I’ll Have What He’s Having: Food in le Carré and Fleming.

I have been reading some fairly heavy stuff recently. Kafka (In the Penal Colony), Hosbawm (The Age of Extremes), and Batuman (The Possessed, which contained lots of info new to me that I had to process). I decided to read something lighter and picked up a copy of Call for the Dead, which was a mistake, but I got a copy recently and was interested to see George Smiley’s first appearance. Ok, it was horrifying and tragic and very bleak. What’s the same kind of thing but much lighter?

James Bond.

I’d first started reading the James Bond stories after finishing university. I read the first six in a row and then stopped after my interest faded (because let’s face it, they are all pretty much the same). The next one on the list is Goldfinger.

It’s very easy to compare and contrast John le Carré and Ian Fleming, considering that they both wrote spy fiction during the Cold War. James Bond is the sexy one, George Smiley the ugly operator. James Bond drives an Aston Martin, and George Smiley drives something so nondescript I can’t remember it. James Bond can have any woman he wants, George Smiley is introduced to us as a man who pines after the wife who left him.

This is all appropriate considering James Bond is largely a male power fantasy and George Smiley is a more realistic construction of the kind of grey, sad man who would have worked in intelligence in real life. But something occurred to me while I was reading the first half of Goldfinger, and that is that the author’s different attitudes towards their creations is evident nowhere more strongly than in the manner in which they eat.

I noticed this because Goldfinger was making me hungry, thirsty, and constantly in need of a cigarette. Bond almost never stops drinking, is always smoking, and when he eats, he eats not because he has to, but because there is something good on and he wants to. George Smiley’s eating is always utilitarian, and even the club he goes to is one he goes to largely because a gentleman ought to have a club. John le Carré’s characters eat as a function of being human. Ian Fleming’s characters eat for pleasure. Bear in mind (particularly with Fleming) that these books were aimed at people who remembered rationing. A fantasy life to someone in that time and place would definitely have included being able to eat as much as you wanted of whatever you wanted.

George Smiley still smokes though. A lot. Call for the Dead made me want a cigarette every other page. Bond smokes too, but his real poison is drink. In the first few pages of Goldfinger, he drinks three double whiskies, shortly afterwards two double martinis, and then some pink champagne. Unless he was an alcoholic with a really high tolerance, he wouldn’t be able to function at all, let alone engage in a game of wits, shoot straight, or have sex. But he is an alcoholic (and is also a fantasy), so there you go.

I haven’t finished Goldfinger yet, but I bet it’s going to keep making me hungry. Call for the Dead, sad as it is, just made me crave nicotine and silence. It says something that one of James Bond’s enduring symbols is the martini just the way he likes it, whereas with George Smiley, it’s the lighter his wife gave him that gets taken by Karla.

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