James Bond: The Authorised Biography Audio CD Review

James Bond: The Authorised Biography is a 1973 book written by John Pearson that was published in 1973. This is an unabridged audio version narrated by David Rintoul. I've never actually owned or read the book so this was certainly of interest to me although I'd heard a lot about it already. The premise of James Bond: The Authorised Biography is that James Bond is a real person and that M asked an author named Ian Fleming to write novels about him to try and make the Russians believe he was a fictional creation of MI6. SMERSH were out to kill Bond after the events of Casino Royale and this ruse was expressly designed to throw them off the scent and make them feel stupid. The book is a biography of Bond from his birth until the events of Colonel Sun (the 1967 Bond novel written by Kingsley Amis). It's just generally a fun 'nonfiction work of fiction', oddity and experiment, an enjoyable addition to the Bond universe. The book weaves in and out of the events described by Fleming and then adds much more detail about Bond's life - the author clearly enjoying himself with this revisionist take on the iconic character. The structure of the book is that Pearson meets the real James Bond when he is on sick leave in Bermuda and Bond duly tells him about his life. 'So this was Bond, this figure in the shadows. Until this moment I had taken it for granted that I knew him, as one does with any familiar character in what one thought was fiction. I had been picturing him as some sort of superman. The reality was different. There was something guarded and withdrawn about him. I felt that I was seeing an intriguing, unfamiliar face half-hidden by an image I could not forget.'
This is an enjoyable listen for anyone interested in James Bond and read in an unobtrusive and pleasant way by the narrator. One of the things I liked about Pearson's work here is how he offers a much more human James Bond and plugs some of the gaps in what we know about him. Not everything works perfectly with this approach but it's always fun. Pearson tells us the 'truth' about Bond's adeventures and which of the books were completely made up and had no relevance to anything that happened. He also tels us about assignments and escapades by Bond that we don't already know about and some of these are as enjoyable as anything Fleming wrote about. Pearson is rather impressive coming up with villains and writing about 'lost' adventures that Bond had and anyone who manages to get mutant killer desert rats into the world of Bond deserves some sort of award. We also learn that life for a secret agent can have its more fallow periods inbetween missions. Pearson tells us that Bond has done other jobs too and hasn't always been a spy his whole career. He was a troubleshooter for a group of French bankers for four years and survived on his wits in a far flung locale once by romancing lonely rich women. He once even used his famed gambling skills to get by.
These various digressions are always interesting and we even learn how Bond got his famous scar. Other things thrown up here are that the 00 section was formed by M in 1950 and that there was a 007 before Bond got the number. Bond has a son also named James by Kissy Suzuki and his first lover was a brothel keeper and spy! The framing device of Pearson meeting Bond in a shadowy room in Bermuda is though excellent too and very gripping. 'It was a strong face, certainly – the eyes pale-grey and very cold, the mouth wide and hard; he didn’t smile. In some was I was reminded of Fleming’s own description of the man. The famous scar ran down the left cheek like a fault in the terrain between the jaw-line and the corner of the eye. The dark hair, grey streaked now, still fell in the authentic comma over the forehead. But there was something the descriptions of James Bond had not prepared me for – the air of tension which surrounded him. He had the look of someone who had suffered and who was wary of the pain’s return. Even Sir William seemed to be treating him with care as he introduced us. We shook hands.'
This is a fun postmodern twist on Fleming's Bond and probably worthy of the relatively high reputation it has. I'm not too sure about the depiction of M here but many of Pearson's biographical inventions make a surprising amount of sense! He's actually made an efort here to make Bond much more of a real person than Fleming - even in the midst of his spying capers. This audio cd is incredibly long (goes on for hours!) but probably worth getting hold of if you've never owned a copy of the book and like to have something to listen to on the train. I believe the original book was longer than all but one of Fleming's novels, Goldfinger I think, so it's quite good value. 'But James, you never told me,' says a surprise guest. 'You mean your real biography? Isn’t that just what I always said that they should do? I mean those books of Ian’s were ridiculous. I never will be able to forgive him for the way he described me in that dreadful book of his.' The narration is quite intimate which helps I think. You feel like you are privy to a detective unravelling a great secret. It's atmospheric too but never too showy.
It goes without saying though that this is really one that Fleming readers will get the most out and a basic knowledge of the original James Bond books and chronology is esential in order to pick up even a fraction of all the references and little in-jokes.

- Jake

c 2011 Alternative 007