Thursday, October 22, 2015

Are Ian Fleming's Novels Midcult?

Umberto Eco, while favorably disposed toward Fleming, specifically used that label in reference to him in his classic essay, "Narrative Structures in Fleming."

Eco gets an awful lot right in his essay. I was particularly impressed with his analysis of Fleming's narrative mode--the "aimless glance" aspect of it--which helped me understand why I found his books so surprisingly difficult when I first encountered them.

However, on this point I have to disagree--and the disagreement seems to me the more worth examining because the (I think erroneous) labeling of Fleming Midcult is an example of a major weakness of Dwight Macdonald's analysis.

Certainly Fleming's stated intentions were not of a Midcult kind. He identified himself as a writer of thrillers designed to be read as literature. Granted, the phrasing can sound Midcult-ish, but Fleming specifically named as examples of the kind of thing he had in mind Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler--each writer, a genuine artist by any standard.

Of course, few would credit Fleming with being as good as they were. Certainly he is not so gripping as Hammett at his best. (Certainly nothing he wrote ever had the intensity of Red Harvest--especially when he wrote American gangsters.) He is never so funny or so poignant as Ambler or Greene (From Russia with Love no Mask of Dimitrios, or for that matter, Our Man in Havana). He is a long way from being as stylish as Chandler (while, for that matter, Bond's cynicism has nothing on Philip Marlowe's).

Still, if it appears that he "makes use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal" it is not because he is not endeavoring to make art. Indeed, self-expression, engagement, technical aspiration are all there--too much of them, as far as I was concerned when I first picked up Thunderball all those years ago. Instead the issue is that the vision of life out of which he sought to make art was inadequate. While not completely without a sense of irony or an eye for nuance (rather more than many a thriller writer, in fact), Fleming took the orthodoxies of his time and place almost completely for granted, giving him a less than critical stance toward the complex matters he so often touched on--so that Bond's getting philosophical tends to lead to drivel like his musings about good and evil in Casino Royale, easily enough dismissed by the last page. The writers he admired did not have that particular problem, and Greene especially makes the point not just in the example of his career, but his explicit declaration of "The Virtue of Disloyalty."1 But that is the difference not between art and the pseudo-art of Midcult, but great art and mediocre art, which is art all the same.

1. Indeed, one is struck by the fact that this rather old-fashioned Tory's literary heroes and models were just about all men of the left.

My Posts on Ian Fleming's Novels
10/22/15
Making Sense of Midcult
10/21/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

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