Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Last month I was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale by my younger brother, who had received it as part of World Book Night 2013. The first and last Bond novel I read was Dr No, when I was about twelve. I didn’t much like it because it seemed pretty tame by modern standards, and I didn’t like the style. I was interested to see how I’d get on with this novel.

Casino Royale was the first of Fleming’s Bond novels, and he wrote it in February 1952 as a way of distracting himself as he waited for his wife to give birth. He called it his “dreadful oafish opus”. In its final draft stages , Fleming allowed his novelist friend William Plomer to see a copy. Plomer remarked “so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent”. An ex-girlfriend advised him to publish it under a pseudonym. It was his travel-writer brother Peter who managed to persuade his own publisher, Jonathan Cape, to publish it after an initial reluctance.

So those are the frank remarks about the novel from author and friends. What did I make of it? I can only say that the style of English must have been going out of fashion even at that time – it’s very much of Fleming’s birth-year and class (Edwardian and upper-class). Language does change over time, but one can’t help laugh at That night she made a special effort to be gay and “I do so want to be gay. And I am gay.”  It’s terribly unfair of me to get cheap laughs from what were then standard lines (my father once told me my grandmother used to buy racy romance novels with titles such as The Vicar Goes Gay with Mrs Smith. The term ‘go gay’, meant ‘to have an affair’ in this context.) but that’s me. I can even refer you to this graph to show you that the word was in decline at the time:

However, even allowing for the standards of the time, this is either a badly-written novel, or one that has been edited sloppily. Words are repeated unnecessarily within paragraphs, and in the space of 20 pages the word ‘ironical’ sticks its ugly mug into sentences where it simply had no business to be in an English novel of that era.

This is also Fleming fleshing out Bond’s character and exploring his internal state as he experiences the world. He was meant to be much more of an anti-hero than his depiction in films. I wonder whether the following sentence is of its time, or whether it is intended to portray Bond as the ‘brief, unromantic Anglo-Saxon’ of Fleming’s imagination:

And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would have the sweet tang of rape.

I suspect a bit of both.

I’d agree with Plomer’s opinion that there’s no suspense at all. It’s often been mentioned that the Bond idea owed its success to the fact that it was an escape for a population living in an era of post-war austerity. The descriptions of sumptuous meals, high-rolling lifestyle and tropical locations were as much of the appeal as the sex and adventure. The key test for any work is whether, once the historical context has been stripped away, it stands up as a good story. I don’t think Casino Royale does, but like millions of other movie-goers, I’m grateful for the entertainment franchise Fleming created.

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