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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars overly long, tedious, not very readable, August 23, 2008
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This review is from: Ian Fleming (Paperback)
I had already read the John Pearson biography of Ian Fleming (Alias James Bond-The Life Of Ian FLeming.) when I picked up this Andrew Lycett biography. Because blurbs and reviews of this biography praised it for the access Lycett had, I was looking forward to something more about Fleming's internal life and motivations and more details and first-person accounts of the interesting experiences Fleming did have. I was severely disappointed.

In the Acknowledgements section of this book Lycett thanks Pearson "for material he collected for his book The Life of Ian Fleming." The influence of the Pearson material seems prevalent throughout. Pearson seems to have set the standard for the depth of investigation and the extent of informed speculation, and there are even trivialities that are related in such a way that it seems Lycett and Pearson were writing from the same material. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Lycett almost seems to have simply removed the whitewash from Pearson's book.

The whitewash is mostly related to sexual matters. For example, Pearson makes it clear that Fleming seduced many women, but Lycett relates the seduction of the wife of one Fleming's friends, soon after the marriage, in which Fleming was supposed to be best man. Likewise, Pearson surgically removed Blanche Blackwell from Fleming's life and obscured many unsavory facts about Fleming's wife Ann. Lycett puts these matters on display, but there is no probing of them for understanding. Fleming was involved with a number of Jewish women, made literary connections with progressives and communists, and lived by choice in Jamaica, but was pseudo-conservative, staunchly pro-British and pro-empire. How were all these things related in Fleming's psychology?

The parallels between the Pearson and Lycett biographies also extend to the things left out. Take, for example, the occult and homosexuality. Fleming's novel "Live and Let Die" makes his interest in these two topics clear. Pearson mentions in passing a personal connection with (bisexual occultist) Aleister Crowley. The book jacket to the Lycett mentions Fleming's interest in astrology. The Lycett book contains a quote from Fleming's wife Ann referring to his "homosexuality." But neither Pearson or Lycett discusses these connections with any depth. Astrology does not even appear in Lycett's extensive index, despite its appearance on the jacket.

On the flip side, as other Amazon reviewers have noted, Lycett's book suffers from an overabundance of useless detail. There are so many small ones--and Lycett writes so implicatively--that "important" facts are often glossed over. For example, in a web article, I found Lycett referring to Lisl Jokl as Fleming's first love, although that fact is totally lost in the biography. It's hard to understand what Lycett's motivation was in writing. There is no Fleming studies industry that is going to benefit from so much detail, and it is a mistake from a literary perspective. Contrary to what some other reviewers have written, Fleming did not live an interesting life. In fact, much of the book is filled with the tedium of betrayals, double-betrayals, law-suits, failed business ventures and the like. And the interesting parts, such as Fleming's dinner with JFK, are often given surprisingly little attention. Pearson dealt with all the boredom in Fleming's life by writing thematically rather than strictly chronologically, showing how Fleming's life influenced the James Bond novels. That was a much better technique.

Another drawback to Lycett's book is his scant use of quotation. Pearson quotes a paragraph from a doctor's report on Fleming's heart, whereas Lycett deals with the same episode by summarizing in his own words. That technique is fine for short and/or topically-oriented works, but in a "definitive biography" of great length, an author needs to let the cast speak in the their own voices as much as possible. This can get frustrating, as in Lycett's very meager treatment of Operation Golden Eye (of interest to 007 fans, of course): "His letter to [Admiral] Godfrey from the British Embassy on his return to Lisbon underlined his extraordinary autonomy and initiative." What? What did he write to Admiral Godfrey?

My sense is that most people who would be interested in reading this book would end up skimming large portions of it or getting bogged down and not finishing. Although I understand that the desire of 007 fans to ogle isn't justification for exposing people's lives in a biography, one has to ask why a biography of Ian Fleming would have been written were it not for 007. To my mind, although Lycett's book is large and, in some ways, more honest than Pearson's, a definitive biography of Ian Fleming is yet to be written.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 3, 2009 5:49:48 PM PDT
JEK says:
cxlxmx's review is spot on! The only thing I would add is that maybe its possible that the subjects not dealt with, or vaguely delt with, in the book are due to lack of varification.

Posted on Oct 17, 2012 2:19:28 AM PDT
Crowley was an MI-6 double agent and Fleming was his last handler. Most of those legendary spies were bisexual.
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