"The Living Daylights" (1962),
a short story by Ian Fleming.
It is a cold twilight in Berlin, especially when an assassination is set to occur. The moment is only heightened by the broken land that divides the city into eastern and western sections, by the strained nerves that fuel the divide. To James Bond, who is staring out the window of a grim six-story building, death has already occurred, shaped hauntingly in the form of "broken, thickly weeded bombed ground" (72), an image that transforms into the central setting of the short story "The Living Daylights."
Cold war tensions, border zones in a bleak Berlin, assassination plots—on one level, Fleming presents stock elements of a taut espionage thriller; but the compelling imagery of the broken land, of the hero staring for a long while at the empty bombed area of weeds and ruined walls, invites us to consider another aspect of the short story: on another level, the imagery takes us to Fleming's homage to the old waste land imagery, first introduced in the myth of the Holy Grail and popularized by T.S. Eliot in his magnum opus, The Waste Land.1
Published in 1922, the 434-line poem stormed into modern thought. Depicting an arid place, where the "wind crosses the brown land" (line 173), the poem is a meditation on the death of modern manindividuals trapped in a dry forsaken world devoid of meaning and in which they undertake the business of living in drudgery:
The poem cast a lasting effect on a postwar culture: along with Joyce's novel Ulysses, The Waste Land became the definitive text of 20th century literature, and for the next few decades or so perhaps no other poem had been discussed as extensively. Its title and imagery of sterility, drought, and death all come from the Grail legend and to which Eliot reinterpreted, adapted, so making it plausible and relevant to a society still reeling from the disillusionment brought on by two World Wars. The imagery "crosses all cultural and linguistic barriers; it is ubiquitous and universal, a compelling feature of all places and times" (Saavedra); and I suggest that Fleming himself, a serious book collector, quite well read, and who stayed in touch with "the literary journals and knew what was going on in the literary world" (Pearson 201), was to some extent inspired by this haunting waste land imagery. He was also in the orbit of the expatriate poet,2 living at one point in the flat above Eliot's in Carlyle Mansions. Moreover, as early as 1947, Fleming had mingled with the literati of London through an acquaintance with the grande dame of English literature, Edith Sitwell. It is unlikely that Fleming was not aware of Eliot's poetry, although Fleming was humble and did not seem comfortable with the London literary scene. In a letter to Edith Sitwell, Fleming expresses self-mockery at the invitation to a luncheon with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Maurice Bowra, and John Lehmann:
Nevertheless, Fleming took delight in striving to elevate the quality of his Bond fiction, so much so that he took stock of his craft in a witty article, "How To Write a Thriller," asserting that "while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as 'Thrillers designed to be read as literature' " (2).3 He must have kept that credo at the forefront of his mind because "The Living Daylights" is an engaging thriller and perhaps his finest tale.
In "The Living Daylights," the waste land imagery resurfaces as the bombed land between East and West Berlin, an empty dry region of "waist-high weeds and half-tidied rubble walls" (70). It is the waste land of The Cold War, a desolate place of mounting tensions, of death and destruction. It is, in essence, the landscape of terror—the terrors of violence, of suffering, of the very hardness of life that we attempt to evade. And lastly, and perhaps most disturbing, this waste land is the frontier of illusions: it is a place not only of bleakness but of deception, of treachery, and where appearances beguile.
The deceit begins with the prelude to Bond's mission, a carefully understated depiction of the classic theme of appearance versus reality. We meet Bond in the firing range at Bisley. It is dusk, and the secret agent stares into his rifle's infrared sniperscope. To the "human eye and in the late summer dusk," the six feet square target "looked no larger than a postage stamp" (59). Yet, as Bond stares through the sniperscope, the target takes on a different appearance. Illusion is at work: he can clearly distinguish the details of the target, and the "six-inch semicircular bull's-eye looked as big as the half moon" (59). The scene ends with the range officer wondering about our man Bond, who was scheduled with urgency to practice shooting under hard visibility but scored "well over ninety percent at all distances" (63).
In his curiosity, he molds an image of Bond as someone who lives the romantic life of a gallant secret agent, the "sort of fellow who got all the girls he wanted" (64), but the officer neglects to consider something sinister about this mysterious figure who, "after a flurry of signals from the Ministry of Defense" (63), suddenly appeared at the range. Does the officer drift into his imagination because he is simply the imaginative type, or because he is projecting the image of the dashing hero of romantic fiction onto Bond to add excitement to his job routine, or because he is afraid to confront reality? In any case, his tendency to create a persona for someone suggests that much of what goes on in the world is based on what others think rather than what actually is. The image that the range officer creates for Bond is unlike the reality of the person; for unbeknownst to the officer, the man who suddenly appeared at the firing range is not the swashbuckling spy of romantic fiction that he envisions but a government executioner who is set to kill a Russian sniper in Berlin.
The mission is grim. A British agent, known only as 272, will attempt to escape East Berlin by crossing the waste land into the western section and Bond will protect him by killing the KGB's top sniper before the escaping agent is shot. Fleming's technique in the final part of the prelude is to emphasize the harshness of Bond's mission. At its core, the mission calls for murder. Bond, however, takes on a strange mood. He is clearly uncomfortable with the role of executioner and becomes somewhat contentious with the MI6 leader: "This was going to be bad news," he realizes, "dirty news, and he didn't want to hear it from one of the section officers, or even from the Chief of Staff. This was to be murder.... Let M bloody well say so" (67). Forcing the MI6 leader to state the task explicitly ("You've got to kill this sniper," says M), Bond finds a sense of comfort in the gruff treatment he receives from M:
Bond, then, seeks justification for the killing, and he deliberately provokes M to provide it. This is underscored in the way M and the Chief of Staff are apologetic to Bond but repeat more or less that the killing has to be done. " 'Sorry to have to hand this to you,' " M says at the end of the mission briefing. " 'Nasty job. But it's got to be done well' " (68). Only moments later, the Chief of Staff is "a shade more sympathetic," emphasizing that there is no other person good enough for the mission and that " 'this isn't the sort of job you can ask a regular solider to do' " (68). We sense that the careful flattery is all part of this business about taking the guilt off the killer's shoulders. But it also points to something disturbing: is Bond's profession only bearable when its hardness is justified, when there is reason for its existence? Put another way, in his insistence to justify killing, Bond fulfills the Nietzschean idea that people can only face the terrors of reality when it has a purpose.
The prelude ends with Bond driving his Bentley into the night, into the dark reality of his profession. Again, he attempts to justify the killing; but in the stream of consciousness narrative, we enter Bond's mind, realizing that his final attempt to justify the killing is negated by another haunting thought: "It wasn't exactly murder. Pretty near it, though" (70). Suddenly, he is in a strange mood. He is irritable, even angry: "He gave a vicious blast on his triple wind horns at an inoffensive family saloon, took the roundabout in a quite unnecessary dry skid, wrenched the wheel harshly to correct it, and pointed the nose of the Bentley toward the distant glow that was London airport" (70). Why this sudden burst of aggression? Just as he became contentious with with M during the mission briefing, Bond is now prone to violent outbursts. But as we gather, his anger is not so much directed at the mission but to what he realizes in his second thought: namely, the mission to kill the sniper is essentially cold-blooded murder. His anger, then, derives from his doubts about his profession and his self-disgust with the role of executioner. The prelude has now set the grim nature of Bond's mission, as well as his inner turmoil, and these elements look forward to the rest of the story wherein the pattern is one of escape—the desire to escape from the waste land of terror; the liberation that is sought to which no haven exists beyond that desire.
Originally published in The London Sunday Times on February 4, 1962, "The Living Daylights" was retitled "Berlin Escape" for the American publication Argosy in June 1962. It is an apt title, reflecting Fleming's preoccupation with the story's escape motif. Once Bond arrives in Berlin, he is forced to confront a waste land that he is compelled to escape or avoid in some way. Almost everything he now sees is either a sign of violence (the empty bombed land), a sign of the urban waste land of a post-war metropolitan city, a haunting awareness for his own plight as a government executioner, or just plain unpleasant. " 'That's bombed ground in front of you,' " explains Captain Sender on Bond's first night as they look out the window of their building. " 'That'll be the killing ground' " (73).
When Bond wakes at midday, he looks out the window again and sees the "drabness of Berlin"and gives a "quick, reluctant glance at what he had examined the night before," noting that "the weeds among the bomb rubble were much the same as the London ones—campion, dock, and bracken" (75). There are sketches of Bond roaming Berlin—adrift, alone in a dangerous world, he is restless, walking along the streets and sitting in a café, drinking an espresso and watching the "obedient queues of pedestrians waiting for the Go sign on the traffic lights" (75). He is in the midst of the terrible dreariness of modern city life, a forsaken place where nameless people are trapped in barren office routines. Bond himself is one of the nameless—he is "dressed in the drab, anonymous, middle-European clothes he had brought over for the purpose" (74).
He closes his mind to the mission by seeking other ways to distract himself. He is faced with two forms of escape: a visit to a brothel, a "respectable-looking brownstone house in the Clausewitzstrasse known to all concierges and taxi drivers," and a trip to the Wannsee with a "strenuous walk in the Grunewald" (76). While Bond's consideration of a brothel relates to his womanizing tendency—he is, after all, Bond, James Bond—the notion of him seeking diversion in a brothel points to a criticism of modern culture. In the waste land of illusions, people are empty, trapped in sexual pleasures that are sordid and feeble and nothing more than diversions from the reality of our troubles. In the end, virtue triumphs for Bond as he forgoes the idea and takes a taxi to the Zoo Station4 to pass the time.
The Bond in this story is living half the time in the illusions of the spy world and half the time in the illusions he fosters for himself to avoid the reality of his mission. Notice the car gimmick that occurs at the front of his building: each night, a corporal from the transport section of Station WB is ready to produce a series of multiple backfires from an Opel to cover the noise of Bond's shooting. It is a veil of illusion that is carefully constructed to prevent people in the neighborhood from alerting the police. Bond himself delves into a German thriller to relax his mind. In other words, he escapes into the world of fiction. Titled Verderbt, Verdammt, Verraten,5 it is essentially a dime novel that the agent had picked up during his wanderings. It is a bizarre choice, a tale about a woman who is not only "ruined, damned, and betrayed, but that she had suffered these misfortunes most thoroughly" (79). Alas, the literary taste of our Mr. Bond is questionable at best. Personally, I would not read such a novel, and it is wise to stay away from such books, especially if you have aspirations to run for public office. This is not the view of a literary snob—I've had my fill of pulp from your Sidney Sheldons and your Raymond Bensons—but the novel does force us to wonder why Bond, an individual who is capable of reading German, chooses it. He could, for example, have settled for Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre6 or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Nevertheless, his choice does raise additional questions about his psychological state: does Bond delve into this dime novel for simple escapist entertainment? If so, there are other things to read such as a comic book. Or is there something alluring about the story of a suffering woman?
The book cover, which features a disturbing image of a "half-naked girl strapped to a bed" (79), was enough to prompt him to buy the novel; and Bond certainly takes delight in reading about the "tribulations of the heroine, Grafin Liselotte Mutzenbacher," realizing that his choice "turned out to be a happy one for the occasion" (79). The pleasure derived from a sadistic tale suggests that Bond seems to find consolation for his troubles by reading about somebody who is more unfortunate than him. It is a sense of escape from his own suffering. A few nights later, Bond is again nervous and frightened of the mission and drinks down a glass of whiskey and continues to read the thriller, reaching an "appalling climax" and wondering how the heroine is "going to get out of this fix" (87). She is, then, in a state of entrapment—and though a fictional entrapment, Bond finds affinity with her struggle to escape. What would then be singular about Bond's reading choice is not only its focus on the desire for escapist entertainment but, by extension, it points to the tendency of people to seek comfort in illusions.
Bond's own entrapment is underscored by the small room from which he watches the world outside. The story is full of these moments—moments of confinement, of entrapment—wherein Bond is in the room, looking out the window. What does he see? Well, again, we have the waste land, but it finally comes to its literal description halfway into the story:
He cannot escape through the window; he is already part of the world outside, encased in that grim reality. But things suddenly change when, for a flash at least, he sees through the rifle's sniperscope a woman's orchestra trooping along the street below and notices a young woman carrying a cello case. Of course, nothing is more distracting than the sight of a beautiful woman; and to Bond, despite the grimness outside, she exists as a form of beauty that sends a small silvery glint into his cold life. He is seized by her image; at the moment he discovers her, his "masticating jaws stopped still, and then reflectively went on with their chewing as he twisted the screw to depress the sniperscope and keep her in its center" (80-81). Then, the inevitable: she enters the building and disappears from sight, which apparently is enough for Bond to feel "a stab of grief lanced into his heart" (81). The imagery is unmistakably from the Grail legends: everyone knows the tale of Lancelot, of his passion for Guinevere, of the lance that delivers his wound, which in medieval poetry is nothing more than the wound of his passion, the agony of his love for the lady. In "The Living Daylights," Bond is perplexed at the sudden pang he feels:
It is a simple moment, but it holds so much character and drama. Fleming has removed us, through a subtle relaxed transition, from the framework of a pop thriller to something entirely different—we have entered the very center of Bond's humanity. And why shouldn't Bond be captivated by a woman he sees from a distance? It's a side of the character that is simply human and understandable, and the scene takes us to a meditation on beauty and love—still one of the everlasting themes, even for a thriller writer, but celebrated as early as the twelfth century by the troubadours of Provence, poets who contemplated and cherished the agony of love. The most apt expression, brought to public attention in recent years by the late Joseph Campbell, is preserved in the splendid lines by Guiraut de Borneilh:
Again, the emphasis is on the initial experience of sight. The beauty of the other is based on the psyche of an individual and, specifically, the perception of his eyes of another person and the transfer of her image to his heart.
For the next few nights, Bond's only solace is the sight of this beautiful cellist at the other side of the waste land, a woman he knows he will never get to meet or touch. As he anticipates the appearance of the KGB sniper, he wonders about the woman while watching the window of the building across the street. He is tense and his face begins "to sweat and his eye socket was slippery against the rubber of the eyepiece" (84). In the danger of the moment, he drifts into the warm image of the woman as he remembers her: young, with gaiety in her stride, and absorbed in the world of orchestras and rehearsals. Through her, art and beauty converge to offer Bond a haven from his mission. But just as the range officer had imagined a persona onto Bond, the agent himself begins to interpret the young woman's image into a personality, molding her in a sense into a fictional character: "How old would she be? Early twenties? Say twenty-three?" he wonders. "With that poise and insouciance, the hint of authority in her long easy stride," he continues to imagine her, "she would come of good racy stock—one of the old Prussian families probably or from similar remnants in Poland or even Russia" (84). Though he knows nothing of the woman, he somehow comes to a short biography of her. He has, perhaps unwittingly, transformed the woman into an illusion, a person in his private thoughts.
This bifurcation of the world into the everyday world of pain and hardship and the tranquil world revealed by thinking is, of course, the consequence of thinking as such, of people handling only doses of reality and seeking refuge from the terrors of that outer mundane world in a so-called world of thought. The realist within Bond, or at least the part of him that is still grounded in his mission, attempts to break from that inner world. There are moments when he tries to forget her, reminding himself to concentrate on the mission: "He closed as much of his mind as he could to the girl and sharpened his wits. Get on, damn you! Get back to your job!" (84). Later in the evening, when the orchestra rehearsal ends and Bond watches the woman leave the building, he wonders where she lives but he blocks his thoughts, telling himself, "Anyway, to hell with it! She was not for him" (86). Bond, then, is torn between the warmth of that inner world and the reality of his mission—he is compelled to escape into illusions to blunt the pain of reality; but he is also aware of the need to break free from illusions and ground himself in his very real world of danger and assassinations.
That world of danger and assassinations, of the reality of committing murder, all converge on the third and final day. You cannot escape reality, Fleming seems to be saying, and his hero wanders the city, carrying the burden of knowing that he would have to assassinate someone. He passes the time in museums, art galleries, the zoo, and a film, all the while "hardly perceiving anything he looked at, his mind's eye divided between the girl and those four black squares and the black tube and the unknown man behind it—the man he was now certainly going to kill tonight" (86). In the evening, the girl is nowhere to be seen. The only form of escape into solace available to Bond is a stiff drink of whiskey. It causes an uproar with Captain Sender, the bureaucratic ally who is overseeing the mission. A curious line, a reasoning that reveals another form of escape, comes from Bond. He expresses dissatisfaction with his profession and has a longing to leave it all behind:
Trapped in their individual cages, both characters are isolated from one another. Bond, as we've seen, is caged in his mission and attempts to escape from the violence through forms of illusions. But the strongest cage is reserved for Captain Sender, a "lean, tense man in his early forties" who wears "an old school tie (in his case a Wykehamist8)" (71). We see his cage of bureaucracy, self-interest, and sterile way of life in Bond's impression of him when they first meet:
Despite Bond's rant about leaving the spy world and about his disgust with the violence of his profession, we now realize the other troublesome element that haunts him: the dead life of a Captain Sender. Like Prufrock9, who measured out his life with coffee spoons, Captain Sender is defined and thus trapped by methodical drabness, though he did at first escape, presumably, from a dreary life and sought the Service, thinking it would offer him life, drama, and romance. We have, then, an individual with shattered ideals and who is forced to live in illusion by concealing his distaste for his profession. Notice the emphasis on Sender's Wykehamist tie: for the introspective Bond, it signals an individual who has become quite codified in society, the immediate consequence pointing to how regimented he has become. He is also unable to understand love, or is at least oblivious to the emotions of others: when Bond tells him about the young woman, that he has "rather taken to that tall blonde with the cello" (85), Sender is uninterested, stating coldly, "'Didn't notice her'" (85). He is, in essence, trapped in a place where he is stripped of humanity, where man has become the instrument of the machine of bureaucracy. What is left is a waste land, a hollow and barren life of an individual—barren as the waste land of terror and death just outside the window of their room.
Both characters exemplify Fleming's central theme. They have fettered themselves with superfluous illusions, as he shows, while also reminding us of something that he doesn't show: in this world, alas, perhaps all choices are wrong. Would Sender even find the romance and drama he longs for in life if he sought a different profession? What if Bond quit the Double-O section and sought the dreary life of a desk job or, for that matter, some other profession? We gather they would only have embraced other illusions equally futile to blunt the hardships in their lives. And, as we are again reminded, the final scene of the story is there to show the inescapableness of reality, of how shocking and futile any attempt to break out of it might prove.
It is now evening, and agent 272 is finally moving in that broken land below. The dark figure of the KGB sniper lurks in the window of the building opposite but his appearance suddenly gives way to an awful truth: in Bond's sniperscope, the assassin known as Trigger is revealed as the blonde cellist. It is all there for Bond to see—"the purity of the profile, the golden bell of hair" (89) in tandem with the stock of the Kalashnikov. In disbelief, Bond hesitates for a moment and then shoots, wounding the female assassin rather than killing her.
The illusions of the Cold War unfold: amidst the gun fire, Bond hears the Opel racing down the street and the din of the orchestra, realizing that
But the most disturbing illusion is that of the cellist and the world of music she had represented: the beauty and art that she embodied dissolves, and she appears as the very horror that Bond has struggled to avoid. She had probably carried her rifle, Bond speculates, in the cello case and that the entire orchestra is composed most likely of KGB women who carried instrument cases that contained only equipment while "the real instruments were available in the concert hall" (90). It is a whirlwind conclusion of realizations but its poignancy lies in Bond's humanity. Despite his shattered illusions, he still holds some form of love for the woman and, we gather, realizes he is more alone than ever:
Bond is the solitary figure who faces the waste land of violence and illusions. In his final line in the story, he mutters the old idiom about frightening someone very much: "Whoever she was, must have scared the living daylights out of her" (92). In other words, by frightening the female sniper, Bond himself brought horror into the world. It is an apt summation of the turmoil in life and points to the story's denouncement of the tendency whereby, in Fleming's view, people tend arbitrarily to avoid life by seeking refuge in an ideal and imaginary world of solace from all the terrors that besiege them. But in whatever way people try to escape life, their retreat is nothing more than a manifestation of weakness, of the inability to face reality in the way the courageous individual would. In Bond's case, he at least expresses a sense of resignation to the outcome of his mission, and his outlook paves the way to the role of the hero, the individual who would not only confront terror and other adversities in stride, he would in a sense even affirm them as the inevitable nature of life. In this little thriller, Fleming has succeeded in rendering a poignant human experience. The crisp prose simultaneously conceals and reveals a powerful drama without any form of sentimentality. We sense that Fleming enjoyed writing this story, and the conciseness and precision of his achievement are magnificent.
|1||The poem's title is often incorrectly presented as "Waste Land" or even "Wasteland." In this essay, we refer to its official title, "The Waste Land."|
|2||Although born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot pursued his academic interests at Oxford and continued to live abroad. He was taken by the English way of life and, in 1922, became a British citizen.|
|3||The article "How to Write a Thriller" was published circa 1962 in Show, an arts magazine.|
|4||A train station located in the area of the city formerly known as West Berlin.|
|5||John Griswold, in his spectacular Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond Stories, states that the title's English translation is Corrupted, Damned, Betrayed (336). Written by Georg Reimann, the book was published by Franz Decker Verlag, Stuttgart, 1955.|
|6||Goethe's three-volume scientific work wherein he describes a theory of chromatics and disputes Newton's theory.|
|7||Wykehamist is a term for a student or alumni of Winchester College, a private secondary school in Winchester, Hampshire, England.|
|8||The central character in T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a middle-age man who is haunted by the terrible dailiness of living. Lamenting that he has "known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," he is trapped in a world that is the same today as it was yesterday and will be the same tomorrow as it is today.|