Saturday, 26 November 2011

Quantum of Solace: when 007 met Somerset Maugham

Kingsley Amis described 'Quantum of Solace' (the short story published in For Your Eyes Only in 1960) as 'Maughamish'. Henry Chancellor saw similarities between 'Quantum of Solace' and Somerset Maugham's short story, 'His Excellency', which appears in Ashenden (1928). There is little doubt that Ian Fleming wrote his story in homage to Maugham, as stylistically and structurally the stories are close. More generally, Fleming's cultural environment – the two authors knew each other socially, and Fleming avidly read Maugham's work – made Fleming susceptible to pick up 'Maughamisms' (or Maugham-memes). Let's explore some of the evidence.

'His Excellency' starts, like 'Quantum of Solace', with the main protagonist, Ashenden, reflecting on his invitation to a social meeting with the ambassador of an unnamed country (rather than Fleming's governor of Bermuda) and the prospect of a dull evening. The evening livens up a little when the conversation between Ashenden and the ambassador turns to the subject of Byring, a promising diplomat who is obliged to resign in view of his impending marriage to a woman – a former dancer – ostracised by polite society due to her reputation for a voracious appetite for men and expensive things. There is more than a nod to this in 'Quantum of Solace', which, in its tale of Philip Masters, contains similar themes of a society scandal and a diplomatic career ruined by the actions of a woman from a 'working' background.

The story of Philip Masters is told to Bond by the governor. This device recalls Maugham's story, in which the ambassador goes on to recount to Ashenden the story of another tragic affair of the heart. This story has little in common with that of Masters other than general aspects of love and misery and breaking convention with society. But both the ambassador and the governor draw lessons on life from their tales. The governor devises his law of the Quantum of Solace. When all humanity between a couple has gone, the quantum of solace (the amount of comfort) is at zero and the relationship cannot survive. The ambassador concludes that a relationship based on love is worth pursuing, even if it lasts only a few years, and is preferable to a lifetime of regret within a loveless marriage.

Fleming's short story mirrors Maugham's in one other curious way. As he listens to the ambassador's tale, Ashenden wishes he had moved to a sofa, rather than stay on a hard chair. Bond, on the other hand, is uncomfortable on the sofa, and takes the opportunity of a refill of his brandy glass to move to a hard, upright, chair.

Both stories may also have expressed something of their authors' own turmoils. The law of the quantum of solace could have applied to Fleming's turbulent relationship with his wife, Ann, while Maugham's story could have been a metaphor for his homosexual relationships (forbidden in society and law).

That Ian Fleming would be so familiar with Maugham's work, and therefore think highly enough of it to want to imitate it, is unsurprising, given that the two authors were friends. In a note concerning her travels through Europe, Ann, who spent much time at Somerset Maugham's villa (Villa Mauresque) in the Antibes, south of France, recalls that, in 1954, Ian joined her at the villa and delighted in Maugham's company. Ann thought the two were much alike, not just in their enjoyment of martinis and food, but through 'a basic sadness and a desperation about life.' What is more, Ann thought they both 'regarded women with mistrust'.

Andrew Lycett writes that Fleming and Maugham often played bridge together at the Portland Club in London, and Fleming's Sunday Times colleague, John Russell, thought Fleming had a 'schoolboy idolisation' of Maugham. At one stage, Fleming even offered to run delicate errands for Maugham and become his 'homme de confiance'.

A minor postscript: it occurred to me that, given his penchant for naming his characters after his friends and relations, Ian Fleming did not name the false identity (Mr Somerset) that Bond takes for the train journey in From Russia, With Love (chapter 20) after the English County, but his friend and idol, Somerset Maugham.

References:

Amis, K, 1965 The James Bond dossier, Jonathan Cape
Amory, M (ed.), 1985 The letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill
Chancellor, H, 2005 James Bond: the man and his world, John Murray
Lycett, A, 1996 Ian Fleming, Phoenix

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating article, Mr.Biddulph. Let me add the little known rumor that in an early draft of "His Excellency" the Byring character chokes to death on a piece of calamari during his wedding rehearsal dinner.
    Merry Christmas!

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