A Quantum of Solace: Lockdown, Luxury, and a New Perspective on Bond

[Jason Haslam and Julia M. Wright, editors of the new Broadview edition of Casino Royale, share their thoughts on the novel, luxury, and our current moment of lock down scarcity.]

When we first agreed to write a blog on Casino Royale, COVID-19 was a serious virus spreading around the world but not yet a pandemic. We were not in lockdown; PPE was not a regular item on the daily news; borders were not closed. After the pandemic was declared by the WHO, writing a blog about a 1953 novel seemed distant, even inappropriate, while we were all working together on the serious matter of flattening the curve and fearing for the lives of healthcare professionals, grocery store workers, people in long-term care, and so many others around the world.

But Casino Royale does have several things to say to us in this historical moment. Again before the pandemic, we had thought to discuss the ways in which the novel, written just eight years after the end of World War II, deals with foreign powers (notably the USSR, USA, and UK) interfering in the internal affairs of allies and enemies alike, in ways that still reverberate in the types of disinformation campaigns and election meddling we see now. The novel, and Fleming’s larger body of work, also speak to the entanglements of racism and sexism in a growing surveillance culture, including in what that culture leaves unmonitored.

In the grips of the pandemic, however, what leaps out from the novel as well is its reflection on the details of the war years—details still reverberating almost a decade after peace was declared. These references in the novel speak to the experiences not only of those who fought in the military or served as spies, but also of those on the so-called “home front.” Food shortages and rationing were only just coming to an end when the novel was published (rationing was in force from 1940-1954). Loved ones were far away, and in danger. Extensive bombing in London meant that many residents had to sleep in subway tunnels. It must have been a terrifying experience, to try and sleep while the ground shakes above you. People with access to land planted “victory gardens” to soften food shortages as well as contribute to the war effort.

Well, victory gardens are back, though more as a way of keeping busy and avoiding supermarkets—a buffer against the mental health challenges we are facing because of isolation, anxiety, and, in too many cases, grief. So how did Casino Royale react to the ongoing effects of World War II? The short answer is this: through a combination of luxuriating in what was possible again, and a frank look at the physical and psychological toll the war had taken. Most of this is embedded in the details of the text, as much as its larger plot is grounded in the post-war geopolitics.

Fleming became much more famous for his attention to luxury items: the perfectly tailored suit, the expensive cars, and the fancy hotels in exotic locations. But imagine reading this in Casino Royale after thirteen years of tight food rationing: “He looked out at the beautiful day and consumed half a pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon and a double portion of coffee without sugar.” Bacon was one of the first items to be rationed in 1940; eggs were rationed from 1941, and many people were limited to one egg per week. Imports such as oranges and coffee were even harder to get. For a time, the only healthy people with access to orange juice were either pregnant or very young. Bond’s breakfast is a feast forbidden for years under rationing. Even Bond’s racing-quality Bentley, kept “in careful storage through the war,” invokes a return to pre-war excesses after years of gas rationing. Just as the novel says of post-war vacation spots, Bond himself is a function of a “Nostalgia for more spacious, golden times,” something Fleming realized “might be a source of revenue.”

As much as later renditions of Bond, both by Fleming and in the films, emphasized the luxury while moving away from the reasons for lingering on it, they also emphasized his heroic masculinity while downplaying the trauma from which it derived. The infamous torture scene, where Bond is brutalized while tied to a cane-chair, is the primary stand-in for the trauma inflicted on a generation of soldiers, a material and psychological reality that the villain, Le Chiffre, recognizes all too well when he tells Bond not to “believe what you read in novels or books about the war.”

Nor is the trauma restricted to Bond. After Bond’s physical recovery, Fleming presents a cluster of war-wounds in a restaurant: a “friend who . . . lost an eye,” brought to mind by a man at another table with a similar injury, and the restaurant proprietor who lost an arm. After “casually” talking about these injuries, including a sympathetic remark about “The strain of keeping that [eye-]patch in place all day long,” Bond and the proprietor “talked about the war.” An eye-patch and an “empty sleeve” pull all of these men together into a circle of recognition, even community, defined through their shared war-trauma. Vesper’s final reflections on her life likewise centre the effect of the war on herself and her former lover. While the most recent film version of Casino Royale comes closest to grasping the psychological dynamics of trauma lying behind Bond’s heroic, masculine posturing (refracting it for a post 9-11 world), the novel, and some of the other examples of the literary Bond we present in our edition, make it much more direct.

So, how will the film, television, and literature to follow COVID-19 process the experience of the pandemic, and even shape our response to it? What will we miss that these future texts will savor as luxuries? Will there be long, lingering descriptions of crowded grocery stores or restaurants, or more works featuring travel to cities? What memories and traumatic echoes will continue to shape our lives and our interactions with others? Will we be shaken, or stirred? That is, will our imaginative responses lead to a resurgence of the kind of traumatized nostalgia of Bond, or a more forward-directed vision of change and recovery? Will we, as Bond does before gambling, “dismiss[] the future completely from [our] mind[s],” or will we find, as the story of the title says, a “quantum of solace” in our “common humanity”? 

Posted on June 25, 2020