Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Spy Who Loved Me - Ian Fleming

The Spy Who Loved me is Ian Fleming's 10th Bond novel, and by far the most unusual. Written in 1962 it can almost be called a non-Bond novel because Bond himself doesn't appear in it until chapter 10, and is gone by the 15th and final chapter. But what makes this novel so unusual is the fact Fleming wrote in the first person point of view, a complete change of style from him.

 The novel is from Vivienne Michel's point of view. She is an early 20 something Canadian woman who narrates to the reader from a remote motel in the American Adirondocks. The novel is only 190 pages long and split into three parts, 'Me', 'Them', and  'Him'. It is a somewhat dark, bleak read, more so than any preceding Fleming novel 'Me' is Michel narrating how she came to be where she is. 'Them' is how two thugs turn up at the Motel with things turning nasty for Michel. And 'Him' is the appearance of Bond and Michel's rescue ( and bedding! ) by Bond.

 At only 190 pages long it is the shortest of the Bond novels, and by far the mot sexually explicit. But the explicitness is under scored by a dis-tasteful streak of sexism and misogyny. Fleming narrates through Michel as she unwillingly loses her virginity in a darkened park, and is then dumped. Later she hooks up with a German who is dumped by his fiance. She has a relationship with him and falls pregnant to him. He quite unceremoniously dumps her, all but blaming her for it! He pays for an abortion in Switzerland which leaves her traumatised and she decides to return to Canada, and tour through the States on a Vespa. 

 It is on this tour that she ends up in the motel and her troubles begin. To state she distrusts men is an understatement! The 'Them' part of the novel is her torment at the thugs hands. One of the thugs is a real psycho, and lets Michel know in no uncertain terms that he is going to rape her before the night is out. The explicitness goes as far as her being called a 'gash', and 'slot'. This is the early 1960's, and this is extremely explicit talk for the times. She endures all sorts of beatings ( punches no less), and abuse, but is saved from being raped by the appearance of Bond. 'Them' is nothing more than Ian Fleming playing out a rape fantasy, and to be honest is extremely dis-tasteful reading. It may be a novel but the reader just knows that Fleming is enjoying what he is writing. I'm afraid it didn't sit well with me.

 'Him' is about Michel being saved by Bond, and the death of the thugs at his hands. It is a typical Bond action scene told through the eyes of Michel. The pair eventually shag ( wouldn't be a Bond novel without the shagging would it??!! ), and Michel tells us it is her first satisfying sexual experience. She feels as if Bond sees her as a person and not just as a body. She says she felt loved for the first time ever, hence the title, The Spy Who Loved Me. What Fleming is doing is trying to temper his previous misogyny with softness after the ugly. He trips up though because as Bond 'takes' her Fleming, through Michel, tells the reader, 'All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken' ( see page 170 ). It is an unbelievable statement to make!! I just about dropped the book in horror! How on earth did he ever get such an absurd statement published?? Again Fleming's fetished up imagination was running away with itself, and the bad taste in my mouth was palpable.

 But even with an unsavoury element, Spy, is actually a very, very good novel. I believe at this stage of the Bond novels Ian Fleming wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, and it comes through in this novel. It is extremely well written, and by far the best piece of writing I've read of his. But when published the novel was poorly received by critics and fans alike. Fleming came to dis-like the novel and tried to block paperback publication in the states. He succeeded until 1967 when it was published after his death. Also when he sold the rights to Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman,  he refused the novel to be used in anyway except for the title.

 It is a shame that this novel has been over looked and somewhat maligned. But it is the way it is written that has garnered the reputation and not the sexism!! For myself I found this an extremely impressive work. I like the angle of taking a woman and looking at Bond through her eyes. To be sure the angle is somewhat skewed by Fleming's fantasies. But that aside the idea is superb, and this is one of the best Bond novels written ( even though he only appears for 4 chapters ). As a stand alone novel, even if you take the Bond angle out, it is a fine work.

 The Spy That Loved Me then is Ian Fleming at his best.....and worst. His writing in this novel is superb, and he showed the world with, Spy, that he could actually write, and wasn't just an author of imaginative espionage thrillers. That is to his credit and I believe this is an incredibly under-rated work from Fleming. On the negative all Fleming's misogynist, and sexist, views come to the fore like a festering poison. His semi-rape comment is disgusting and left me with a lingering bad taste in my mouth. Through Michel and her mis-firing, unhappy sex life, he is playing out his own personal sex fantasies, and they are dis-tasteful to say the least.

 So the two make for a double entente of a novel. So much to commend it, and yet it has an ugliness that cannot be ignored. Bond purists may not like the novel, but I highly recommend it because,  if for nothing else, it shows that Ian Fleming could write, and write very, very well.....I just wish it wasn't about his misogynist fantasies though!

 A fine novel, and must a read on so many levels.

Cover of the edition I read.
 Above is the edition I read. I believe Penguin re-issued the Bond novels with this retro set of covers in 2007. I think they are great and the artistry superb. This one of Spy is the cover I like the most.

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