Book Review: “Casino Royale” by Ian Fleming (1953)

[Book #3 of Club Biblio-deca – 2015]

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” (111)

This first 007 novel is an essential piece for any James Bond fanatic or person with a passing interest in the movies (past or present), for it lays out explicitly the philosophy that underpins Bond, James Bond’s entire ego: right is only right of you contrast it to wrong, and wrong is only really wrong if you stand opposed to it. It’s the epitome of relativistic thinking in modern fiction, and it’s amazing how blatantly objective Fleming could be about his personal beliefs without having scared away his ever-growing fan-base. None of the modern films, to my knowledge, fit this philosophy as well as the Casino Royale book does, so it really lays a base of understanding for all the “Why?”s that 007 fosters from his fans and critics alike.

Fleming lays out his philosophy in Chapter 21, as Bond recovers from a unique hour of torture and chats with Mathis, his current colleague. Bond opines about the innocence of youth, when right and wrong were as clear as white and black or heroes and villains. But adults see things differently. While Bond has killed his villains, those men that he continue to chase for MI6 inevitably view Bond himself as a villain: “History,” he says, “is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” Then he waxes eloquent on the largest question that digs at his heart:

  • “Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes – representing the deepest black and the purest white – and we call them God and the Devil. But in doing so we have cheated a bit. God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil. What does he look like?…I’ve been thinking about these things and I’m wondering whose side I ought to be on. I’m getting very sorry for the Devil and his disciples…The Devil has a rotten time and I always like to be on the side of the underdog. We don’t give the poor chap a chance. There’s a Good Book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there’s no Evil Book about evil and how to be bad. The Devil has no prophets to write his Ten Commandments and no team of authors to write his biography. His case has gone completely by default. We know nothing about him but a lot of fairy stories from our parents and schoolmasters. He has no book from which we can learn the nature of evil in all its forms, with parables about evil people, proverbs about evil people, folk-lore about evil people. All we have is the living example of the people who are least good, or our own intuition. So…Le Chiffre [the villain in Casino Royale, now dead] was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and highest purpose of all. By his evil existence…he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist. We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.”
  • To this, Mathis responds jokingly that, since our conscience is the only thing keeping us from spinning off to the dark side, perhaps we should kill our conscience in order to freely go about committing our “juicy sins.”

What a clear description of what happens when you kill God (after, of course, we created Him in the first place)! And what a sad state of affairs for modern man who, at least in his behavior, thinks that this is exactly what has happened. James Bond was no mere action hero fighting SMERSH and, as times change, money hungry villains all across the globe. He was and still is a barometer of modern man: what one English gent imagined in the comfort of his little office eventually was exactly what the world was feeling. His stories thus reverberated across the globe, and the echoes from that first note can still be heard.

Beyond this existentialism, Fleming also wrote clearly about how he viewed the Mid-Century Woman, that beautiful, brainlessly emotional sex object: “Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.” (25) Hard to imagine that Ian Fleming had many female fans back then, at least not until Sean Connery took the role of James Bond. And thanks to Daniel Craig, he’s got tons of female fans once again. But I have to wonder, do any of them realize just how abused their gender really is in Fleming’s delicate hands?

©2015 E.T.

Current book list for Club Biblio-deca – 2015 (in no particular order):

1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
4. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell
Rat King by James Clavelle
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
War by Sebastian Junger
The Bridge at Toko-Ri by James Michener
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

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