Book Review

Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

i shouldn't have read this, but I did

bing bang bong sploosh

I shouldn’t be reading more mediocre fiction by dead white men. I know I shouldn’t be.

I shouldn’t be wasting any of my time consuming the prose of a man who was known to be quite the prick who raised a son – still alive – who is also known to be quite the prick.

I shouldn’t be giving my readerly attention or my critical attention to this book, Colonel Sun, the James Bond novel that Kingsley Amis (who may or may not have rewritten the bulk of [what is usually described as] Ian Fleming’s final Bond novel, The Man With The Golden Gun) published under the pseudonym Robert Markham in 1968. This was the first James Bond novel not written by the series’ creator, Ian Fleming, but was instead written by an academic slash popular novelist who was a friend of Fleming’s and a “fan” of the novels. This is a picture of Kingsley Amis posing as James Bond:

Image result for kingsley amis james bond

One doesn’t get the impression, reading Colonel Sun, that Amis had much experience of espionage, or of politics generally. The threat that the narrative is centred on is poorly explained and contains a few too many distracting details. There is an attempt, perhaps, at making the novel more grounded in reality than Fleming’s last few had been, however in Amis’ attempts to detoxify the idea of Russia he doesn’t do anything original or progressive. Where Fleming invented and – at least attempted to – develop a nemesis to James Bond in Ernst Stavros Blofeld (a world citizen with evil and power and profits his dastardly aim) Amis instead vilifies a fresh nation state, this time China.

So, while Russian spies exist within Colonel Sun and some are portrayed as incompetent (there’s a bit of homophobia i.e. equating homosexuality with paedophilia), others are portrayed – especially at the novel’s end and in a section in the middle – as equals to Bond and M: honourable men, trying to do the best they can. The “traditional” enemy has become a kinda buddy-rival type: there is no Felix Leiter, no American presence at all here, Russia takes that role. Bond seduces a KGB-affiliated spy and the two of them team up to fight China, however in Colonel Sun this isn’t grounds for her dismissal, but she ends the novel with a promotion on the cards: old battle lines have changed, and the Russians and the English seem willing, here, to accept that.

While enemy nation states may be more realistic adverseries than overcomplicated international networks of criminals (see also the highly disappointing 2015 Sam Mendes-directed Bond film, Spectre), nation states never seek to create “chaos”. The threat within Colonel Sun is that China plans to blow up a secret meeting arranged by the KGB between Russian, North African and Middle Eastern governments. They will blame this attack on the British by kidnapping M and James Bond, torturing them, then leaving them dead from injuries consistent with the impression that they blew themselves up by mistake. The problems with this don’t just begin and end with the fact that the head of the British Secret Service wouldn’t be on hand playing with bombs as part of a major assassination operation, but continue into the fact that the absolute sloppiness of the villains – despite stated professionalism, clear ruthlessness and a commitment to planning – problematises their entire identity. If Colonel Sun, the eponymous villain, is as much a master of evil as he is stated to be, he would not make many of the decisions that he makes. The novel doesn’t hold to its own logic: Amis tells us a character is clever and then shows us that he’s a moron. The joke in this isn’t on the overconfident pantomime villain, but instead on the boorish writer. Too much of the plot also revolves around Bond being so fucking gorgeous that mere moments of interaction with him turns the women hired to kidnap or torture him into significant and essential allies. This happens twice in Colonel Sun. Once would have been too many times

In Fleming’s novels, known for their conservatism-

///

I started writing this over a week ago. And I haven’t been able to write any more since. And now I I have little impetus to do so, I’m avoiding finishing the next book that I’ve almost finished reading and I’m panicking panicking panicking that maybe I don’t even want to be like blogging about every book I read any more and if I stop doing this even what am I who am I?

I’ve had a strange week.

Some sad, serious, things happened: nothing unexpected or otherwise unpredictable, but still sad things to live through, witnessing and watching the inevitable benchmarks of continual decline in multiple other humans. I’m good, I suppose. Loads of good stuff is happening to me. I’m getting closer and closer to my brexodus, I’m planning and actively making a future that I want, but I’m balanced and happy enough to see and know better than before where the limits of life are. And they’re hard to see, I suppose. It is also hard to decide the worth of acts that I would naturally think of as charitable. Sometimes doing “the right thing” is the wrong thing for the person doing them. Sometimes helping people doesn’t help them, sometimes doing things for people traps them, traps you. I realise this is basically the right wing thinking behind the dismantling of the welfare state etc, and I think a lot of that comes from an attempt to justify a callousness, a carelessness. Lots of people do not like to share, do not like to give their money or their time or their attention to any other people. “I don’t want to do this,” we say, “So why should I?” And we then say things like “if we help other people, they will expect to be helped.” And no, I don’t think it’s legitimate to generalise on this opinion across the whole of society, but there are people – adults – who this does apply to. I don’t think me trying to help someone who needs it and

and

and

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I’m fragmenting here, today. My typing is all over the place, this has gone on too long. I need to move on from this post and work out what it is this blog must become. I haven’t been reading enough. I haven’t been spending enough time alone. I haven’t been getting much leisure time, I’ve been working hard but at things that are very unremunerative, which is frustrating, even though it’s essential. Argh. I’m confused.

///

My friend who also reads old Bond novels recently took Colonel Sun with him on a holiday and said it was shit. He hated it. I enjoyed this novel more than all of the shit Bond continuation novels I’ve read, and more than most of the Roger Moore films, like. I don’t really need to give much more attention to this. Colonel Sun makes attempts to develop global relationships and ideas of political change, but it fails because Amis doesn’t really have the instincts or the abilities to evoke a fictionalised new world order with much aplomb. He may have been a gifted critic, but this is a novel that writes about James Bond as a terrible lover (there are “no preliminaries”, Bond ejaculates very quickly then falls asleep) and centres on a pisspoor attempt at creating villainy. My friend’s main complaint was the lack of variety, of locations not changing enough. I thought, in opposition to my buddy, that Amis actually writes description of setting relatively well, and his evocation of Greek islands felt pretty real. What fell apart, though, was the description of malice, the creation of believable threat.

When the books and films in the Bond franchise work best, it is when they’re exciting, it is when the “goodies” are in danger, it is when the villains do know more than the reader, do know more than the hero, and these books and films are basically irredeemable when the plot doesn’t work. The characters are neither likeable nor complex enough to engage with and the text itself isn’t even intending to be poetic, so if the story isn’t gripping/fun/exciting, all the reader is left with is a handful of fun descriptions of general decadence. BUT there are LOADS of descriptions of food, travel and booze that are as good as or better than those found in the James Bond franchise, and in terms of sex writing… Not only is sex written consistently unsexily in these books, but it’s also surrounded by patriarchal, homophobic, racist, elitist language, dialogue and narratives that are pointless to ignore unless the reader is having such a good time they can close their ears to it. In Colonel Sun, I was not thrilled, I was not entertained, I was not excited. And why would anyone put up with the bullshit of Bond if they weren’t being thoroughly, thoroughly entertained?

Few thrillers have entertained me more than the most exciting Bond books and films, but when they’re crap, they’re fucking atrocious and unforgivable. Like when the drugs fade for a moment at a rave and you’re just like “Woah woah woah, this is just a dark dirty room with flashing lights and repetitive electronic noises, how was I having the time of my life a minute ago?”, reading Colonel Sun makes a[n otherwise] non-dickhead Bond fan remember why most of their friends don’t engage with Bond. But OOOHHH those thrills.

I remember From Russia With Love, I remember Skyfall, I remember Goldeneye and Casino Royale and Live and Let Die and Goldfinger and Dr No and I know that, yes, when my heart isn’t pumping the idea of peering into these books and films isn’t how I want to see myself, but those moments of Bond ecstasy are some of the best literary memories of my life. I know I shouldn’t indulge the urge, but I know I’ll read Fleming again, much as I know that I shouldn’t – but probably will – go raving again at some point. Tbh, I’m uncertain about both, but reading a Bond book is definitely more likely than raving. I think that means I am no longer young.

Meh. At least I’m no longer depressed…

Colonel Sun is a bad novel.

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3 comments on “Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

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