Friday, July 26, 2013

Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming

I've never been a fan of the James Bond films, and so I've never gravitated toward the Ian Fleming novels that inspired them. I was a little surprised to see that Anthony Burgess included Goldfinger in his list of 99 best novels.

I'm in the throes of drafting an annual report for a company whose two lines of business are well outside my range of expertise, so in addition to dealing with the normal corporate gobbledegook, I'm having to immerse myself in the jargon of the unfamiliar technologies. At the end of a day, a martini (shaken or stirred, I couldn't care less) and an action novel are in order.

Now, having read it, I'm still surprised that this book made Anthony Burgess' list. Then again, if he read it when it was first published in 1958, it may have seemed more radical than it seems to me today. Never mind. It made good reading for a mind that wasn't up to dealing with subtleties and complexities.

Agent 007 is, as I expected him to be, suave, cool under pressure, and irresistible to women. He is a man of his era who enjoys fast cars, fine liquor, gambling and golf.  He is not a philosopher. As Goldfinger opens, Bond sits in an airport bar and muses that killing people is an unpleasant but occasionally unavoidable aspect of his job as an MI6 agent. As "regret was unprofessional", however, he orders another bourbon on the rocks.

A Mr. DuPont introduces himself to Bond, saying that he'd observed him at a casino recently.  DuPont owns a luxurious hotel on Miami Beach, and he finds himself annoyed with a guest whom he believes is cheating him at cards.  Might Mr. Bond be willing to observe and expose the scoundrel in exchange for a stay at the resort and a nice bit of cash? 007 feels that a few days of seaside TLC would do him good, and if he can thwart this cheating canasta player, so much the better. The hotellier fills Bond in on the details of his nemesis, the guest who goes by the name of Mr. Goldfinger.
"You won't believe it, but he's a Britisher. Domiciled in Nassau. You'd think he'd be a Jew from the name, but he doesn't look it. We're restricted at the Floridiana. Wouldn't have got in if he had been."
This detail definitely took me back to the time of my early childhood, when hotels and clubs were often restricted to white gentiles, occasionally even to white Protestants. Jews were legally banned from all Miami Beach hotels until 1949, and it sounds like there were still restrictions in Ian Fleming's day.

Mr. Goldfinger's deadly sin is avarice. Specifically, his insatiable lust for gold. He just can't acquire too much of the stuff. He likes in in bars, in leaf, and in bed, coating the skin of his women. Mr. DuPont fails to see what Bond grasps immediately -- for the truly obsessive personality, there is no such thing as enough.
"What's he worth? Ha!" said Mr Du Pont explosively. "That's the damnedest thing. He's loaded. But loaded! I got my bank to check with Nassau. He's lousy with it. Millionaires are a dime a dozen in Nassau, but he's rated either first or second among them. Seems he keeps his money in gold bars. Shifts them around the world a lot to get the benefit of changes in the gold price. Acts like a damn federal bank. Doesn't trust currencies. Can't say he's wrong in that, and seeing how he's one of the richest men in the world there must be something to his system. But the point is, if he's as rich as that, what the hell does he want to take a lousy twenty-five grand off me for?"  
People talk about Bond girls, who are invariably lithe and sexy. I suppose there is also the typical Bond villain, and if so, Goldfinger meets my expectation for the role.  Physically unattractive, power-mad, and ruthless, with lots of nasty weapons and associates. Bond first sees Goldfinger lying on a lounger beside the pool at the Floridiana Hotel, a foil contraption reflecting the sun upward onto his face and neck.
When Goldfinger had stood up, the first thing that had struck Bond was that everything was out of proportion. Goldfinger was short, not more than five feet tall, and on top of the thick body and blunt, peasant legs, was set almost directly into the shoulders, a huge and it seemed exactly round head. It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people's bodies. Nothing seemed to belong. Perhaps, Bond thought, it was to conceal his ugliness that Goldfinger made such a fetish of sunburn. Without the red-brown camouflage the pale body would be grotesque. The face, under the cliff of crew-cut carroty hair, was as startling, without being as ugly, as the body. It was moon-shaped without being moonlike. The forehead was fine and high and the thin sandy brows were level above the large light blue eyes fringed with pale lashes. The nose was fleshily aquiline between high cheek-bones and cheeks that were more muscular than fat. The mouth was thin and dead straight, but beautifully drawn. The chin and jaws were firm and glinted with health. To sum up, thought Bond, it was the face of a thinker, perhaps a scientist, who was ruthless, sensual, stoical and tough.
Oh, and unlike our hero, Goldfinger is short.
Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big - bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world. And what about a misshapen short man with red hair and a bizarre face? That might add up to a really formidable misfit. One could certainly feel the repressions. There was a powerhouse of vitality humming in the man that suggested that if one stuck an electric bulb into Goldfinger's mouth it would light up.
In what felt like an excessively long, 18-hole account of a golf match between Goldfinger and Bond, Ian Fleming nevertheless gives us a good look at the two rivals. Goldfinger can't help himself and, with the connivance of his caddy, cheats. Bond chooses to overlook the first few instances and focuses on winning the match by skill alone. Is this not a classic James Bond analogy?
As soon as Bond had hit the shot he knew it wouldn't do. The difference between a good golf shot and a bad one is the same as the difference between a beautiful and a plain woman - a matter of millimetres.
As I mentioned before, when it comes to women, gunshots or golf shots, 007 regards reflection and regret as wastes of time.
Bond never worried too long about his bad or stupid shots. He put them behind him and thought of the next.
Goldfinger's nastiest minion is the Korean martial arts fiend, Odd Job -- one of the few in the world to possess a black belt in karate (well, it was 1958, after all), and oddly dignified in his bowler hat (which has a deadly serrated blade in its rim).  These things sound a bit quaint in this age of cinematic weapons that vaporize victims in an instant, but Bond is genuinely afraid of Odd Job's skills, as any sensible person might be.

I was discussing the book with a couple of friends, both of whom had seen the film version many years ago. I mentioned Pussy Galore and her gang of lesbian criminals who team up with Goldfinger in his audacious plot to rob Fort Knox. "They were lesbians?!" my friends gasped. Ah yes, I suppose that would never have made it past censors in 1964, when the film was released. It's rather a marvel they allowed the character to retain the name that Ian Fleming gave her. In the novel, Pussy Galore ultimately switches sides -- first in helping Bond to overcome Goldfinger and then by falling into bed with him. The woman who resisted Bond's advances, on the other hand, pulls free of him during a chase scene, feeling she'll be safer with Pussy, and meets her death when Odd Job's hat sails into her neck. The message is plain:  Ladies, if you want to be safe (but not too safe!), stick with your man. Bond. James Bond.

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