Bond back in some well-executed tosh
Solo: A James Bond Novel By William Boyd Jonathan Cape, 324pp, $32.95
WHAT is it about James Bond? Why is the world still in thrall to this womanising liquorswilling toff of a secret agent who drives his Aston Martin and likes his martinis shaken, not stirred? Is it that the Cubby Broccoli film franchise just happened to coincide with the latent charisma of the younger Sean Connery, the high comic charm of Roger Moore and the middle way of Pierce Brosnan, dark and Celtic like Connery but insouciant and light like Moore?
That trio hardly explains how Bond endures as a film legend with the — to my eye — rather more ordinary Daniel Craig, or that big-name writers such as Sebastian Faulks with Devil May Care (2008), Jeffery Deaver with Carte Blanche (2011) and now William Boyd with Solo continue to write James Bond books as if he were Batman or Superman or the reincarnation of Lancelot du Lac.
No one apart from Sherlock Holmes has had such an afterlife. And that, of course, is one clue to the mystery. The old Basil Rathbone films of Holmes, apart from obvious classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, were free variations on Arthur Conan Doyle’s theme of the omniscient smart-arse detective, just as Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock and Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary are today.
Just as the Bond films — apart from the gorgeousness of female nomenclature (Pussy Galore) and the villain with the cat — are sumptuous elaborations of the idea of James Bond.
And so to Solo, in which Boyd does give us the old leather whiff, the dour masculine understatement and the sense of murderous grace under massively exaggerated fire that made James Bond appeal to John F. Kennedy and every other inhabitant of the dream of a man’s world.
At the outset of the novel, set in 1969, Bond meets an Irish actress who holds up her champagne glass to him with an erotic recognition he returns as they sit in the dining room of the Dorchester. Before we know where we are Bond is off to Africa where a small region of a poor country that has discovered it has oil is fighting for independence against the interests of Britain and perhaps fair play.
Here Bond falls into the arms of a beautiful African woman in a position of power and hits up against a ghastly Rhodesian mercenary with a damaged face that leaves half his jaw exposed and one eye permanently weeping.
Why are the rebels doing so well against the government forces? Is it because their general is a genius, an African Napoleon? And what is his relation to his Rugby and Oxford-educated brother in London who says he doesn’t want a bar of him?
Why does Bond — who is haunted at the book’s outset by an incident in the Normandy invasion when he was a young commando — help the creepy Rhodesian with the deformed face in a military operation, getting shot in the chest for his trouble?
In the latter part of the book, Bond, after recovering from his wounds, decides to wreak vengeance on those who tried to kill him and this leads him to Washington, and various adventures involving African enigmas and various dealings with the CIA as well as a meeting with an old American crony familiar from the Fleming world.
The whole thing has a pulsating, nearly purposeless energy, and if Solo brings to mind the episodic nature of the original books (never exactly masterpieces of construction) it also recalls aspects of Boyd’s fiction and its capacity to repeat the way the aftertaste of food can in an unlovely way.
Isn’t he one of those writers who’s a bit better at setting things up than resolving them? Doesn’t he buzz with the enchantments of a
THE SENSE OF MURDEROUS GRACE UNDER MASSIVELY EXAGGERATED FIRE
big-time story only to disappoint? Well, it would be hard not to, sometimes, particularly in the vicinity of Fleming, who is interested in his story only to the extent that it allows people to drive and drink.
Much of Solo seems a bit less gleaming when physical incident is being summarised, though Boyd is highly skilled at highlighting the ambience of people interacting and attitudinising at each other.
Bond perving unseen at the Irish actress getting undressed, his preparation of filet mignon, his languid sense, which is at the same time not quite insignificant, that those who went through World War II consider the Cold War a kind of holiday — these are aspects of Fleming Boyd does with a clairvoyant empathy that is a little bit uncanny and may make the book irresistible to diehard Bond fans.
James Bond presents us with a sensibility that is sophisticated without being civilised, exactly, or particularly humane. It radiates, though, a deeply worldly sensibility, a playboy’s sensibility, always in spitting distance of a high society we never quite see.
But this histrionic world of nuanced understatement, fine tailoring and the kind of manners that are above education and wit corresponds to deep instinct in the popular breast and it’s one reason James Bond touches a nerve in all of us.
Is it the ideal of a masculine smoothie who makes women quiver and men gape with envy? That makes it sound like a glossy magazine ideal, and it is, but part of the curious power of Fleming is to refuse to admit the reality of this world in any context except that of physical courage and the cult of the warrior.
In that respect he’s true to the stereotypes he inherited. The fact Bond, unlike, say, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, is a ladies man gives his hero an erotic ambivalence as well as an absolutely enamelled panache. You don’t have to be an enthusiast for all this tosh to admit William Boyd does it rather well.
William Boyd in London with his new James Bond novel
a day before its release; below, Daniel Craig as Bond in