YOU don't have to be a James Bond fan -- indeed, you can hate Agent 007 -- and still get a kick out of Simon Winder's meditation-plus-memoir of his lifelong obsession with this woman-hating, sadistic, suavely alcoholic spy and his weird, snobbish, sexually self-punishing author, Ian Fleming.
I don't know when I last read a cultural history that had me laughing out loud on almost every page and yet stopped me cold with some dazzling, dead-on insight into postwar Britain and the effects of its post-colonial traumas on the Anglo-Saxon male psyche.
\o7 \f7\o7 \f7Winder calls Fleming's books "formulaic, dated, snobbish," but also brilliantly timed. Their cheerful sadism was a tonic to bruised male egos: His audience was almost entirely men of a certain generation who had been "battered and exhausted" by two blood-draining wars and by "losing" (in other words, having to transfer power to) 64 new nations that once had been owned and exploited by Britain.
British men, whether of the mandarin or working class, over the centuries had grown used to dominating what they viewed as lesser cultures, he writes. Now, \o7they\f7 were the lesser culture, vassals to American money and governed by a feeble, feckless, fox-hunting, Trollope-reading ruling class that had lost both its nerve and poise in adventures like the Suez Canal fiasco in 1956.
Fleming was born to that wealthy upper class but knew death, real and existential, firsthand. His father was killed on the western front in World War I, a brother and girlfriend died in World War II. In the careless prewar 1930s, Fleming had a wastrel youth of "imbecile levels of privilege,"\o7 \f7 then enjoyed himself in wartime naval counterintelligence, where he could freely indulge his taste for daring, Bond-like pranks, a tradecraft he was later to use and embellish in the 14 Bond books published from 1953 ("Casino Royale") to 1979 ("Octopussy").
Fleming couldn't stand semi-socialist, exhausted, postwar Britain. So, viciously bored with himself, he ground out most of his books like sausages from the luxurious distance of his Jamaican estate, Goldeneye. He loved scuba diving, spear fishing, relentless drinking and his first wife, Ann, a sort of upper-class Miss Moneypenny genetically modified into a Bond girl and with whom he played violent sex games.
"It is hard to exaggerate Ann Fleming's importance to the Bond books," Winder points out. "They were clearly written both at her urging and to impress her."\o7 \f7 Despite serving as her husband's muse, she called his books "pornography,"\o7 \f7 laughed at his stuffy, reactionary clubman's views and scampered off with less querulous lovers.
But, of course, now that few of us actually read Fleming, what we recall are the Bond movies, the second-highest grossing franchise in history after the "Star Wars" series. (They're starting all over again; a remake of "Casino Royale" is due in theaters today.)
Winder loves each of the 21 Bond movies, some more than others. Although he deplores many of them as tasteless, awful and disgustingly barbaric, he has been in thrall since age 10, when he first saw "Live and Let Die," which he calls "a mean-spirited and offensive shambles."\o7 \f7 Clearly, the films give him a deliciously guilty pleasure. He approvingly cites Ken Adam's sets, John Barry's scores, Maurice Binder's opening credit sequences (showing Bond at the end of a gun barrel) and even some of the performances, especially villains such as Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb in "From Russia With Love" (Winder's favorite). Alas, for Sean Connery-as-Bond admirers, he sniffily dismisses the Scotsman as a "horrible actor outside the narrowest of ranges,"\o7 \f7 noting that Fleming himself was appalled at the casting of that "Glaswegian truck driver."\o7 \f7 (Pffft, off with his head.)
The 3 3/4 Bond movies that Winder believes most worthy of our attention ("From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "Dr. No" and I'm not sure of the fourth) are "perfectly poised" as monuments to "a particular moment in British life." He claims to have seen his favorites at least 40 times and gets the same angst-ridden thrill today that he did as a boy when "Live and Let Die" opened the "Golden Doors of sex and death"\o7 \f7 for him. (I understand his obsession, because I watch Gary Busey movies over again whenever possible. There's no accounting for taste.)
The wonderful thing about Winder's book -- in real life, he's a perfectly sane, reputable history publisher -- is that if you fall under the spell of his knockabout, self-deprecating prose style, you may want to look again at (and who knows, enjoy?) the early Bond movies for what they offer and what they don't. Whether the same will be possible with Fleming's novels, which Winder favorably compares to William Golding and Kingsley Amis\o7 \f7 (I say!), is a matter for stronger stomachs.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and author, most recently of the memoir "A Woman of Uncertain Character."