Kingsley's other Lucky Jim

December 15, 2006

It is little known that the unspinnable Amis rejoiced in the 007 genre, says Brian Morton

Nowadays, not even those involved in making James Bond movies balk at references to the series as a "franchise". A huge promotional apparatus involving everything from straightforward merchandising to carefully spun behind-the-scenes interviews and reviews of dubious impartiality has been put in place to protect one of the most lucrative marques in British culture. Less well known is the role of one of Britain's most acerbically unspinnable novelists in establishing the franchise and in pioneering serious critical study of the Bond books and other popular and generic forms. A new biography of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader, whose meticulous edition of the Amis letters is already a definitive source, touches on Amis's outwardly unlikely role in the evolving Bond mythology.

When Ian Fleming died in 1964, a company called Glidrose Productions secured permission to continue publishing stories using the character of James Bond. The plan was to commission work from a number of authors under the umbrella pseudonym of "Robert Markham". In the event, and with the exception of a couple of film "novelisations", Amis's Colonel Sun (1968) was the only Bond title published in this way until John Gardner (the English crime and spy writer rather than the more literary American author of The Sunlight Dialogues and The King's Indian ) published Licence Renewed in 1981, the first of 16 further "Bond" stories that included "novelisations" of Licence to Kill and GoldenEye , all also issued through Glidrose. The Fleming mantle then fell on Raymond Benson and on a couple of unauthorised "psychics" who claimed to be taking dictation from Bond's creator on the other side, though these last yielded spy tales that were unrewardingly flabby, short on detail and suspiciously devoid of sex.

Perhaps because Colonel Sun was not filmed - Amis was keen, but producer Harry Saltzman apparently vetoed the project because he was annoyed that Glidrose had rejected Per Fine Ounce , a Bond story he favoured - it has rarely been discussed as part of the Bond "canon". The plot, which features the kidnap of M and renegade Chinese elements, is well up to scratch.

Amis's treatment of sex, rarely explicit in his own books, is a little more adventurous here; the Greek setting - which may have influenced the scripting of For Your Eyes Only a dozen years later - is perfect for Bond; and the dialogue is crisp enough to be the real thing. Its interest, though, lies more in its place in Amis's development as a writer than in the evolution of a "franchise".

Amis - certainly the Amis of 1968 - might well have bridled at a distinction such as that between the English "popular" novelist John Gardner and the American "literary" novelist John Gardner (who were once nicely confused in the photo section of an influential collection of literary interviews). In the early 1960s, Amis had become disenchanted with realism as a literary procedure and had begun to explore elements of popular or generic fiction as a way of working out of the impasse. In due time, he would produce work that utilised elements of science fiction and fantasy (1976's The Alteration most obviously), detective fiction in The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), tales of the supernatural ( The Green Man in 1969) and Colonel Sun .

No less important, though, he had attempted to offer some theoretical underpinning to his creation of alternative world fiction with a critical survey of science fiction called New Maps of Hell , which Amis considered a pioneering work in the field. And he had provided a "serious" substructure for his later work on Bond by writing a critical study of the phenomenon.

In the event, The James Bond Dossier , which Amis published in 1965, isn't an entirely serious venture. Its obsession with apparatus - footnotes, detailed citations, fussy quantification of seductions and killings - is an obvious attempt to satirise the kind of academic writing that dismayed Amis while an English literature lecturer in Wales. But in a curious way its satire folds back on itself and provides a remarkably clear-sighted and objectively grounded approach to the Fleming novels. As Leader makes clear, Amis's attempt to psychoanalyse the plots as basic wish-fulfilment structures is perfectly sincere and squares with his own fictional compensations, so there is another strand of sincerity and authenticity - though he would certainly have hated the terms - in his approach to Bond.

He also nicely anticipates and heads off standard feminist objections to the character by totting up his sexual encounters and stating that the retired commander, now Double-0 secret agent, is no more of a libertine, especially when travelling abroad, than any averagely successful bachelor of reasonable good looks.

What Amis the novelist may have learnt from Fleming - or seen as a shared understanding in both their works - has something to do with that notorious detailing of brand names, but more to do with Amis's growing recognition that "style" and "form" are simply two more aspects of an approach to fiction that sublimates self-revelation in an alternation - very Fleming-like - of fantasy and deceptive candour. Amis seems to have been ahead of the (film) game in considering Bond's vulnerability as well as his strength, and he was certainly well ahead of the game in understanding the sexual politics of the stories.

The James Bond Dossier makes for slightly lumpy reading today, much as New Maps of Hell is hardly the most stimulating text about the cognitive displacements of science fiction, but it does claim some place in the opening up of critical discourse to include popular and generic forms as well as "literary" and canonical texts. Typically, Amis did his job with more bravura and often more intelligence than those who followed him. By sticking to quantifiable fact and an almost mythologically pure Freudian schema, he avoided the tired response that a critic is "reading too much into" what is in essence simple entertainment.

Amis revealed much of interest in the Fleming books and much of interest lying behind his own but. most important, he offered permission to apply certain critical skills more widely and entertainingly.

Brian Morton has taught at universities in the UK, Norway, Poland and France. His most recent book is Shostakovich: His Life and Music (Haus, 2006).

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