Sarah Churchwell: The enduring thrill of sex, sadism and snobbery

According to a 1958 New Statesman review of Dr. No, the James Bond novels consisted of "three basic ingredients, all thoroughly English": "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult."

These ingredients no longer seem particularly English; sex, snobbery and sadism are a global phenomenon, while the schoolboy bully, frustrated adolescent, and snobbish suburban adult sound like Hollywood market research. Umberto Eco once likened Fleming's plots to a chess game, in which the same moves will occur in the same patterns, as two conflicting forces (not just characters, but also ideologies and value systems) battle it out.

It is hard to disagree: the Bond stories are catalysed by conflicts between individualism and authority, loyalty and betrayal, heterosexual desire and misogyny, and luxury and sacrifice, to name just the most overt, and the most enduring, of the themes. But sex, snobbery, and sadism remain the bedrock of the Bond mystique.

It seems unlikely that Sebastian Faulks's eagerly awaited Devil May Care, with its rumoured Middle East setting, heroin-running plot, and presumably double-dealing female (wonderfully named Poppy), will deviate far from this formula. Faulks has said that in writing the novel he followed Fleming's advice from his essay How to Write A Thriller, which advises drafting 2,000 words without re-reading them, in order to avoid getting distracted by such bagatelles as whether your prose is any good or you've got your facts straight – which might explain the critical disdain for Fleming's books.

He famously described Casino Royale to his publisher as banal and miserable, and told Raymond Chandler (a terrific stylist, at his finest): "Probably the fault about my books is that I don't take them seriously enough ... if one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond."

This statement alone is sufficient evidence of Fleming's snobbery. One need not take Bond seriously as a character in order to take seriously the impact of Bond as a cultural phenomenon. The question, as ever, is whether Bond can continue to register with a new generation of audiences.

The Bond stories were embedded in Cold War moral certainties; they were instruction manuals in conspicuous consumption for a newly aspirant middle-class; and they offered fantasies of continued supremacy for the citizens of a former superpower that had not come to terms with its newly subordinated role in world affairs. But above all the Bond stories are fetishistic: they fetishise technology, brand names, and women, in order of priority. And in this regard, if in no other, Fleming is a cultural prophet.

The immense global success of Daniel Craig's first cinematic venture as Bond suggests that it is, ironically, in returning to Fleming's basic formula that Bond will find his 21st-century audience. Sex, snobbery and sadism were all manifest in Casino Royale, but the snobbery was diminished as the plot's emphasis shifted from baccarat to high-stakes poker. Fleming would have deplored the vulgarisation, but the change reflects a shift from games of strategy to those of skill (both requiring a healthy dollop of luck), thus returning Bond to a character defined by expertise, which is surely the new valour.

But what brought Bond back to life in Casino Royale, it seems to me, was that for the first time the sadism was equally directed at Bond, allowing his suffering both to humanise him, and to emphasise his virility in surviving direct attacks against it. Only a complacent age can enjoy a campy hero; ours need to be made of sterner stuff.

Actually, the reinvigorated James Bond looks rather more like his American counterpart with the same initials, Jason Bourne. Like Bond, Bourne exemplifies expertise, savoir faire (unconscious, in his case), and the triumph of the individual against institutions. Robert Ludlum's three books about Bourne, which span the decade of the Reagan years from 1980 to 1991, explicitly address questions of identity, accountability, and morality, commenting quite directly on America's anxieties about Vietnam.

Bourne is a Vietnam veteran whose amnesia becomes a clear emblem of America's conflicted desire to "forget" its calamitous foray into South Asia. The primary difference between the two heroes is that Bourne has a far more adversarial, not to say homicidal, relationship with the CIA, reflecting America's post-Watergate distrust of its own government. Although Bond often breaks rules, he never really breaks ranks.

With no signs that sex, snobbery or sadism have lost their appeal, there may yet be a new formula emerging: suspicion, suffering, and survival. And sex.

The writer is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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