BOOK (1960)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2008, 12:00am

Quantum of Solace

Ian Fleming


What makes 'classic' literature? A century's maturation in the cellars of public approval? Technical wizardry sprinkled throughout an author's carpentry? Or merely publishers' guile in identifying an opportunity - in this case one of commercialism's most lucrative - to hitch sales to the incredible hulk of Hollywood?

Expediently, Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories, now finds itself a member of Penguin's venerable Modern Classics series. And while Dickens or Tolstoy might sniff at the upstart Ian Fleming's promotion to their brotherhood, the eponymous composition, perhaps cynically elevated here above erstwhile more widely known Bond works - 'classic' or otherwise, and most published in the first 1960 Bond anthology - does at least illuminate that mysterious movie title. But that is cynically to neglect the craftsmanship of a writer who knew little of his hero's transformation into cultural deity.

Among this nine-nugget collection can also be found From a View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, all exhibiting scant relation to the films they became. The occasional dated reference aside, it is difficult not to imagine Daniel Craig as the polished but imperfect protagonist of each story, demonstrating the timelessness of Fleming's vision, however trite it might sometimes seem. The boy's-own, derring-do spirit rapidly manifests itself through the predictable but still electrifying narrative props of fast cars, faster speedboats, shoot-outs and scuba-dives - and in the stealthy pursuit of the latest essential filly.

Public school and British intelligence alumnus Fleming, the world traveller urbane to the tip of his cigarette holder, is strong on setting, effortlessly summoning the stench of Gauloise, the tang of the Indian Ocean and the chaos of high-season Venice. Nor are his music-hall villains, hissing 'Meester Bond' and repulsive in their obesity or gaucheness, so two-dimensional as to be simply decorative plot devices.

But timelessness? Agreed, you can't keep an incorrigible sexist down and Fleming betrays an archaeological ethos in, for example, Bond's dismissal of a fellow agent with: 'Now, be a good girl and do as you're told,' and when an expert trekker lethal with bow and arrow becomes docile at Bond's touch, her eyes suddenly 'soft and obedient'.

Facing down danger and trawling for thrills will always appeal to a certain type of man and the woman with a weakness for him. So perhaps when approaching Fleming we should remember that he was writing at a time when gallantry wasn't anachronistic and men still had something between their legs and were not ashamed to admit it. Any objections, ladies?