The Man Who Would Be Bond: Decoding the Myth
Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond is a new television series airing on BBC America. As the title suggests, the show is based on the life of Ian Fleming, the writer who conceived of the mythical secret agent, 007, and whose real life, as the tagline for the series states, “was as exciting, eventful, and sexually charged as his famous creation.”
There are plenty of readers, critics, and historians who dispute the above statement—including Fleming himself, who once said, “[Bond] was based on personal preference.” While not trying to be a kill-joy, I feel BBC’s show not only sensationalizes Fleming’s life (quite a bit, actually), but also minimizes the hard work, the soul-searching, the trial and error, and all of the ups and downs Fleming endured to make it as a successful working writer. Moreover, if we take the show at face-value—and in this world of sound-bites, tweets, and a reduced patience to “read more,” face-value is really the only value left—one might think Fleming merely sat down one day at a typewriter and recorded his adventures with all the imagination of a court stenographer.
This, of course, is not true. Born in 1908 to a wealthy British family, Fleming (whose father was a member of Parliament and killed in WWI on the Western Front) worked a series of jobs until the start of WWII, at which time he joined Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division. While serving, Fleming was heavily involved in intelligence work, including the planning of Operation Goldeneye, which sought to monitor a possible alliance between Spain’s fascist leader, Francisco Franco, and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and, if necessary, undertake sabotage maneuvers.
After the war, Fleming concentrated on journalism, working as the Foreign Manager for a newspaper group owned by The Sunday Times. But he already had ambitions to write a spy novel—ambitions he shared with his friends as far back as his military service. And so, in 1952, while at his Jamaican home (which he named Goldeneye) during one of his customary three month breaks from the paper, Fleming wrote Casino Royale. While this book gained him success, it was not until his fifth book in the Bond series, From Russia With Love, came out in 1957 that critics begin to take notice of his talent.
In many ways, Fleming reminds me of John Le Carre, who penned his first George Smiley book (Call for the Dead, 1961) during his lunch breaks while working for the British Secret Service. Le Carre has suggested that it was not spy work that led him to writing spy novels, but just the opposite: he was a writer who happened to fall into the profession of spying, and the business—which often involved him producing psychological dossiers on suspected enemies based on just a few facts—helped hone his skills at creating believable fictional characters. Basically, he discovered his real passion, and the rest is history.
Fleming, like Le Carre, used his professional life as a platform to become a novelist. However, long before WWII and the onset of the Cold War, his interest in the spy genre was piqued by another writer’s creation: Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, The British Agent.
While open to debate, there are many literary historians who believe that Ashenden, who did his fictional cloak and dagger work during WWI, is much more aligned with Maugham than Bond is with Fleming. Like Fleming (and Le Carre), Maugham was involved in Intelligence work for Britain. But that’s where the similarities end. Maugham, unlike the other two, was already a writing star before engaging in his covert activities, having published his first novel (Liza of Lambert) in 1897 to critical acclaim; by 1914, two years before the outbreak of war, Maugham had already had 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. It was this fame that caught the interest of the British Intelligence, as Maugham, quite a society man, hobnobbed regularly with Europe’s elite and traveled the continent and beyond with aplomb. He had both the means and the built-in cover to meet with people of influence on either side of the conflict, passing secrets back and forth. After he showed himself to be quite good at this work, his masters gave him more and more to do, and his activities brought him in contact with many unique, if not unsavory, characters, as well as putting his life in danger.
Perhaps giving himself time to make sense of his war activities (and have fun, as I will get to later), Maugham waited until 1928 to published Ashenden, The British Agent, a collection of loosely linked stories based on his own spying experiences. The book was an immediate success: people loved reading about the gentlemanly, suave, and introspective spy, Ashenden, who, as an author and playwright, does his secret business with the eye of a hungry writer, an individual who can’t help but see his agents and the enemy spies around him as good characters for later stories.
One of the many fans of the book was a young Ian Fleming. Clearly, his Bond was influenced by Maugham’s Ashenden. Indeed, Kinglsey Amis referred to “Quantum of Solace,” Fleming’s short story published in For Your Eyes Only, as “Maughamish.” And while one can pick through Fleming’s writing to find connective tissues to Maugham’s work (as some have), one fun fact is that Ashenden reports to a spy boss named “R,” while Bond, as many of us know, takes directives from a boss named “Q.”
However, while it’s harder to prove, Fleming’s writing must also have been influenced by Maugham himself, a man who relished in his celebrity and whose sexual conquests would humble the playboy Bond. In fact, Maugham and Fleming were friends, and no doubt the latter must have heard or even seen first-hand examples of Maugham’s decadence. According to Glenys Roberts (“The First Superstar Novelist Somerset Maugham: Is he the most debauched man of the 20th Century?”), Maugham’s manse on the French Riveria was well known for “nude bathing parties, drugs, lashings of champagne and nightly seductions.” She further writes that “Maugham had so many affairs, with both sexes, that even the most promiscuous of his companions described him as the most sexually voracious man they had even known.”
Yet, as time marches on, fact as well as fiction becomes blurred—and also originality. Like it or not, more and more authors no longer see the need or have the inspiration to use past works as imaginative springboards for new ones. Take the recent example of the German wunderkind Helen Heggemann, who, at the age of 17, set the reading world afire with her novel Axolotyl Roadkill: as it turns out, Ms. Heggemann used the “cut and paste” function to write her book, lifting passages of text she found on the Internet and using them to enhance and or propel her story. In subsequent articles, she called this practice “mixing,” not plagiarism—and to the chagrin and astonishment of many literary purists, she seems to have gotten away with it and her book continued to sell well.
Perhaps this is why I relish (and want to promote) the connection between Fleming and Maugham, two men who always made sure to stake their own claims despite mining similar literary territory.
John McCaffrey received his MA from the City College of New York, where he was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship from The New York Times. His stories, essays and book reviews have appeared in more than 30 literary journals, magazines and newspapers. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his story Words, first published in Fiction Magazine, was also selected for Flash Fiction Forward, an anthology containing work from some of the most noted writers of our time, including Grace Paley, Dave Eggers, and Paul Theroux.
In addition to his own writing, John helps direct a nonprofit organization in New York City, is the Interviews Editor for KGBBAR.LIT, and teaches a weekly short story class at an LGBT senior center in Queens, New York. His debut novel, The Book of Ash (Boxfire Press) is now available. Twitter: John A McCaffrey @jamccaffrey.