BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ian Fleming: A Biography’

IAN FLEMING: A BIOGRAPHY
By Andrew Lycett
St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 512 pages illustrated

When it comes to James Bond on screen, viewers have their favorite actor to portray this unique brand of spy. Some diehard aficionados of the books that first brought him into existence spurn the movie versions altogether. Although it is 60 years since Ian Fleming produced “Casino Royale,” the first of his dozen-plus James Bond novels, the character has proved so popular that the Fleming estate has licensed authors from Kingsley Amis to, most recently, William Boyd, to continue the brand.

Bond is no simple reflection of his creator — not really an alter ego — but Andrew Lycett’s detailed, insightful biography demonstrates that they share enough characteristics to make us realize that 007 could only have sprung from Ian Fleming’s typewriter. Were it not for the Bond phenomenon, perhaps there would never have been a biography of Fleming, let alone as full a one as this. But that would be a pity, for the life that Fleming led as soldier, intelligence operative, journalistic entrepreneur, lover and husband more than justifies telling even if he had never published fiction.

Born into a political family — his father was a close associate of Winston Churchill — Fleming was a small child when his father was killed in World War I. Intent on becoming a soldier, he dropped out of Britain’s equivalent of West Point through a combination of indolence and the restless fecklessness that would characterize his entire life. A peripatetic life of travel and adventure occupied him until World War II brought him the military experience he had missed — he participated in the harrowing Dieppe Raid in 1942 — and into the shadowy groves of intelligence. Without the latter, he could not have written the Bond novels, although their relationship to that real world is tenuous and fundamentally imaginative.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Fleming’s life is his marriage to an English aristocrat, Ann Charteris. His relationship to her predated her two marriages to peers of the realm, one killed in World War II and the other press baron Viscount Rothermere, whose money and grand house allowed her to become one of London’s great political hostesses. Mr. Lycett explores the fascinating Ann-Ian union in all its messy but enduring highs and lows, which lasted till his premature death in 1964.

Her decision to divorce Rothermere and marry Ian, whose child she was carrying, was a significant spur to the creation of James Bond. Lady Rothermere’s golden handshake of 100,000 pounds allowed her to downsize to a London house that would see a new (literary and artistic, this time) salon spring up. She needed this husband to produce what it took to keep up this new, albeit reduced, establishment, and so he got down to business at his typewriter.

There is no quarreling with the incredible popularity of the Bond books — and movies — but what of their intrinsic qualities? His wife, blessed with the exquisite judgment that made her a patron of such stars as W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Angus Wilson among others, did not have a high opinion of them, although she realized that keeping her in something approaching the style she required had engendered them.

Mr. Lycett quotes one of the most cogent critiques of James Bond: “Malcolm Muggeridge described Ian as an Etonian Mickey Spillane, the creator of a shadowy and unreal character who was ‘utterly despicable; obsequious to his superiors, pretentious in his tastes, callous and brutal in his ways, with strong undertones of sadism, and an unspeakable cad in his relations with women, towards whom sexual appetite represents the only approach.’”

For me, there is a lot of truth in the redoubtable if censorious Muggeridge’s dictum. It is hard to exaggerate the sadistic element, which is truly rebarbative. It manages the feat of always being in character while, nonetheless, sometimes being gratuitous. I have to say that I found the books close to unreadable and the movies increasingly too pleased with themselves to bear. But they did help to usher in that enduring but morally neutral quality of ‘60s “cool,” and for this and the swathe they cut, they are a significant cultural phenomenon. Fleming may have been a rotter, a bounder and a cad — that trio of outdated British negative archetypes — but he had intelligence, originality and courage. So I vastly prefer him to his creation. Even if you are no fan of James Bond, don’t let that stop you from reading this book.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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