Benjamin's Reviews > Casino Royale

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
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May 20, 2012

bookshelves: audiobook

Before we get to Bond, let's talk about racism/sexism and other problems. Some of my favorite authors have terrible politics, like Lovecraft with his racism. Over the years, I've learned ways to deal with these problems:

(1) you can understand the works as historical artifacts, embedded in the worldviews of their time--even Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin leans on prejudices about blacks as primitive (they love music, wild dancing, bright colors), even while it works to make us realize that blacks are human beings capable of Christian salvation;

(2) you can read against the grain and see how the authors twist the story to fit their prejudices; this is both an issue of outright writing (in Ayn Rand, altruists and looters always meet bad ends) and of holes in the story's logic (Card's Ender is the most brilliant kid, but not brilliant enough to avoid hurting people);

(3) you can argue that the author isn't suffering from these prejudices but trying to point them out (which requires some larger knowledge of the author's works and possibly some appeal to their non-fiction);

or (4) you can acknowledge their bad politics and look for the parts of the work that you enjoy.

Which brings us to Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, and a pretty fair example of a book with questionable politics. Since the movie with Daniel Craig was so popular, I'll just assume that you know the basic plot: Bond goes to play high-stakes baccarat in order to bankrupt the enemy treasurer, who has no compunction about torturing Bond to get his money back. (In the movie, the enemy Le Chiffre is banker to terrorists and warlords; in the novel, he's a servant of the USSR. Also, in the novel, he's potentially Jewish, which raises some red flags when it comes to descriptions of his sexual perversion and interest in money, standard anti-Semitic tropes.)

In the book, James Bond's favorite word is "bitch." When his French intelligence counterpart, Mathis, tells Bond that he's been assigned a woman as partner, Bond exclaims "Bitch" while the music is still playing loudly so that the spies upstairs cannot hear. Then, when the music ends, Bond says it again for their benefit. Which nicely shows that both in Bond's cover as a wealthy playboy and in his reality as government functionary, women are bitches simply because they're women.

Is Fleming allowing Bond to show his misogyny as a way to condemn that misogyny? Or is Bond an expression of Fleming? Since this is my first Bond novel, I can't say. But it does make reading this book occasionally trying in a way that the contemporary movies aren't.

That is, I really enjoyed the film with Daniel Craig, in large part because it seemed self-conscious about what a cracked individual Bond is and how close this sort of hypermasculine world is to tipping over into homosexual porn. Instead of the classic Bond girl, the Daniel Craig film makes Bond one of the primary objects of consumption, fiercely embodied less as adoration than as vulnerability. This is straight from the book, where we hear about how Bond is tied naked to a chair and tortured directly on his manhood. It's not accident that Le Chiffre pulls Bond's head back during torture in the same way that Bond pulls back the head of his sexual partner--or rather, it probably is an accident on Fleming's part, but it's a slip that tells us a lot about the collocation of torture and sex. As Bond's comrades have told him, the height of torture is hard to distinguish from the height of sexual pleasure.

This is one of those moments where reading against the grain comes in handy: Bond is presented as a man's man--he knows how to sleep with women, how to bet, how to drink--but there's a double meaning to "man's man" that tells us something about Bond that the text doesn't want to tell us. He's kinda gay.

The there are those moments where it seems easiest to read Casino Royale as an artifact of its social milieu: when Bond itemizes his fellow gamblers and notes how Italians are passionate and "Asiatics" are not good gamblers--not even the Chinese who are known for their boldness--it's easy to see that as the British club mindset. In the 50s, Bond fights Communists, but 50 years earlier, he'd be fighting colonized people all over the world.

But there are some elements that surpass historical position and that don't offer much purchase for deconstructive reading against the grain. And these are the moments that, I think, can only be acknowledged and marveled at. In Casino Royale, there is such a moment. When Bond, inveterate misogynist, finds himself falling for his partner Vesper Lynd, Bond looks forward to the consensual sex that they are moving towards: "the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.”

I don't really know what to do with that sentence other than marvel at it. Is it a sincere expression of a human mind (Fleming's)? Is it an ironic way to condemn the misogyny of Bond? Is it a reminder that sex and violence are inextricably linked in Bond's world? Is it an unforgivable sentence?
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