First published: 1959.
Edition read: Penguin Modern Classics.
Provenance: borrowed from my workplace.
Read: September 2014, scuffing through leaves on Marston Ferry Road as I walked to and from work.
In my family, James Bond has assumed an importance that verges on the religious. The films are staples of our Christmas holidays; we have all-time favorites and all-time worsts; we rank them by quality of title credit song, by number of explosions, by ludicrousness of plot, by backstory of babes. We all have our preferred Bond, of course. Personally, I think Timothy Dalton is by far the most convincingly cast, and his films–The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill–are both genuinely good (at least as far as Bond goes. At least as far as I am concerned. There tends to be a lot of argument about this.) My younger brother’s English project this year is to write and present a TED talk; he has chosen to talk on James Bond.
Strangely, though, I’d never read any of the books until a few months ago. The closest I had come was listening to my brilliant actor cousin reading aloud the first chapter of Casino Royale in a tone of such pointed mockery that I fell off our porch swing laughing. So when I spotted that my workplace had an old copy of Goldfinger hanging about, I picked it up like a shot.
It became clear fairly quickly that my cousin had had a point. There are lots of good reasons to make fun of Ian Fleming, one of which is that he’s not a brilliant prose stylist. That said, he’s not a bad one, either; his Bond is reflective (up to a point), self-aware (ditto), and possessed of the kind of mordant wit familiar from Dashiell Hammett-type noir. At the beginning of Goldfinger, we meet him at an airport in Mexico, just after a contract killing. He’s conflicted, torn by the knowledge that he’s good at his job but that it’s doing his humanity no favors. He is recognized and hailed by a Mr DuPont, a wealthy American. DuPont asks him to dinner, and then behaves repulsively throughout, making anti-Semitic comments and throwing his weight around in a brash and unseemly (read: American) manner. Bond considers this: “I asked for the easy life, the rich life…How do I like it? Eating like a pig and hearing remarks like that?” It shows remarkable sensitivity for a character notorious for fleshly excess.
DuPont likes to gamble, and suspects that one of his regular partners, an Auric Goldfinger, is cheating. He wants Bond to find out how. It seems like a fairly tame job for a man who’s just murdered a heroin smuggler, but the plot has to get going somehow. The plot, in fact, is one of the most peculiar and interesting things about Goldfinger the novel, as opposed to Goldfinger the movie. The film is very well plotted: all of the nonsense with DuPont is cut, the action is compressed and logical (for a given value of “logical”, and remembering at all times that we are in the Bond universe…), and key scenes are never allowed to sag; the story is always being driven forward. By contrast, the book meanders. One of the subtlest, most interesting scenes in the film is the game of golf between Bond and Goldfinger. At this point they’re still pretending to be friends, still sussing each other out, and playing for high stakes. It’s an outdoors version of the poker games Bond is so famous for. Goldfinger cheats, and Bond traps him into losing without ever outwardly confronting him. It’s brilliantly filmed; the audience is always fully aware of what’s going on; and there’s almost no dialogue. In the book, by contrast, the scene is laborious. It takes up dozens of pages and Fleming spends nearly all of them on a tedious and unenlightening play-by-play. This sort of enthusiasm for sport at the expense of narrative tension plagued Anthony Trollope too, oddly enough, but at least his hunting scenes make a reader feel breathless.
More curiously, the most iconic image of the whole film is missing from the book. The event still occurs, but it is relayed to Bond by another character; Fleming never shows it to us. I refer, of course, to the scene where Jill Masterson, Goldfinger’s paid escort, is found dead and covered with gold body paint. That shot–a beautiful girl, prone on a bed, shining like a bizarre deity–is justly famous. It’s arresting. It stops you in your tracks. And yet Fleming never wrote it. All that Bond hears is a secondhand report from Jill’s sister, Tilly, long after the fact.
Having mentioned both Jill and Tilly, it’s time to get down to the really interesting thing about Goldfinger, which is to say the women. To begin with, at least, the book is significantly less sexist than the film. Yes, Bond calls Jill a “good girl” in a grossly offhand sort of way, but most of the so-called eroticism seems parodic, even faintly absurd, from a twenty-first century vantage point (“Mr. Bond, I’d do anything,” Jill breathes. I kept bursting into giggles.) But then we get to about the halfway mark, we meet Tilly Soames, and we meet Pussy Galore, and suddenly it is visiting hour at the Homophobic Misogynist Asylum.
I suppose you can argue that this book was written in 1959 for a very specific demographic, that it was only a few shades up from pulp, that attitudes about women which we now consider outdated and offensive were rife, even normal, at the time. I wouldn’t contradict any of that. I would, however, note that some of the things Fleming comes out with are genuine shockers even by these standards, and that no matter how much you defend them by saying that the generic conventions of mid-century thrillers demanded this sort of writing, there is a lack of coherence to it which makes its violence even more disturbing. There is, for instance, the first encounter between Bond and Tilly, which apparently is characterized by a lot of subtextual “masculine/feminine master/slave signals.” That’s a direct quote. How those signals can coexist with Tilly’s role as avenging sister and competent sniper is left conveniently unclear.
There is also the fact that Tilly is a lesbian, or at least is attracted to Pussy Galore, who is definitely a lesbian. (Fleming states it repeatedly. How else, pray tell, could a female crime boss even exist, unless she were a dyke? Inconceivable!) The consequence of this decision–that Fleming has invented a gay lady mafia–is kind of hilarious, and kept me chortling for most of the last forty pages, but then I reached the end. Bond is hearing about Galore’s childhood. She was raised in the South, she tells him, and then she says this: “You know the definition of a virgin down there? It’s a girl who can run faster than her brother.”
Oh. Right. She’s a lesbian because she was molested as a child. Well, that clears that up.
I will admit that this line is kind of funny, if you keep thinking of the book as being a parody of itself (in the same way that Jill’s breathy innuendoes are hilarious). Unfortunately, in context, it’s awful; you either understand why straight away, or you don’t. In brief: it’s awful because people still think this, still believe that lesbians are only “that way” because they were raped, or because they “had a bad experience”, or because they just haven’t found the right guy with the right, ahem, equipment, yet. In Goldfinger, guess who the magic Right Guy is? Congratulations. In the final scene, Bond is bonking Galore, who seems implausibly relieved and even grateful to him for rescuing her from being gay. It’s a pervasive and nasty and dehumanizing attitude, and even reading it in an outdated book which was never intended to be serious social commentary is like getting punched in the stomach. This is what I’ve taken away from my adventure with Bond books: they’re enjoyable, they’re silly, and they have the potential to be really hurtful. Read them, but read them with that in mind.
For more by Ian Fleming, see:
Casino Royale (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)
Doctor No (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)
You Only Live Twice (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)
From Russia With Love (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)
For more on Fleming’s work and context, see:
The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, Jeremy Black (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001)
Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, Matthew Parker (Hutchinson, 2014)
Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, James Chapman (London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2007)