Ian Fleming’s Letters – The Man, Not the Legend

A recent, unexpected, book purchase has been The Man With the Golden Typewriter, a selection of Ian Fleming’s correspondence taken from the years he was writing his James Bond novels. The correspondence is divided into chapters, each one dealing with a separate novel or collection of short stories, and are listed in chronological order with an extensive introduction setting the context for each chapter. There are also separate chapters dealing with letters to Geoffrey Boothroyd (later immortalised as Q), Raymond Chandler and some of his friends in the US when he was trying to get an American publisher interested. It’s all very interesting.

But… there’s always a “but” somewhere with books like this and my biggest one is the repetitive nature of the correspondence. The overwhelming majority of it is to his publishers, Jonathan Cape & Co, and various members of the staff, and whilst I expected this, after fourteen or so chapters it does get a little monotonous. It was interesting to see how much opposition there was initially to even publishing the first novel – Casino Royale. Fleming really had to fight to get a good deal for his books and until the publication of Diamonds are Forever, it seems to have been a constantly uphill battle to get the books marketed fairly.

It has taught me an awful lot of what goes into the publication of a novel and how much work authors really have to do to get heard. I’m not always sure that I have that kind of tenacity, but clearly Fleming very much believed in Bond and really worked hard to get his books out there.

There is, however, also a lot of correspondence with well-meaning readers who have written to correct a factual mistake, ask a question or even simply to say how much they enjoyed the novels. These are quite fun, because they are very much of their time – mid to late 1950s. I find myself reading them in a cut-glass BBC voice, it seems to suit the language. And I must admit to admiring Fleming’s good grace in admitting his errors and his clear delight in hearing from readers.

If there’s one thing about it all that really grates, it’s the tone of the letters and the language that Fleming used. I don’t get a lot of his jokes (he clearly seems to think they’re hilarious) and I find his attitudes towards a lot of the people he writes to condescending and patronising. I’m prepared to concede that this is how things were in the 1950s, but to modern eyes it does jar a bit. I do find myself wondering if Fleming actually believed much of his own publicity.

I’m pleased I read the book, and I think it has added to my appreciation of the Bond novels, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it unless you were a particular aficionado.


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