The iron crab

Sean Varner
Baltimore, Maryland, USA

 

Fleming’s epitaph, “Omnia perfunctus vitae praemia, marces,” translated as “Having enjoyed all life’s prizes, you now decay,” comes from On the Nature of Things Book Three by Lucretius which explores the fear of death. Fleming suggested the following epitaph for Bond: “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Photo credit: Andy Dolman, CC BY SA 2.0

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face.
—Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice

In 1955 the thriller writer Ian Fleming traveled to Istanbul for an Interpol conference, which at first he found “spectacularly dull.”1 This was to change dramatically on the evening of 6 September when a series of violent, organized attacks — known now as the Istanbul pogrom — was carried out upon the city’s Greek minority.2 A curious Fleming slipped away from his hotel and went down into the city, where he reported that “hatred erupted and ran through the streets like lava.”3 The following morning a Turkish ship owner named Nazim Kalkavan, horrified at what impression the violence must have made, invited the Interpol delegates to his villa on the Bosphorous.4 Kalkavan and Fleming fast proved kindred spirits, the latter so taken with the Oxford-educated Turk that he wrote down fragments of what Kalkavan had said, subsequently giving much of the material verbatim to the character of Darko Kerim in what was to be his next novel, From Russia With Love.5

Of the many words taken from Kalkavan, however, none were so important to Fleming as those uttered one morning over breakfast. Quickly scribbled down on a scrap of official paper from the Turkish Criminal Police Commision is the following:

K. I have always smoked and drunk and loved too much. In fact I have lived not too long but too much. One day the Iron Crab will get me. Then I shall have died of living too much.6

In From Russia With Love, Fleming transposes this into Kerim’s dialogue:

But I am greedy for life. I do too much of everything all the time. Suddenly one day my heart will fail. The Iron Crab will get me as it got my father. But I am not afraid of The Crab. At least I shall have died from an honourable disease. Perhaps they will put on my tombstone ‘This Man Died from Living Too Much.’7

Kalkavan’s expression, this “iron crab,” quenched something in Fleming. The words were a metaphor that Fleming would cling to in facing some of his fears with dignity. For as his first biographer John Pearson noted, Fleming dealt with anxiety about heart disease and had “never before heard it called ‘the iron crab.’ The phrase haunted him.”8 In fact Fleming had been worried about his heart for nearly a decade. During autumn 1946, complaining of “constricting pain,” he had secretly visited a New York specialist to whom he admitted smoking seventy cigarettes a day and drinking at least a quarter bottle of gin.9 The doctor told him to stop smoking and drinking, advice which Fleming ignored.10 “Ian had always been so strong and so full of life that he took his health entirely for granted,” one friend later explained.11

Indeed, as a boy Fleming had been an exceptional athlete, crowned his school’s sports champion two years running. He was so proud of this achievement that he boasted of it decades hence in the blurb to his first novel.12 As an adult Fleming still had an “insatiable capacity for physical exertion,” according to his friend Ernie Cuneo, who told the story of Fleming’s visit to his home in Vermont, where Fleming had insisted the two of them should climb the 880-foot Goose Egg Mountain. Having hiked up and back, Cuneo was wiped out. Fleming, meanwhile, took an hour-long swim in the nearby lake before walking the mile and a half back to Cuneo’s farm.13

As his few biographers have commented, this impetus toward action was so integral to Fleming’s vigor for living, which was in turn so integral to who he was, and who he was so integral to the character of James Bond, that each of his fourteen Bond books becomes partly a window into his condition at the time of its writing.

In Casino Royale, we find his secret agent alter-ego smoking and drinking at a rate equally prodigious to his own (Bond lights his “seventieth cigarette of the day”),14 all the while displaying an extraordinary capacity for fitness. Having survived an extensive and brutal torture, for instance, Bond’s doctor congratulates him. “‘Few men,'” he says, “‘could have supported what you have been through…'”15 For these early novels, Bond is continuously smoking and drinking and still maintaining the same high level of wellness. In Live and Let Die, Bond is able to “swim two miles without tiring;”16 in Moonraker his face is “lean,” his body “lithe and brown;”17 in Diamonds Are Forever, Bond describes himself as a “healthy body.”18

Only with From Russia with Love, concurrent with Fleming’s own health taking a noticeable turn for the worse, does Bond begin to show his first signs of deterioration. Moonraker‘s imagery of the “quick tight clasp” of Bond’s arms embracing a beautiful woman now becomes the “blubbery arms of the soft life,” which have Bond around the neck and are “slowly strangling” him.19 On completing this manuscript, Fleming visited his doctor displaying “greater exhaustion than is natural in a man of his age.”20 Fleming was now also suffering chronic pain from kidney stones and sciatica. When he escaped to Jamaica the following winter to pen Doctor No, he must have had doctors and pain in the forefront of his mind, for they are a theme which runs through that book, not least of all with its title. Moreover, at the beginning, Sir James Molony, a famous neurologist who has been treating Bond for poisoning, discusses the subject philosophically. “We know very little about [pain]. You can’t measure it…”21 Leading into the climax, the other, eponymous doctor prepares to submit Bond to a pain endurance test. “I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure.”22 Elsewhere, Bond has “pain lines” on his face and plainly admits, “I’m not as fit as I ought to be.”23

Soon after completing From Russia with Love Fleming decided to check himself into Enton Hall, a health farm in Surrey;24 four years later, Bond’s gradual wearing down having been made more apparent in each book, Thunderball would see Bond himself forced to check into a health farm, his medical report no longer satisfactory: “Despite many previous warnings he admits to smoking sixty cigarettes a day,” his tongue is furred, his blood pressure nudged to 160/90, and he is admitting to frequent occipital headaches.25 Bond’s step backward was met by Fleming’s: weeks after Thunderball’s publication the iron crab took its first swipe at him. Fleming suffered his first heart attack at the monthly Sunday Times conference and was rushed to the London Clinic, where he spent a month recuperating.26 “I am glad to say,” Fleming wrote to his American publisher, “that while the iron crab made quite a sharp pass at me, he missed with the major claw.”27

Fleming was now, as Matthew Parker put it, “clearly a man in the grip of the doctors.”28 Published the same year Fleming suffered his second, fatal heart attack, You Only Live Twice features a Bond who has “taken good health for granted” and secretly spends months looking for any doctor that can make him feel better.30 Returning to help is Sir James Molony, to whom Bond admits that “all his zest had gone. That he wasn’t interested in his job any more, or even in his life.”31 The prose here recalls a comment the writer Peter Quennell made about Fleming: “As the claws of ‘the iron crab’ tightened around [Fleming’s] heart, he seemed slowly to abandon life … he dismissed all chance of recovery that his doctors offered him, and refused to give up alcohol and tobacco, which had become his only sensory pleasures.”32

From this one might reasonably suggest — and it has been suggested, first of all by the novelist Philip Larkin — that the character of Major Dexter Smythe, from Fleming’s final published work “Octopussy,” is perhaps his most autobiographical.33 “The truth of the matter was that Dexter Smythe had arrived at the frontier of the death-wish.”34 The short story finds Bond sent to question Smythe (“Fifty-four, slightly bald … And he had two coronary thromboses”)35 who murdered an Austrian ski instructor for his gold at the end of the war. Smythe now lives in Jamaica, spends his days swimming, and earns his living by selling off one bit of the gold at a time. All goes well for Smythe until he has his first heart attack, whereupon his doctor rations him to ten cigarettes and two ounces of whisky per day; nevertheless, Smythe ignores this and “persists in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk” every night.36 In the end Bond gets a confession from Smythe and leaves, warning that the authorities will catch up in about a week — the hanging implication being that suicide remains another option. Mulling this while swimming, Smythe is stung by a scorpion fish. The shock triggers a heart attack. An octopus of whom Smythe has become fond spots him and moves in on him and drags him down into the depths.

The octopus is not the iron crab, but still some other form of primordial chaos reaching up from the sea, reaching out to claim something precious instead of crush it. The crab might have been waiting for the first life Fleming lead in the world, but for the second one Fleming lead on the page, the octopus was all there was ever going to be.

 

End Notes:

    1. Chancellor, Henry. James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation. London: John Murray, 2005.
    2. Singer, Sean R. “Lost in Translation: James Bond’s Istanbul.” The American Interest 8, no. 3 (December 12, 2012). Accessed April 8, 2018. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2012/12/12/lost-in-translation-james-bonds-istanbul/
    3. Fleming, Ian. “The Great Riot of Istanbul.” Sunday Times (London), September 11, 1955.
    4. Pearson, John. The Life Of Ian Fleming. London: Bloomsbury Reader, 2013.
    5. Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World.
    6. Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming.
    7. Fleming, Ian. From Russia With Love. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
    8. Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming.
    9. Ibid.
    10. Quoted in Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World.
    13. Fleming, Ian, and Fergus Fleming. The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Flemings James Bond Letters. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
    14. Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
    15. Ibid.
    16. Fleming, Ian. Live and Let Die. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
    17. Fleming, Ian. Moonraker. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
    18. Fleming, Ian. Diamonds Are Forever. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
    19. Fleming, From Russia With Love
    20. Quoted in Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming.
    21. Fleming, Ian. Doctor No. London: Penguin, 2002.
    22. Ibid.
    23. Ibid.
    24. Lycett, Andrew. Ian Fleming. New York: St. Martins Press, 2013.
    25. Fleming, Ian. Thunderball. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
    26. Parker, Matthew. Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2015.
    27. Quoted in Parker, Goldeneye.
    28. Parker, Goldeneye.
    29. Fleming, Ian. You Only Live Twice. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
    30. Ibid.
    31. Quoted in Parker, Goldeneye.
    32. Larkin, Philip. “Bond’s Last Case.” The Spectator, July 8, 1966.
    33. Fleming, Ian. Octopussy and The Living Daylights. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
    34. Lycett, Andrew. Ian Fleming. New York: St. Martins Press, 2013.
    35. Ibid.
    36. Ibid.

Bibliography:

  1. Chancellor, Henry. James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation. London: John Murray, 2005.
  2. Fleming, Ian. “The Great Riot of Istanbul.” Sunday Times(London), September 11, 1955.
  3. Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
  4. Fleming, Ian. Doctor No. London: Penguin, 2002.
  5. Fleming, Ian. Moonraker. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  6. Fleming, Ian. Diamonds Are Forever. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  7. Fleming, Ian. From Russia With Love. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  8. Fleming, Ian. Octopussy and The Living Daylights. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
  9. Fleming, Ian. You Only Live Twice. London: Vintage, 2012.
  10. Fleming, Ian, and Fergus Fleming. The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Flemings James Bond Letters. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
  11. Larkin, Philip. “Bond’s Last Case.” The Spectator, July 8, 1966.
  12. Parker, Matthew. Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2015.
  13. Pearson, John. The Life Of Ian Fleming. London: Bloomsbury Reader, 2013.
  14. Singer, Sean R. “Lost in Translation: James Bond’s Istanbul.” The American Interest 8, no. 3 (December 12, 2012). Accessed April 8, 2018. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2012/12/12/lost-in-translation-james-bonds-istanbul/.

 


 

SEAN VARNER is a Maryland-based researcher and traffic accident reconstructionist.

 

Spring 2019 | Hektorama | Literary Essays