Ian Fleming has never received his due as a man of letters. His centenary this year is not going unnoticed: there is a new Bond exhibition, a new Bond adventure written by Sebastian Faulks, and various new Bond-related titles. But, cumulatively, they feel more like a celebration of a famous brand than a recognition of a literary master.
Fleming’s entry in the Oxford Companion to English Literature is three sentences long and ends in a sneer: “Bond has appeared in many highly popular films which mingle sex and violence with a wit that, for some, renders them intellectually respectable.” One can almost sense the feminist editor, Margaret Drabble, holding her nose.
Fleming will never become a feminist icon. His sexual attitudes — laid comically bare in the closing scene of Goldfinger — belong to another era. Bond to lesbian: “I thought you only liked women.” Lesbian to Bond: “I never met a man before.” It is an ungainly courtship. But if one judged all writers by their sexual attitudes, who would ’scape whipping?
The least Fleming deserves, in his centenary year, is to be judged by his books, not the films they spawned. If the cinema has ensured his immortality, it has also cruelly distorted his work. Some of the strongest Bond books — Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever — are cinematic travesties. People think they know James Bond in the way they know Sherlock Holmes. They don’t. Flippancy, ubiquitous in the films, plays no part in the books, which are tough, lean thrillers, rooted in character and situation, not glib one-liners.