Kurt Andersen on James Bond and How Fiction Shapes Us
[Our thanks to guest blogger Kurt Andersen, a best-selling author, co-creator of the Studio 360 public radio program, co-founder of Spy magazine, and an editor and columnist at Vanity Fair, Time and New York magazines. He's also a voracious reader and a book geek, and his love of literature comes through the storyline of his new novel, True Believers, whose main character is also a book geek.]
You like reading novels, I like reading novels. But Karen Hollander is absolutely besotted by the fiction she loves, plunging herself deeply into the books' imaginary universes. Hollander, now a celebrated lawyer, has been devouring fiction ever since she first experienced its uncanny power as a girl and young woman growing up in the Chicago suburbs. She has never stopped reading, and True Believers is her fictional memoir.
"I had a history of going a little nuts for certain adventure novels," she explains in Chapter 2. "The first was Alice Through the Looking Glass, back in fourth grade. When I got to page six, I felt as if some new section of my brain had been activated. I shivered with a pleasure I hadn’t known…Then I read The Once and Future King, and for most of a year I was young King Arthur, Dad was Merlin, and it was my destiny to create the perfect kingdom of Camelot somewhere beyond northeastern Illinois."
As an eleven-year-old would-be beatnik in 1960, she is astounded by Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl." But the literature that maybe most crucially shape her young sensibility are Ian Fleming's James Bond books, which she discovers as she's about to start seventh grade in 1961--the very moment those books and the real-life Cold War are achieving maximum impact in the world. She and her two best (male) friends obsessively read and debate and enact scenes from all eight novels and breathlessly await each new one.
Oddly, I had this idea before I'd ever read a single Bond novel. Now that I've read most of them, I can say that Casino Royale, From Russia With Love, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are Fleming's best.
My heroine Karen ends her Bond infatuation as a teenager--at 16, just as her new anti-Establishment politics turn her anti-Bond, she and her friends read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the first masterpiece by the great modern spy novelist John Le Carre. And at 18 they're also smitten by Graham Greene's The Third Man. But the template installed in Karen's impressionable young mind by Ian Fleming never goes away. As she writes 50 years later, "I’d feel Bond-girlish when I drove a European car with a stick shift on a European road, and when I ordered a martini at a revolving restaurant in Tokyo or Cape Town or overlooking Iguazu Falls in Brazil. It happened almost every time I passed through a big new airport, especially in China or the Middle East. If I’m alone in a high-rise hotel room at night in my underwear--dressing for dinner, putting on perfume, half-listening to CNN International--for a few seconds, I become Vesper Lynd or Tatiana Romanova or Gala Brand."
At 14, in the throes of an apparently unrequited crush on one of her best friends, she takes a book about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer from the library in order to read the dirtiest parts. And four years later, in 1967, the president of her college calls student radicals like her and her friends "Walter Mittys of the left." Her boyfriend (whose favorite book is George Orwell's 1984) goes to the source to find out how they've been insulted--and finds he loves James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which Karen describes at the time as the story of "this normal wimpy guy who fantasizes he’s a daredevil hero and outlaw.”
In the present day, as a middle-aged author, she has written several non-fiction books, as well as one novel called Objection, Your Honor (which, she says, "the Times called 'an arch but surprisingly tough-minded aging-chick-lit confection, Rumpole meets Scott Turow'.") And so at first she considers telling the story of her youth--the secret at the heart of True Believers--as fiction rather than non-fiction. "I get it," her editor says, "Frederick Forsyth meets Philip Roth, Day of the Jackal crossed with American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, plus [The Man in the High Castle by] Philip K. Dick.”
Around the same time she gives a commencement speech. "I told the new graduates that we are all to some extent fictional characters of our own devising, and I quoted the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, a fictional memoir by a former OSS double agent who pretended to be a Nazi during the war… [T]he character says at the beginning of the novel. 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.' I choked up a little, which mystified and intrigued the audience."
In other words, reading fiction shapes Karen Hollander profoundly, for better and for worse. "Forty-six springs ago," she writes in 2014, "I decided my tragic flaw was an overactive imagination, my love of stories, that I would never again assume the guise of some fictional character--no more young King Arthur or Alice, no more Howl beatnik, no more Bond girl…." When she reads Madame Bovary in a college literature course she "considered it a personal rebuke. I had been Emma Bovary--a spoiled, dreamy, overimaginative… young thrill seeker who refashioned her life in imitation of the romantic stories and heroines she adored. Once again, I was overidentifying with a fictional character, this time a character whose tragic flaw was overidentifying with tragic fictional characters."