A Post-Leftist in Genre Drag: On Ownership Part I

In 20th c. Literature, Genre Fiction, Questions for the Panel on February 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

ess_ambler_1M. Standfast, Kyoto

Puritano has beaten me to the punch by offering us a highly ambitious answer to the ownership question.  He narrows down his list of masters to two, Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson, and explains why he thinks these two will outlast even such established masters such as Faulkner.  My own list is longer, and my efforts to address the ownership question will likewise be at once longer and less ambitious than Puritano’s.  Apologies in advance.

My Authors

Eric Ambler, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Anthony Powell, Paul Theroux.  For each of these writers, I have read both deeply and widely from their ouvre, and I feel on pretty strong ground when speaking about them. Interestingly, I have not read everything by any one writer; the closest would be Powell, but even here I have not read his first novel, Afternoon Men in its entirety.

My Authors To Be

The second list is perhaps more interesting; it contains writers about whom I am working toward a sense of ownership but don’t yet have the expertise on to confidently put a claim on.  These include: Peter Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Maurice Halbwachs, Herodotus, Machiavelli, William of Occam, Edward Said, Sun Tzu.

Eric Ambler

Ambler comes first for two reasons; he is both first alphabetically and arguably the oddest inclusion.  Ambler is generally remembered, if at all, as a writer of spy novels, and those with longer memories will recall that he was in fact a forerunner of the modern spy thriller.  While it is true that the Ambler books form a bridge between the more patriotic, almost 19th century style of John Buchan (1875-1940) and the prototypically “modern” (by which of course I date myself by still meaning 20th century), disillusioned overtones of LeCarre, Ambler himself wrote very few true “spy” stories.  Instead, most of Ambler’s protagonists come in one of three varieties: i) the small time petty thief, menial, or flat-out loser who is thrust into and manages to come through a dangerous situation in which he is apparently overmatched by relying on an innate cunning and instinct for survival; ii) men of middling status who, because of hubris or a kind of arrogant naivety, get into dangerous situations in which they are very definitely overmatched; iii) a cross between i) and ii).

A popular writer in his day, Ambler is mostly overlooked by the general public today, but revered by genre practitioners such as Robert Goddard in whose works we see not just traces but entire chunks of the Amblerian universe.  Ronald J. Ambrosetti has convincingly argued that underlying Ambler’s works there exists a dense theoretical substratum of based on Jung and Spengler (“A Coffin for Dimitrios {…} reveals a condensation and articulation of Ambler’s penchant for a philosophy of history that reflects his readings of Jung and Spengler: the point of view insists that Europe {and Western civilization} had reached a stage of such decadence that it was bent on self-destruction” (22)), but it should be said that Ambler can be appreciated by readers who have never heard of Spengler and read not a line of Jung.

Ambler as Leftist:

I am drawn to Ambler as powerfully as I am drawn to Anthony Powell in that despite the fact that Powell was a strong Tory and Ambler definitely a leftist, both writers managed for the most part to cloak their ideology in great fiction–that is to say that in most of Ambler, as in the first nine books of Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time,” ideology is muted, and expressed only obliquely, through character and scene rather than through ham-fisted authorial intervention.  Ambler found the perfect vehicle for the leftist worldview–after all if prone to seeking out leftism we might traffic in a little Marx and Engles, Trostky, Gramsci, Howard Zinn, Mother Jones, but thrillers? not so much.

In his 1930’s fiction, Ambler does have a few wonderful set speeches, like this one from 1937’s “Background to Danger” where Ambler outlines the centrality of big business to matters of state:

It was difficult, Kenton had found, to spend any length of time in the arena of foreign politics without perceiving that political ideologies had very little to do with the ebb and flow of international relations.  It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.  The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufactures, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be {…} The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules (78-9).

Prescient as this passage may be, as his fiction developed Ambler’s works became increasingly less likely to feature such overtly ideological digressions.  A passage which has stuck in my mind from the moment I read it from 1969’s The Intercom Conspiracy illustrates the way that Ambler’s “leftism” evolved over time into something infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than what we find in his ’30’s novels.  Ambler is describing two intelligence directors, Jost and Brand, from unnamed Eastern European states, who engage is a complex conspiracy to play the USSR and their American and Western European counterparts off one another with the aim of squeezing both:

Directors of intelligence services with secret budgets at their disposal and the ability, sometimes the obligation, to put expediency before strict legality tend to become back-room potentates.  It is in the nature of their occupation that they should.  As long as they and their subordinates avoid committing blunders too gross to be hidden, they are immune from public criticism.  The secrecy fetish and a general acceptance of ‘need-to-know’ principle are very powerful defences.  When such defences are reinforced, as they so often are, by politic murmurs of ‘don’t want to know’ from nominal superiors, the men behind them are secure even from attacks launched by hostile factions within the establishment they serve.  They acquire more authority than their responsibilities warrant.  They are accountable virtually to no one; and the longer they remain in their posts the stronger they become.  Inevitably they also tend to become arrogant.  Their arrogance will generally be concealed, of course, behind well-composed masks of professional objectivity and reserve, and the quality of it will vary; but it will be there.  There have been directors who have found it amusing to lend support to leaders they despise {…} There have been directors who became kingmakers {…} There have been those who have seized power for themselves, and those who have preferred to act as the eminences grises of puppet rulers.  And there have been those whose arrogance has expressed itself in more eccentric, less familiar, ways (34).

Now, these are only two passages plucked from a canon of nearly 25 novels, but I see a connection; while it is easy to believe that the two come from the same pen, the first is the product of unsubtle youth while the second is obviously the work of a man of a certain age and experience.  This is not to say that Ambler’s “leftism” lost force over the course of his career, rather that it deepened and became more colored by nuance, even slight-of-hand, until an author who in the 1930’s had been broadly ideological by the 1970’s became what I am calling “a post-leftist in genre drag,” and a deeply serious writer to boot.

Ambler’s Best Books:
The above is by no means meant to suggest that his later work is uniformly better than the early stuff–and indeed many readers see the 30’s material as his best.  For the record, I see each phase of Ambler’s career as having produced great work.  My favorites are:
The Mask of Dimitrios (also known as A Coffin for Dimitrios) (1937)

Deep Structure and Rereadability:
In one of Ambler’s best books, The Light of Day (the basis for the highly mediocre film Topkapi) the hero, Arthur Simpson, is a half-British, half-Egyptian petty crook who is denied citizenship and a passport by the British authorities.  In a key scene of the book, Simpson overhears a session of love-making by the chief villain, Harper, and an accomplice, Miss Lipp.
For about two minutes I clung to the hope that they were going to have a siesta.  Then movements began.  After a while I could hear breathing and it wasn’t the breathing of sleep.  More minutes went by and there were other sounds.  Then, the beast with two backs was at work, and soon it was making its usual noises, panting and grunting and moaning, while I stood there like a half-wit, picturing hew long legs and slim thighs and wondering how on earth I was going to get out of there without anyone seeing me.  I was sweating so much that it was running into my eyes and misting my glasses (146).
Far from a great lover, a James Bond for example, Simpson is presented here as a pathetic loser, and throughout the book he is treated by Miss Lipp and Harper as being beneath contempt.  And yet, Simpson outlasts them both, surviving not only The Light of Day, but also another novel, Dirty Story, and ending up with a stack of passports (albeit ones of questionable legitimacy).  Ambrosetti finds in The Light of Day “deep structure and design” (111) where Simpson becomes “an outward model of the Jungian bicameral mind” (112).  “The background setting for the power of the Ottoman–and Eastern–Empire now appropriated by both the intellectual knowledge and sexual prowess of the white woman, Miss Lipp, signifies the total and comprehensive humiliation of the colonized Asian male at the hands of a colonial European woman.  Simpson’s fractured identity suffers the same loss of prestige, power, and status as all of the East, and other former colonies, under the West’s arrogant and corrupt Orientalism.”  And yet, with the fall of Empires after the Second World War Simpson represents something other than simple emasculation on the part of the Asia at the hands of Europe: “In the late 1950s and 1960s Ambler was still exploring themes and issues stemming from the decline of the European West.  Spengler had pointed in the right directions.  Ambler felt compelled to explore those Spenglerian directions in aftermath of empire and diminished spheres of power; he signaled the rise of Third World people” (109).
Reading Ambrosetti, I am struck once again by just how much of the literary critic’s job consists of massively over-thinking the material; but his analysis does lead me to my final point; Ambler can be equally enjoyed on the level of surface narrative, evocation of place, and sense of character, and on the level of Spenglerian and Jungian exegesis.  His ability at once to craft great stories and to leave open the door for overripe semioticians is unsurpassed, and this duality means that Ambler is almost infinitely re-readable.  Unlike most thrillers, bought at an airport kiosk, devoured, and then completely forgotten about, or even most say Agatha Christie novels (diverting but ultimately disposable), Ambler draws me back again and again; I’ve read The Light of Day and Passage of Arms four or five times each; Journey Into Fear and The Mask of Dimitrios three times; am currently working through The Levanter for the third time, etc.  I appreciate on rereading Ambler: i) his subtlety and his lack of reliance on pyrotechnics; ii) his immensely flawed heroes; iii) the odd fact that despite not having written spy novels, the entire spy story genre exists in genesis in Ambler’s works.


Puritano has made a claim on Kafka, and Ambler is nowhere near as great a writer as Kakfa, not as great as Shakespeare, Montaigne, Blake, Borges, Dickens, or Tolstoy.  And yet, the best of his books, The Light of Day, The Mask of Dimitrios, The Levanter, these stand head and shoulders above the genre as a whole, on par with Greene, Poe and Conan Doyle.  Indeed, Ambler is better than Greene–flat out–easier to live with, and far less shrill in his insistence on cramming in an ideological agenda.  Greene’s paramount theoretical concern Catholicism, after all, sits very uneasily in some of his works, whereas Ambler’s skeptical post-leftism infuses his works naturally and almost in camouflage, very rarely drawing attention to itself and when it does “{expressing} itself in more eccentric, less familiar, ways.”  Thus, while I advance no claim for greatness, Ambler is one of my writers–one whom I will defend to my last breath.  That’s enough.

The Argument:

For years, I have been having “the argument”; a highbrow friend will give a disparaging over-general dismissal of “genre” fiction, and I will launch into an animated defense of the same.  For the past several years, this defense has been predicated on my love of Eric Ambler, and by now the line of argument is well-honed indeed, so polished that, spontaneous and animated as I try to make it appear in the give and take of literary joshing, it may as well be straight off-the-shelf.  The great thing about this argument is that I have full confidence that Ambler will back me up–that is, if my interlocutor actually takes the trouble to take up my challenge and pick up a work by the master, he or she will smitten with the charms of one of if not the greatest at least one of the most consistently interesting, 20th century writers.

The Dark FrontierUncommon DangerCause for AlarmThe Mask of Dimitrios
Epitaph for a SpyJourney Into FearJudgement on DeltchevThe Schirmer Inheritance
The Maras AffairThe Night-ComersPassage of ArmsThe Light of the Day
A Kind of AngerA Further Account of the Life and Adventures of Arthur Abdel SimpsonThe Intercom ConspiracyThe Levanter
Doctor FrigoThe Siege of the Villa LippThe Care of Time

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