Enemy Action: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”

Fleming, Ian (2002), Goldfinger, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-200204-9

This is one of dozens of new editions of the James Bond novels. It’s safe to say that everyone will have seen at least one of the movies made on the basis of the novels and stories penned by Ian Fleming, former Navy commander. Most of the movies have clearly ascended to the rank of classics by now, and so have the novels. Since I suspected that their classic status was conferred upon them not by virtue of literary quality but on account of the influence that these novels exerted over not just British but world literature (and influence, as we well know, does not per se make for good reading) I have not read any of these books yet. So, on a whim in December, I went and bought Goldfinger, since that always used to be one of my favorite movies. This book took me ages to finish and bored my socks off. It’s not a complete disaster, though. There are a few interesting issues in the novel.

The first issue is racism. Ian Fleming’s novels are infamous for being both racist and misogynist, to such an extent that these things had to be toned down in the movies, and we’re talking about a series of movies here that are both racist and misogynist, so that’s quite something to say. The novel appears to disappoint these expectations right at the beginning: when the character of Goldfinger is introduced, a decadent, rich, greedy man with a name that is close to stereotypical Jewish names, Fleming directly addresses his readers. He points out explicitly that Goldfinger is not Jewish, but Latvian. Clearly Fleming knows what his antisemitic readers would expect or assume. He does not interrogate these attitudes or assumptions, he does not criticize them in any way, he merely acknowledges their existence. That is enough, however, to issue this book with a peculiar context. It tells us, or suggests to us how to read certain other passages, such as this one:

Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.

Since Fleming knows that he can rely on the less savory instincts on the part of his readers, the explicit way this is formulated points to the fact that the important part of this passage is not the racism but “in Bond’s estimation”. This is especially relevant, since some other prejudice, concerning both women and homosexuality, is brought up in a casual manner and not reflected at all by the narrator.

Thus, this racism is part of Fleming’s characterization of Bond. The agent with the license to kill is shown to be a rather simple, old-fashioned conservative, with a distaste for the modern world, with its streaks of decadence and the tendency towards cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Bond, the tireless traveler, who speaks multiple languages and can handle several countries’ cultural customs, is a well-garbed nationalist, a leftover imperialist, who mourns his country’s demise and is slowly but surely turning into a cultural pessimist. The less than favorable depictions of Americans attest to that. He is linked to his enemy, Goldfinger, by their mutual distaste for modern paper money, if they need to have it at all. Bond hands away huge amounts of money without blinking an eye and Goldfinger doesn’t actually care about the monetary value of his gold, he craves gold both as an object and as a means to achieve something. Build a house, train servants, win. There is but one major difference between the two, as constructed in the novel’s black-and-white world: Goldfinger’s a commie.

Goldfinger, published in 1959, at the end of that era of American politics known as McCarthyism. The basic methodological idea of McCarthyism corresponds to the basic methodological idea of the Inquisition: the accusation is the best proof the prosecution needs. The accusation is enough as it is. The epistemological method of the novel at hand works in the same way. Once the idea that Goldfinger works for the Soviets is lodged in Bond’s brain, it immediately turns to fact. He came up with the idea by pure conjecture, there was nothing pointing in that direction that would have justified coming up with that connection, yet as the novel progresses we find out that, yes, indeed, Goldfinger is a commie. Clearly the novel shares certain ideas about communism with luminous contemporaries (well, almost) such as McCarthy; it turns these common ideas, that even today are shared by center and right wing politicians, into personal faults of Goldfinger.

The novel is not well written, by any measure. It is, however, interestingly constructed. Its concept of truth and proof is not the only aspect worth mentioning. Another one is its use of suspense and action. The novel is plainly not interested in block buster action. There is plenty of that, but it’s crammed into surprisingly few pages, especially when we consider the amount of space that is devoted to a simple game of cards or golf or a meeting of thugs and gangsters. All of these scenes, and many more, are not about action but upon the suspense that is culled from a so-called battle of wills. I forget which famous writer (Clausewitz? Bah who cares.) said it, but it has been said that a battle is decided the moment it starts. This is the case in Goldfinger as well. In the game of golf or in a demonstration in Goldfinger’s mansion we see battle lines drawn, we see troops marshalled, we see two generals facing off. The actual fighting is decided the very moment the troops embark. When Goldfinger tells his foe:

Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

he is saying that even the first two events, a game of cards and the aforementioned game of golf, have been enemy action already. My tolerance for boredom is rather low, so I won’t be doing it, but it’s certainly worthwhile to read through Fleming’s oeuvre in order to monitor it for these battle lines, for the net of suspicion and subterfuge before the first shot is fired. If you have limited time for reading, I cannot recommend this book, but if you can spare the time, it is certainly worth a peek.

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One thought on “Enemy Action: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”

  1. An amazing review, particularly since you readily admit that the book “bored your socks off.” How can you write such a wonderful write-up on a book that offered you so little? I wish I could do as well.

    I’ll make more remarks later.
    Usually, I wait until I have something much more profound to say than this. However, I just felt like telling you how impressed I was right away.

    I hope that’s alright ;).

    ~Alexis

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