Book Review

The Man With The Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters edited by Fergus Fleming

He always writes while others talk

Photo on 15-01-2017 at 22.37.jpg

The Man With The Golden Typewriter is an odd book, containing some of the surviving correspondence of James Bond creator, journalist and jetsetter Ian Fleming. Edited and annotated (at great and self-indulgent length) by Fergus Fleming (Ian’s nephew, apparently a published writer in his own right), the book just about scrapes out of the slush pile of unreadability due to the surprising revelation that Ian Fleming was – rather than merely passably charming – a cleverer, more compassionate and more astute man than I ever would have guessed.

Fergus bungles his nepotisticly gained editing role and presents the reader with a confusingly arranged and deeply unsatisfying collection, choosing to focus on letters that elucidate the identical annual process Ian used to compose every one of his Bond novels. Fergus – he very much implies – cast aside reams of text that could have given a big, rounded, unFlemingesque burst of characterisation to the thriller writer.

Ian appears, blurred, through the prism of these mostly businesslike letters, even though Fergus seemingly possessed all the materials needed to truly shine a light on an unexpectedly interesting individual.

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How does an editor ordinarily arrange a collection of letters?

There might seem to be an obvious answer: chronologically.

It is, however, also commonplace to encounter collections of correspondence that are organised by the individuals on either side of the letter (but then chronologically within that). In this format, the reader is presented with one or two sides of a conversation, with contextual detail often not required, especially if the two people were friends who rarely communicated in any way other than direct one-on-one letter.

Fergus – a born originator – chooses to arrange his uncle’s letters neither chronologically nor by correspondent, instead throwing all sense into the barrel of a golden gun and ordering the letters – thematically – by James Bond novel (plus three chapters themed by addressee). This is phenomenally unsatisfying.

We read through Fleming’s communications as they relate to his thrillers, with HUGE overlaps in time in every chapter. Fleming wrote the first draft of his novels in January/February, over at Goldeneye in Jamaica. During this time, he’d also be discussing the final aesthetic and marketing details of the book he’d written the year before. Every year, Fleming would be deeply into writing his next book before the previous one had been published. Due to his ever-growing fame, he’d often receive (and then respond to) laudatory or critical letters YEARS after the discussed book had been put out. In each chapter, Fergus includes letters written while Fleming was considering the plot of said novel, while he was writing it, while he was editing it, while he was marketing it and while he was – Ringo Starr-like – responding to fan mail for as long as it arrived. That means that each chapter covers almost up to a decade in time, with only about 12 years covered in total in the book.

Do you see the problem? EVERYTHING overlaps, and it’s fucking impossible to understand the development of personal and professional relationships in Ian’s life. Fergus does his absolute best to prevent us from seeing the writer, presuming that all a reader cares about is Bond. Which is offensive and confused: why would anyone read a volume of [what amounts to] literary autobiography if they wanted to read synopses of Bond novels? I picked up The Man With The Golden Typewriter because I wanted to learn about the personal and professional life of Ian Fleming. Thankfully, just about, I was able to do that, but not in a satisfying way. Fergus made it fucking difficult.

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Ian Fleming was a successful slebby guy in his mid-40s, in the early 1950s. He had a position on the editorial board of the Sunday Times, he ran a small publishing house, he was a journalist who’d worked within espionage during the war and who’d had successful runs in business. He was wealthy and accomplished, friend of celebrities and successful. But he wanted more: he wanted to be a writer. He – like Max Porter – used his connections within the industry to get his manuscript on the right desks, and once there he did everything he could to improve the book, sell the book and make mad stacks. Fleming cared about the minutiae of details within the text, he cared about the jacket design, he cared about where he was getting reviewed, where he was getting serialised and how many copies of the book were being printed. For the entirety of his literary career, he engaged with every aspect of the endeavour like a professional. He handed in the manuscripts on time, edited them how and when told to, he was bashful at times about his quality and he took criticism in the appropriate way (i.e. if it was fair and helpful, he’d respect that, if it was overzealous then not so much). Fleming knew which of his books were stronger than others, and the only times he wrote things like “I think this is the best I’ve done” were in relation to texts that were, yes, his most exciting. (I almost wrote “his literary pinnacles”, but then I remembered who I was writing about.)

The golden typewriter of the book’s title was a real one, a gift Fleming gave to himself as reward for finishing his first novel. This gaudy gesture typifies the man’s sense of humour, as well as his very trad kinda wealth. Fleming travelled the world – often, though not always, for work – and lived in numerous expensive-sounding houses in the South of England. He was friends with major literary figures of the time – Evelyn Waugh and W Somerset Maugham the most impressive, Raymond Chandler the most obvious, Noël Coward a longterm holiday home neighbour – as well as other celebrities whose names have not survived the passage of time so well. Fleming is engaged in the actual literary scene (as well as the trash, thriller, scene), and – as he ages – begins to tire of fiction.

Within the businesslike (repetition) letters Fergus has collated, we catch threads of Fleming’s oscillating marriage, his growing bond with his young son and his declining health. We see friendships expand (most notably with Raymond Chandler, William Plomer (Fleming’s reader at Jonathan Cape), Geoffrey Boothroyd (a Glaswegian gun expert who wrote to Fleming to critique a factual detail and ended up working on the Bond films) and Herman W. Liebert (a librarian at Yale who was disgusted by Fleming’s attempts at American English), and we see many friendly letters sent in response to reader’s comments.

The Man With The Golden Typewriter contains far too many asides from Fergus, too many uninteresting letters and an irritating over-focus on James Bond. Fleming was a real person, and I’d rather hoped this book would help me learn a fair amount about him. But I barely learnt more than I could’ve guessed.

A disappointing read and a cynical, pointless, publication. The touches of humanity that appear occasionally are intriguing, but Fergus doesn’t care about this and presumes his readers don’t either. Maybe all the rest of them don’t. Who knows?

Not recommended.

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