Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Books That Grab Me: Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love

Once I noticed there was a new Bond movie coming soon (Skyfall), I sought out one of the original James Bond novels, From Russia, With Love, one of the ones I hadn’t yet read, as a little ritual to the master who made spying seem much cooler than it really was. Usually, sitting down with an Ian Fleming novel was closer to visiting with an infirm, elderly relative, a duty or a stiff-necked pilgrimage rather than a pleasant passing of hours.

I’ve beat my head against the stones many times making it through the Bond novels. I can safely say I would be the first one to bag on many of Ian Fleming’s books. The deeper he got into fame and success in the 1950s and 1960s, the lazier and viler the books seemed to become. I love the film Goldfinger and loathe the book for many reasons (a Mafia-style gang of lesbian airplane-acrobatic ‘circus’ performers? Here is my credulity snapping and melting away). I found The Spy Who Loved Me baffling to the point I abandoned it about thirty pages in. Dr. No – no thanks. I finished the book Moonraker, a tale about a British defense contractor plotting to send the rockets he’s building to destroy London, and had to wonder if Fleming had been laughing the whole time he wrote a parody of his own genre. (Both the 1950s book and the 1970s film are painful nowadays.) Diamonds Are Forever is better as a book than a film, but that’s not much of a recommendation.

Now, just to be clear, I can say there are at least two Bond novels worth a loving read: Casino Royale, which is a slim jewel of a jaw-dropping read (highly recommended!), and From Russia, With Love.

Think of From Russia, With Love as Fleming’s horning in on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (that’s its literary ancestry; there also the train’s involvement in real espionage capers). This train is the site of much of the action and intention of the story – get Bond and the ‘defector’ he’s after and the caper’s bait, a decrypting machine, onto the train. Once everyone’s onboard, that’s where it all goes beautifully wrong for the story. Christie gave us a gentleman’s civilized murder plot, twelve men and women conspiring to murder a vile man, but Fleming gives us a different kind of murder. He’s gone to a lot of trouble to make us care about the first man to die, the Secret Service’s Istanbul office head, so the murder of Karim Bey hurts more. Fleming’s also gone to trouble to give us a formidable tough, a genuine serial murderer in the employ of the Russians, a man as tough and bright as James Bond himself. It's not at all clear Bond will win or survive this confrontation on the train which makes for a suspenseful, lovely sequence of violence. (Most violence in a thriller reads like fake wrestling on television, choreographed and pointless.)

All of that tracks closely with the film. The sections of the book that surprised me are the very strange scenes of Russian bureaucratic decision-making that have no analogue in the film version. The writing is dated now, but these scenes remain a fascinating glimpse into how the West thought of Russia, how we all thought about how Russia operated. The generals who bring colonels so that each general has a witness to prove he said nothing treasonous, details which are wonderful. Of course it’s fiction, but the things that scare us most in fiction tend to be real concerns blown up to monster size. We were terrified of Russia for its desperation to survive, the possibility it might do just about anything. Perhaps only Fleming, and perhaps only this book, captures the fifty different flavors of paranoia and desperation in the Eastern portion of the Cold War.

The greatest pleasure of the book is the all-too-brief glimpse we get of the very odd character of Rosa Klebb. She gets scant treatment in the movie, but she’s a part of the decision-making to snare Bond at the start of the book and she had one of the greatest scenes in any book I’ve read. At the end, when the plot’s unraveled and there is only her to finish the byzantine plot to kill Bond, she's ready to swap her life for Bond's. More than ready, she’s prepared for the plot to have failed, for Bond to show up to confront her. She’s got half a dozen weapons hidden on her person and she attacks and attacks and attacks...and lands a poisoned wound on Bond. It’s a remarkable scene.

She, of all the villains, was the Reichenbach Falls moment for Ian Fleming. To kill Bond...or to resurrect him for the next book? A slight woman, imputed to be a lesbian, but strong enough to ‘kill’ Bond.

If there’s no other reason to pick up a copy of this book, read it for Rosa Klebb. This is what the villain of a thriller should be like. Total psychopathy, total dedication. This was Ian Fleming writing an entertaining book, not just gesturing toward one.

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