Eric Ambler

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 30 07:31:02 MDT 2003


After dropping out of the SWP in 1979, I decided to try my hand at novel
writing. I took two steps that would enhance my career possibilities,
both of which backfired. First, I decided to read a lot of fiction to
learn technique. Ultimately I discovered that it would be a waste of
time and paper to try to do what somebody like a Jaroslav Hasek had done
so well. The bar had been raised far too high. Two, I took a writer's
workshop at NYU out of which I learned only one thing that still sticks
with me. The teacher, a hack spy novelist and investment counselor, said
that blind submissions to a publishing house have almost no chance of
making it. But if you get the editor who ends up with your manuscript to
read the first page, you've got your foot in the door. Furthermore, if
he or she reads the entire first chapter, you have a very good chance of
being published. After many attempts, I realized that nothing I'd
written could pass this test.

About six months ago I agreed to write for Swans online. I told Gilles
d'Aymery, who seemed interested in expanding the cultural coverage, that
I would be happy to write reviews of novels six times a year. Part of my
motivation was to catch up with what I hadn't read 20 years or so ago
when I was looking into becoming a novelist. Right now I am reading Eric
Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios". Ambler first came to my attention
last August when Edward Rothstein wrote an article in the NY Times about
how some of his classics, including "A Coffin for Dimitrios", were being
republished by Vintage. Not only was Ambler highly regarded by Graham
Greene, one of my very favorite novelists, he was described by Rothstein
in the following terms:

 >>Ambler once said that during the 1930's he was a "very far left wing
socialist" and "ready for the barricades." The hero of two novels is
actually a Soviet agent who refers to the "so-called democracies France
and England" and argues that the regnant authorities had become "the
Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's 'Mein Kampf.' " So while
novelistically the books try to evoke ambiguity and explore the dangers
of misinterpretation, ideologically a rigid and distorted grid is
imposed. For Ambler, the essential battles of 1930's Europe are between
fascistic capitalism and Soviet socialism.<<

Keeping in mind the criterion outlined by my NYU writing professor,
let's take a look at the first couple of pages of "A Coffin for
Dimitrios". It is hard for me to imagine anything written more
elegantly. I will then make a few points about what makes it so interesting.

A Coffin for Dimitrios:
A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that
chance was a nickname for Providence.

It is one of those convenient, question-begging aphorisms coined to
discredit the unpleasant truth that chance plays an important, if not
predominant, part in human affairs. Yet it was not entirely inexcusable.
Inevitably, chance does occasionally operate with a sort of fumbling
coherence readily mistakable for the workings of a self-conscious
Providence.

The story of Dimitrios Makropoulos is an example of this.

The fact that a man like Latimer should so much as learn of the
existence of a man like Dimitrios is alone grotesque. That he should
actually see the dead body of Dimitrios, that he should spend weeks that
he could ill afford probing into the man's shadowy history, and that he
should ultimately find himself in the position of owing his life to a
criminal's odd taste in interior decoration are breath-taking in their
absurdity.

Yet, when these facts are seen side by side with the other facts in the
case, it is difficult not to become lost in superstitious awe. Their
very absurdity seems to prohibit the use of the words "chance" and
"coincidence." For the sceptic there remains only one consolation: if
there should be such a thing as a superhuman Law, it is administered
with sub-human inefficiency. The choice of Latimer as its instrument
could have been made only by an idiot.

During the first fifteen years of his adult life, Charles Latimer became
a lecturer in political economy at a minor English university. By the
time he was thirty-five he had, in addition, written three books. The
first was a study of the influence of Proudhon on nineteenth-century
Italian political thought. The second was entitled: The Gotha Programme
of 1875. The third was an assessment of the economic implications of
Rosenberg's Der Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts.

It was soon after he had finished correcting the bulky proofs of the
last work, and in the hope of dispelling the black depression which was
the aftermath of his temporary association with the philosophy of
National Socialism and its prophet, Dr. Rosenberg, that he wrote his
first detective story.

A Bloody Shovel was an immediate success. It was followed by "'I', said
the Fly" and "Murder's Arms". From the great army of university
professors who write detective stories in their spare time, Latimer soon
emerged as one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that, sooner or later, he would become a
professional writer in name as well as in fact. Three things hastened
the transition. The first was a disagreement with the university
authorities over what he held to be a matter of principle. The second
was an illness. The third was the fact that he happened to be unmarried.
Not long after the publication of "No Doomday This" and following the
illness, which had made inroads on his constitutional reserves, he
wrote, with only mild reluctance, a letter of resignation and went
abroad to complete his fifth detective story in the sun. It was the week
after he had finished that book's successor that he went to Turkey. He
had spent a year in and near Athens and was longing for a change of
scene. His health was much improved but the prospect of an English
autumn was uninviting. At the suggestion of a Greek friend he took the
steamer from the Piraeus to Istanbul. It was in Istanbul and from
Colonel Haki that he first heard of Dimitrios.

COMMENTS:

1. Ambler's dry wit is obvious in nearly every sentence. For example:
"From the great army of university professors who write detective
stories in their spare time, Latimer soon emerged as one of the
shamefaced few who could make money at the sport." Not only is he making
fun of a certain type of academic, he is also laughing at himself since
this is basically his profession as well. It is altogether fitting that
Ambler titled his autobiography "Here Lies".

2. Establishment of character. In a page or two, you get a very clear
sense of who the main character is. You might even say that he reminds
you a bit of some of the people we run into on email lists, a professor
who writes books about the Gotha Program, Proudhon or National Socialism
while pursuing Walter Mitty dreams about being a spy. (One might surmise
that Ambler's radical politics might have dictated the books that the
professor wrote, since all represent challenges to Marxism of one sort
or another.

3. Plot. After reading, "That he should actually see the dead body of
Dimitrios, that he should spend weeks that he could ill afford probing
into the man's shadowy history, and that he should ultimately find
himself in the position of owing his life to a criminal's odd taste in
interior decoration are breath-taking in their absurdity", your natural
tendency as a reader is to ask what a criminal's "odd taste in interior
decoration" might have to do with saving the hero's life and to read
further.

The only thing I would is that these sorts of things can be taught, just
like elementary harmony and counterpoint. But that does not mean that
you can write symphonies like Beethoven.

--

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