Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

'The office was very jealous although they didn't know what the job was.  All they knew was that I was to work with a Double O.  Of course, you're our heroes.  I was enchanted.'
Bond frowned.  'It's not difficult to get a Double O number if you're prepared to kill people....How do you like the grated egg with your caviar?'  
As a kid I loved the James Bond movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby or Roger Moore which would periodically show up on network TV full of commercials.  I even read four or five of the Ian Fleming novels, though I don't think I really "got" them, being so young, and they being so radically different than the films.  This was before puberty, so all the references to sex in the movies and in the books either went over my head or bored me.  I liked James Bond the way I liked the first Star Wars movie--I savored the ceaseless violence!

Reading Kingsley Amis recently brought James Bond to mind, so I decided to read the Ian Fleming 007 novels.  Even though Wikipedia says the county I live in is one of the wealthiest counties in America and one of the top five place to live in the USA as determined by some magazine, the county library system has no novels by Ian Fleming.  (I guess quality of life is subjective.)  So again my recourse is to the internet archive.  The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953; I'm reading a scan of a paperback published in 1983 by Berkley.  This isn't one of the books I tackled as a child, and the only Casino Royale film of which I am aware is the spoof one starring Barbara Bouchet (you loved her in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times), so I have no idea what the plot of this thing is going to entail.

A dude named Le Chiffre, which is French for "The Number," is the head of a major French labor union (50,000 members!)  This joker goes by the name "The Number" because he purportedly lost his memory during the Second World War, in a Nazi concentration camp or something like that, and doesn't remember his birth name.  Le Chiffre's union is closely allied with the Soviet Union--the Reds send a pile of money to the union, and if World War III should erupt it is expected that those 50,000 working class brutes will sabotage NATO installations and otherwise pave the way for the Red Army to take over France.

One of Le Chiffre's many girlfriends is a British spy, and she alerts Her Majesty's Government that Le Chiffre has a big problem.  Le Chiffre invested most of the union's money in a chain of brothels, which you would expect to be a sort of no-brainer investment in France, but a sudden and unexpected change in French government policy has led to the gendarmes closing down all those whorehouses and the union losing all that money.  Should the commies in Moscow find out that Le Chiffre blew all the money they sent him, agents of SMERSH (the Soviet agency whose name is an acronym for "Death to Spies") will murder him, so Le Chiffre comes up with the plan of winning all the money back by gambling at a seaside casino.  (This guy's memory may be damaged but his brain is otherwise puttering along just fine--check out all the good ideas he has!)  The British government comes up with the idea of making sure Le Chiffre loses the rest of Moscow's money at the casino, which will discredit the Red union and neutralize Le Chiffre, by sending their best gambler to the casino to play against Le Chiffre.  And who is their best gambler?  James Bond, Agent 007, of course!

What kind of guy is James Bond?  We are told he is cold and all-business while on a job, and somebody says he looks like Hoagy Carmichael.  But one of the attractions of the James Bond books, and one thing they are criticized about, is the fact that Bond enjoys what you might call luxurious and sensual living, or taking advantage of the many fine goods and services a capitalist economy and the remnants of an aristocratic culture have to offer, or conspicuous consumption, and it feels like Fleming spends as much time describing the stuff of the good life Bond leads as on actual spycraft stuff.  Bond has a fancy car, a 4 1/2 liter Bentley.  He smokes seventy cigarettes a day, a special blend of tobaccos he has made by a fancy tobacconist.  In one scene he gets a massage.  Bond describes to a bartender exactly how he wants his drink constructed, telling Felix Leiter, the CIA agent accompanying him, "This drink's my own invention."  To a beautiful female colleague, Vesper Lynd, (she wears a black velvet dress that is "simple, and yet with the touch of splendour that only half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve") he admits "I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink."  And Bond is crazy about casinos:
He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables.  He liked the solid studied comfort of cardrooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants.            
Back to plot.  The seaside town of Royale is apparently full to the gills with French security personnel and foreign spies.  Besides Texas-born American spy and former Marine Felix Leiter and British wireless expert Vesper Lynd there is a Frenchman, Rene Mathis, who works closely with Bond.  But don't think "The Number" is outnumbered!  A multinational legion of commies and thugs is in league with Le Chiffre!  He has two bodyguards, one of whom reminds Bond of Lenny from Of Mice and Men; the other has bad teeth, a hairy body and carries a cane that turns out to be a gun.  Bond's hotel room is bugged, and a married couple called the Muntzes--he German, she Czech--is in the room upstairs listening in.  Bond's cover, that of a Jamaican millionaire, is blown before he even gets to Royale, and a pair of Bulgar assassins try to kill Bond by throwing a bomb at him but are instead blown up themselves--Bond's survival is due to pure luck, not anything Bond deserves credit for.

Luck is a theme of the novel, as you might expect it to be in a novel about gambling.  "Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued;" which sounds like something Machiavelli would say.  The second quarter or so of Casino Royale is taken up by baccarat.  Bond explains the game to Miss Lynd, which takes some pages, and then Bond has his big match with Le Chiffre.  As far as I could tell, this game is 100% luck; there's no planning or strategy or bluffing.  I guess you could count cards, but no mention of such a technique is made by Fleming.  Bond loses all of the British taxpayers' money to the Red union leader, but then the American taxpayers bail out their friends on Airstrip One--Felix Leiter gives Bond a huge wad of cash and 007 goes on to bankrupt Le Chiffre and gets all of the lost money back.

Having triumphed over one of the many tentacles of the international communist conspiracy via an all night gambling session, Bond and Vesper Lynd go to have a fancy breakfast to celebrate.  Bond, we have been told, is all business during a dangerous job, but now that the job is over he is focused on convincing the beautiful black-haired Vesper to have sex with him.  "He wanted her cold and arrogant body....to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his."  Bond is into what we might call rough sex--one of the things about Vesper that attracts him is how she is self-contained, independent, rather than submissive--Bond figures having sex with her will always "have the tang of rape" because she will never give up herself entirely to a man, but always keep a private inner core.

We have also been told that Bond hates working with women, that he thinks they are just trouble with all their emotional baggage--instead of helping to accomplish the mission, a woman is a distraction: "One had to look out for them and take care of them."  As the second half of Casino Royale begins, Fleming provides evidence that Bond has the right attitude as Vesper Lynd gets kidnapped from the restaurant where they are drinking champagne and eating scrambled eggs.

After a car chase Bond is captured by Le Chiffre who tortures him by hitting him repeatedly in the testicles with a carpet beater.  This is a scene with powerful sadistic, masochistic and homoerotic overtones, undertones, and in-between tones.  Le Chiffre wants to know where Bond has hidden the money he won at the baccarat table, but 007 doesn't crack up.  Le Chiffre is about to castrate Bond with a carving knife when a SMERSH agent arrives to shoot Le Chiffre in the face, carve a Shcha (щ), which I guess is the first letter of the Russian word for "spy," in Bond's hand, and leave.

In the third quarter of the novel Bond is in the hospital recovering and having doubts about the morality of his career of spying on and assassinating people as well as suffering fears that he won't be able to perform sexually after the torture he has suffered.  Matis tries to convince him that he should continue doing his part in the defense of the free world, and Vesper Lynd starts making regular visits and the two begin to fall in love.

When he is released from the hospital, Bond and Vesper go to a little seaside hotel together, where they have sex and Bond even considers proposing to Vesper, but then odd little events and Vesper's moodiness spoil the whole holiday.  All is explained by the note Vesper leaves when she commits suicide--Vesper's Polish boyfriend, an RAF hero, was sent back home to spy for the British after the end of WWII and was captured.  The commies forced Vesper to act as a double agent for years; they threatened to execute her Polish lover if she didn't regularly send them info obtained in her office at the Secret Service.  It was Vesper who blew Bond's cover and exposed him to the Bulgar bomb attack, and the kidnapping was fake, so she is also to blame for Bond getting tortured.  She fell in love with Bond, but a relationship was impossible--she would have to betray Bond to the Soviets or SMERSH would kill her with the ease with which they killed Le Chiffre.

This tragic horror galvanizes Bond's hatred for SMERSH and he decides to dedicate his life to destroying that monstrous Soviet apparatus.

Casino Royale is a fun novel.  Fleming's style is brisk and the novel, 180 pages, is a quick read.  The car chase is quite good, and I enjoyed all the talk about spy craft, and even about baccarat, about which I knew nothing.  Bond doesn't come off as a superman but as a tortured soul (he puts so much effort into having fine meals and superior booze because he is alone all the time, he tells Vesper) who gets into trouble and is saved from total disaster by his colleagues or just sheer luck.  Let's see what the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, has to offer. 

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