02 August, 2013

'Casino Royale' by Ian Fleming

I was in middle school the first time I saw a James Bond movie. My brother and I were hanging out at our grandparents' house on New Year's Eve and some network had on a marathon. "For Your Eyes Only" was, to my twelve-year-old brain, a feast. Dramatic, suspenseful, ridiculous, full of explosions and just enough sex to get all my hormones and adrenaline fizzing at once. I was enthralled, not only by the spectacle, but by the character of Bond-- this dashing rake who charmed his way into opium warehouses and ladies' ski suits with equal felicity, fought bad guys while running, driving or rock climbing, prevented the sabotage of the British navy and looked great doing all of it.

In that light, maybe it's weird that I'm only just now digging into his source material-- starting, of course, at the beginning. Casino Royale happens to be one of my favorite Bond movies, so I was excited to sink my teeth into the superspy's origin story. As much for my own self-analysis as anything else, I was curious to investigate the source of Bond's popularity. What is so engaging about this man, this figure, that he's managed to occupy a significant place in our cultural consciousness for over half a century? Based just on Casino Royale, at least, the sad fact is that I have no idea.

It goes without saying that the fifties were a very different time. The Cold War fed a culture of paranoia where information was currency, making the figure of the spy necessary. The perfect spy had to be both indispensable and expendable, utterly devoted to his job and accepting of the fact that even his most gargantuan effort was just one stroke in a vast picture. He had to be calculating, intelligent and decisive, yet willing to subjugate himself to the directives of his superiors.

But it's always more fun to talk about the exception than the rule, isn't it? Bond is notorious for being a thorn in M's side, flouting orders, taking huge risks and only getting away with them because they (mostly) pan out the way he wants them to. But he keeps his job because he puts it first-- the crazy things he does are never for personal reasons, only to benefit the mission and the agency he serves. All of this makes Le Chiffre an interesting choice of villain for Bond's debut. Different from the faceless agencies and megalomaniacs that try to outwit the spy in the films, Le Chiffre isn't interested in world domination, only in covering his own ass. He's holding onto his fortune and his way of life by a thread, and because of Bond's interference, has to give it up. He's a hedonist-- and I would argue he's not the villain of the book (the agency with the goofy acronym SMERSH takes that cake) but the perfect foil to Bond, who has schooled himself to be utterly disinterested in his own emotional needs.

Disinterested to the point of avoidance, even-- which is why it's such a shock when he finds himself obsessed with, and then head-over-heels in love with, the waifish assistant MI6 has sent to support him as he tries to upset Le Chiffre's plans. Vesper isn't the confident banker we see in the film, but a withdrawn and naive girl who manages to impress Bond by being almost as emotionally unavailable as he is himself. She's got secrets, so he's intrigued-- it's all very calculating, the way he talks about wanting to sleep with her at the same time as he thinks about what a pain in the ass women are. And then she shocks him even further-- no sooner has he admitted he loves her than she betrays him, killing herself rather than face admitting to him that she's been a double agent all along. Distraught, Bond shuts the doors on all the tenderness Vesper had begun to draw out of him, in the last line of the book declaring, "The bitch is dead." And there, in that last line, is the Bond I spent my middle school years learning to love.

It's part of the spy trope, after all. Feelings? What feelings? Why have feelings when you can have a different girl every time you cross a national border? It's a self-mutilating choice, though. In choosing that emotional spartanness, Bond puts himself in a perpetual cycle of growth and repression. In the movies we see as the people Bond lets himself care for are repeatedly taken from him-- Vesper, Mathis, his wife Teresa, M-- reinforcing the fact that caring only gets you hurt. Each of these people challenge Bond to change something about himself, and when they die, it teaches him that the only way to survive is never to change. It's extra ironic: Bond has all the nice things, and yet he can never have nice things. The closest he comes to really being in touch with himself is in contemplating leaving the service behind to start a life with Vesper. If he had done so, the book would've had a peaceful and happy ending, and probably would have been just a footnote to the long list of 1950s spy novels. Instead, admitting his desire for a life like that and then having it stripped from him is what forms him into the Bond of legend-- ruthless, cavalier, morally grey; the ultimate secret agent.

So, what's it like reading this book as a queer girl in 2013? Well, Fleming's assertion that Bond is a hero for "warm-blooded heterosexuals" aside, it can't be denied that Bond is one of the biggest gay icons out there. And normally I don't have a problem seeing some queer in Bond, especially in light of Daniel Craig's comments and a certain scene in the most recent film which garnered a lot of speculative attention. But it seems the movies do a lot more for Bond's queer cred than the books, or at least this book. While in the film Casino Royale I had an easy time seeing some chemistry between Bond and his American counterpart Felix Leiter (though, admittedly, that may be due to my permanent association of Jeffrey Wright with his fabulous portrayal of Belize in Angels in America) it wasn't mirrored on the page. Also, the films are famous for their campy humor, but in the book there was nary a punny one-liner to be had. In fact, the language is sparse-- sparse enough that one Goodreads reviewer called it "cold and impersonal", an assessment I have a hard time disputing. If camp is the triumph of style over content, then Casino Royale is the least campy book I've read in years.

But I guess it makes sense that there wouldn't be a lot of gay in a book about Bond's humbling love for a woman, the unfolding and explosion of which takes up almost as many pages as the mission itself. This is Bond before his misogyny turns vitriolic, which is in itself a problem, even as it further enables putting a queer eye on the super spy. The Bond girl is a trope (just click on the "Film" category halfway down the page and check out the first entry) that plays into an even more annoying one, both of which were arguably made iconic by the film franchise. I didn't feel a great departure from the trope in the book, sadly. Vesper gets nothing but ogling and disdain from Bond for the first half of the book, and it's only when he's been made physically vulnerable (and made to question whether he'll ever be able to get it up again) that he's able to admit that he's in love with her. Fleming draws a pretty clear line between masculinity and emotional unavailability, one I have a really hard time getting behind, even when I remind myself that his views were typical of the time in which they were written.

So then I had to ask myself, if this guy is such an emotional wasteland and he was written by a bigot misogynist, why do I care about him? The best heroes make us feel for them, whether sympathy or aversion, and I had a harder time getting invested in this guy than I did in the movie version (and I don't just mean the one that looks like Daniel Craig). I think the answer is one I hate admitting: the movies have done the lion's share of the work in keeping Bond current, and keeping him interesting to modern audiences. Perhaps it's that my favorite Bond films-- including, of course, Casino Royale-- do serve up character depth and development along with the explosions and suit porn. It's arguably easier to do on film, where music and cinematography can carry some of the emotional weight.

yowch, this scene. :3

It might be one reason why so many actors have successfully played him on screen, and why fans have been able to accept his shifting faces. Bond is both more and less than a man: he's the man and the profession and the reputation, and as times have changed so has our ideal of the spy. I don't think it's coincidence that James Bond returned to the big screen post-9/11 with a new presentation of the story that started it all, and I don't think it's exaggeration to say Daniel Craig has given us a view of Bond that's different than all the ones who've come before, and that the difference is in the window he gives us on Bond's ragged, wounded heart. Not only does he give vivid life to Bond's emotional transformation at Vesper's hands, but the difficulty he has in proclaiming "The bitch is dead", and his obvious struggle in pretending to M that he isn't on a revenge mission during Quantum of Solace, are both wrenching to watch. And, of course, his fraught filial relationship with M herself, which comes to a heartbreaking end in Skyfall. Craig's Bond cares, though it kills him to do so, though he tries like hell not to. And that is a James Bond I can relate to, one I can love, unreservedly.

So did Casion Royale live up to my expectations? Not really. But can I appreciate it for what it is: a statement of its time, and the introduction of a legend that continues to be relevant and interesting sixty years after his birth... if not always in the way his creator intended.

A last note, if you're interested in James Bond: I was disappointed to discover that Netflix doesn't make the Bond catalogue available, but I did spend an enjoyable evening watching Everything or Nothing, a really great documentary about Ian Fleming, the translation of the books to the big screen, and the actors who have been Bond. If you're a fan, I really recommend it-- it really gave me a great perspective on the franchise and the ways in which the films have departed (wisely, in many cases) from the books.


  1. Bond's popularity lies in the fact that all the guys want to be like him, and women dream of such a man. That is why every actor who is playing Bond - so strong, handsome, sexy.

    1. Yeah, I mean, that's certainly true for a certain view of sexy, and a certain view of sexuality-- part of my point in the review is that some men want to be with Bond, not to be him, and that women can (and should) play a more interesting role than just arm candy. I think his popularity-- and the fact that people admire him-- comes in part from the fact that one of Bond's quintessential traits is his ability to shut off his emotions and get the job done. Who doesn't wish they could do that every now and then? :)

      Thanks for commenting!