Ian Fleming biography by Nicholas Shakespeare



  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent

    More reviews have been posted, by the Guardian and the Literary Review.

  • The Domino EffectThe Domino Effect Posts: 3,632MI6 Agent

    Someone close to the real story who read a review copy told me that anyone who has read all of the previous biographies will enjoy this, whilst anyone who has not read any previous book on Fleming will be somewhat bewildered. It is a massive tome and whilst it may contain more of everything than any previous effort, I remain unconvinced that it is properly the definitive work on Fleming. It's certainly the most expansive, but I have a gut feeling (and just a gut feeling as I have not read it yet), but based on comments and reviews I have read, it sounds as though it could have done with a bit of distilling and some discernment rather than just putting absolutely everything that the author came across in it. We shall see. It's definitely exhaustive, however.

    All of that said, I am eagerly awaiting receiving it and am busily clearing my bedside stack of "books to be read" in time for its arrival! Roll on Thursday!

  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent
    edited October 2023

    Bizarrely, the book won't be published in America until March 12, 2024! I have no idea why. But the British version is being released Oct. 5 (this Thursday) and my fellow Americans can buy it from international booksellers like Blackwells, or search Abebooks and Ebay. I just ordered a copy from Blackwells, which is currently selling the book for a good price and offers free trans-Atlantic shipping.

  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent

    More reviews are in, this time from The New Statesman and The Spectator.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,703MI6 Agent

    I've just received my copy of this tome in the post today and I've been having a quick flick through. I was looking at the Bibliography and under "SELECTED ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS" I was glad to see two of the esteemed @Revelator's threads being cited, one here at AJB and one at MI6 Community:

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 3,978MI6 Agent

    woah, I like it! @Revelator 's hard work hits the big time!

    hopefully next IFP will be hiring Rev to edit that mass-market book of Fleming Rarities we've all been waiting for.

  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent

    Ha! Well, I'll be damned! Now I'm having doubts about this book... (just kidding!).

    I certainly would love to edit a mass-market book of Fleming rarities. Regardless of my chances with that, I have plans, once the novels go into public domain, of writing a critical commentary on them.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,703MI6 Agent

    I'm looking forward to your future Bond book, @Revelator. From what I can see this new biography doesn't seem to go into as much detail on the individual Bond novels themselves as Lycett's biography did.

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,319MI6 Agent

    That's a head's up for AJB's out-reach also - well done @Revelator ! 😁

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,703MI6 Agent

    Yes, it's nice to see @Revelator and AJB get some recognition in an official Ian Fleming biography like this. 🙂

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • The Domino EffectThe Domino Effect Posts: 3,632MI6 Agent

    Messums have signed copies and I can attest that their customer service is excellent:

    BOOK LAUNCH: Ian Fleming 'The Complete Man' : Messums Wiltshire

  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent
    edited November 2023

    A couple more reviews trickled in while I was on vacation...

    After a lengthy summary of Fleming's life The Economist concludes:

    Though there have been at least seven other books written about Fleming, Mr Shakespeare’s is likely to be remembered as definitive, though overlong. What he does not do is make Fleming likeable. Despite Fleming’s patriotism and notable contributions to Britain’s war effort, the picture Mr Shakespeare draws is of an entitled, selfish misogynist.

    Some think the same could be said of Bond as Fleming wrote him. Many people believe that the books, with what one contemporary critic decried as their “sex, snobbery and sadism”, are skilfully crafted but feel very much of their time—and not in a good way. They consider the films, updated to reflect the tastes of their day, to be rather better, in one of those rare occasions where the films outshine the books they are based on. Fortunately for Fleming’s fragile ego, he will never know.

    Fortunately The Economist's critics are anonymous. I hardly need to point out that plenty of Bond films are "very much of their time—and not in a good way."

    The review from the Financial Times is considerably more intelligent and pairs Shakespeare's biography with a recent one of John Le Carré. Some excerpts:

    Ian Fleming: patrician fantasist who peddled macho derring-do and empire nostalgia to the sensation-hungry masses of the cold war era. John le Carré: upright “secular saint” who unsparingly dissected the shabby hypocrisies of his former trade, his reality-averse nation, and the post-1945 global order. Between them, the hedonist and the moralist defined not just the poles of spy fiction but rival visions of Britishness. But, whatever the appeal of the Bond franchise in print and, overwhelmingly, on screen, a critical consensus still sends the latter writer’s reputation to the heights, the former’s to the floor.

    These very different books — one a definitive biography that deepens and reshapes previous versions of Fleming’s life, the other a brief “secret annexe” to Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography that discloses details of his subject’s extramarital affairs — put that accepted wisdom to the test. A literary chasm still yawns between le Carré’s best work, in classics such as A Perfect Spy, and Fleming’s “efficient, spare, masculine, austere” prose.

    As for the men behind the icons, Sisman paints Cornwell not just as a serial adulterer but a chilly manipulator who, one lover wrote, “goes around being other people’s missing halves . . . then slips away”. Shakespeare’s Fleming, though, emerges as “capable of being sympathetic, funny, vital, humane”. A former mistress met him before he died (at 56, in 1964) and readily recalled “the good, fine, courageous and generous things in his character”.

    Both spy writers cultivated their genre patch as a field of national dreams. Shakespeare quotes a former head of MI6 who lauds the “reputational, myth-building” value of 007. Even le Carré’s downbeat work, according to another spy chief, “gave us another couple of generations of being in some way special”. Gung-ho Bond and conscience-stricken Smiley alike did their bit for British espionage exceptionalism.

    However, a gulf divides the real-world records of both men. Cornwell, son of a shameless but plausible criminal conman, achieved respectability as an Eton teacher before passing an “uneventful” few years as an MI6 officer in Bonn; in 1963, his third novel The Spy Who Came In from the Cold launched his full-time authorial career. To Sisman, his mania for applying the rigmarole of the trade — cut-outs, dead-letter drops and so on — to his affairs rescued this “very minor” agent’s self-image as a master of deception, with adultery “an ersatz form of spycraft”. The victims, though, were not KGB killers but Cornwell’s wives, Ann and Jane.

    In contrast, Fleming, the feckless child of privilege, now looks like the real secret-service deal. In Shakespeare’s biography, light-footed and swift-moving despite its copious research, only on page 453 does the subject sit down in February 1952 at his Jamaican home to type the first page of Casino Royale. His writer’s life lasted a dozen years. From 1939 to 1945, however, the effective deputy to the chief of naval intelligence had acted as what his boss, Admiral John Godfrey, called a “war-winner”.

    Shredded documents and service omertà mean that Shakespeare views various incidents through “frosted partitions”. He still stacks up enough evidence to illustrate Fleming at work as a “proxy spy chief”. Fleming was never Bond. Neither was he a paper-shuffling Admiralty drone. Think of him as an assistant “M”, in Whitehall and in the field, plotting to spirit Belgium’s gold reserves from Nazi-besieged Bordeaux or to seize German cipher machines.

    ...Shakespeare’s Fleming rises from these richly textured pages as a more substantial and sympathetic figure than the preening snob of myth. Whereas Sisman’s appendix to his own full-dress life can only tarnish Cornwell/le Carré’s name, with its forensic chronicle of “dishonesty, evasion and lying, for decade after decade”...Fleming the bedroom buccaneer seems a model of transparent lust compared with Cornwell’s creepy recruitment of female friends, fans and colleagues into his labyrinthine games of deceit.

  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 589MI6 Agent

    Three more reviews, and probably the last we can expect until the American publication date.

    The Telegraph gives Shakespeare four out of five stars:

    ...In Fleming’s novel From Russia, with Love, a strategically placed Eric Ambler book prevents an assassin’s bullet from entering Bond’s heart. With a copy of Shakespeare’s biography, 007 could have stopped a cannonball: its size indicates an ambition to become the definitive Life. Yet it doesn’t offer a radically different portrait from those of Fleming’s previous biographers, John Pearson and Andrew Lycett.

    That said, it’s a richer reading experience, written with Fleming-esque brio and insouciance, with a feeling for the tragic aspects of his life as well as the ironic comedy of it. The amount of new testimony Shakespeare has truffled up about a man nearly 60 years dead is dizzying; he has secured fruitful interviews with the often tight-lipped Fleming family...everybody Shakespeare speaks to who knew him well adored him.

    ...[Shakespeare] quotes much praise for Fleming’s books from the likes of Betjeman and Larkin, but conveys little sense of really enjoying them himself, and offers surprisingly little detailed analysis of them. Still, his enthusiasm for Fleming the man, if not Fleming the author, has been sufficient to produce a book so buoyant and delicious that you feel it will be a friend for life.

    Max Hastings, who'd reviewed the book for the Sunday Times, revisits it for the Washington Post, in an article titled "Did James Bond Have a License to…Globalize?":

    ...Ever since the first Bond book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, intellectuals — including Fleming’s own wife — have derided them. Yet I would argue that the books have real quality; that the author was a remarkably gifted storyteller who deserved his global triumph, though he died too soon — aged only 56, in 1964 — to enjoy much of the cash from them.

    ...In 2009, a pair of American academics, David C. Earnest and James N. Rosenau, made the case that Fleming, through the Bond stories, anticipated globalization and the rise of villainous nonstate actors such as Osama bin Laden and the Colombian drug cartels as threats to Western society: “These groups thrive by exploiting the inability of states to cooperate and maintain control of translational technological, financial, commercial and migratory flows.”

    ...The keys to the triumph of the original books —achieved only progressively, as into the early 1960s each new hit fired readers to backtrack to earlier titles — were, first, that Fleming was an exceptionally gifted descriptive writer. His accounts of 1950s New York, Miami, Las Vegas; of grey and grim Moscow; of smoggy London and exotic Istanbul, are masterpieces of travelogue.

    But more important even than the word-portraits is Fleming’s ability to make us believe absolutely in his own preposterous plots and villains. Putting the book down, we realize that it is an absurd notion that an ex-SS Nazi fanatic, Sir Hugo Drax, could have been authorized to construct a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile in Kent with the aid of 50 other impenitent Hitler fans, which Drax intends to fire at London. That was Moonraker.

    No sane person could credit that Auric Goldfinger recruits a private army of American gangsters to pillage Fort Knox with the connivance of Moscow. But Fleming did. Even in 1955, it was a tad politically incorrect to conceive a black super-criminal operating out of Harlem with an army of voodoo acolytes, looting Jamaican treasure and doing favors for the Kremlin. But that was Live and Let Die.

    ...The worse things get in the real world — the world of ravaged Ukraine, artificial intelligence and climate change — the more we crave the impeccably tuxedoed Bond in his vintage Bentley to solve everything for us. Rationally, we know that we ain’t going to get him. But we are allowed to dream, as did Fleming himself, in ways that continue to give us thrills seven decades on.

    Robert McCrum, who had written positively about Fleming during his stint as the Guardian's book critic, has good things to say about Shakespeare in The Independent:

    Apart from its length (more than 800 pages), this biography, which cheekily declares its subject “the complete man”, would have pleased Ian Fleming, a master of ruthless brevity and peerless storytelling. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is a sustained and engrossing homage to the Olympic icon of a beleaguered Britain, and a writer damned to fame. With scarcely a dull page, it’s a chip off the old block.

    ...Follow this self-centred bounder whom nobody quite understands, and you’ll find that to some he’s “a real snob”; to others “a sadist”; and still others, “inimitable and lovable”. It’s here that Shakespeare executes the first of several revisionist deviations from previous versions, identifying a young man with hidden, well-defended ambitions. His would-be writer emerges as “more mysterious and subtle than anything he wrote”.

    ...The war was the making of Ian Fleming, for the present and future. His naval intelligence work with Admiral Godfrey in “Room 39” became the bank of secret service lore at which he could cash cheques of inspiration for the rest of his short life. Shakespeare demonstrates that, far from being the “chocolate sailor” of clubland gossip, Commander Fleming’s gift for covert activity was a “war-winning” contribution. Godfrey’s verdict: “The Allies owe [Fleming] one of those great debts that can never be repaid.”

    ...Fleming wrote his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952. He was 44. Now, as this gilded life takes on a darker hue, Shakespeare shifts gear into a superb analysis of the way the astounding success of 007 became, like a classical curse, the thing that corroded Fleming’s life and creativity amidst the privations of post-war Britain.

    ...James Bond has many sources. At root, it was a calculated riposte to Britain’s post-imperial demoralisation from deep within the soul of a frustrated man whose other release was sado-masochistic sex. Shakespeare draws on a web of literary connection to explain Fleming’s catalyst of luck: the wannabe writer’s rendezvous with the zeitgeist. Bond was not an overnight success and history played its part.

    ...Only now, 60 years on, can we see his achievement for its charmed rarity. Bond is an immortal of English literature, next to Falstaff, Mrs Bennet, Pickwick, Jeeves and Sherlock Holmes. Whatever Fleming’s bitter late regrets, in Shakespeare’s version, this was a golden guinea of a life.

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