Eric Ambler obituary

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 15 07:44:21 MDT 2003


The Guardian (London)
October 26, 1998

The plot thickens;
Obituary: Eric Ambler

By Hugh Hebert


There was belief, betrayal, doubt, disillusionment

BACK in the 1980s Len Deighton gave a Savoy lunch for Eric Ambler, and
the absent Graham Greene sent a cable of greeting: "To the master from
one of his disciples." Most of the other best-selling disciples were
round the table: John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Gavin Lyall, Julian
Symons, and half a dozen more.

The celebration was not mere literary flannel. Ambler, who has died aged
89, had by then written 20 novels and nearly as many screenplays. The
lunch guests honoured him as the writer who had brought the political
thriller to maturity in the 1930s, when Europe was about to explode. He
was reacting against the tradition of adventure and espionage fiction
popular at the time, in books with officer-class heroes like John
Buchan's Richard Hannay and Sapper's Bulldog Drummond - action men who'd
"had a good war", were cushioned by modest wealth against the demands of
work and the fear of unemployment, who moved easily between country life
and London club, kept a decent malt, and perhaps a batman turned
manservant.

Ambler's central characters were amateurs of a kind closer to Somerset
Maugham's Ashenden - neither heroes nor anti-heroes. They had little or
no experience of the military or secret worlds and no strong ideological
commitment. Not all of them were even British. They might be a
writer/journalist, as in The Mask of Dimitrios, rated one of Ambler's
best and most influential works. They might be a refugee teacher, a
businessman, or a medic - like Dr Frigo, Ambler's own favourite. They
stumbled into complex situations, where they had to make tough choices
under pressure.

Ambler especially disliked Sapper's books for their fascistic undertone.
It was the villains of the genre that irritated him most. "Their world
conspiracies," he wrote, "appeared to me no more substantial than toy
balloons, over-inflated and squeaky to the touch, with sad old
characters rattling round them." In place of their hardline, dualistic,
and often racist values, Ambler's books introduced the destabilising
forces of belief and betrayal, moral doubt and disillusionment. Their
implicit left-wing stance marked them out.

Ambler, who was born in London, had no literary background. His parents
were members of a semi-professional variety act and warned him off the
theatre. He made it to grammar school and London University, joined a
big electrical engineering firm, and later moved from writing reports on
subjects like coiled -coil filament lamps into the advertising
department, then to an outside agency. They set him to write copy for a
chocolate laxative sold under the banner "Exlax for incomplete
elimination." He said he always tried to regard it as promotion; he is
also sometimes credited with the cereal slogan, "Snap, crackle and pop."

His first book, The Dark Frontier (1935), dealt with what is
recognisably a project to build a nuclear bomb, which his scientific
studies had shown was theoretically possible. It brought him only pounds
30 in cash, but also a six -book contract with a pounds 100 advance on
each: he moved to Paris and full -time writing. The Ambler-Greene style
of political thriller found its distinctive form in the years between
that first book and the vortex of war.

The English Channel insulated Ambler from close contact with London's
literary left-wing. But more important in distancing him from late 1930s
radical chic had been an attempt by Claud Cockburn and Maurice
Richardson to recruit him to the communist cause. Cockburn was editor of
The Week, the grand-dad of Private Eye, and Richardson was at the BBC.
They gave him lunch at the Connaught, then introduced him to Harry
Pollitt, general secretary of the British Communist Party. Ambler found
the combination hilarious but unconvincing.

WHEN war broke out he was over 30, with a certain literary reputation
but no army background, and so - like Evelyn Waugh - he was difficult to
place in the military machine. He was commissioned in the artillery, and
commanded a Bofors gun installed on the lawn of Chequers to defend
Winston Churchill from low -flying German planes. Later he was posted to
write army training films with Peter Ustinov, and to script The Way
Ahead, directed by Carol Reed, about how a motley assortment of
civilians could be forged into a crack fighting unit. It was so prized
as a morale booster that it was put on general release.

But the war experience that cut deepest in Ambler's memory had nothing
to do with spying, or the black arts of propaganda. It was working with
John Huston on a documentary about ordinary Italians emerging from the
German occupation, made on the heels of the Fifth Army's advance towards
Rome. In his autobiography, Ambler devoted a dozen pages of the coolest,
sparest, but most tightly-observed prose he ever wrote to the attempt to
carry out this mission in the small town of San Pietro.

The town had been left in ruins by the retreating Germans, and to reach
it the film team had to cross a coverless escarpment still under fire
from artillery and mortars dug in on the surrounding hills. When they
had picked their way through the unburied Allied dead, Huston and Ambler
realised that their interpreter, and all but one of their crew, were no
longer following them; when they entered the town they could find only a
handful of Italian survivors in the rubble.

Huston did make a short film about San Pietro, mostly using re-enacted
combat footage, but with one powerful real sequence. This showed GIs
bundling their dead unceremoniously into body bags, and dumping them in
shallow graves. Washington banned the film because, as Ambler commented
dryly, it was not the business of the War Department to make anti-war
movies.

After the war those early film contacts drew him into writing
screenplays, mostly adapted from novels - from H G Wells's The
Passionate Friends (1948) and Arnold Bennett's The Card (1952) to
Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea (1954). Ambler returned to books in
1951 with Judgment On Deltchev, an indictment of Stalinism. He once
said: "I was a 'God That Failed' person really," a reference to an
influential collection of essays by distinguished and disillusioned
former communist writers. In the late 1950s he finally answered the call
of Hollywood, where he met and married his second wife, Joan Harrison,
who had been Alfred Hitchcock's trusted assistant and script doctor, and
become one of Tinseltown's first woman producers. A decade later,
disenchanted, they returned to Europe, though they were unable to face
the burn-up of re-entry into the British tax system, and settled in
Switzerland.

Ambler wrote another half dozen thrillers, including the subtle and
complex Dr Frigo. Except in a few short stories, he never re-cycled his
central characters: each was integral to a plot that unrolled with
quiet, relentless purpose from page one to the end. His post-war
thrillers were still political, but in a more uncommitted sense. They
could be just as prescient as his first book - his penultimate thriller,
Send No More Roses (1977), was about the methods the rich used to avoid
huge tax bills, and to milk what was then still called the Common Market.

JOAN'S ill-health eventually drove them to return to Britain - she died
in 1994. The thriller genre had become dominated by the camp followers
of Ian Fleming's preposterous James Bond, and Ambler's influence was
reflected more in the other-ranks attitude of Len Deighton's Harry
Palmer, and the dark questioning of Greene and Le Carre. Interviewing
him once, I had the disturbing delusion that I was in the presence not
of Eric Ambler, but of Alec Guinness playing George Smiley.

The social set-up in some of his early work inevitably now seems dated.
But in 1992, the Centipede's best-of-our-time column in the Guardian
commented that Ambler's books "have a seamless story telling, an
implicit exploration of moral questions, a narrative pace and a proper
credibility . . . that pops him up there as the greatest espionage and
adventure thriller writer of the century." A grandiose title, but taking
Ambler's 50 years of writing overall, it is hard to quarrel with that
judgment.

Eric Ambler, novelist, born June 28, 1909; died October 22, 1998
--

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