Friday, January 23, 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

It's been a while since we've visited Ian Fleming's Bond, so let's catch up real quick. The last time he appeared was in The Spy Who Loved Me, which offered a complex Bond. As I said at the time, the answer to the protagonist's question about him 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" as she put's it, but he's come a long way since Casino Royale and is becoming more human. The Spy Who Loves Me demonstrates that clearly even as it warns us that he's not quite there yet.

When I started this project, I mentioned how Casino Royale's Bond is a man whose selfishness has prevented him from ever having a meaningful relationship with a woman. I looked forward to watching him grow out of that, and knew he kind of would because I knew what would happen in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's been fun watching him mature and become more selfless and I was eager to see him finally meet Tracy and to learn what kind of effect - if any - she would have on him.

Fleming intentionally calls back to Casino Royale many times in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starting with the casino itself. He reveals that Bond's made an annual trip to Royale-les-Eaux to visit Vesper's grave and it's here that he meets Teresa Draco. Tracy, as she likes to be called, is clearly supposed to be the second major woman in Bond's life and there are lots of similarities between the two of them. When Bond first meets Tracy, she's clearly under a lot of stress and is emotionally manic with him, just like Vesper. Fleming's not explicit about this, but I think it's an easy connection to make that Vesper is on Bond's mind and that Tracy reminds him of her.

Even though I believe that Vesper wasn't actually Bond's first great love, I don't doubt that Bond imagines her that way. I think he cared more honestly and selflessly for Honey Rider and perhaps also Domino, but any man who makes an annual trip to the grave of a woman who betrayed him is obviously carrying a torch. Fleming doesn't show readers a lot of chemistry between Bond and Tracy, but her similarity to Vesper - especially at this location and this time of year - explains why Bond is drawn to her. Beside her being beautiful and an awesome driver, I mean.

He totally takes advantage of her at first, which is something I found creepy. It became no less disturbing and offensive the more I thought about it, but I do at least understand where Bond's mind is when he meets her. It's still very demeaning that he lets her pay off a huge debt to him by sleeping with him, but I think some of that is revenge against Vesper. Not that that's an excuse.

It's not all revenge though, and Bond clearly cares something for Tracy and wants to protect her, however imperfectly (which is very) he goes about it. Fleming has made it very clear that Bond is no hero and that's very true in the opening chapters where Tracy is concerned. He's no good for her and at one point he realizes that "for the first time in his life" he feels totally inadequate.

Bond's flaws are made even more evident when he meets Tracy's father, the head of a criminal organization in Europe. Though Draco tells stories about raping the woman who would become Tracy's mother, Bond admires and even relates to the man. He describes himself to Draco as "ruthless," and it's true. When Draco offers to pay Bond to look after Tracy, Bond's refusal isn't because he has a sense of honor. It's because he knows he won't be any good at it and doesn't especially want to try.

As the story moves away from Tracy and onto its main plot though, she doesn't leave Bond's mind. For example, back at MI6 Fleming introduces us to Bond's new secretary, Mary Goodnight. We've already met Goodnight in "The Property of a Lady," which takes place before On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but was written after it, so this is her real first appearance. Bond seems much more fond of Goodnight in OHMSS that he did in "Property," but he was already in a bad mood in "Property" and it's possible he was just taking that out on Goodnight. At any rate, he's got a playful relationship with her here, but he doesn't pursue it because he's still thinking about Tracy.

He's not all romance though and he's also doing a lot of thinking about Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It's tough to fit "Property of a Lady" anywhere in Bond's timeline than before OHMSS, but it also doesn't fit perfectly before this book either. For that matter, neither does The Spy Who Loved Me. The second chapter of OHMSS claims that Bond has been fruitlessly searching for Blofeld non-stop since the end of Thunderball and that Bond is getting tired of it to the point that he now wants to resign. The best I can do to reconcile that is to say that Bond hasn't actually been looking for Blofeld non-stop, but only feels that he has. He's had some other cases; it's just that the hunt for Blofeld now seems pointless to Bond after so many dead ends.

That changes after Bond meets Draco though. Tracy's dad gives Bond a lead on Blofeld and gets the plot moving. Apparently, Blofeld is interested in setting up a new identity for himself that includes a noble heritage, so Bond poses as a genealogist to get close to the criminal mastermind. His preparation for that role brings out a couple of interesting facts about Bond's past, including that he's from Scotland. Since OHMSS was written after the production of the movie Dr. No, that's not a coincidence. Fleming is retconning in a Scot heritage to fit Sean Connery, just like he includes Ursula Andress as a guest at Blofeld's mountain resort.

As Bond went undercover, I couldn't help but wonder how that was going to turn out. I've talked a lot about Bond as a blunt instrument and his undercover assignments have never gone very well. He gets tired and impatient with them as in Diamonds Are Forever. Surprisingly though, Blofeld brings out the best in Bond, who's able to commit to his cover remarkably well. He makes some mistakes that raise Blofeld's suspicions, but they're understandable mistakes and his cover stories for them are plausible. It's only Blofeld's extreme paranoia that makes him distrust Bond and sends Bond looking for an escape route.

(Incidentally, Bond acknowledges during this part that Universal Export has become a weak, overused cover. I think that's cool and interesting, especially in light of how it's used in the movies and how famous Bond himself becomes in the world of the movies. We'll dig into that more deeply when we discuss those films, but I like that literary Bond recognizes a bad cover when he sees one.)

When Bond does escape, there's a thrilling ski chase down the mountain. At the end of it, Bond is physically spent, but he's also worn out emotionally and psychologically. Fleming really plays up how hard Bond had it on the mountain, but that seems weird  considering so much of the suffering he's endured on other missions. Dr No especially comes to mind, but really all of them put Bond through the ringer a lot worse than hanging out at a resort with a bunch of beautiful women and then having a ski chase. It makes a little more sense though when Bond's back in England and reflecting on how nice it is to be on the job as himself. The implication is that being undercover that long took a lot out of him. More than he - or the readers - realized as it was going on.

Shortly after escaping Blofeld's resort, Bond meets Tracy again. At Bond's suggestion, Draco sent her to get professional help for her depression and it's paid off. Sort of. She's a totally different woman, but I question whether she's improved. Actually, I shouldn't question. In the context of the story, she's clearly happier and healthier. But she's also way less independent and interesting.

I imagine that Fleming saw an inverse relationship between those things; that female happiness and health are somehow in opposition to independence and uniqueness. The Tracy that rejoins Bond at the end of the novel is immature and submissive. She sobs and trembles when he proposes to her and says things like, "I suppose I've got to get used to doing what you say." She makes scenes about the dangers of his job - even using the exact same term to describe it that Le Chiffre did in Casino Royale - which is exactly what Bond's always been afraid of in relationships. He's mused many times over the course of the series about knowing that marriage wasn't for him, because he couldn't put up with that. He hates drama and Tracy is full of the stuff. She's very different in the movie, but the literary Tracy is every bit as bad as all the whiny girls whom Bond has always said he despised. I honestly couldn't understand why he liked her.

And then it hit me. The point isn't that Tracy is some kind of remarkable, new woman that Bond has never encountered before. On the contrary, she's exactly like every woman he's ever encountered before and feared. The point is that she isn't different. He is.

The Bond of Casino Royale would have had zero time for "cured" Tracy Draco. He would have been into "damaged" Tracy, but only for the sex. By the time we get to OHMSS, he's a changed man. He wants her to get well, even if that means becoming someone he's always said he hates. But he realizes, here at the end, that he doesn't hate that at all. He understands and acknowledges that her worry is a manifestation of her love. She's not a drag on him; she's someone who cares enough about him that she wants to take care of him and protect him. And he wants to do the same for her. However imperfectly.

Fleming is either very sloppy about how he communicates this or he's a genius. I like to think it's the latter. None of what I've concluded is spelled out. It's all subtext. On the surface, Bond's relationship with Tracy makes no sense. But in the context of the previous books in the series, he's been growing toward this point all along. He's always had a sappy, sentimental side to him, even back in Casino Royale. It's just that now it's unfettered by his extreme selfishness.

Which makes the last page all the more heart-breaking.
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