myth of Britain's "vanished" glory by offering up 007, a totemic "erotomaniacal" nostalgic fantasy figure. The Bond books, as Winder opines, provided a vital "drip feed" of self-esteem to an exhausted, demoralized post-war country and to a traumatized Western world loath to acknowledge the consequences of racist and imperial policies.

Indeed, Winder sees the beginning of the end as early as the mid-'40s, when Britain became "completely useless as a resolute foe to Nazism," forced to fight but, despite notable acts of heroism, doomed to shine only in the reflected glory of the powerful American and the Soviet juggernauts.

How ironic that Britain's one great espionage success — the U-boat code breaking masterminded at Bletchley Park, would, perforce, remain a secret. Perhaps the origins of defeat go back even further, Winder suggests, to WW I and the Battle of the Somme, which would make England's demise more devastating and the need for distraction more compelling.

"As Britain's greatness went off a cliff with the chaotic mass decolonization of 1960, the books' sales went higher and higher, with Goldfinger and Thunderball the necessary palliative" for millions of ordinary voters. But if Fleming was "besotted" with the idea that "guts and personal ingenuity" could win the day, the ultimate failure of the Bond books to save face became even more obvious when literary glory went over to the Americans who, starting with Norman Mailer, were producing "enduring, widely read novels" about WW II.

Enter the Bond movies at just the point that Fleming himself, sadomasochist, cynic, sexist and racist that he was, eventually grew bored with his own work. But who could ever not root for Hollywood's sexy, smooth and decent Sean Connery? One of the pleasures of the new Casino Royale is how much closer it comes to Fleming's 1953 book and worldview and for that, how much more satisfying. In any case, for sure, one of the great pleasures of Winder's book is its provocative phrase-making about the relationship between history and the popular media.

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pp., $25.

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