'Ian Fleming: The Complete Man' by Nicholas Shakespeare

Red_SnowRed_Snow Australia
in Literary 007 Posts: 2,470

Release Date: 3 October 2023

A fresh portrait of the man behind James Bond, and his enduring impact, by an award-winning biographer with unprecedented access to the Fleming Archive.

Ian Fleming's greatest creation, James Bond, has had an enormous and ongoing impact on our culture. What Bond represents about ideas of masculinity, the British national psyche and global politics has shifted over time, as has the interpretation of the life of his author. But Fleming himself was more mysterious and subtle than anything he wrote.

Ian's childhood with his gifted brother Peter and his extraordinary mother set the pattern for his ambition to be 'the complete man', and he would strive for the means to achieve this 'completeness' all his life. Only a writer for his last twelve years, his dramatic personal life and impressive career in Naval Intelligence put him at the heart of critical moments in world history, while also providing rich inspiration for his fiction. Exceptionally well connected, and widely travelled, from the United States and Soviet Russia to his beloved Jamaica, Ian had access to the most powerful political figures at a time of profound change.

Nicholas Shakespeare is one of the most gifted biographers working today. His talent for uncovering material that casts new light on his subjects is fully evident in this masterful, definitive biography. His unprecedented access to the Fleming archives and his nose for a story make this a fresh and eye-opening picture of a man who lived his life in the shadow of his famous creation.


  • Posts: 2,838
    The Sunday Times has published a review, by Max Hastings. Some excerpts:

    James Bond is the world’s best-known spy hero — but the life of 007’s creator was more like a triumph of failure

    Ian Fleming was the most globally influential British writer of the 20th century. You disagree, citing Waugh, Orwell and Uncle Tom Cobley? In Nome, Alaska, or Ulan Bator hardly a sledge dog has heard of Orwell, but the entire population knows James Bond.

    Yet his creator spent the first 44 years of his life amassing a remarkable record of failures. He left Eton prematurely, fled from Sandhurst, flunked the Foreign Office exam and threw up a promising journalistic career to become an unhappy stockbroker.

    While a whizz with women, he seemed incapable of sustaining a relationship. When once he did so, with his Swiss lover Monique Panchaud de Bottens, he was forced to break off their engagement because his appalling mother, Eve, gave her the thumbs-down.

    ...Nicholas Shakespeare, who wrote the definitive study of Bruce Chatwin, has compiled a monumental record of Fleming’s life: every lover, friendship and (almost) round of golf. The completeness of the book is beyond doubt, although its subject was a heroically incomplete human being.

    ...Shakespeare convincingly shows that Fleming, like many romantics and adventurers, found a personal fulfilment in wartime. But I cannot accept his claim that his man became an important player in the intelligence community and was mistreated by being denied a decoration in 1945. Evidence from both war and peace suggests that while many people found Fleming entertaining, few took him seriously.

    Until, that is, he became a global bestseller. How did he do it? How did he, in the last 12 years of an abbreviated life, invent a world-conquering superhero, boosted latterly by the terrific movies of Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli and Sean Connery, which added jokes to the humour-free stories?

    First, the flipside of Fleming’s delusional make-up was that his narratives were suffused with absolute belief in his ludicrous plots and characters. Next, he was a descriptive writer of the highest gifts. From Russia with Love, especially, still reads superbly. When I research real Russian spies, I am struck by how well Fleming caught the spirit and language of such brutes. And Bond, like the entirely comparable Sherlock Holmes, suspends our disbelief to seem capable of single-handedly saving the Empire.

    His creator conveyed a sense of authority, even omniscience, that was often spurious — for instance, about guns — but fooled most of us. He wrote as a supposed gourmet, but the food at Goldeneye was notoriously awful. Fleming’s fantasy club, Blades, hardly sounds inviting when such arch-villains as Hugo Drax were members, although I suppose that is likewise true of White’s.

    Fleming brought to his tales immense experience of women, although whether he really liked them, as distinct from enjoying sex, is debatable. His 1952 marriage to Ann Charteris, a social lioness with a predator’s taste for human raw meat, brought misery to both.

    ...The last lines of Shakespeare’s book describe how, after Fleming’s 1964 death from a heart attack, aged only 56, a friend discovered the pages of a new, unfinished Bond story and excitedly showed them to his widow. Who promptly chucked them on the fire.

    Shakespeare leaves no future biographer much to discover. Fleming’s place in history is assured. But after viewing his train wreck of a life, no sane person could envy Thunderballs, as Cyril Connolly and Ann Fleming sadistically mocked him.
  • RichardTheBruceRichardTheBruce I'm motivated by my Duty.
    Posts: 12,432
    Oh historian Max Hastings, very familiar to me for The Korean War. It's great he has the interest to opine on the subject and I trust his judgment.

    Seems reviewer Hastings plus author Nicholas Shakespeare have some unpleasant items to share, not a surprise. And not saying they're wrong to do so.

    Even with these short excerpts, revealing.

  • mattjoesmattjoes Don't "quote" me on "that"
    Posts: 6,485
    Interesting, will consider buying. I'm curious to know more about Fleming's standing in the intelligence community, which the Sunday Times reviewer made reference to.
  • Posts: 1,637
    Does it cover his involvement in the creation of Napoleon Solo, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?
  • Posts: 2,838
    More reviews are coming in, this time from the Guardian and the Literary Review.
  • LucknFateLucknFate 007 In New York
    Posts: 1,155
    What are the odds any are in a bookstore in Manhattan right now? Anyone know how Id find out easily for pickup?
  • edited October 4 Posts: 2,838
    Unfortunately the American version won't be published until March 12, 2024! I have no idea why. The British version is being released Oct. 5 (this Thursday) and Americans can buy it from international booksellers like Blackwells (I purchased a copy from there just now--good price and free shipping) or search Abebooks and Ebay.
  • Posts: 2,838
    More reviews are in, this time from The New Statesman and The Spectator.
  • LucknFateLucknFate 007 In New York
    Posts: 1,155
    Revelator wrote: »
    Unfortunately the American version won't be published until March 12, 2024! I have no idea why. The British version is being released Oct. 5 (this Thursday) and Americans can buy it from international booksellers like Blackwells (I purchased a copy from there just now--good price and free shipping) or search Abebooks and Ebay.

    Thanks, as always!
  • RichardTheBruceRichardTheBruce I'm motivated by my Duty.
    Posts: 12,432
    Another edition uses a familiar image on its cover.

  • VenutiusVenutius Yorkshire
    edited October 5 Posts: 2,689
    Max Hastings was Boris Johnson's former boss. He said that Johnson 'wouldn't recognise truth if confronted by it in an identity parade', said he was 'unfit for national office' and that, if elected, Johnson's premiership would be 'shambling from one embarrassment and debacle to another'. So, yes, I'd trust Hasting's judgment too!
  • Posts: 2,838
    A couple more reviews trickled in while I was on vacation...

    After a long 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 Carre. 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.
  • Posts: 2,838
    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.
  • FeyadorFeyador Montreal, Canada
    Posts: 482
    I thought he was well served by the Lycett and Parker books ... but maybe aside from his WW2 career in naval intelligence, I didn’t realize there was much new to say about the man.
  • MaxCasinoMaxCasino United States
    Posts: 3,761

    Raymond Benson has read it, and given it his approval.
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