Friday, August 15, 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming once explained the oddity of The Spy Who Loved Me as his response to young readers' seeing Bond as a hero. Fleming had a different opinion of Bond, so instead of letting readers into the agent's head as usual, The Spy Who Loved Me presents him completely through the eyes of other people.

Mostly that's the first person narrator of the novel, Vivienne Michel, who's left as the sole occupant/caretaker of an isolated motor lodge in the Adirondacks. The novel takes place over the course of an evening. Vivienne spends the first part of it alone, reminiscing over her life and especially her experiences with a couple of men. Then in the middle of the novel, a couple of gangsters show up, sent to burn down the motel for the insurance money, murder Vivienne, and frame her for the "accident." In the last third of the story, Bond shows up and becomes a deadly fly in the gangsters' ointment.

When I first read The Spy Who Loved Me as a teenager, I was impatient with it. It's so different from the other Bond novels not just in structure, but in tone. The first third reads sort of like a romance novel, then the second part becomes a horror story with Bond finally bringing things home at the end. As an adult though, I found a lot to like in the shifting genres. Vivienne is a great character on her own and I enjoyed spending time with her. Fleming's attitudes about women still creep in, but he's written a beautifully complicated person whom I was able to relate to and feel for.

My fondness for Vivienne led me to feeling discouraged though when the novel was wrapping up. She'd been emotionally devastated by a couple of men in her life, so it's kind of heart-breaking to see her fall so hard for Bond who's completely incapable of having a healthy relationship with a woman. (I still don't know what happened with Domino, dang it.) She claims to understand that Bond isn't for keeping, but I despaired a little that her worship of him - because that's what it amounts to - is going to affect her ability to find happiness in future relationships.

She thinks at one point, while watching him sleep after they've had sex, "I would stay away from him and leave him to go his own road where there would be other women, countless other women, who would probably give him as much physical pleasure as he had had with me. I wouldn't care, or at least I told myself that I wouldn't care, because none of them would ever own him - own any larger piece of him than I now did. And for all my life I would be grateful to him, for everything. And I would remember him for ever as my image of a man."

Holding Bond as her image of a man is understandable after the weasels Vivienne had previously known, but it's still sad. He was kind and charming to her and they had great sex, but that's still a pretty low bar to get over. And knowing why Fleming wrote the novel, I believe that's exactly his point. He was concerned that some of his readers were like Vivienne, idolizing Bond and turning him into their image of a man.

So after Bond takes off the next morning, leaving Vivienne asleep, but with a very nice note, Fleming lets the story continue as Vivienne interacts with the police whom Bond has sent to wrap up the affair. She has a long conversation with a middle-aged captain who sees her as a daughter figure and is worried about her. He intuits that she's infatuated with Bond and warns her against romanticizing the experience. Bond, he claims, is no different from the gangsters who threatened Vivienne's life the night before. He operates on the side of the angels, but he's just as cold and just as ruthless as the people he fights.

It's impossible not to hear Fleming's voice in this speech. It's the same message he introduced back in Casino Royale when Bond was recovering from Le Chiffre's torture and struggling to differentiate himself from the villains. But all the lecturing about Bond's being "a different species" and not fit for normal human interaction is undercut by the way Bond actually acts in the novel. No, he's not going to commit to a long, meaningful relationship with Vivienne, but he's also not the same man we met in Casino Royale.

We've been tracking his growth all through the series and The Spy Who Loved Me is an important check point in that development. On the surface, Bond is bad news. The police captain believes it and even Vivienne feels it in those thoughts above. Right after she declares Bond as her image of a man, she realizes the silliness of that and adds, "He was trained to fire guns, to kill people. What was so wonderful about that? Brave, strong, ruthless with women - these were the qualities that went with his calling - what he was paid to be. He was only some kind of a spy, a spy who had loved me. Not even loved, slept with. Why should I make him my hero, swear never to forget him? I suddenly had an impulse to wake him up and ask him: 'Can you be nice? Can you be kind?'"

And yet, we've seen Bond be nice and kind. He's done it with Vivienne, but also with Honey and with Domino and with M and with Felix. Over the course of the series, he's become more human. Earlier, when Bond explains his job to Vivienne and how he just completed a mission to protect a double agent, he talks about the spy business in negative terms. He describes it as a foolish, complicated game that no one will stop playing. Vivienne concurs and says that her generation finds ideas like nationalism and power struggles to be idiotic. To which Bond replies, "As a matter of fact I agree, but don't spread your ideas too widely or I'll find myself out of a job."

There's another part where Vivienne asks Bond why he didn't kill the two gangsters when they were sitting ducks. His response is that he's never been able to kill in cold blood. I've pointed out before how that's clearly false, but it is something that Bond's been claiming for a while and he's obviously uncomfortable with killing outside the heat of battle.

The answer to Vivienne's question then is that yes, Bond can be nice and he can be kind. He's not a shining hero and he should be nobody's "image of a man," but he's getting better and The Spy Who Loves Me bears that out even as it warns us that he's not quite there yet. In that way, it's a perfect leap off spot for the next novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

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