“A blue and green dragon-fly flashed out from among the rose bushes at the end of the garden and hovered in mid-air a few inches above the base of the man’s spine. It had been attracted by the golden shimmer of the June sunshine on the ridge of fine blond hairs above the coccyx. A puff of breeze came off the sea. The tiny field of hairs bent gently. The dragon-fly darted nervously sideways and hung above the man’s left shoulder, looking down. The young grass below the man’s open mouth stirred. A large drop of sweat rolled down the side of the fleshy nose and dropped glittering into the grass. That was enough. The dragon-fly flashed away through the roses and over the jagged glass on top of the high garden wall. It might be good food, but it moved.”
I’ve said this before. Fleming really could write. It is snippets like the above which have kept me interested in the Bond series, despite my dislike of the “hero” of the books.
With “From Russia with Love”, however, I have reached a new low point in my already strained reader-author relationship with Ian Fleming. In fact, I would probably abandon the series, if I wasn’t on this quest to investigate the myth of Bond for myself, away from the legend created by the films and the franchise, and also if wasn’t so much fun to read this as a buddy read.
So, let me count the ways in which I hate this book – I hope you have time, it’s quite a list:
“THE BLUBBERY ARMS of the soft life had Bond round the neck and they were slowly strangling him. He was a man of war and when, for a long period, there was no war, his spirit went into a decline. In his particular line of business, peace had reigned for nearly a year. And peace was killing him.”
Yeah, because only a decade after the horrors of the second World War, romanticizing war was totally acceptable. How else would Bond be able to prove his manhood?!
Oh, yes, of course, by pimping himself out for Queen and country, which is basically what the plot is about: Bond is tasked with romancing a Russian spy who is supposedly “fangirling” over him and offers a coding machine to the Bond if only she can meet him.
It’s a trap of course, but why would that stop Bond, whose only concerns are whether he would be able to perform if the spy turned out to be unattractive.
2. Petty preconceptions:
“Character would greatly depend on upbringing and, whatever Pavlov and the Behaviourists might say, to a certain extent on the character of the parents. And, of course, people’s lives and behaviour would be partly conditioned by physical strengths and weaknesses.”
Hooray, let’s bring in references to scientific authority to mix up with the author’s own bias.
Not Bond, but one of the main characters, who is half English, half Turkish, and whom Bond seems to admire comes up with a lot of hateful utterances while they are having dinner in Istanbul:
“Kerim harangued the waiter. He sat back, smiling at Bond. ‘That is the only way to treat these damned people. They love to be cursed and kicked. It is all they understand. It is in the blood. All this pretence of democracy is killing them. They want some sultans and wars and rape and fun. Poor brutes, in their striped suits and bowler hats. They are miserable.'”
Yes, you read that right. There are more of these pearls of wisdom throughout the book. I’ll get back to Kerim’s favourite subject – women – later.
I should add that I read the book before the news about Turkey broke. It adds another layer of hatefulness if you imagine that this sort of comment could have appeared on social media in the last few days, when this is just a mere passing comment in Fleming’s book. Probably even his time. Maybe his own social circles.
It is sad that this is still relevant 60 years later. However, the fact it is still relevant, does not make the expressed attitude less awful.
After dismissing the secret service of all other nations, Fleming has one of characters utter this judgement of value:
‘England is another matter altogether. I think we all have respect for her Intelligence Service,’ General Vozdvishensky looked round the table. There were grudging nods from everyone present, including General G. ‘Their Security Service is excellent. England, being an island, has great security advantages and their so-called M.I. 5. employs men with good education and good brains. Their Secret Service is still better. They have notable successes. In certain types of operation, we are constantly finding that they have been there before us. Their agents are good. They pay them little money – only a thousand or two thousand roubles a month – but they serve with devotion. Yet these agents have no special privileges in England, no relief from taxation and no special shops such as we have, from which they can buy cheap goods. Their social standing abroad is not high, and their wives have to pass as the wives of secretaries. They are rarely awarded a decoration until they retire. And yet these men and women continue to do this dangerous work. It is curious. It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’
Yeah, ok, so maybe this was the wrong time to be reading this book. You know, what with the political crap that is going on in the UK at the moment, and which seems to be fuelled at least partly by nationalist bullshit.
Oh, and lets not forget to praise the notion of the public school tradition, which seems to produce such admirable individuals so effective at providing the nation’s security, all by themselves. Why would they need the help of their international counterparts?
The aspects of the book that really caused me to reach for the sick bucket are, however, Fleming’s misogyny and sexism. It’s been present in all the Bond books I’ve read, but this one has really taken top spot:
Not only do we have Kerim Bey’s sick generalisation that rape is romantic,
“My father was the sort of man women can’t resist. All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams they long to be slung over a man’s shoulder and taken into a cave and raped. That was his way with them.”
and that it is perfectly acceptable to keep a woman as a slave,
“I wanted to have my women where my mother would not know. There was a stroke of bad luck. I had a little Bessarabian hell-cat. I had won her in a fight with some gipsies, here in the hills behind Istanbul. They came after me, but I got her on board the boat. I had to knock her unconscious first. She was still trying to kill me when we got back to Trebizond, so I got her to my place and took away all her clothes and kept her chained naked under the table. When I ate, I used to throw scraps to her under the table, like a dog. She had to learn who was master.”
We also have two “gypsy” women fight to the death over man and being described as animals:
“While Kerim spoke, Bond examined the two beautiful, taut, sullen animals in the centre of the ring. They were both gipsy-dark, with coarse black hair to their shoulders, and they were both dressed in the collection of rags you associate with shanty-town negroes – tattered brown shifts that were mostly darns and patches. One was bigger-boned than the other, and obviously stronger, but she looked sullen and slow-eyed and might not be quick on her feet. She was handsome in a rather leonine way, and there was a slow red glare in her heavy lidded eyes as she stood and listened impatiently to the head of the tribe. She ought to win, thought Bond. She is half an inch taller, and she is stronger. Where this girl was a lioness, the other was a panther – lithe and quick and with cunning sharp eyes that were not on the speaker but sliding sideways, measuring inches, and the hands at her sides were curled into claws. The muscles of her fine legs looked hard as a man’s. The breasts were small, and, unlike the big breasts of the other girl, hardly swelled the rags of her shift. She looks a dangerous little bitch of a girl, thought Bond.”
And if this isn’t enough, we also have Fleming assert his shallowness by describing the characters’ attitudes and value as a human being through their looks. Mind, he does not do this with the male characters, only the female ones.
The magnificently evil baddie, Rosa Klebb, is described as follows:
“Rosa Klebb would be in her late forties, he assumed, placing her by the date of the Spanish War. She was short, about five foot four, and squat, and her dumpy arms and short neck, and the calves of the thick legs in the drab khaki stockings, were very strong for a woman. The devil knows, thought Kronsteen, what her breasts were like, but the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ’cello. The tricoteuses of the French Revolution must have had faces like hers, decided Kronsteen, sitting back in his chair and tilting his head slightly to one side. The thinning orange hair scraped back to the tight, obscene bun; the shiny yellow-brown eyes that stared so coldly at General G. through the sharp-edged squares of glass; the wedge of thickly powdered, large-pored nose; the wet trap of a mouth, that went on opening and shutting as if it was operated by wires under the chin. Those French women, as they sat and knitted and chatted while the guillotine clanged down, must have had the same pale, thick chicken’s skin that scragged in little folds under the eyes and at the corners of the mouth and below the jaws, the same big peasant’s ears, the same tight, hard dimpled fists, like knobkerries, that, in the case of the Russian woman, now lay tightly clenched on the red velvet table-top on either side of the big bundle of bosom. And their faces must have conveyed the same impression, concluded Kronsteen, of coldness and cruelty and strength as this, yes, he had to allow himself the emotive word, dreadful woman of SMERSH.”
Oh, and because she is the baddie of the piece, she must of course also be “abnormal” with respect to her sexuality,
“And, reflected Kronsteen, much of her success was due to the peculiar nature of her next most important instinct, the Sex Instinct. For Rosa Klebb undoubtedly belonged to the rarest of all sexual types. She was a Neuter. Kronsteen was certain of it. The stories of men and, yes, of women, were too circumstantial to be doubted. She might enjoy the act physically, but the instrument was of no importance. For her, sex was nothing more than an itch. And this psychological and physiological neutrality of hers at once relieved her of so many human emotions and sentiments and desires. Sexual neutrality was the essence of coldness in an individual. It was a great and wonderful thing to be born with.”
I assume there is no need for me to point out that, to my knowledge, Fleming does not go into such detail when describing the male baddies. What is even more annoying is that, Klebb would have been a great evil character even without this nonsense regarding her physical description. There are a few descriptions of torture scenes that get the point of her malice across quite effectively and would have benefited so much from less focus on her appearance and “personal life” as Fleming calls it.
Lastly, there is the Bond girl, Tatiana Romanova, who is supposedly working in this special department, but is riddled with self-doubt about her appearance –
“What about the mouth? Was it too broad? It must look terribly wide when she smiled. She smiled at herself in the mirror. Yes, it was wide; but then so had Garbo’s been. At least the lips were full and finely etched. There was the hint of a smile at the corners. No one could say it was a cold mouth! And the oval of her face. Was that too long? Was her chin a shade too sharp? She swung her head sideways to see it in profile. The heavy curtain of hair swung forward and across her right eye so that she had to brush it back. Well, the chin was pointed, but at least it wasn’t sharp. She faced the mirror again and picked up a brush and started on the long, heavy hair. Greta Garbo! She was all right, or so many men wouldn’t tell her that she was – let alone the girls who were always coming to her for advice about their faces. But a film star – a famous one! She made a face at herself in the glass and went to eat her supper.”
you, know, because she’s a princess (yep, there is an actual reference to her being a Romanov princess!) that needs to be rescued. Presumably, by Bond in a shiny suit of armor….
Interestingly enough, but no longer a surprise, we don’t learn a lot of Tatiana’s thoughts and internal monologue in this book. I mean, she was press ganged into working on this mission by threats to her family and loved ones. It would have given the book a layer of complexity to learn what her plans were – was she merely looking to complete the mission? Was she looking to make an escape? And then what?
There is no need for that though, because Fleming merely created Tatiana as an object of desire for Bond to play with, and besides, why would women have any thoughts about anything other than how they looked?
“In fact Corporal Tatiana Romanova was a very beautiful girl indeed. Apart from her face, the tall, firm body moved particularly well. She had been a year in the ballet school in Leningrad and had abandoned dancing as a career only when she grew an inch over the prescribed limit of five feet six. The school had taught her to hold herself well and to walk well. And she looked wonderfully healthy, thanks to her passion for figure-skating, which she practised all through the year at the Dynamo ice-stadium and which had already earned her a place on the first Dynamo women’s team. Her arms and breasts were faultless. A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man’s.”
Seriously, what utter bullshit!
I seriously cheered at the end of the book, not just because of the way it ended but mostly because the torturous reading experience was finally over.
If I had not borrowed my copy from the library, I would have gladly ripped it to shreds – and I don’t normally advocate violence of any kind.
During the discussion with Troy, we looked at the book from different angles – it being a ground-breaking work of spy fiction in its time, it being a classic, etc.
I’m no longer sure that whether my anger at this book stems from the combination of all the elements of dumbassery that Fleming releases in this book or whether there is one single aspect that I would find fault with most. I really can appreciate the book within the time it was written. However, that does not change my outlook. Just because there are aspects that are non-pc now does not mean that they did not suck back in 1957. The perception depends on the reader more so than what decade it is read in. The main example, would be the promotion of rape culture. Not acceptable now, nor then, nor before then. Maybe not talked about, but I would argue that this is more of an indication of a lack of forum than an indication of social acceptance.
I do not believe that readers at that time needed an awareness of political correctness to know whether something was right or wrong.