Friday, 29 January 2016

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming


published 1953

Casino Royale 2


[Agent James Bond has been given a female assistant]

Her skin was lightly suntanned and bore no trace of make-up except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. Her bare arms and hands had a quality of repose and the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her finger-nails which were unpainted and cut short. Round her neck she wore a plain gold chain of wide flat links and on the fourth finger of the right hand a broad topaz ring. Her medium-length dress was of grey ‘soie sauvage’ with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowered down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist.

She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black ‘sabretache’ rested on the chair beside her, together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. Bond was excited by her beauty and intrigued by her composure. The prospect of working with her stimulated him. At the same time he felt a vague disquiet. On an impulse he touched wood.


Casino royale  3

commentary: This is Vesper Lynd, the very first Bond girl, and he is not happy about having to work with her:
And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. ‘Bitch,’ said Bond.
After reading Ian Fleming’s letters recently, and the wonderful Kingsley Amis James Bond Dossier, it seemed clear that re-reading the Bond books after a gap of many years would be an excellent idea, so I started at the beginning. And what a strange book this is. You can see how it must have exploded onto the world and into bestseller status with its harsh hero, its air of knowingness, its violence, the gambling, the torture scene, the beautiful girl.

The book has a famous first line:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
I have said before on the blog that it is hard to find good pictures of casinos, and impossible to find any modern pictures that show any glamour at all. The exact first half of the book tells of a confrontation at the gambling tables: Fleming explains how baccarat works and describes the evening in detail. It is surprisingly riveting. The author has an odd tic: the book is written in normal past tense, but when he is helpfully telling you how casinos work, for example, with an air of world-weary authority, he goes into present tense:
With his spatula he faced the Greek’s two cards, ‘Et le sept,’ he said unemotionally, lifting up gently the corpses of the seven and queen and slipping them through the wide slot in the table near his chair which leads into the big metal canister to which all dead cards are consigned.
This is odd, but not quite as annoying as you might expect. Meanwhile, to a modern woman reader, James Bond also spends a lot of time explaining the world (Martinis, champagne and baccarat) to lesser beings. That modern term mansplaining might have been invented for him. You can see that it’s all total wish fulfilment, with Bond at ease with the world. Though would he really ask the maitre d’ ‘Do you approve?’ about his food order – I am far from being a highly-tuned worldly spy, but I wouldn’t dream of asking the staff what they think of my choices.

I enjoyed it hugely, but more than anything Bond reminds me of Biggles, from the children’s books by Captain WE Johns, another venturesome swashbuckling hero. Bond can do anything, and is very brave, and can undergo great torture.

Vesper wears a black velvet dress for a trip to the casino, and says:
‘There’s a horrible secret about black velvet. It marks when you sit down. And, by the way, if you hear me scream tonight, I shall have sat on a cane chair.’
Some foreshadowing here. And the black velvet dress is going to be put to dastardly use.

It is a work of its time – of course it is full of remarks that wouldn’t (we hope) turn up now, but in 1953 it gets something of a pass. Though this was unforgiveable in 1953 as in 2015:
the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
But it is undeniable that this would have gone almost unnoticed at the time: ‘metaphorical’.

My favourite moment in the book comes early on in fact, where M is reading a dossier:
On the 13th April, there was passed in France Law No. 46685 entitled Loi Tendant à la Fermeture des Maisons de Tolérance et au Renforcement de la Lutte contre le Proxénitisme. 

(When M. came to this sentence he grunted and pressed a switch on the intercom. ‘Head of S.?’ ‘Sir.’ ‘What the hell does this word mean?’ He spelt it out. ‘Pimping, sir.’ ‘This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jaw-breakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.’ ‘Sorry, sir.’ M. released the switch and turned back to the memorandum.)
Educational, you see. Wouldn’t know that word from anywhere else.

The lady with the parasol is from Kristine’s photostream, the other one from Clover Vintage. Fleming’s clothes vision is quite hard to imagine in fact, the elements of the outfit don’t seem to go together – this is as close as I could get, some combination of these two? And what is a ‘narrow, but not thin’ waist?

A sabretache is ‘a flat satchel on long straps worn by some cavalry and horse artillery officers from the left of the waist-belt.’ Very up-to-the-minute.

ADDED LATER: The ever-wonderful blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam came up with this perfect picture, which I can't reproduce (copyright) but all readers should go straightaway and look at it - a Richard Avedon photo in a casino. And it's glamorous! See comments below.


And now on to Live and Let Die.
















18 comments:

  1. A grey wild silk dress with a flaring pleated skirt, wide black belt, and black and gold accessories and jewellery. Sounds trés chic to me. I imagine the sabretache was carried as a handbag rather than as a belt adjunct.

    Here's a great casino image from 1954 for you, just so you know they're out there. ;) (And it's a Grés dress again!!)

    http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O82824/sunny-harnett-evening-dress-by-photograph-avedon-richard/

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    1. Oh that's amazing Daniel, that's exactly what I would have wanted, perfect. All readers should go and look - it's in copyright so I can't reproduce.

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  2. I also think a narrow, but not thin waist would be a waist that wasn't wasp-like all round - I imagine her being relatively wide shouldered, not ridiculously so, but with a distinct taper to the waist, and with a naturally streamlined appearance, without giving a trussed/corseted look.

    Maybe the belt was something like this - I do like Claire McCardell, her clothes were designed for normal bodies without trussing and/or constriction.

    http://blog.fidmmuseum.org/museum/2009/09/claire-mccardell.html

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    1. I love Clare McCardell, the queen of a certain way of dressing, which I would love to aspire to! I would SO wear both those dresses, now (today in fact as am going out lunch).
      Fleming (or Bond) always likes the same kind of shape in a woman, I'm discovering. In a later book there's a woman whose bottom has been reshaped by too much ice-skating. He's full of unexpected and unlikely details. I wonder if he had women friends (or his wife) to consult about what the Bond girls wore?

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  3. I think you make a very good point, Moira, about the way the bond stories just burst on the scene. They were different to anything people had read before. And all that glamour and swashbuckling - who wouldn't be drawn in. I love that comparison to Biggles, too!

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    1. Oh good - I wasn't sure if Biggles would be known in the USA. But I should have known you'd get the cultural reference.

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  4. Biggles! Brilliant, yes! Biggles with sex . . . Why did it never occur to me before?

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    1. Thank you Chrissie. I am proud of this cultural cross-referencing....

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  5. I have only read Casino Royale recently enough to remember it. And I was very impressed with it, and also impressed that the Daniel Craig movie followed the story so closely.

    The Ian Fleming Bond books fall in the same category as Agatha Christie novels. I know I read them when I was much younger but which ones I don't know, and the stories are entirely forgotten ... so I will enjoy reading them through also. I look forward to your review of Live and Let Die.

    Those images are wonderful.

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    1. If you'd asked me, I wouldn't have been able to tell you much about the Bond books, but once I started reading a lot came back to me, many scenes were familiar. I bet it would be the same for you.

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  6. I think that it's fair to say that Fleming had read very widely indeed in the adventure genre. There's one school of thought that he borrowed an awful lot from Dennis Wheatley's WWII secret agent Gregory Sallust (he and 007 are suspiciously similar), but the truth is that a lot of the early Bonds feel like Fleming's take on his favorite books. MOONRAKER is like a Bulldog Drummond, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is a Philip Marlowe story, and so on. One of the things that set Fleming apart was his background as a journalist. He wants to tell you what a place or a situation is like, but it's done very clearly and economically. It's part of why he still reads so well.

    Re-reading CASINO ROYALE recently I was struck by the fact that it basically about Bond screwing up really badly. He only lives to the end of the book thanks to a massive overdose of luck and he totally misreads the situation that he is in. The final chapter sees him kicking himself for being so stupid. It's a very strange way to introduce a cultural icon and fantasy hero.

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    1. That's a great analysis of the books. I have been reminded myself of Dennis Wheatley by a alter one. I love that idea that each can reflect a different writer, I'll look out for that. And yes, I am repeatedly reminded of how dim Bond is in the plots....

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  7. Great post -- not sure I want to read the book again, though. Love the pictures. By the way, your point about the present tense is not actually correct -- phrases containing the verbs ending in 'ing' are adverbial phrases, and thus the whole paragraph is still in the past tense.

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  8. I liked CASINO ROYALE but overall I think it's the weakest of the Bond books. Not surprising, being a first novel. Although as you say the casino scenes are very well done and quite gripping. LIVE AND LET DIE is a lot better. I'd rate DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER as the best of the lot.

    I agree with those who see Dennis Wheatley as a major influence on Fleming. He was also somewhat influenced by Sax Rohmer, especially in the matter of diabolical criminal masterminds with incredibly elaborate plans for world domination.

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  9. Thanks D for Doom - I am looking forward to reading the whole series. And I love all the helpful comparisons, they are so intriguing.

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  10. Moira, I'd like to think the Bond films have put me out of reading Fleming's work. It's more than two decades since I last read his paperbacks.

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    1. It would be great if you started reading them again, Prashant - I'd love to compare notes.

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