Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
Originally posted 24 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.
Generally I’m going to try to avoid writing about books I haven’t read witih a week or so of posting about them, but occasionally I may write about older reads that caught my interest in some particular way.
A month or two back I watched the Daniel Craig Casino Royale movie on dvd, it was ok (it wasn’t interesting enough to merit major comment) but prompted me out of curiosity to read the original novel. This entry contains spoilers about the plot of the novel, on the assumption that most people are pretty familiar with it, at least in broad outline.
So, I got the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming of course.
It’s an interesting read in some ways, the new movie is astonishingly faithful to it, as faithful as it can be given it’s set post the cold war and so has to create new villains. The novel though makes the James Bond character even more brutal and sociopathic than the film chose to.
The best part of the novel is the opening line: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” Generally the prose is workmanlike, spare, plain. It’s a very matter of fact manner of writing (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I like Hemingway and his prose is deeply matter of fact). The book reads quickly, the prose largely doing its job and delivering the plot to the reader without linguistic distractions. Given the book is intended as a “pillow fantasy” in Fleming’s words, the prose style fits the novel’s intent.
Bond as a character has little by way of inner life, he’s essentially a sociopath, a brutal killer without remorse or much by way of compassion. He is a deeply unlikeable character (not that characters need be likable for a book to be rewarding or enjoyable), but at the same time plainly aspirational. It’s an interesting mix, clearly the male reader (and the intended reader is I think male) is intended to see Bond as in some ways a real man, blunt, efficient, strong, certain, lacking in weakness. That he is also, and is plainly depicted as, something of a monster does not reduce his aspirational qualities. Possibly it enhances them.
The book itself was written in the dog days of austerity Britain, a time when rationing was ending and when luxuries were few and far between. Accordingly, as an escapist fantasy it dwells heavily on luxury, on fine food and on a lifestyle that its readers could at that time only dream of. Even the orange juice Bond drinks is aspirational, expensive and rare at the time this would first have been read. By the time we get to the full meals, the heavy breakfasts, the cocktails, the novel is an orgy of consumption and almost pornographic in its attention to culinary pleasure. The novel contains sex scenes, but more care is lavished on the food and drink.
Otherwise, the novel is, as might be expected, also very concerned with surfaces and brands. Even the headlights on Bond’s car are referred to by brand. It is an extraordinarily consumerist work, again I suspect because of the austerity being experienced by those who would first have been reading it. It is, above all else, an escapist fantasy.
Characterisation is weak, particularly the female characters. Nobody has nuances, but I’m not sure in a novel of this sort that’s a fault, it’s a page-turner, not a character study. More troublingly though is that the novel (not just Bond as a character) is deeply sexist, arguably even misogynistic. This is at its most apparent when Fleming writes of Bond’s love for Vesper Lynd, and Fleming (writing descriptively, not in character) comments that sex with her would always have “the sweet tang of rape”. Personally, I struggle with the concept of rape having a sweet tang, and I think that line goes beyond the casual sexism one would naturally expect of a Bond novel into something quite unpleasant.
Bond wins at cards of course, though oddly in large part due to luck more than anything else. For a super agent he is surprisingly ineffective in some regards, first losing to Le Chiffre and then once bailed out by the Americans wagering his entire stake on one entirely random deal of the cards which he knows he is statistically as likely to win or lose. The famous torture scene is brutal, and one of the more effective parts of the novel, but like much of the novel is almost sadistic in the level of attention paid to Bond’s suffering. Bond wholly fails to spot the problems relating to Lynd, mostly as best I can tell for plot reasons rather than any internally consistent ones.
Pacing wise the novel is odd, the last part of the novel is all about Bond’s romance with Lynd after he has defeated Le Chiffre, and the discovery of her betrayal. It leads to a lengthy sequence in which Bond reconsiders his life and enjoys a romantic idyll, almost as if he steps into another genre. Then normal service is resumed, Lynd dies as she must since Bond as an uber-male must be unencumbered by female sentiment, and Bond goes on a revenge quest against Smersh (the Russian bad guys).
Overall I didn’t like the novel, the prose is workmanlike (which can be fine where there are other elements of interest, but there aren’t here), the characters weakly drawn, the sweet tang of rape a line so repugnant it threw me right out of the novel. I’ve also read in recent months The Ipcress File by Len Deighton and Call for the Dead by John Le Carre (his first novel in fact).
Deighton portrays a moral ambiguity to the world of espionage, a world of political allegiances rather than ethical ones. Le Carre similarly shows a world of tired professionals and betrayed zealots, and in the process illustrates nicely the personal cost to those involved in terms of relationships and ruined lives. Both are vastly better novels than Casino Royale, and The Ipcress File manages to be a better written novel while also being a page turner (not sure I’d call Le Carre a page turner, much as I enjoy him). Even within the world of the spy novel then, there are better alternatives available.
I don’t see myself reading more Fleming, I can’t rule it out for certain but the book was mostly of historical interest as an insight into the escapist fantasies of a long since lost austerity Britain. In terms of espionage fiction, Deighton, Le Carre, or more recently Alan Furst or 54 by Wu Ming (a book in which Casino Royale is referenced, not favourably, by some of the characters) are all better choices. They don’t have absurd badly dressed Russians who incompetently blow themselves up (thus again saving the peculiarly ineffective but lucky Bond), but they are well written and have something to say, working both as thrillers and as novels about larger issues.
Casino Royale works in one sense precisely as intended, as an escapist fantasy without consequences or much to trouble the brain. But the period attitudes, the obsession with consumption of items that are now quotidian, the odd pacing and Bond’s own peculiar incompetence in my view suggest that if one is seeking a bit of gung ho escapism there are probably more recent writers who would make a better choice. For me, it’s main interest now is historical.