Biographies are all very well but what you really want to do is give Charon your life’s savings, cross the river Acheron, follow the trail of blighted birch trees to the outer circle where Mr Fleming can be found, ply him with a few martinis, stand over him with a stiff cane and force him to answer your questions.
“Ian old boy,” I began, trying to put him at his ease him with an easy Etonian familiarity, “now that you’re dead, and James Bond has left a more profitable and enduring legacy than anything Anne’s friends could muster, tell me the truth. You tried really hard with those novels of yours, didn’t you?”
“Don’t get me started on Anne’s friends,” he drawled, idly lighting one of his Morland cigarettes from a guttering pile of charred flails. “It’s true that the international flotsam and jetsam of Anne’s set liked to rag me about my books. Her literary cronies thought them nothing more than the crude sex-longings of a frustrated sadist.”
“Which may have helped their popularity,” I suggested.
“Willie Maugham liked them,” he said, with a gleam of nostalgia in his hooded eyes.
“He refused to make his admiration public, didn’t he?”
“Ray Chandler offered to put his praise on a gold slab for me.”
“Ah, Raymond Chandler. Few question his literary reputation. The poet of the private eye genre.”
“He called me the most forceful and driving writer of thrillers in England.”
“But he thought you could do better, didn’t he?”
“It’s true he wanted me to raise my sights. He seemed to think I had it in me to write proper novels and I was just being lazy about it. He couldn’t care less about my pain. If you’ve never had sciatica –”
“I think Chandler told you what you can do with your sciatica,” I said.
He drew sharply on his cigarette and I couldn’t be sure in the half-light of that infernal place whether he was grimacing in pain or pleasure. “The truth was,” he said with feeling, “my talents were extended to their absolute limits in writing books like Diamonds are Forever and From Russia with Love.”
“But what classics of the genre they are!” I replied. “You actually succeeded, after all, don’t you think, in your ambition of writing the definitive espionage novel?”
“My books were nothing more in the end than straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety. It’s what you would expect of an adolescent mind — which I happen to possess.”
“You said of your first one, Casino Royale, that you tossed it off with only half your brain.”
“I was worried that people might think it a dreadful oafish opus,” he said.
“Chandler thought it was your best.”
“Yes, yes, I can see that. Yes, it probably was,” he said, staring darkly into the dwindling flames at his feet. “But Live and Let Die was as serious a novel,” he said. “And every bit as good in my opinion.”
“Were you plagued by self-doubts?” I asked him.
“How did you keep up your morale? I mean apart from stripping the clothes off beautiful young women and thrashing them to within an inch of their lives?”
He paused dreamily, either pondering on an image from happier times or else thinking up an answer that would do justice to the seriousness of my question. “Writing is an arduous process,” he said at last. “You are constantly depressed by the progress of your opus and feel that it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint.”
“You wrote every day?”
“I wasn’t the lazy Shakespeare that Chandler supposed.”
“Were you consciously trying to be brilliant when you wrote?”
“Never on the first draft. Never mind about the brilliant phrase or the golden word. Once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please.”
“Is that some practical advice for all novelists?”
“For all writers. Let’s not be snobbish and think only of novelists, dear boy. Writers should never be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do. ”
“So how do you make it less raw at the revision stage?”
“Try and remember the weather and smells and sensations and pile in every kind of contemporary detail.”
“What about getting advice from a friend?”
“I’d say don’t let anyone see the manuscript — certainly not anyone who belongs to any kind of literary coterie — until you are well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading; it’s the total package that matters.”
“And you certainly delivered the total package,” I said.
“Yes. In as much as after my death I made for my heirs the fortune that always eluded me while I was alive.” He coughed chaotically, threw his cigarette to the flames and extracted another from an elegant gunmetal case.
I looked around anxiously for Charon, wondering where to wait for the return trip. Somehow he’d forgotten to mention it when he dropped me on this side of the river’s desolate banks.
When I turned my head again, Ian Fleming had melted into darkness.