BOOK REVIEW: FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE
Ian Fleming (1957)
POSTED 1:41pm | 03 JULY 2011
I'm a big fan of the James Bond films, mainly for the creatively absurd stunts and escapism (rather than their qualities as films), but have never actually read any of Ian Fleming's original novels. From Russia, With Love is probably my favourite of all the films, so when I had the chance to borrow a copy of the novel from a friend I thought, "why not?" and gave it a shot.
From Russia, With Love concerns a Russian plot headed by SMERSH (basically the KGB - or MGB in this case - assassin squad) director Rosa Klebb designed to embarrass the British Secret Service and restore faith in the Russian Secret Service after some recent failures. The plot centres on the assassination of Britain's top spy, James Bond, in a most scandalous fashion. The man tasked with the mission is the psychotic killer Red Grant, chief executioner of SMERSH, an ex-British soldier who defected because the Russians could give him more opportunities to kill. It involves luring James Bond into a trap using the young and beautiful Corporal Tatiana Romanova as bait, posing as someone who has fallen in love with Bond through photos and stories and wants to defect if she gets the chance to meet him, promising to bring with her a brand new Russian decoding machine that the British are keen to get their hands on. With Bond's interest piqued and a worthwhile reason to play along with the decoding machine up for grabs, M. agrees to the mission and sends Bond to meet Tatiana in Turkey (where she is stationed), telling him to let her think that he is the same man from her photos and stories and try to romance her into defecting with the machine. Knowing it could be a trap from the very beginning Bond is cautious, but when he meets Tatiana they both end up developing genuine feelings for each other, and both question their missions because of these feelings. Scared for her safety, Tatiana only agrees to defect if they take a secret trip back to England on the famous Orient Express train rather than risk flying, a trip that takes four days. Four days for love, or four days for the trap to close down on Bond?
It's hard to get a genuine grasp of what the Bond novels are all about after reading just one (which is why I plan on reading a copy of Goldfinger next), but several things stuck out to me while reading From Russia, With Love. The first was the novel is around 200 pages and just over a third of that is spent purely on the Russian side, developing the characters of Grant, Klebb, and Tatiana, and their plot against the British Secret Service. Bond isn't even mentioned at all until the very end of that third when they are trying to figure out a suitable target for their plot and his name comes up. Eventually the novel does switch to Bond, but I found it an interesting way to set up the story, though I guess it makes sense when you consider the context of the story. By this stage the Bond character had already been developed over the course of several earlier novels, so what the story really required was development of the surrounding characters, which Fleming gives.
The second thing that struck me was just how cold the Bond character of the novels is. I guess it is one of the signature traits of the character in the films as well, but there's a real silliness that goes with him. Reading the character this way gives me a greater appreciation for the performances of Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig - whilst they probably don't fit comfortably into the character that had been established within the films, they do play a lot closer to the Bond of the books (from my admittedly limited point of view). Getting to hear Bond's internal monologue makes it clear that it's the danger and adventure that he craves more than the duty and the women.
The third thing was the arrogance inherent in Fleming's writing style. Whether it was deliberate or not, I don't know yet from reading just one book, but it's quite obvious he likes to name drop expensive brands, talk about exotic and little known locations, and throw about foreign words and phrases without explanation - as if trying to subtly confirm to the reader that, in fact, HE is Bond, writing an auto-biography under the cover of fiction.
None of these things detract from the book, however. I think they're what add to the feel of the novels that made people want to read them and love them. It's pure escapism, like the films, but with more grounding in reality, without a lot of the silliness, and unlike modern escapist airport fiction there is a definite air of literary worth to the read.
I enjoyed reading From Russia, With Love, though not having read any other Bond books it's hard to recommend it. I'm going to read Goldfinger next to get some contrast, but for anyone who loves the films and hasn't read any of the books but wants to, you probably can't do any worse than this one.
Book shelf: Part of the Fleming collection