Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me was the ninth of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, published in 1962. By this stage Fleming was clearly wanting to vary the formula, to find ways to keep the Bond series fresh and exciting. The Spy Who Loved Me was very much an experiment. It’s told in the first person, and the narrator is a woman.

The novel was hated by the critics. Critics had at best grudgingly accepted the popularity of Fleming’s books but they strongly disapproved. It just seemed somehow wrong that ordinary readers should be allowed to make up their own minds what books they enjoyed, rather than liking the books that critics told them to like. It seemed especially wrong that the public should insist on enjoying exciting books and sexy books rather than the worthy but dreary books that critics loved. So critics were desperately anxious for Fleming to make a misstep so that they could pile on and put the boot into him.

The Spy Who Loved Me seemed to be that misstep. Even better, from the point of view of critics, it was more sexually explicit than previous Bond books. That meant the critics could accuse Fleming of spreading moral degeneracy.

The novel has been treated even more venomously by modern critics and reviewers. I have a theory that if you approach a book with enough prejudices and preconceptions you can end up not actually reading the book at all. You end up reading the book that your prejudices convinced you that the author had written. What you have to do with The Spy Who Loved Me is something modern readers find very difficult to do - you have to just sit down and read what Fleming actually wrote, without making any assumptions about his attitudes towards women, towards sex or towards violence.

The subject of the book is an encounter between James Bond and a young French-Canadian woman named Vivianne Michel but that encounter does not happen until roughly the halfway point. The first half of the book gives us Vivianne’s backstory and explains what she’s doing in a run-down motel in the Adirondacks.

Despite what some reviewers would have you believe this first half does not dwell obsessively on Vivianne’s sex life. In fact she doesn’t have very much of a sex life. She’s had a couple of tentative unsuccessful relationships with men. Fleming thought that in 1962 it would be possible for a British writer to approach the subject of sex in a calm and fairly grown-up way. He was wrong. Britain in 1962 was still a repressed guilt-ridden puritan society eager to condemn anyone who wanted to suggest that maybe sex wasn’t dirty and wrong. Fleming is not the least bit judgmental towards Vivianne. He describes her emotional life sympathetically. It’s the guilt-ridden puritanism of society that has made Vivianne unable to have a successful relationship with a man.

So does James Bond suddenly come along and magically awaken her sexually? Well, sort of, but that’s not quite what happens. What really happens is that having faced death and torture and terror at the hands of two thugs Vivianne realises that it’s a bit silly to make such a fuss about sex. Having faced death she now wants to embrace life and what better way to embrace life than by making love? It’s really the peculiar circumstances, rather than Bond’s super-manliness, that allows Vivianne to enjoy sex for the first time.

While there is no action at all until halfway through the book when the action does start it’s fast and furious. The second half of the book is pretty much action scene after action scene. And by making us wait Fleming has built up the tension very effectively. We know this is a Bond novel. We know there’s going to be action. We know that Vivianne will be caught in the middle of it. And once the two thugs make their appearance it’s obvious that this is going to be a kill-or-be-killed situation. Bond and Vivianne are not going to be able to talk their way out of this situation, and they’re going to have to handle it themselves.

And while Vivianne is a kind of damsel in distress, she’s not entirely passive. Bond gives her his spare gun and she gets to use it.

There’s actually a lot more action in this book than in You Only Live Twice. By Bond novel standards The Spy Who Loved Me is not at all deficient when it comes to mayhem. The long wait gives the action scenes extra impact.

How successful is Fleming in telling the story from a female point of view? I’d say that he’s a lot more successful than you might expect. What a lot of modern readers object to is that Vivianne is not a 21st century feminist and the book is not a 21st century feminist powergirl tract. Vivianne belongs to the world of 1962. She feels guilty about sex because in 1962 people (especially women) were raised to feel bad about sex. Up to a point she understands that her upbringing has damaged her and has prevented her from living her life fully. But she still feels guilty. Perhaps the shock of the events at the motel will make her more determined to embrace life.

The Spy Who Loved Me is certainly an experiment but I think it’s an experiment that succeeded. Fleming was shocked by the hostile reception the book received and later described it as a failed experiment. I think he was being much too hard on himself and on the book. It’s not quite true to say that Bond is reduced to the status of a supporting character, but it is true to some extent. Having Bond viewed so completely from outside was an intriguing idea.

So I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I rather enjoyed The Spy Who Loved Me. It is an untypical Bond novel and you should not even contemplate reading this one until you’re read half a dozen of the earlier Bond books, but if you have read the earlier books then I recommend giving The Spy Who Loved Me a chance.


  1. I found this fascinating when I first read it - I didn't read the Bond books first time in any order, just when I found a second-hand paperback going cheap.

    Haven't read it in a long time, but one criticism I seem to remember is that Bond felt more American in this than in any other book. Change the dialogue a bit, and he could be any one of a hundred US characters.

    But, like you, I always felt that the book basically worked.

    1. Yes, a slight weakness of the book is that we see Bond purely through Vivianne's eyes so he's not as clearly defined a character as in the other books. But in some ways that makes the book more intriguing - this is Bond as others see him. And it's Bond as one of his women sees him.
      So even the book's weaknesses serve to make it more interesting.