Monday, June 30, 2014

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Major SPOILERS BELOW for the novel From Russia With Love.

I’m confused about how much time has passed between Moonraker and From Russia With Love. That’s a weird problem to have, I know, because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but Fleming is so specific about it and his dates don’t match up. At the end of Moonraker, M says he’s sending Bond away for a month until the heat blows over, and Bond decides he’s going to France. Then, as Diamonds Are Forever opens, Bond says that he’s only been back from France for two weeks. But in From Russia With Love, the Soviets discuss Bond’s recent career and date Diamonds as “last year” and Moonraker as three years ago.

The obvious answer is that Fleming simply forgot that he’d placed Diamonds so close to Moonraker. He said at the beginning of Moonraker that typically Bond has only one or two big, dangerous cases a year – and of course the novels were being published once a year – so that’s probably what Fleming was thinking as he wrote Russia. That’s not very satisfying, so my own No-Prize theory is that the France trip mentioned in Diamonds isn’t actually the same as the one at the end of Moonraker. Fleming obviously intended them to be, but if we say they aren’t, then those adventures can be a year apart and we’re back on track again.

The timeline isn’t the only problem the Soviets cause in From Russia With Love. The biggest one sadly isn’t their plans for Bond, but how much of the novel they take over. Stephen King is famous for dedicating pages and pages of background to minor characters, but Fleming did it first. Every contributor to the Soviets’ plan gets at least a paragraph of personal history and most of them a page or two. Red Grant the assassin gets multiple chapters. If I was reading the series a book per year as they were released, this wouldn’t be that big a problem. I might still have been a little put out, but I could perhaps admire the risk Fleming took more than I do now. Marathoning a book a week, I want to keep moving and I had a hard time slogging through the first half of Russia before Bond shows up.

There are some interesting tidbits in the Soviet chapters though. As they discuss and scheme, Fleming reveals that René Mathis from Casino Royale is now the head of France’s Deuxième Bureau. He also adds some further explanation of Bond’s Double O number. After I speculated during Diamonds about the limits of Bond’s license to kill, Snell of the awesome Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep blog (who’s reviewed the Bond films on a separate, equally awesome blog called I Expect You to Die) offered that Bond’s hesitation about killing Hugo Drax in cold blood may have been about murdering an English citizen on English soil, especially when Bond didn’t have official jurisdiction, but was being allowed the courtesy to investigate because of a technicality. That matches up with something the Soviets say in Diamonds, which is that the Double O signifies an agent who has killed and is privileged to kill “on active service.” That last criteria is probably obvious, but it’s also very important and it’s arguable that Bond wasn’t on official, active duty in the Moonraker case. Or that he at least had reason not to think of it that way.

Speaking of killing in cold blood, when Bond does finally show up in From Russia With Love, he muses at one point that he’s never done that. That directly contradicts something Bond said in Casino Royale though when he told Mathis how he got his Double O number. The first time he ever killed a person was through a window from three hundred yards away. He’d lain in wait for days, had an accomplice, and he describes it to Mathis as nice and clean, with no personal contact. Either he’s lying to Mathis in Casino Royale or he’s lying to himself in From Russia With Love and both are completely implausible. Like the timeline, it’s another example of Fleming’s forgetting details from earlier books. Which isn’t that big a deal, but it’s useful to keep in mind that I’m taking the series much more seriously than he did. He was always a bit self-deprecating about the books when he talked about them, so I’m not even insulting him by saying that.

There’s something else that’s bothering me, though it’s not yet a contradiction. I’m still tracking the origin of Bond’s status as an orphan and Russia complicates that a little when Bond remembers skiing trips he took when he was seventeen. Fleming doesn’t explicitly mention Bond’s parents, but the memories are fond ones and imply that Bond’s teenage years were a good, pleasant time for him. It’s not feeling like Bond’s the damaged orphan that the Craig movies make him out to be, so I’m curious about where that came from.

Meanwhile, the Soviets’ plan in Russia is to strike a powerful blow against the West’s intelligence community. It’s not born of a personal grudge against Bond as in the movie, but from professional necessity. Soviet espionage has suffered some important defeats and they need a win. So they come up with a plan to humiliate and murder a top, Western spy. The public at large may never know the importance of the killing, but the intelligence community will. After much discussion, the Soviets choose England as their target and Bond – thanks to his involvement in the Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, and Moonraker cases – as their victim. Since the Soviet action will be the assassination of a spy, SMERSH is chosen to carry it out.

The plan is almost exactly what it is in the film except that there’s no SPECTRE pulling everyone’s strings behind the scenes. It’s a SMERSH operation through and through with a decoding machine as the bait to bring Bond to Istanbul. In the film, the machine is called the Lektor, but that’s because it’s the Spektor in the novel and it would have been a bit much to have the device and the criminal organization using the same name. It does go to show Fleming’s like of that word though, including using a Western ghost town called Spectreville as a major location in Diamonds.

Another carryover from Diamonds is Tiffany Case. She doesn’t actually appear in Russia, but her shadow is there, at least at the beginning. Fleming lets us know that she and Bond lived together for several months and were even talking about marriage, but they’ve recently broken up and Case is moving back to the US with her new fiancé. That’s interesting on a couple of levels.

First, Bond specifically mentioned in Diamonds that marriage was off the table for him. That changed at some point, at least to the extent that he was willing to discuss it with her, even if only to keep her happy. I’m sorry Fleming doesn’t go into more detail about that, because I’m way more curious about it than in the life story of Rosa Klebb’s boss, but I don’t imagine that Bond was ever serious about marrying Tiffany. I’m sure he was in love with her and imagine that he wanted to keep her around, but marrying her would mean a drastic career change and there’s no indication that he ever sincerely considered that.

The other interesting thing about Tiffany’s engagement to another man is that this is second time in two relationships that that’s happened to Bond. His relationship with Gala Brand was over before it got started because she was already engaged. Now Tiffany has moved on into marriage without him. The implication is that Bond is in a state of arrested development as women pass him by and leave him behind.

It’s a romantic notion to think of Bond’s trouble as stemming from Vesper and her betrayal, but that can’t be it. Casino Royale makes it really clear what a selfish bastard Bond is before he becomes deeply involved with her. His relationship with her was serious – and seriously screwed up – but I don’t believe it scarred him to the point that it sabotaged his future relationships. It’s his selfishness that’s doing that. Or – if we’re being charitable – his dedication to his country.

I’ll come back to Bond’s dedication in a minute, but before we leave the topic of his relationships, we should talk briefly about Tatiana Romanova. Fleming’s description of her has me casting Olga Kurylenko in my head, though Kurylenko’s Camille in Quantum of Solace is a way better character than Tatiana, who apparently decides to betray her mission and defect to England after one night with James Bond. Bond seems to really like her, but there’s no surprise or honor in that. She’s drop dead beautiful and completely committed to him, at first as part of her cover, but quickly for real. There’s no true relationship there and Bond is never sure if he can trust her, not that his lack of trust is ever a hindrance. In the film, there’s at least some lip service paid to whose side Tatiana’s really on, but Fleming isn’t that interested outside of Bond’s wondering about it occasionally.

(I guess one more thing about Bond and women and that’s that there’s more flirting with his secretary Lil in Russia. It’s become quite the recurring shtick really and Moneypenny is only kind and friendly to him. Moneypenny is Bond’s boss’ secretary and that’s very much how the relationship feels right now. Bond likes her, but she also represents M’s power and authority in a way that seems to keep their relationship professional.)

So, back to Bond’s dedication and this whole blunt instrument thing I keep talking about. From Russia With Love is more of a spy story than the last two or three Bond novels were. In every book so far since Casino Royale, Bond pretty much knows who the villain is before he ever starts his mission. That makes the blunt instrument approach effective and it’s believable that Bond develops it as a favorite tactic. He just goes in and stirs stuff up until the bad guy makes a mistake. In Russia though, Bond isn’t even sure there is a villain for most of the book. He wonders about it, but the plot’s masterminds are hidden from him until the very end. So the blunt instrument approach is never really an option for him.

That said though, he still thinks about it. One of the things he admires about Kerim Bey, the Secret Service’s top man in Turkey, is that Kerim isn’t secretive about his activities. Kerim does that partly to distract enemies from his actual secret agents, and Bond mentions to M that “the public agent often does better than the man who has to spend a lot of time and energy keeping under cover.” Later in the book, Bond’s getting as impatient with the pace of the novel as I was. After a few chapters of just tagging along on Kerim’s side adventures in Istanbul, Bond acknowledges that he’s feeling ineffective. “I’ve got absolutely nowhere with my main job,” he says. “M will be getting pretty impatient.” That made two of us, but from a less meta perspective it’s a good example of Bond’s need to get in there and do something.

That’s made extremely evident toward the end of the book when Bond figures out that there’s more to this thing than just Tatiana wanting to defect. He has the opportunity to leave the Orient Express and make a safer way home with the girl and the Spektor, but chooses not to. Part of that is that he’s enjoying Tatiana’s company (to put it politely), but he also admits to himself that he simply wants to see the plot through. Yet another example of Bond’s offering meta commentary on the experience of reading From Russia With Love.

Bond’s pointing out his dissatisfaction with the plot could be a suggestion that Fleming himself was growing impatient in writing it. The novel is such a departure structurally that it feels like Fleming is experimenting, perhaps to keep himself interested. He was rather famously dissatisfied with the series at this point, so a lot of Russia feels like he’s trying something new.

He’s dramatically increased the number of gadgets, for one thing, though most of them are simply disguised guns. Kerim has a cane gun, Grant has a book gun, and Klebb has a telephone gun (in addition to poisoned knitting needles and her famous shoe knife). Bond doesn’t usually get gadgets in the series, but the movie’s attaché case is right out of the book. Not that Bond was all that hip on it. He mocked Q-Branch for assigning it to him (setting the tone for the film Bond’s relationship with Q), though he comes around late in the story when the case proves extremely useful.

Perhaps another sign that Fleming was growing tired of these stories is the horrible monologue Grant gives to Bond just before trying to kill him. Bond has no other way of finding out who’s behind the Spektor scheme, so Fleming has Grant simply spill all the beans – including naming the leaders of SMERSH and where to find them – because “it’ll give me an extra kick telling the famous Mister Bond of the Secret Service what a bloody fool he is.”

Of course, the most obvious example of Fleming’s weariness with Bond is that he kills the character at the end. He does it in a way that’s reversible in case of a change of heart, but when Klebb uses that poisoned shoe knife at the end, it’s much more effective in the novel than it is in the movie. Bond wraps up the adventure, captures the head of the organization he’s been fighting since the first book, and then falls to the floor dying. Nice and neat.

It’s almost inevitable and perfect. What better, more believable way for Bond to die than at the hands of a dangerous enemy he’s just neutralized? With all of his running headlong into danger, it’s almost the kind of ending I’d imagine he wants for himself.

But something happens earlier in the book that challenges that idea. When he gets the attaché case from Q-Branch, there’s a cyanide pill in it, which Bond immediately flushes down the toilet. He doesn’t just leave it there with a conviction that he’ll never use it; he makes it so that he no longer even has the choice of using it. Bond isn’t afraid of taking immense pain, but he does seem to be afraid to die. Fleming reveals that a couple of times in the series, especially when Bond is flying through bad weather. And that makes Bond a better hero. He’ll sacrifice comfort for his country, but he doesn’t have a death wish. He wants to live, and I’m glad that he does.

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