Inspirations: Umberto Eco Gives us a License to Thrill

  • More than 60 years after the first James Bond novel, 007 is still a cultural icon.
  • Umberto Eco described the elements that made Ian Fleming’s novels so successful.
  • Fleming’s novels combined a few narrative elements in various ways.
  • Bond’s role was to protect Britain and rescue women from evil, foreign villains.

Photo1

Portrait of Ian Fleming (Paul Baack [CC / Flickr])

‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’

With those words, Ian Fleming introduced a cultural phenomenon. The scene was set for James Bond to eye the profile of his first adversary, the Soviet intelligence paymaster who was so immersed in the world of gambling that he was known as Le Chiffre. Bond’s clash with Le Chiffre launched a series of novels that made Ian Fleming famous, and has continued after his death to this day. The latest instalment, Trigger Mortis, was authored by Anthony Horowitz, the eighth Bond author, and published last year.

Bond’s beginnings

If Bond is a cultural icon recognised around the world, it’s because the longest running film franchise in history reached far more people than the novels did. However, there would have been no film franchise if Fleming’s novels hadn’t been so popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and they are still in print today. Bond is such a ubiquitous cultural referent that ‘Bondology’ is an informally recognised subset of cultural studies. An early exponent of Bondology was the sage of popular culture, Umberto Eco, who wrote a particularly cogent description of Fleming’s literary technique in his 1966 essay, Narrative Structures in Fleming.

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Umberto Eco in 2011 (Blaues Sofa [CC / Flickr])

Eco’s essay is perfectly timed to observe the first stage of Bond’s evolution. The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 and the thirteenth, The Man with the Golden Gun, in 1965, the year after Fleming’s death. The first franchised novel would not appear until 1968, and while the first four Bond films had been released, the films were still adaptations of the novels and had yet to lead the franchise in the way they would in later decades. Eco describes Fleming’s Bond and no other.

Eco focuses on what it is that makes a Bond novel and in the process, he gives us an insight into what makes them so successful.

Perhaps the most remarkable, or least remarkable depending on your expectations, thing about the Bond novels is that they are neither particularly complex not particularly well written. I enjoyed them when I was thirteen but I’d grown out of them by the time I was fifteen. Eco’s essay spends most words on two different elements of Fleming’s construction: the plot and the descriptive emphasis.

Bond moves and mates in eight moves

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The first Bond novel with a cover released in 1960, before Sean Connery was cast as Bond (Jeremy Crawshaw [CC / Flickr])

Anyone who has spent any time among writers will be familiar with the shared despair at struggling to come to terms with a plot. I’ve been an enthusiastic participant in that conversation myself. So Eco’s deconstruction of the Fleming structure is something I’m particularly interested in as it can be applied to any genre that depends on conflict or, to put in another way, to any genre.

Eco tells us that ‘the fundamental rule of the game is ‘Bond moves and mates in eight moves’. It’s as though he is playing a game of chess that will place the adversary in the grip of an agonising death and the woman – there’s always a woman – in the grip of Bond himself. Thus Bond checkmates the villain and mates with the woman.

Eco further deconstructs the pattern into a series of gambits that are applied in each novel:

A             M moves and gives a task to Bond.

B             Villain moves and appears to Bond (perhaps in vicarious forms).

C             Bond moves and gives a first check to Villain or Villain gives first check to Bond.

D             Woman moves and shows herself to Bond.

E              Bond takes Woman (possesses her or begins her seduction).

F              Villain captures Bond (with or without Woman, or at different moments).

G             Villain tortures Bond (with or without Woman).

H             Bond beats Villain (kills him, or kills his representative or helps at their killing).

I               Bond, convalescing, enjoys Woman, whom he then loses.

It’s worth noting that simple as the moves are, many of the films simplified them further. In some of them, Bond does little more than blunder around from casino to cleavage until he’s captured by Villain, who obligingly explains his dastardly plan. Villain then tries to have Bond killed in such an absurdly over-complicated way that he gives Bond the opportunity to escape and kill Villain, seduce Woman and generate a cinema-friendly explosion in the process. Simplistic it may be, but we don’t get bored with it.

Switching the moves

The film that follows the novel most closely is Casino Royale (The Daniel Craig version, not the David Niven one!). It even preserves move G, the torture scene, which occurs in most of the novels but is omitted from most of the films.

Eco observed that while Fleming’s novels were structured around the same moves, they do not necessarily occur in that order and may be repeated. He gives the plot of Goldfinger as BCDEACDFGHEHI and of From Russia with Love, which is complicated by substantial passages from the viewpoint of the villains, as BBBBDA(BBC)EFGH(I). Yet the narratives are always skeletons constructed out of the same set of bones, as Eco puts it in academic language:

The collateral muscles are rich enough to form the muscles of the separate skeletons of the narrative; they constitute one of the great attractions of Fleming’s work, but they do not testify, at least not obviously, to his powers of invention.

Eco is careful not to dismiss Fleming’s powers of invention without the qualification ‘at least not obviously’. In fact, Fleming was extremely inventive when it came to developing the villains, their dastardly plots and their gruesome deaths. It was only narrative elements that he reused, and why shouldn’t he? They achieved exactly what he set out to

Photo4

Actor and musician Hoagy Carmichael, who Fleming said was the basis of Bond’s appearance (We Hope [Wikimedia Commons])

achieve.

Golf clubs and gourmet meals

James Bond is a superhero. He inhabits a world hidden from view, in which he endures and commits violence and pain to protect the rest of us from supervillains who threaten our way of life. His tribulations are balanced by his indulgences in food, alcohol, women and gambling. A modern assessment might diagnose him as an alcoholic who ticks a disturbing number of boxes on the Hare Psychopath test. A satirical study of Bondology concluded that if he liked his vodka shaken rather than stirred, it was probably because he drank so much of it that his hands shook and if he couldn’t sustain a relationship with any of his women, it was probably because of alcohol-induced impotence.

One of Fleming’s techniques, as described by Eco, was to devote a substantial amount of space to describing the commonplace to draw the reader into the fantasy world of Bond and his enemies. In Goldfinger, for example, more space is given to describing the sensation of holding a golf club than the eponymous villain’s plan to rob Fort Knox. Most of us have held a golf club, even if only at a pitch-and-putt or crazy golf course. Even if we haven’t, it doesn’t stretch our powers of imagination to imagine it. By showing us that Bond senses a golf club in the same way we would, we’re primed to imagine him experiencing a gourmet meal or being strapped in the path of a circular saw in the same way we would.

Photo5

Sean Connery as Bond in Dr No, 1962 (TRF_Mr_Hyde [CC / Flickr])

Gourmet meals, expensive drinks and cigarettes, casinos, fast cars and the trappings of wealth feature prominently in Fleming’s Bond novels. Casino Royale was published into a Britain ground down by postwar austerity. Food and cigarettes were rationed and foreign travel was a luxury that few of Fleming’s readers could have afforded. The descriptions of such luxuries were part of the escapist fantasy that Fleming invited his readers into.

It’s worth contrasting Bond’s material pleasures with one of his literary descendants, Jack Reacher, whose knight errantry through modern America is chronicled by Lee Child. In an age of relative affluence, Reacher eschews the luxuries that were so important to Bond. While Goldfinger had Bond driving an Aston Martin across France from sumptuous meal to sumptuous meal, Reacher dislikes driving and is content with a burger, the occasional beer and an endless supply of coffee.

Heroes and villains

As well as typifying a narrative trope, Bond also represents a political position:

It is difficult, after the analysis we have carried out, to maintain that Fleming us not inclined to consider the British superior to all Oriental or Mediterranean races or that Fleming does not profess heartfelt anti-communism.

Photo6

(ClaraDon [CC / Flickr])

Fleming was very much a British patriot and if Bond never makes a patriotic speech, it’s because he takes his allegiance for granted. Nor is there any space for moral ambiguity in Bond’s adventures. The villains are untouched by concerns of morality, sadistic and foreign. On the rare occasions when he encounters an English villain, the man is evidently a deviant. In From Russia with Love, Red Grant was an Englishman who defected to the Soviet Union because it offered the opportunity to sate his appetite for killing in a way that he never could in Britain.

Eco points out that the villainousness of the villains is coded into their names. As the name ‘Snow white’ conjures an innocent and white-skinned woman, so the name ‘Auric Goldfinger’ conjures a man obsessed with money who is probably Jewish.

Whatever Fleming’s personal views may have been, his novels conflate the idea of Britain as both a political and an ethnic entity, allowing the villains to threaten it on both levels simultaneously. In most of the novels, Bond is up against agents of SMERSH, the evil core of Soviet intelligence and by extension, the international communist network.

Live and Let Die, which Fleming actually wrote before Casino Royale, conflates several different threats in the person of Mr Big, the head of a narcotics network linked to Soviet intelligence. Not incidentally, Mr Big is black. We see both the fear that upstanding Englishmen, and in this case Americans, will be corrupted by drugs. At the same time, we

Photo7

Bond in paperback (SchroCat (^ • @) [Wikimedia Commons])

see the bogeyman of the black man who does not know his place, whether in the independence movements of the British colonies in Africa or the civil rights movement in America. As a contrast to Mr Big, Fleming gives us Quarrel, Bond’s Jamaican guide, as an example of how an Imperial subject should behave.

Inevitably, Bond restores balance by rescuing the virtuous Solitaire from Mr Big’s unfortunate influence and feeding Mr Big himself to a shark.

Fleming’s racial caricatures may be dated and distasteful, but they do contain an object lesson in creating a villain. Fleming’s villains personified the fears of his readers, be they Soviet infiltration or imperial decline, in particularly loathsome forms. By doing so, he subverted the fears of his readers into engaging with his stories. A modern reader may fear different things but societal fears remain, and always will, waiting for a modern writer to make use of them.

Women to be rescued and cured

Bond villains threaten not only Britain, it’s friends and its values, but they invariably threaten a beautiful woman while they’re at it. It’s worth noting that while Bond’s screenwriters throw a new woman at his every time there’s a danger of the plot slacking off, Fleming only gave Bond one woman per novel.

Some of the novels have the woman threatened physically but more often, the woman is in thrall to the villain and needs Bond to show her the error of her ways. The latter approach is most obvious in From Russia with Love in which a KGB cipher clerk is simultaneously seduced by Bond and by the lure of life in the west.

When Bond rescues the woman and her virtue, both become his to take. The women embody the virtues Bond risks life and limb for, and also constitute his reward by surrendering their virtue to him.

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1960 cover of Moonraker. Women were and remain important to the Bond iconography (Anna P. S….. [CC / Flickr])

Sometimes, Bond is not only their rescuer but their cure. The Spy Who Loved Me is written from the viewpoint of the woman Bond rescues. It opens with a description of her inadequate boyfriends who have left her as a ‘bird with two wings down’. It concludes with her getting what she needs to make her whole again: a good seeing to from James Bond.

Goldfinger takes the theme even further, as Pussy Galore is introduced as the head of a gang of lesbian burglars. Another stereotype raises its head as Pussy is as unfeminine in her sexual proclivities as in her profession. We later learn that her lesbianism started with being raped as a child, establishing that it is a psychosis with distinctly Freudian roots rather than simply a sexual preference. In the closing page of the novel, she joins Bond in bed and when he says he thought she didn’t like men, she replies that she never met a real man before. Bond has not only rescued a beautiful woman from the clutches of the villain, but has cured a lesbian.

If the novel and film franchises have left some of Fleming’s tropes in the past, it is no bad thing.

Fleming and Bond

The life of Fleming himself is almost as colourful as Bond. He worked for the Naval Intelligence Division during World War Two and was a notorious womaniser. After the war, he had a villa he called ‘Goldeneye’ built in Jamaica where he wrote his novels, although he spent a lot of time in Britain.

He maintained his links with the intelligence services and occasionally worked as a journalist while he was writing the Bond novels. Bond may have been the man who Fleming wished he could be, and Fleming certainly conceived some outlandish schemes from behind his desk.

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Ian Fleming’s villa ‘Goldeneye’ in Jamaica, where he wrote the Bond novels (Banjoman1 [Wikimedia Commons])

His final move on behalf of the intelligence services was a spectacular own goal: it was largely due to his influence that former MI6 officer Kim Philby was sent to Beirut as Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. Philby was a Soviet agent who had been largely cut out of his sources of information, but sending him to Beirut enabled him to dust off his old skills and keep Moscow fully informed of MI6 and CIA activities in the region until he was eventually found out and escaped to Moscow.

James Bond would never have allowed it.

If you were commissioned to write a Bond novel, who would be your villain? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
12 comments on “Inspirations: Umberto Eco Gives us a License to Thrill
  1. Great post as in depth an analysis as I have seen on Bond.
    I havent read the books but the enjoyment of Bond films is usually the known factors : villains, babes and danger. Casino Royale is easily the best of them imo at least of the more recent ones.
    As for a villain? The most obvious would be a billionaire hellbent on politics…

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I can’t honestly recommend the Bond novels as works of literature. I may have another look to make the most of Eco’s object lesson in plotting though. Change the specifics of some of the elements and I’m thinking it may be possible to use them to pace a very different story in the same way that Fleming did.

      • I still want to read one at some point just to see what Flemings writing was like.
        Formulaic writing isn’t usually my thing but it works for some things, like Bond books, series, thrillers involving the same characters etc.

        • DJ Cockburn says:

          I find formulaic writing interesting because it strips storytelling down to its essentials. I wouldn’t want to write like Fleming, or Dan Brown to give a more recent example of the same thing, but I can learn from them.

          If you’re picking one Bond novel as an object lesson, I’d suggest picking from the ones Eco mentions. It looks like he chose them as the best examples of Bond being Bond. Fleming deviated from the formula a few times, such as The Spy Who Loved me and some of the short stories. In my opinion, they’re interesting mainly because they show he was a writer who really needed to stick to his own formula.

          • Some writers need a formula, a set way, whereas others find it best to create as they write. I’d argue creating as you write is the purer form of the craft, otherwise the story becomes reduced to a writing by numbers exercise.

            • DJ Cockburn says:

              I’d say that what matters is the end product. A good story is a good story, however you get there. Different approaches seem to work for different writers.

  2. Disha says:

    That was an interesting read.

  3. Terry Kidd says:

    It’s interesting that my favorite ‘anti-Bond’ writer, Len Deighton, wrote an early draft of the script for From Russia with love, Bond film number 2, and was involved with the remake of Thunderball -Never Say Never. There’s an ebook from Deighton https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17181952-james-bond on the subject.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks, I’ve read a fair bit of Deighton but haven’t read that one. I didn’t know he was involved in the Bond films. It’s strange how much they drew in. One of my favourite stories was that the director Terence Young was a friend of Eddie Chapman when Chapman was splitting his time between London clubs and casinos and blowing up safes. They were close enough that when Chapman was working for MI5 and climbing up the walls of the safe house he was confined to between missions, Young was brought in to keep him company.

      Chapman was one of the most extraordinary spies in history, impressing the Abwehr so much that they gave him an Iron Cross while he was passing all their secrets back to London.

      Young went on to cast Sean Connery as Bond at about the same time that Fleming was sending Kim Philby to Beirut.

  4. Terry Kidd says:

    And a villain? I expect we’ll see a billionaire who makes electric cars and runs a space launcher company fairly soon….

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