Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Here Lies Eric Ambler

Finished reading Eric Ambler’s autobiography last night - it’s called Here Lies Eric Ambler. I suspect there may be a bit of a play on the word, lies, in the sense of: is he telling us the whole truth, or has he made his own life into something of a novel?
Be that as it may, it ends rather abruptly just after the second World War, though the introductory chapter is set much later, when he has an accident caused by being overcome by fumes in his car. Perhaps he intended (or even did) write a second volume.
I bought it at a secondhand bookshop somewhere along the road from Cromer to Blakeney; they were having a half-price sale. I thought it might be interesting in terms of what it said about Ambler’s way of writing, but he talks a lot more about his (quite adventurous) life, and the books almost seem to come together by themselves. He mentions some incidents that found their way into the books, and how he tended to change things as he went along and then rewrote and rewrote after he’d finished, but beyond that there isn’t much.
One thing that he makes an emphasis on is his refusal to believe in any sort of God, or to have any sort of faith. That would be fine if he didn’t then set out to make it seem that anyone who does have faith is some sort of fool. Right towards the end, when he’s in the midst of some World War II battle and thinks he’s a goner, he finds himself repeating some words learnt from the past: Into thy hands I commit my spirit. He’s immediately ashamed of himself, and goes on about the foolishness of chaplains in wartime who claim that no man is an atheist in a foxhole. He doesn’t consider that he may be the one who’s wrong, but like so many secularists he can’t see that his point of view isn’t necessarily the correct one.
Coincidentally, in a recent Books and Culture ezine, it mentions Eric Ambler as being a writer of note and one to re-read. I’d like to track down some of them and see what they’re like, and to see if the worldview in them is different to the one he portrays in his autobiography. The editor, John Wilson, writes: Eric Ambler's novel The Intercom Conspiracy (1969), [is] currently out of print, alas, but used copies are readily findable, and there's always the library. Bonus for journalists: an editor is one of the key figures; the newsletter he edits is based in Geneva. It's a brilliant, chilly tale, best read alongside an Ambler novel from thirty years earlier, A Coffin for Dimitrios (UK title: A Mask for Dimitrios), his best-known book. Both feature the character Charles Latimer, a novelist. It's fascinating to see how Ambler's view of espionage and power-politics evolved in the intervening years.

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