Friday, July 4, 2014

Seascape with Figures

Write Like Fleming Series #4

A cold-hearted killer who's nostalgic?

Yes. Surprisingly, yes.

Unlike the Bond you know from the movies, Fleming's Bond isn't just about martinis, girls, and guns. As the series goes on, he becomes a much more layered secret agent: jaded, melancholic, and most of all, nostalgic. And by God, it works.

For this, post 004 in the Write Like Fleming series, in which I delve into the writing style of one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, you'll get a window into how Fleming uses nostalgia to add richness to his main character.

We all feel nostalgic about the past. Facebook photo albums, yearbooks, our own memories of our childhood and how things used to be. The good old days, right? When things were much more simple, and we were much more innocent. Our nostalgia grows and deepens the older we get: the memories fade, some even gain an iconic or mythical place in our minds.

Bond is no different.

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" gives us a very different Bond than the one we're used to. He's an older Bond, who's been on many adventures, faced many an enemy, and often longs to hang up his Walther PPK and call it quits. Thoughts and feelings about his past — many of them fond memories — begin to creep into his present moments throughout the novel, as he sees and experiences things that remind him of them.

Right off the bat, in the opening chapter, titled "Seascape with Figures", we find Bond gazing out at a crowded beach in France, taking in every minute detail, and then immediately having a flashback to his childhood. Note the tone of Bond's nostalgic voice — he really does sound like he's lost in his memories:

It was one of those Septembers when it seemed that the summer would never end. 
The five-mile promenade of Royale-les-Eaux, backed by trim lawns emblazoned at intervals with tricolour beds of salvia, alyssum and lobelia, was bright with flags and, on the longest beach in the north of France, the gay bathing tents still marched prettily down to the tide-line in big, money-making battalions. Music, one of those lilting accordion waltzes, blared from the loudspeakers around the Olympic-size piscine and, from time to time, echoing above the music, a man’s voice announced over the public address system that Philippe Bertrand, aged seven, was looking for his mother, that Yolande Lefevre was waiting for her friends below the clock at the entrance, or that Madame Dufours was demanded on the telephone. From the beach, particularly from the neighbourhood of the three playground enclosures — ‘Joie’, ‘Helio’ and ‘Azur’ — came a twitter of children’s cries that waxed and waned with the thrill of their games and, farther out, on the firm sand left by the now distant sea, the shrill whistle of the physical-fitness instructor marshalled his teenagers through the last course of the day. 
It was one of those beautiful, na├»ve seaside panoramas for which the Brittany and Picardy beaches have provided the setting — and inspired their recorders, Boudin, Tissot, Monet — ever since the birth of plages and bains de mer more than a hundred years ago. 
To James Bond, sitting in one of the concrete shelters with his face to the setting sun, there was something poignant, ephemeral about it all. It reminded him almost too vividly of childhood — of the velvet feel of the hot powder sand, and the painful grit of wet sand between young toes when the time came for him to put his shoes and socks on, of the precious little pile of sea-shells and interesting wrack on the sill of his bedroom window (‘No, we’ll have to leave that behind, darling. It’ll dirty up your trunk!’), of the small crabs scuttling away from the nervous fingers groping beneath the seaweed in the rock-pools, of the swimming and swimming and swimming through the dancing waves — always in those days it seemed, lit with sunshine — and then the infuriating, inevitable ‘time to come out’. What a long time ago they were, those spade-and-bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and the Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and the fizzy lemonade!

But of course, Bond doesn't stay nostalgic forever. He's quick to pull himself out of his past, light a fire in the present moment, and remind himself of what he is and what he's doing. He's a spy, a cold-hearted killer, and he's here for a reason:

Impatiently Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today he was a grown-up, a man with years of dirty dangerous memories — a spy. He was not sitting in this concrete hideout to sentimentalize about a pack of scrubby, smelly children on a beach scattered with bottle-tops and lolly-sticks and fringed by a sea thick with sun-oil and putrid with the main drains of Royale. He was here, he had chosen to be here, to spy. To spy on a woman.

Later on, in a chapter called "Gran Turismo", Bond is making his yearly pilgrimage to Casino Royale, the site of one of his very first missions, and of course his face-off at the baccarat table with Le Chiffre. Bond once again waxes nostalgic, remembering that experience as if it was an epic battle:

James Bond idled through the pretty approaches to Royale, through the young beeches and the heavy-scented pines, looking forward to the evening and remembering his other annual pilgrimages to this place and, particularly, the great battle across the baize he had had with Le Chiffre so many years ago. He had come a long way since then, dodged many bullets and much death and loved many girls, but there had been a drama and a poignancy about that particular adventure that every year drew him back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said 'Vesper Lynd. RIP.' 
And now what was the place holding for him on this beautiful September evening? A big win? A painful loss? A beautiful girl — that beautiful girl?

Hell, even the film version of OHMSS feels nostalgic! Bond's previous adventures are hinted at and reflected on throughout, the title sequence features an hourglass, a clock, and images of Bond racing through time:

I generally use nostalgia as a way to deepen the characters in my books, add some richness to their past and their personality, and give us a window into the memories that've stayed with them all these years. Hey — if it works for a cold-hearted killer like Bond, it'll work for anybody!

The Write Like Fleming Series:
#1 - Reflections in a Double Bourbon
#2 - From a View to a Kill
#3 - Tension, Mr. Bond!
#4 - Seascape with Figures
#5 - Interview with M
#6 - Dead Duck!
#7 - The Great Morass