Wednesday, 14 November 2012

H.R.F. Keating on the James Bond Novels

In the documentary The Truth about Len Deighton broadcast on BBC Four in the UK in January 2006 the novelist and critic H.R.F. Keating, the author of the Inspector Ghote books about an Indian detective said the following about the range of spy fiction:
‘The spy story can vary enormously. It can be at one low pole, if you like, Ian Fleming, writing to get himself readers and get himself money. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s true. And at the other extreme is Len Deighton, using the spy story to say things about people and about the world in just the way that Graham Greene used the spy story for that. In Conrad – very happy to use the spy story to penetrate into people and their motives and why they do extraordinary and absurd things and Len is with them all along.’
Now, I have no doubt that what Keating is saying about Deighton is completely accurate. Deighton does not write mere ‘kiss kiss bang bang’ spy thrillers, but I think he is being a little unfair in his assessment of Ian Fleming, who always seems to be so undervalued as a ‘popular’ spy novelist.
Let us not forget that it was HRF Keating himself who acted as the go-between for Glidrose in 1980 when John Gardner was asked to be the continuation James Bond author. From John Gardner’s site:
‘In the autumn of 1980 I was living in the Republic of Ireland: about two miles outside Wicklow town. There, on a glorious morning when the leaves were turning to red and gold, I received a letter from HRF Keating, the author of those wonderful Inspector Ghote books. In fact I did not recognise his handwriting so I put it into the pile I usually held back until my lunch break: the letters I thought were either love or hate mail. When I finally opened the envelope – Basildon Bond notepaper – I found that Harry Keating was acting as a go-between for Glidrose, the literary copyright holders in the James Bond books. They were sounding me out: would I consider writing a continuation James Bond novel?’
Perhaps some of Keating’s view of Fleming’s Bond novels comes from the article Ian Fleming wrote in 1962 entitled How To Write A Thriller,
‘I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. My books are not “engaged”. I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes or beds.’
Fleming continues he once asked an ‘angry young’ writer ‘of renown’ ‘how he described himself on his passport’:
“I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists and then again there are writers and painters.”
This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, while stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman from the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.
I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “Thrillers designed to be read as literature”, the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.’
Perhaps Fleming here is being a little too modest, polite and admirably unpretentious, as Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier (1965) points out in pages 140-1 in the 1966 Pan paperback version:
If Mr. Fleming had wanted the Bond books to be read as literature (a big ‘if’, I would bet), he certainly went about it the wrong way. To begin with, he shouldn’t have behaved as unpretentiously, even flippantly, as he did when interviewed.
‘My books tremble on the brink of corn.’
‘I have a rule of never looking back. Otherwise I’d wonder, “How could I write such piffle?”‘
‘[I am concerned in] the business of getting intelligent, uninhabited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes and beds, to turn over the page.’
That’s no way to go on. Mr Fleming seemed never to have heard of the most elementary maxim of the writer’s trade, People take you at your own valuation. If you tell them you’re a genius, or a mere entertainer, they’ll tell one another you’re a genius or a mere entertainer. The remedy was plain to see and not onerous. A few public statements with every other sentence beginning, ‘As a writer I…,’ a couple of articles explaining that the lot of 007 allegorized the lot of Western man, the Secret Service symbolized the contemporary consciousness, and critical esteem would have gone shooting up.’
And at p. 142 Amis continues,
‘That huge virtue of never stooping to pretentiousness, of never going in for any kind of arty or symbolic flannel, has cost Mr Fleming a formidable amount of critical acclaim, but it’s done as much as anything to bring him readers. Whatever the rights and wrongs of using literature as escape from life, there’s a lot to be said for using one kind of literature as escape from others.’

TBB Article No. 18

 © Brian McKaig, 2006.


  1. Maybe Fleming was following the logic that if you play yourself (and your efforts) down you're at least beating someone else to it! Maybe - if repeated too often - it tends to backfire. Difficult to say, of course.
    Also, not sure if this accurate impression, but esteem for Fleming's work seems to have increased in recent decades. (If anything, due to the longevity of the book and film series.) Perhaps you have some additional thoughts here, Brian?

  2. Yes, well I wrote this article on CBn in February 2006, beforee the Fleming revival of 2008 Centenary Year. I think that his critical stock has went p enormously in the years since then, by all means. I hope to contribute to this with loads more articles on The Bondologist Blog in the 2013-2014 period. Watch this blogspace for more details, plus see my newly revised and finalised topic list.

  3. Rather prescient of you to write this article in the year that would see the release of Eon's Casino Royale, a film that I'm sure (well, pretty sure) raised Fleming's critical stock, or at the very least, brought about renewed interest in his writing.
    Looking forward to any new articles you present!