Thursday, February 28, 2013

007 Reloaded: The Spy Who Loved Me

Vivienne Michel is your typical French-Canadian-girl-who-was-orphaned-and-therefore-sent-to-England-to-become-a-lady-but-ended-up-losing-her-virginity-and-worked-in-a-newspaper-office-where-she-had-another-love-affair-before-that-ended-in-an-abortion-and-so-she-returned-to-Canada-and-decided-to-go-on-a-road-trip-via-her-Vespa-which-she-bought-in-England-all-the-way-to-Florida. There, I just saved you from reading Part I of this book. By 'this book', I mean Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and it’s supposed to be a James Bond adventure. So where is Bond? Who is Vivienne? And who are the nasty characters who are holding her hostage at the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, a motel in the Adirondacks?

The Spy Who Loved Me is a bit of an interruption in the “Blofeld trilogy” of novels where Bond chases after Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE. Blofeld never appears in this novel, but reference is made to SPECTRE and that is why Bond eventually comes onstage. He stumbles across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court by accident, and finds there Vivienne Michel being held hostage by two nasty-looking gunmen. A fight ensues, St. Patrick drives the metaphorical snakes out of the motel, and claims his prize.

Perhaps you can tell, but I don’t really like The Spy Who Loved Me. But before I really bury into it, it’s only fair that I allow Ian Fleming himself to defend what he tried to do with this book. The following is shamelessly lifted from Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming:


To [Michael] Howard, he tried to explain his objective in writing The Spy Who Loved Me. He had become alarmed that his earlier thrillers, designed for an adult audience, were increasingly read in schools (such as [his son] Caspar’s, he might have added) where young people made a hero out of James Bond. This had not been his intention, he claimed. He did not regard Bond as a heroic figure “but only as an efficient professional in his job”. Therefore he had sought to write a “cautionary tale” to put the record straight, particularly for his younger readers. Unable to do this in his usual narrative style, he had invented a heroine “through whom I could examine Bond from the other end of the gun barrel, so to speak”. To make her credible, he had to build her up and make her “wordly-wise”. Even so, Ian purported that, to lessen any sense of heroism, he had depicted Bond as making a mess of his fight with the gangsters holding Vivienne Michel. And the book had ended with a “long homily” where the chief detective warned her and the readers that Bond was actually no better than the hoodlums he chased.


The idea behind The Spy Who Loved Me is commendable. It’s supposed to be an examination of Bond from another angle, showing us that Bond is not perfect and that he can be just as bad as the people he chases. If you’ve been keeping up with this series of reviews, you’ll know that is one of my favourite themes in the Bond books. So why am I so unhappy with this book?

It’s because of one thing: Ian Fleming could not write from a woman’s point of view. Occasionally he came up with a brilliant female character, such as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever. He could even write convincingly of the love that sprang up between two people or the bitterness that could tear such a love down. But to write an entire novel, however brief, from a woman’s point-of-view? This was an interesting experiment, and I give Fleming full credit for trying something new. Unfortunately, it was a dismal failure as an experiment.

Vivienne Michel isn’t a very interesting character, and thanks to the first-person narration, as the readers we are trapped into accompanying her throughout the novel. Consider these numbers: my edition of the book has 156 pages. Part One is 59 pages long. In other words, over 1/3 of the book is concerned with Vivienne’s backstory, without a hint of Bond around the corner, and it isn’t convincingly written. Bond himself doesn’t appear until page 93, nearly 60% of the way through the book.

“What are you getting so upset about?” you might be asking. “Okay, so Fleming couldn’t write well as a woman—is that really such a shock?” You’re right—had it ended there, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this book, I’d just consider it a bit dull. But you see, Ian Fleming had something of a sado-masochistic streak where sex is concerned, and this is fused into Michel’s character. She’s a submissive woman like Fleming might have fantasized about. And as a result she doesn’t fulfill her supposed function of giving Bond a critical examination. Instead, she gushes over how heroic Bond is, how he is the St. George who slayed the dragon, appearing out of nowhere, a knight in shining armour… and now, naturally, he must collect his prize. So she gives herself to him.

That’s bad enough, but when you have your female narrator say that “all women enjoy semi-rape”… I’m sorry, but that’s just disgusting and reprehensible. It’s a line that should never have seen the light of day. Correct me if I’m wrong, ladies, but I’m under the distinct impression that you don’t enjoy rape, semi or otherwise. I can only imagine what kind of critical thrashing Anthony Boucher would have given this novel. He didn’t like Fleming to begin with, but with such a portrayal of a woman, I can just imagine his outrage.

But is there anything I can say in defense of The Spy Who Loved Me? Sort of. Part One is almost unbearably dull, but once the gangsters appear in Part Two, things begin to pick up. There’s a really tense scene where they attempt to rape Vivienne and she runs out on them. (Oh, but honey, you’re about to tell us you – and, in fact, all womenenjoy that sort of thing when Bond does it! No, I’m not getting over that line any time soon.) Thus begins a search for her in the midst of a downpour in the middle of the night. When Bond finally shows up in Part Three, the battle with the gangsters is genuinely exciting. This is my favourite incarnation of Bond, where he has to use his wits and physical prowess to get past the gangsters (instead of relying on technical gadgetry). Unfortunately, once the dragon is dead, the book snaps right back into boring mode, has a dull shower-sex scene, and then we are treated to the banal homily at the end where Sheriff What’s-His-Name lectures Vivienne and the reader on the moral of the story.

Ian Fleming was positively humiliated by the wave of negative reviews for this book, and so he tried burying it. He refused to allow paperback reprints of this book and (I believe) he stipulated that if a film version were to be made, it could use the book’s title but not the plot. I can understand such a reaction. Although the book has got one or two good moments, they are simply not worth wading through all the crappy parts. This is the closest a James Bond novel has ever gotten to being straight-up unreadable, although it’s not quite at that level. Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me is the only book in the series that I would honestly recommend skipping. I sort-of-wish I had skipped it. I didn’t like this book the first time I read it, but I only considered it pretty dull reading. I’ve gone from indifference to active dislike this time around.

Notes on the audiobook: Thank God Rosamund Pike is such a good actress. Okay, she was in Die Another Day with Toby Stephens and is partly responsible for giving us the worst double-agent in the Bond series, but as with Toby Stephens’ villain I blame this largely on the piss-poor script and this gives her a chance to redeem herself, Bond-wise. Why am I commenting on this stupid movie again? It’s because once again, someone who was in a Bond film has returned to the series’ roots to read one of the books. A pity it had to be this book. Even with Rosamund Pike reading the book, I had a hard time getting through The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s a good recording of the book, but the book is still a bad one. Pike does a good job with the main character, but she is less convincing with the male characters, and Bond in particular sounds like an attempt to do a Basil-Rathbone-as-Sherlock-Holmes impression. Either way, this book in general is only for the die-hard Bond fans, and you can comfortably skip it.

2 comments:

  1. I feel your pain patrick - I have never been able to really engage with this one either, I must admit. Len Deighton did something similar but much, much better in SPY SINKER, the sixth in his series of three linked spy trilogies (GAMES, SET & MATCH; HOOK, LINE & SINKER; FAITH, HOPE & CHARITY) dealing with Bernard Sampson but which revisits the previous 5 books from a new and female perspective - however, please note that the books really should be read in sequence (or anyway, make damn sure you start by reading the first one, BERLIN GAME).

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendation. Personally, I have never been much for reading gender into my mysteries and thrillers, but in this case it was unavoidable. And I just had some really major issues with this character that made it rough flying for me.

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