Part 3: The Last Count of Champagne
The emphasis on Taittinger in On Her Majesty's Secret Service reflects the high-living associated with Bond. It also reinforces Fleming's technique of expressing aesthetic pleasure through real world products typically associated with quality. Thus he introduced something “far ahead of its time,” anticipating “the brand fascination of our own age” (Cathcart). Umberto Eco, in his erudite piece “Narrative Structures in Fleming” (published 45 years ago), already noted this aspect of Fleming's prose, emphasizing its strategy of audience manipulation: Fleming delves into the inessential, plopping a product from the real world onto his fictional canvas to convey “the familiar with photographic accuracy because it is with the familiar that he can solicit our capacity for identification . . . Our credulity is solicited, blandished, directed to the region of possible and desirable things. Here the narration is realistic, the attention to detail intense; for the rest, so far as the unlikely is concerned, a few pages and an implicit wink of the eye sufficed. No one has to believe them” (167). At the same time, something beguiling is at work in these early scenes of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, of which the Taittinger champagne is one aspect—beneath the detailed descriptions of the mundane, of everyday things, lies an interplay of thematic significance, even a symmetrical foreshadowing of events.
In the hotel room in Royale, when the champagne bottle arrives from Room Service, the narrative -camera (allow me to use that term) focuses on the product “in its frosted silver bucket.” We picture the bottle, with its label facing us as if Fleming is drawing our attention to the brand: again, Bond had ordered a Taittinger Blanc de Blancs for his traditional drink at Royale, but I suspect it is the Comtes De Champagne vintage, the prestige cuvee based solely on Chardonnay (hence the “Blanc de Blancs” signature) and most suitable for such a special occasion. More specifically, when we recall the history of Taittinger, we realize that Fleming is foreshadowing the heraldic theme of the novel. The champagne has ties to Thibaud IV, the last Count of Champagne and owner of the Abbey of Saint-Nicaise. After some disastrous battles in the crusade of 1239, he nevertheless returned not only with his inflated ego wrapped in a grandiose title but also with a plant vine, supposedly the ancestor of chardonnay. To commemorate him and the preceding counts of Champagne, the proprietors of Taittinger offered the prestigious cuvée of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne in 1952, a Blanc de Blancs vintage, made only from the Côte des Blancs and aged in cellars for many years. Even the emblem of Thibaud IV is slapped on bottles of this wine.
So, in careful understatement, Fleming alludes to the Taittinger history of counts, foreshadowing Blofeld's claim for the title of Count de Bleuville and reinforcing the introduction of the heroine only moments earlier—the girl in the white Lancia roaring past Bond, on the road to Royale-les-Eaux, who, as it turns out, is none other than a countess, La Comtesse Teresa di Vicenzo. Other parallels unfold in these early scenes, particularly with Fleming's use of colors: at the beginning of the novel, as Bond spies on Tracy at the seaside resort, she is wearing a white one-piece bathing suit. “Almost exactly twenty-four hours before” (15), he had spotted her in the white Lancia, and the opulence in his room at the Hotel Splendide is rendered in grey and white colors, accented by “the deep rose coverlet on the bed” (20). The imagery of the rose, along with the emphasis on whiteness, suggest romance—is Fleming prefiguring Bond's wedding to Tracy?
Later in the novel, as Bond dreams of the wedding, he sees Tracy in an oyster satin dress. Moreover, on the day of the wedding, he discovers that somebody had tied white ribbons on the white Lancia. Let us recall that the color white is typically associated with peace. We have, for example, the white dove in Christian iconography; and, as a universal sign, the white flag has long been associated with surrender, truce, or at least peaceful intent, during war. Fleming renders his novel, however subtle, with this color to underscore the peace, the tranquility, that Bond and Tracy seek in the world. The neurotic Tracy, noted by Bond as a “girl with a wing, perhaps two wings, down” (29), lives on the verge of self-destruction (she had never quite recovered from the death of her child). Bond, on the other hand, sort of drifts aimlessly in the Royale region, mentally drafting his resignation letter from the Service—he longs to be relieved of the “wearisome and fruitless assignment” (16) of tracking down arch-enemy Blofeld—and his brief stop at the cemetery, in the little churchyard outside the casino resort, to commemorate his lost beloved Vesper Lynd only heightens the emptiness in his life. Rather than seeking some much needed counseling, both he and Tracy find refuge in love. Their wedding near the climax contrasts the race that ensues early in the novel, when she passes him on the way to the casino resort, a reckless chase along cobbled roads through country villages that suggests both characters have a death wish of sorts. Variations of love and death haunt the novel, even until the last pages when Blofeld shatters the happiness of the newlyweds.
The symmetrical narratives continue to work until the end. Take, for example, Vesper's grave, which foreshadows Tracy di Vincenzo's death; likewise, Bond's observation of Tracy on the beach foreshadows Irma Bunt watching Bond, tracking him near the end of the novel, a spying that leads her and Blofeld to Tracy and Bond on their wedding day. This much would, I think, be obvious even to the casual reader: many events are in some sense linked to another that the general effect would be unavoidable. In this pattern of symmetry, Fleming provides subtle touches of meaning, suggesting that he intended something more than a spy tale for his tenth novel.