|"Quantum of Solace" (1959), a short story by Ian Fleming.|
Lush green palms, a Colonial house in a quiet moonlit night, the Caribbean again. In “Quantum of Solace,” Fleming returns his hero—our man Bond—to the Bahamas and presents the backdrop of British Colonialism, or rather its last shadow as the sun sets on the Empire. The moody opening scene takes us into Government House, 1 into a rich cultural past. We enter deep brown rooms from a bygone era—rooms filled with teak and mahogany furnishings, with memories of romance and allure of that age of exploration. In the drawing room, the spirit of evening conversations linger: we sense the spectral clink of glasses, the voices of Colonial officers in idle chatter; and, on this “beautiful night under a full moon" (96), we find James Bond and the Governor of The Bahamas sipping brandy during a dull after dinner chat.
It is a curious beginning for a 007 story. The lack of a suspenseful opening scene, along with the absence of a Walther PPK or a bikini-clad beauty, make us wonder if we’re reading an actual James Bond adventure. Fleming, so conventional wisdom holds, only wrote spy thrillers, beginning with the publication of Casino Royale in 1953. These novels, stamped with titles we have all come to know, have essentially dwarfed his smaller-scale efforts, a batch of short stories that have received little attention but noteworthy in their own right. In the small canvas of the short story, Fleming was unrestricted in experimenting with his craft and produced some of his finest tales.
The urge to experiment derives from Fleming’s own weariness with James Bond. As he wrote the 007 novels, he grew weary of the routine, of the genre of the thriller itself, and thought about how to elevate the quality of his work. The bleakness in some of the novels are perhaps, on one level, a reflection of his own dissatisfaction, and one senses he had the potential for a different kind of writing. Noël Coward, a longtime friend of Fleming’s, quietly thought so, as he writes in his diary circa 1955, after reviewing Moonraker:
Well, a non-thriller eventually enters the Fleming oeuvre as “Quantum of Solace,” an odd but splendid tale. Part of the For Your Eyes Only collection, it replaces a Bondian spy adventure with a brooding look at a rigid civil servant and his disastrous marriage to a lovely flight attendant, a young woman who sought more excitement than even the Colonial Service can provide. I suspect many were concerned that Fleming’s machismo action-oriented style was less than appropriate for the delicate theme. Again, conventional wisdom has it that Fleming is more comfortable with material involving, say, KGB assassins, car chases, and fight scenes on a train to Istanbul. No one was surprised, then, with the many explosions and action scenes Fleming managed to sneak into this quiet drama! Rhoda Llewellyn, the civil servant’s wife, sets off an explosion at the golf club in Bermuda. In a dramatic twist the civil servant, Philip Masters, turns out to be a Cuban assassin who attacks the Colonial Secretary with a garrote. Later, when Rhoda Llewellyn blows up a tourist resort, she escapes in a jet and parachutes onto a speeding motorboat while blasting an enemy helicopter with a rocket launcher.
Of course, I kid Fleming’s image. The tale is indeed a compelling departure from the usual Bondian fare. Its story-within-a-story narrative is tightly structured: the main action, fairly static in its depiction of Bond’s after dinner conversation with the Governor of The Bahamas, is in sharp contrast to the secondary action, which unfolds as a vivid, compelling anecdote concerning the marital discord. These two narratives are unified by one person, the Governor, who is essentially the narrator-hero. Moreover, the sheer pace of his storytelling enchants us. With lightness and rapidity, a whole series of events and tribulations surrounding the life of Philip Masters leaps from page to page and forms a solid biography of the man. What the Governor projects with this carousel of events is the disturbing reminder of brevity and the illusory quality of life in its unexpected changes.
Still, what are we to make of Bond's disdain for the dinner guests and his overall dislike of his surroundings? Well, I say his reaction is all part of the illusion, the unreality of things, that coils his world, seeps within and engulfs it. The Governor’s dinner party is nothing more than a piece of the high-speed accumulation of events: prior to the evening, Bond had been in Nassau for a week, ushered from his native England to the Caribbean for a mission to stop arms from reaching Cuban rebels, and he is now scheduled to leave for Miami the next day. Even the dinner party, which “had been rather sticky” (75), is suddenly over. Only moments ago, Bond was caught in an evening of stilted conversations with the Governor and the other guests, a Canadian millionaire and his attractive chatterbox wife. Taking the series of events in its entirety, we sense the events in Bond’s life occurring at breakneck speed, rising at one moment and vanishing the next like a mirage. Now Bond is alone with the Governor, seated on a “chintzy sofa in the large Office of Works furnished drawing room, trying to make conversation” (75). Yet another form of illusion unfolds: Bond plays his part, wearing the mask of artificial pleasantry. One gathers that, beneath the agent’s artificial demeanor, Bond would find more excitement leafing through the local phone book. The room, he seems to suggest, lacks authoritative grandeur: “Bond felt foolish sitting with an elderly bachelor on this bed of rose chintz.... There was something clubbable, intimate, even rather feminine, about the scene, and none of these atmospheres was appropriate” (76). Why would the Governor have a rose chintz sofa in such a room? Is it his attempt to place an element of warmth, of solace, in his drab bureaucratic world?
The emphasis on the clubbable atmosphere suggests that Bond feels he is in some sort of social club. Clearly, this crowd, this world of social elitism, is not for him, and he remembers why he dislikes Nassau: “Everyone was too rich. The winter visitors and the residents who had houses on the island talked of nothing but their money, their diseases, and their servant problems.... The winter crowd were all too old to have love affairs and, like most rich people, too cautious to say anything malicious about their neighbors” (76). In his criticism, Bond reveals that he carries a fundamental perception of Nassau’s society, an absolutist view that makes us wonder if it is nothing more than a curtain, a veil of illusion, that prevents him from seeing things in their actuality. Put another way, with his observation, he is unaware of the illusion he is casting at the moment. In careful understatement, Fleming sets various themes in the opening scene: illusions abound and, in the midst of it all, there is a need for people—as suggested by the rose chintz sofa—to seek warmth and solace in the world.
Bond sets off the central event of the story—the anecdote concerning the civil servant Philip Masters—when, during the conversation with the Governor, he makes the “careless and slightly mendacious remark about marrying an air hostess” (the type of woman who is “‘always smiling and wanting to please,’” according to Bond). The comment inspires the Governor to suggest that the idea is based on illusion: “‘I suppose it has occurred to you that these air hostesses are only trained to please, that they might be quite different when they’re not on the job, so to speak’” (78-79). He then rambles on about young Philip Masters who once worked for him, a bland socially awkward individual who meets a flight attendant during a trip from Nigeria to London. Suddenly the world has changed for the hapless civil servant. Any life can be disrupted by the urgency of passion, and not long afterwards, the two marry. As the Governor recounts, the marriage is based on the foundation of illusions: “‘Life had become a fairy tale for him,’” the Governor notes, implying that some darkness was lying ahead. Rhoda, for her part, had leaped into her own illusion, as Bond suspects wryly and to which the Governor agrees:
It is disastrous, this marriage. They start to get into each other’s way, and Rhoda develops a vague memory of being married and starts a blatant affair, ridiculing Masters in the British community in Bermuda. In his revenge, the cuckold Masters manages to ruin her financially and socially before divorcing her and leaving the island. The title gains significance when the Governor describes, by his own admission, a rather pretentious theory about human relations:
First published in Modern Woman magazine in November 1959, the tale is refreshing, a throwback to the kind of story-within-a-story anecdote one finds from Somerset Maugham—and not surprisingly; for Fleming was an ardent fan of Maugham and kept in touch with the old man of letters, an interaction that led Fleming to negotiate to have Maugham's Ten Novels and Their Authors serialized in the Sunday Times. 2 In Fleming's story, the account of a marriage in shambles may have been motivated by Fleming's own turbulent marriage to Ann Rothermere, and to which he may have sought to grasp through the Governor's theory that all human relations, in order to work effectively, require one fundamental element—at the very least, a degree of respect and compassion for the other to form a basis of comfort, of humanity, in the relationship.
Putting it negatively, the Governor seems to be saying that all human relations is based on conflict; that, unless a degree of humanity exists between individuals, clashes are inevitable because human interaction is inextricably fueled by a power struggle in which one person seeks to gain ascendancy over another—with especially catastrophic results in the case of Masters and his wife. Rhoda begins to feel powerless and trapped, conditions that only motivate a person to go at any lengths to assert oneself. Whereas previously “things went along like a marriage bell for six months or so” (85), there is the sudden shift into marital discord, as the Governor’s tale reminds us again of life’s brevity. The fairy tale that Philip Masters and Rhoda Llewellyn expected from life vanishes like a dream. There are constant barrages of discontent from Rhoda (“‘It’s awfully dull here all day with nothing to do. You’ll have to get the dinner tonight. I simply can’t be bothered.’”), and it is Masters who “‘cast about desperately for something that would occupy her and make her happy’” (86).
As the marriage deteriorates, we wonder what will happen to Philip Masters. Well, he snaps and it doesn’t take long before he is compelled to assert himself, setting about authoritarian rules in the household. On one level, Fleming seems to draw a parallel between Masters’s attempt to enforce order in his household and the imperialistic rule of British Colonialism. Masters, in essence, represents the forces of Colonialism—just as the Empire, in its spirit of conquest, entered other countries and made them its own, Masters subjugates Rhoda into his ways. He divides the house into areas designated specifically for his wife and himself. He demands that she communicates to him by leaving a note in the bathroom. He “expects his meals to be prepared punctually and placed in the dining room” (92), which he insists his wife can only use when he is finished with it.
On another level, Fleming is presenting a broader view of human relations. Masters has, quite knowingly, asserted himself as lord and master of his domain. This takes us to his surname, which connotes the impulse to control, to achieve the mastery of things. In the hopelessness of love, Fleming seems to say, we can only relate to others through enslaving them. This grim view of human relations has shades of the master-slave notion found in Sartrean existentialism, still the dominant philosophy at the time the 007 books were published and to which Fleming himself may have been influenced. 3
A turbulent world, then, is painted by the Governor—a world of volatile human relations; a world where illusions are shattered, unexpected outcomes suddenly unfold, and the very brevity of life casts the sense of absurd to the point that nothing is substantial, or at least we find ourselves trapped in a world of things that are opaque and difficult to discern. At the very center of it all, we have the cold image of Philip Masters: the dull administrative type, not a “‘particularly clever chap,’” as the Governor puts it, yet schooled in Fettes and Oxford, endeavors that suggest he has been shaped by the institutional workings of society.
The Governor condenses Masters’s biography in a few short moments, his narrative unfolding like a rapid photographic slide-show, and provides the reader, along with Bond, with an exhilarating and compelling character study. We have Masters, the individual formed out of conventions of society. We have Masters, the plodding bureaucrat, “‘hard-working and capable,’” (80), who readily accepts a post in Nigeria, becoming a staunch civil servant who follows the rules but suffers from an undeveloped humanity. We gather he can’t function effectively in society and is ignorant of love—and of life itself: “‘What was to come,’” the Governor explains, “‘fell upon a frustrated young innocent with a warm and unawakened heart and body, and a social clumsiness which made him seek companionship and affection amongst the [inhabitants of Nigeria] instead of in his own world’” (81).
In short, Masters lives a sterile life, encased in the stifling mud of bureaucracy. Like Prufrock, 4 who measured out his life with coffee spoons, this character type is defined and thus trapped by methodical drabness. Even the Governor is woven from the same cloth, as the saying goes, the typical dedicated civil servant, as Bond witnesses early in the story:
The bureaucrat, who by nature relinquishes vitality to submit to routines, is the very kind of individual that Bond finds disconcerting and, in some cases, even loathes. 5 Variations of this character appear in other 007 adventures: he is the guardian of The System, enforcing structures of authority, policies, and the way things are. Recall Paymaster Captain Troop in From Russia, With Love, the Head of Administration at MI6 who, in Bond’s view, is nothing more than the “office tyrant and bugbear and who is cordially disliked by all the staff” (95). In Bond’s introspection, he provides a satirical yet disturbing description of an individual engulfed in bureaucratic routines:
The character reappears as Captain Sender, Bond’s strict by-the-book ally, in the short story “The Living Daylights.” From the moment they meet, we sense Bond’s discomfort with the man, especially with what he represents by sporting an “old school [Wykehamist 6] tie” (71). We see Sender’s cage of bureaucracy, self-interest, and sterile way of life in Bond's impression of the man:
The Wykehamist tie is enough to signal for the introspective Bond an individual who has become quite codified in society, the immediate consequence pointing to how regimented Sender has become and how he has forfeited basic humanity to be, well, your garden-variety prick—vain, arrogant, spiteful, selfish. 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 he finds attractive—a blonde cellist he sees each night through his sniperscope—Captain Sender is uninterested, stating coldly, “‘Didn't notice her’” (85). Like Paymaster Captain Troop, Sender is 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 empty bombed land between East and West Berlin, the haunting imagery that dominates this Cold War tale. 7
The thing about Fleming’s bureaucrats is that they are alive. The best of them, Philip Masters, is understandable once we’ve meet him. Though solitary and dedicated to the thrills of administrative work, Masters has an irresistible urge to plunge into social life, to seek comfort and solace from an actual person. Well, at any rate, he finds it in the arid landscape of Nigeria (again, shades of the waste land imagery). His way of embracing his fellow-men and all humanity is by befriending the locals—so much so that Masters receives a career boost from the progressive Governor of Nigeria, who was “‘pleased to find that he had a junior member of his staff who was already, in his modest sphere, putting something like the Governor’s own views into practice’” (82).
Events change swiftly again: Masters, in his promotion, winds up as the Assistant Secretary to Government in Bermuda. An impressive title, no? Yet it raises something disturbing: his claim to social prestige is based on alienation. Just as he abandoned England for Nigeria, he delves into a career in Bermuda out of having no firm roots that support his life. In this career move, he is atomized in the machine of bureaucratized government. Although his place in his vocation secures a sense of autonomy, Masters is absorbed by bureaucratic routines of the work itself. He cannot break free from the machine. He is, in essence, a component of this entity, a vast impersonal source of power that has a life of its own. Masters takes us to the condition of modern life: the individual is dictated and controlled by human institutions—governments, corporations, the bureaucracy of any organization—and faces the threat of becoming less human as he struggles to grasp his substance, his authentic self, in this atomized state. He is alienated from himself. To our ears today, this threat of alienation comes laden with the stuff of Sartrean existentialism—again, the dominant philosophical thought at the time, its popularity extending into popular culture to the extent that even those “who have never read any of [Sartre’s] works may be influenced, nonetheless, by Sartrean ideas that have trickled down to them from other sources” (Kamber 2). 8
In his storytelling, the Governor shifts events, leaping from Nigeria to London and from London to Bermuda. He calls attention to Masters’s flight to London and the allure of air travel, carefully understating the convenience of flight as the struggle against the pressure of time: “‘It was the early days of the air services to Africa and, for one reason or another, Philip Masters decided to fly home to London and so have a longer home leave than if he had taken ship from Freetown’” (82). Masters, in his elation over the promotion, boards an Imperial Airways 9 flight with a satchel full of exciting administrative forms. Alas, our brave civil servant has never flown before, the poor chap slightly nervous and unable to fasten his seat-belt. Fortunately, comfort comes in the guise of a lovely flight attendant. It is a drastic change for the civil servant: at one moment, his life is devoid of any female company; yet now he is suddenly in the presence of the perfect woman—she is easy on the eyes, eager to make his flight comfortable, and, most of all, willing to show him how to fasten the blasted seat-belt. The meeting of their eyes occurs, that ever mysterious moment in love, and their destiny is set: “‘Once she caught his gaze,’” the Governor explains, “‘and gave him what seemed to him a secret smile’” (83).
It is a believable and poignant scene. In the meeting of their eyes, Fleming pulls off the very human experience of romantic captivation, 10 and in that moment, Masters and Rhoda Llewellyn are suddenly overtaken by passion. As the plane gains altitude in the thick white clouds, I imagine them feeling lighter and lighter in their ecstasy, bound in the illusions that Bond and the Governor discussed early in the anecdote. Unaware of the outcome of their decision, knowing not even an objective understanding of their own actions, they proceed through the marriage with romantic ideals, with expectations of the future. They remind us of the tendency whereby people proceed as if engulfed in thick white clouds, discerning faces, beliefs, ideas, in the swirling patterns, just as Masters does, gazing out of the plane’s window and envisioning Rhoda in “the sea of white clouds below,” studying her apparition “minutely, marveling at her perfection” (83). Illusions are projected onto life; and people fall in love as much with the projection of what they need as they do with the actual person. It is a form of blindness; but this blindness, along with the underlying instability of things, are part of the eternal human condition.
The momentum of the Governor's story never slows. The scenes of Philip Masters's life resemble pictures in rough mosaic, sketched in restless change. The narrative speed gives the effect that every moment in life belongs to the present only for a moment; then it fades into the past. Even the conclusion of the story is abrupt as it segues into the final scene of the main narrative: the Governor “got to his feet and looked at his watch” (96), realizing it is nearly midnight. He and Bond had been unaware of the passage of time, and the evening had taken on a dimension of illusion: the storytelling spanned several hours but to Bond and the Governor, it all unfolded in the space of a few moments. As the Governor escorts Bond out of the house, he condenses events in Masters’s life, summarizing certain outcomes to reach a neat finale.
Masters eventually returns to Nigeria, the only place where he is able to experience any degree of humanity (courtesy of the locals he befriended). Rhoda, on the other hand, stumbles in life, nearly destitute, and ends up as a telephonist in a Jamaican hotel. Years pass and she eventually meets and marries a Canadian millionaire who is staying at the hotel. A happy ending, then, for Rhoda. The Governor attempts to justify this merry-go-round of turmoil in the lives of Philip Masters and Rhoda Llewellyn by giving an explanation for their sufferings: “‘Life’s a devious business. Perhaps for all the harm she’d done to Masters, Fate decided that she had paid back enough.... Now Fate reimbursed her for her services’” (98). His comment reminds us by implication of something that the tale does not show: it is vain to seek a meaning for suffering in one’s life, because human events are indefinable, incapable of measurement, pointing eventually to absurdity as they steer away from our original intentions. Whatever Rhoda Llewellyn and Philip Masters expected from life were quickly lost, and they never regained control of their marriage. This instability is the price we pay for the indefiniteness of our nature.
The final scene of the main narrative occurs outside, at the “wide entrance gates to the grounds of Government House” (97) where the sentry salutes Bond and the Governor. Is it a coincidence that Fleming sets the ending near the gated entrance? Perhaps. An analysis of the scene might yield thematic details, or it might simply yield mild nausea, or even kitsch-making interpretation. Nevertheless, if we look upon this gated entrance as imagery for entrapment and release, the scene carries a full weight of meaning. Beyond the gate lies “the huddle of narrow streets and pretty clapboard houses with gingerbread gables and balconies that is Nassau” (97). It is a moment of passage for Bond, moving from the cage of bureaucratized government to the world outside. The Governor then expounds the denouement of his anecdote, revealing the dramatic twist that Rhoda Llewellyn was one of the “dull” dinner guests that very evening and James Bond had sat next to her. In a single moment, the Governor shatters Bond’s illusion that the winter crowd in Nassau were uninteresting people. Bond realizes that surfaces can be deceptive, and genuine human drama lies at the heart of everyday living, sometimes hidden from view but holding the tribulations and sorrows that are the very stuff of life:
The sentry opens the gate, and Bond thanks the Governor for the story, even asserting that he must “‘pay more attention to people’” (98). Again, the gate imagery comes into play when we realize that Bond is released from his illusions in this moment of understanding. He had been looking at a pre-conceived world but the curtain of illusion that draped over his eyes has been torn, revealing what it hides and showing the world in a new way. Moreover, the exploits of his calling seem hollow compared to this tale of agonized marriage: “[Bond] reflected on the conference he would be having in the morning with the Coast Guard and the FBI in Miami. The prospect, which had previously interested, even excited him, was now edged with boredom and futility” (99).
In this moonlit night, he is awakened to the hard truth that his profession is meaningless and insignificant, even pointing to a sense of illusion for not being the intriguing thing that he thought it to be. A deep sense of solitude coils him: Bond walks down the empty “quiet street toward the harbor and the British Colonial Hotel” (98-99). Bond is the alienated individual, dissociated from what he had thought himself to be and overtaken by boredom, the sensation of worthlessness and vanity, in his hollow life. His boredom recalls the Governor’s final line at the gated entrance: “‘Life in the Colonial Service,’” the Governor admits, “‘is very humdrum’” (98). The comment suggests that the Governor had come to this truth long ago, and this shared expression of ennui suggests the emptiness in both their lives. When illusions are shattered, we are able to see how we have been attached to superficialities, to shadow rather than to substance. The real is accepted as whatever enters our senses. We are unaware that we are hemmed in by illusions, living with tenuous knowledge and false and superficial ideals—illusions that turn us into hollow men; illusions that rip through us to the point that we are poisoned by feelings of alienation from the other, by feelings of hostility that arise when any amount of humanity, compassion, and solace no longer exist in human relations.
By no means all readers will agree in finding illusions and human conflict to be such inseparable features of life as Fleming seems to suggest in this tale. And as we gather from his rich biographical material, Fleming himself—the well-traveled journalist, the bon vivant—had an outlook far less gloomy than that implied by Fleming the storyteller. Rather may we marvel first and foremost at the skill with which this bleak outlook has been used as a platform to stage the human predicament. The result is a story told with such economy, precision, and so much humanity.
|1||An elegant Georgian mansion atop Mt. Fitzwilliam, Government House overlooks Nassau and has been the official residence of the Governor General of The Bahamas since 1801.|
|2||As a work of literary criticism, Ten Novels and Their Authors presents Somerset Maugham’s analysis of the lives and masterpieces of ten great novelists. At the time Maugham was developing the book, Fleming was a journalist at the Sunday Times.|
|3||According to Sartre, in all our human relationships, we end up either enslaving the other or being enslaved. In his play No Exit, Satre presents three characters, a man and two women. They are dead and have been sent to hell where they face the horror that they are one another’s torture—to torture one another for all eternity. As the male character says, “Hell is—other people!” (Sartre)|
|4||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" (51-52), 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.|
|5||Early in the story, we sense Bond’s discomfort with the Governor—both men, in fact, are uneasy with one another, each “faced with one more polite hour before they could go gratefully to their beds, each relieved that he would never have to see the other again” (77).|
|6||Wykehamist is a term for a student or alumni of Winchester College, a private secondary school in Winchester, Hampshire, England.|
|7||For an in-depth analysis of the waste land imagery in “The Living Daylights,” refer to the essay “The Living Daylights”: Bond in the Waste Land.|
|8||I suspect Fleming, the serious book collector, the well-read journalist, was caught up in the haunting thoughts of Sartre. The philosopher’s first novel, Nausea (1938), as well as his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), catapulted the diminutive Frenchman into stardom, becoming a very influential force in twentieth-century existentialist philosophy. For the next decade or so, it was vogue to talk about Sartre—his ideas captivated artists, writers, social scientists, and political activists, as well as legions of college students and dropouts who had plenty of spare time to sit in cafés, dressed in black, honoring the great philosopher by brooding over how it feels to be alive and hopeless.|
|9||An early British commercial airline. In November 1939, Imperial and British Airways Ltd were merged into British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).|
|10||The meeting of the eyes: This enigmatic moment has been celebrated throughout literature. We need take no more note of it than of the scene in Dante’s Inferno wherein Paolo and Francesca set eyes on each other after reading about the first kiss of Lancelot and Guinevere. “Time and again,” Francesca says wistfully, “our eyes were brought together / by the book we read; our faces flushed and paled. / To the moment of one line alone we yielded” (Canto V, 130-132). They are no longer able to read the book that day and, in the beginning of their love, they begin their own fall. Fleming obviously makes no allusion to Dante in “Quantum of Solace”; but the British author seems to be aware of such character moments and their effectiveness as a dramatic device.|