Notes from the City Reads Panel: From Russia With Love, 2 May 2010. Brighton's collective reading event - City Reads - took on Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love this year.
At the talk: Andrew Lycett - Fleming's official biographer; Simon Winder - author of The Man Who Saved Britain: a Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond; and Rowan Pelling - broadcaster, journalist and former editor of the Erotic Review. (Lycett is knowledgeable but seems a bit uncomfortable to be there. Winder is clever, entertaining, and his book is very funny.)
AL: IF was getting bore at the point of writing FRWL
SW: Bond's absence from the first half of the book - mythologising
RP: description of Red Grant: creepy, sexy
AL: Ann described IF's work as "pornographic nonsense". Didn't encourage IF, who wanted to write literary novels. Most successful is Casino Royale [really?!]. IF always felt he was competing with Ann's circle of literary writer friends.
SW: FRWL is for small stakes
Pleasingly ordinary, mundane.
Is there a link between higher stakes and higher consumption? - Bond's consumption of drinks, cigarettes and food is extraordinary. The drinks mark him as a functioning alcoholic, the smokes must have announced him to his targets as the assassin with the tubercular cough, and the food... he'd be unable to move.
AL: FRWL shows a domestic Bond: jams at breakfast, fussy, camp
SW: IF obliged to be a tough-guy - bluff?
SW: IF died alcoholic.
SW: Gypsies in FRWL: "naked, trying to bite each other's breasts" - couldn't be portrayed in the film
AL: Bond as "blunt instrument of a government department" [and so very, very blunt!]
SW: structure of the books: great setups which then deteriorate terribly - often as if he reached a self-imposed page limit and then became indifferent
Leitmotif: the steady and inglorious decline of books, Fleming, empire, Bond...
AL: it's as if the process of writing the Bond novels directly contributed to his death [a weakening, dissipation] of old age [before his time], of smoking, drinking, of the emotional energy the books took [of the marital fights; Winder: "a thousand impacts"]
AL: Was writing FRWL as his marriage cracked up - had met his girlfriend Blanche in early 56
SW: Bond appearing to die in FRWL is unnecessary to the plot - so IF is toying with the idea of stopping by plotting Bond's demise...
SW: write from the point of view of someone in the catering office of the volcano lair in YOLT
RP: relates the drinking to that in Mad Men
And the timings fit: Bond, eg You Only Live Twice in Aug 1962 and Mad Men, series 2, in 1962. Imagine Bond as an ten-years-older Don Draper missing meetings, fretting about the missile-crisis era, drinking himself to death, slumped in the stalls of the executive floor toilet...
AL's biographic scoop was the revelation of IF's sado-masochistic whipping.
AL: some say "M" is Mother
Although Lycett sounds unconvinced of that, it perhaps chimes with the thread of sado-aberrant sexuality running through the books: sadism passim, what appear to be faint hints of homosexuality here and there, and the curious fact that all of the girls he really wants he can't keep.