Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: Casino Royale (1953) - audiobook

One Christmas in my youth, I recall buying my dad a post-Ian Fleming Bond novel, something I thought to be an amazing find.  "Don't worry, Dad!  Yeah, that Fleming guy is dead, but Bond lives on!".  A year later I asked him about the book and he admitted he'd never bothered to read it because: "it wasn't Ian Fleming."  While I felt like maybe I'd wasted a present on The Admiral, I do recall that the book's description seemed a lot edgier than what was in the movies and, thanks to the interaction, developed the notion that we don't need to follow a series after the originator has died.

It's funny, because I have no idea if The Admiral ever read those original Bond novels.  He would have been in the right age range when they were coming out and I still remember he and The KareBear applauding me when he found me and my brother watching Goldfinger.  But, no recollection of the books on a shelf anywhere in the house.

In college, JAL did inform me how much he enjoyed the novels, but I wasn't much of a "reader".  Well, I was, but mostly non-fiction and comics.  And, since then, I think Picky Girl has been the biggest proponent of the Bond novels around these parts.

I'm slogging through the final Parker novels, which have lost a lot of the verve I enjoyed from the beginning of the series, and I'd been thinking of getting into the Bond novels as my next series, so I gave Casino Royale (1953) a whirl to see how it fit my tastes.

I'll assume you've all seen the 2006-era movie adaptation of Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig as James Bond and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd.  It's difficult to discuss the book without referring to the film, although there are stark differences, even as the book really does capture much of the novel.  So, SPOILERS.

I mean, of course I like Bond pretty well.  I've seen a lot of the movies at some point in my life, but I don't buckle in for full marathons and I know which ones I haven't seen, and its more than you'd think.  I'm a big fan of the Daniel Craig version of Bond, which began with a version of this novel.

Of course, the book takes place circa 1953, so we're talking post-WWII France and the West and East are at the start the world's most dangerous staring contest.  Like the film, the things we think of as trappings of Bond don't yet exist.  We basically have Bond, M, and a tricky assignment.  There is no SPECTRE.  No villains with steel teeth.  No super-cars (just nice cars), no laser watches or fold-away helicopters.  In fact, there's no real gunplay at all in the book.

Rather than Le Cheffire swapping gun money around, he's an organized labor boss who spent communist Russia's money on a string of brothels and it's the Russians who are onto him.

What the movie took on, Bond as this unformed thing of a concept that would become the super-spy is there.  This is a first-go for Fleming.  He's out to tell a story about a particularly hard-edged agent of Mi6 and what gets to him (and it's not card games or torture, it seems).

For me, it's hard to tell how Fleming feels about the character.  This take on Bond if not particularly witty or charming.  He is an epicure, a gambler and has posh taste in what he'll spend money on.  But whether Fleming intended to write a hollow man beneath that exterior, I can't tell.   Nor do I think it would have necessarily felt hollow to readers of the 1950's who had never thought much about the inner-workings of James Bond before.

For all the chatter about the misogyny in the Bond films, buddy, you haven't seen anything until you've actually opened Casino Royale.  Of course the book comes from a different era, and Fleming was writing to an audience who would understand the context or exist within that context to an extent, and the more extreme elements of that misogyny would be read as a gritty character, not one that would read as brutal in today's context.

I'd posit that it doesn't make the character irredeemable.  The subtext is about Bond's vulnerability when it comes to Vesper Lynd, and the final pages can be read either as stiff-upper lip machismo or as Fleming choosing to give Bond room, so to speak, and not discuss his state in favor of letting him show how he needs to be to the world after Vesper passes.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, even if it felt slight in comparison to the winding sort of story I'm used to from a Bond movie where the plot is usually secondary to locations, ladies, and fight sequences and you have to pay attention to keep up.  The Bond of the book was, of course, very different from that of the films, especially in this earliest iteration.  It's almost like comparing Henry Cavill to the Superman of Action Comics of 1938.  There's a wide gulf between where those characters begin and where they wind up.  And they do just keep evolving.

What's hardest to imagine is the jump from this Bond to the Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan eras.  A View to a Kill or Die Another Day seem a million miles off from this take.  At some point, a franchise can begin to parody itself, but that's not news to Batman fans.

Stylistically, I probably had the biggest issue with Fleming's tendency to tell rather than show, but it was also an early novel for him as a writer.  So little happens in the book, and he seems to fill in gaps with exposition rather than just letting the reader explore and discover themselves.

The book was read by Simon Vance, who I feel has read other books I've listened to, but I'll be dipped if I can figure what they were.


picky said...

Yea yea yea yea yea! (Excuse me while I do my happy dance.)

I'm so glad you listened to this one (that was my experience as well, and Simon Vance is incredible). I've listened up to the 8th novel and intend to...one day...keep going. Such a great reading experience, especially as I read along with other bloggers, and once a month we'd watch the corresponding film. So fun!

I always liked Bond growing up, but as I got older, the films seemed sillier and sillier. So when I listened to Casino Royale, I realized how duped I had been. Those films are nothing like the books, not really. So the franchise, to me, sort of exists in its own headspace. When I hear fans of the franchise bemoan Daniel Craig's Bond, I have to shake my head. He's much closer to Fleming's Bond than what we've gotten before.

Side note: I also bought Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming's Jamaica by Matthew Parker for $1.99 off B&N yesterday, and I'm eager to read it and maybe get back to Bond in the new year.

The League said...

I'll definitely give another few a whirl. They're not exactly War & Peace, but I did like this one, and they do make for great drive-time listening. I'll be curious what a post-Vesper Bond looks like and now that Bond is established, what Fleming wants to do with him. I always find it odd when a book is leading into a series - what was the author's intention? But this series has weathered the test of time, so I'm looking forward to diving in a bit.

For as grim as the early Parker books were, the approach to sex, the sexes and sexism in an adjacent era was certainly less dismissive (anyone is a threat if they have a gun and the will, and especially if they have brains, or REALLY dangerous to everyone including themselves if all they have is the gun and the will but no brain), but I kept wondering if Fleming was covering for what Bond really knew versus what he says in the book. Clearly Vesper is the most effective agent in the whole novel, and that galls Bond, I'd think.

Anyway, looking forward to the next one.