Quantum of Solace - the review
Once I’d heard that the recently announced 22nd Bond film was to adopt this title, I knew Ian Fleming’s short story would shoot to the top of my ‘to read list’. And so it did. I knew nothing of the plot or nature of the story, save for the fact it was a short novelette and inhabited the less popular end of the Bond-works collection.
Quantum of Solace is one of five short stories contained within ‘For your eyes only’. Taken as a whole, the anthology might be seen as a disjointed affair; each story stands almost entirely distinct from every other and the quality at times can feel a little patchy. Still, there’s no doubt that this compilation remains a fertile hotbed for Bond plot ideas.
While these short, unrounded and imbalanced Bond tales are far from being fully developed novels, they are by no means entirely abortive either. Each story stands as a microcosmic Bond tale but the trademark 007 ingredients are all there: death, good living, beautiful girls, exotic locations and intense emotions – you get the idea. If the idea of fast-tracked Bond action appeals – 007 thrust into new, dangerous and exotic scenarios without any superfluous padding – you’ll find rich pickings here.
Fleming was a talented and diverse writer. He had a tendency to experiment, to purposefully and deliberately leave his comfort zone and branch out into new genres or transcend an established formula. After all, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stands a million miles apart from the hard-edged Bond novels. Adopting a female persona for ‘the spy who loved me’ is another case in point.
So what of the plot in Quantum of Solace? Bond has been asked to a dinner party in Nassau – a place he largely dislikes along with its inhabitants. The dinner party is no exception; he is surrounded by dull, gossipy middle-aged folk with whom he struggles to relate to. Bored with the futility of the idle and desultory dinner conversation, having been especially jaded by a rich Canadian and his wife - the Harvey Millers - he flippantly makes a throwaway remark about marrying an air stewardess, should he ever feel inclined to tie the knot.
Later, the guests disperse for coffee and liqueurs. With Bond trapped awkwardly into making small talk with the Governor of Nassau on a sofa with disconcertingly deep soft cushions – an apparent pet hate of Bond’s - his previous remark is revisited. The Governor proceeds to tell Bond a fascinating story from his earlier experiences in the civil service – about a socially and romantically inept colleague who fell desperately in love and hastily married an air stewardess. The tale is a tragic and surprising one.
The protagonist, Phillip Masters led a quiet, unvaried and lonely upbringing. He was emotionally undernourished in every sense. His first post in Nigeria exposed him to the most natural and effective interaction that he was to ever have with people – a fact made all the more tragic by his eventual return there. During a period of leave before starting his second secondment, he flew aboard an aircraft for the first time in his life and also met, sexy Welsh air stewardess, Rhoda Llewellyn. Within no time at all they had married and were living out in Bermuda were Masters was posted. Rhoda, presumably attracted by the quasi-excitement of her husband’s job was content and happy for the first few months. Masters, of course, was absolutely besotted from day one and couldn’t do enough to please his bride. But the happy days weren’t to last. She quickly tired of the area, and grew sick of the boredom and loneliness that pervaded her new life. It wasn't long before these feelings of discontent escalated to resentment and extended to the islanders around her and ultimately, even her husband. Having tried every trick under the sun to keep his wife occupied and content, he eventually wound up getting her a golf club membership. Shortly thereafter she met a rich playboy, Tattersall, and cruelly embarked on an open and sordid affair.
That was the last time he cheered for many a long day, perhaps for all his life. Almost at once she started 'going' with young Tattersall, and once started she went like the wind. And believe me, Mr. Bond" the Governor closed a fist and brought it softly down on the edge of the drinks table -"it was ghastly to see. She didn't make the smallest attempt to soften the blow or hide the affair in any way. She just took young Tattersall and hit Masters in the face with him, and went on hitting.
Masters fell to pieces and even attempted suicide. The Governor had tried a last ditch attempt to save him by posting him to Washington on assignment. While he was away, the affair died its death when Tattersall grew tired of Rhoda. Unperturbed in the prospect of winning her husband back and patching relations up with the locals, Rhoda knew how to manipulate people and situations to her advantage and do it well.
Masters, though, returned a changed man.
The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: "You're not married, but I think it's the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn't care if the other is alive or dead, then it's just no good. That particular insult to the ego — worse, to the instinct of self‐preservation -can never be forgiven. I've noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I've seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I've seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster — all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I've thought about this and I've invented a rather high‐sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace."
Quantum of Solace — the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it's obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You've got to get away to save yourself.
And Masters did just that, or tried at least. He set out to destroy Rhoda in the only way he could: through silence and frigidity and a total denial of emotional contact for the remaining time in Bermuda. A divorce was arranged for the when Masters’ secondment was to end but in the meantime, they kept up the facade of a happily married couple. He segregated their house, forbade her from certain rooms and while alone together, denied her existence entirely, save for requiring dinner at 8.00 each evening. And so it continued for a year. Shortly before that time was up, Rhoda set up an ‘appointment’ to see her husband. Having pleaded her case that she would soon be destitute, Masters made one compassionate concession and gifted the car and gramophone to his wife. Days later he left and the two were to never meet again. Rhoda tried to cash-in both assets, only to discover she had been tricked. Both the car and the gramophone had been bought on hire purchase and Masters was badly behind on the payments. Rhoda was destroyed.
After a several rough months during which Rhoda was forced to sell her soul as well as her body, a well-connected friend invited her to take up a job in a Canadian hotel. She fell on her feet and eventually married a hotel magnate and the two remained happily married and content ever since. Of course, the Governor lets slip at the end of the evening the identity of the parties.
Life's a devious business. Perhaps, for all the harm she'd done to Masters, Fate decided that she had paid back enough. Perhaps Masters's father and mother were the true guilty people. They turned Masters into an accident‐prone man. Inevitably he was involved in the emotional crash that was due to him and that they had conditioned him for. Fate had chosen Rhoda for its instrument. Now Fate reimbursed her for her services. Difficult to judge these things. Anyway, she made her Canadian very happy. I thought they both seemed happy tonight."
Bond laughed. Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow.
The story itself was gripping Fleming; the hard-hitting page-turning qualities that I’ve grown to love. Fleming had a clear point to make in the story. He wanted to explore relationships, notably those between husbands and wives – particularly when pushed to the limit or operating under a thundercloud of tension. When that final requisite element of humanity between two people disappears – when the relationship drops below the Quantum of Solace – the game is up. He looks at the interaction of jealously and inadequacy, coupled with feelings of entrapment, suffocation and boredom and how they can all play their part in the downward spiral of a relationship.
To some, it might present a grave, and uninviting tale. The Law of the Quantum of Solace is, after all, not concerned with the construction of something positive through love and marriage but rather the way a couple can tear apart each other through the same unity. Destruction and negativity is revealed as the flip side of the sanctity of marriage. An idea, perhaps, on which Fleming has many thoughts and much to say. (I previously picked up on a sagacious Fleming-ism in ‘Diamonds are Forever’:
James Bond: “Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”
Tiffany Case: “Maybe there’s something in that. But it depends what you want to add up to. Something human or something inhuman. You can’t be complete by yourself.”
Still, as a story it has much to offer and seeks to impart many wisdoms, cutting through the shrouds and obfuscation of complex relationship dynamics. In addition, the tale serves as a reality-check providing a healthy dose of perspective: how the carnage of a tumultuous relationship can prove every bit as destructive, evil and malevolent as the life and work of a paid assassin. The importance of not judging a book by its cover is also brought strikingly to the fore, as Bond himself readily admits at the story’s end.
Quantum of Solace stands as a scrutiny of human behaviour, a tale that cuts right to the bone, examining inescapable truths through an uncomfortable aphorism. You won’t find classic Bond action scenes nor many of the other qualities that make up a typical Bond novel, but Fleming’s mastery for story telling more than makes up. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking tale that I literally could not put down from beginning to end. Once a couple of pages in, the trademark Fleming brilliance for story telling becomes unmistakable and turns an unpromising opening scene in to a thrilling page-turner. Highly recommended.