Saturday 14 April 2012

Another Ersatz-Bond announced ...

Not freshly ground
Is a Mini Cooper built by BMW, still an authentic mini? What about one of Damien Hirst's spin pictures, created by an artistic assistant - should we still regard that as 'by' the artist, even though he had no involvement in its creation? Or - conversely - can an idea, a character, an image exist independently - flourish, even - away from the source of its original inception?

This question of authenticity in art occurred to me on reading the news that William Boyd has been announced as the next author to follow in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis and John Gardner (see the previous post) and write a new James Bond novel. Boyd has, according to this excellent retrospective on Bond authors in the Daily Telegraph by Allan Massie, promised to take 007 back to his "classic" roots. It is curious to note that the James Bond character has now outlived his original creator, Ian Fleming, and that there are more ersatz-Bond books than were ever written by the first author. Some, indeed, might argue that many of the books written after Fleming's death have been of better quality - literary speaking - than much of Fleming's output.

However, is Bond - as imagined by Jeffrey Deaver, Amis, Gardner or Boyd the same Bond which Fleming imagined, or the same Bond which thousands of film fans believe in, many of whom will not have read any of the original novels? To what extent now does Bond exist as a character outside of his origins? Does he remain authentic when different authors have chosen to place him in different time periods, change key characteristics of his life, give him new enemies to fight, even - and this caused much media hubbub over the last week with news that Heineken has secured the licensing rights - a new favourite tipple?

It would seem to be the case. Bond has become a recognisable cultural prism through which the anxieties, preoccupations and obsessions of different cultural periods in western society are shot - he is a cinematic and literary mirror of what makes popular culture tick. In terms of enemies, he has taken on at various times the Soviets, global megalomaniacs, international criminals, the mujahadeen, and media moguls all intent on global domination, and all proxies for global sources of tension and fear which have shaped our society at different times. His car has changed as our tastes and auto technologies have shifted; the era of storytelling has moved back and forward in decades; his patterns of speech, the styles of the narrative, has waxed and waned; his love life has all proved mutable.

And yet, Bond is still Bond. He retains the classic evidence of a permanent fixture in the cultural firmament: the one-word moniker. The style, the insouciance is there. The gadgets remain, and are brought up to date. The fantasy, irrespective of the author, still appeals.

Clearly, this is what has kept Bond in the national consciousness while Harry Palmer or Bernard Samson, to some degree, have faded over time - the power of renewal and re-birth to add new life to a character, to give lustre and newness. Readers do not seem to mind that the character is now steered and guided by a different pilot every so often: the style of the journey remains consistently satisfying in most cases. And there is still a recognisable red line back to Fleming's original story.

Here's the question: could Harry Palmer be so easily re-imagined by another author? We can see already evidence that might suggest, 'no': the lacklustre films Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St.Petersburg were not a great tribute to the original character - even with the same character - as part of an attempt to re-tool Harry for a post Cold-War age.

Is the management of Bond's character by other author's successful precisely because Fleming's writing, in parts, was lacklustre? That his character was more than the sum of the written parts, that he has a life outside of his original creator? Whatever the reason, there's something about Bond that has created a cultural phenomenon which, conceivably, could keep being re-imagined into perpetuity.

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