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On Rereading Eric Ambler
You find yourself in New Orleans, a famous city you don’t know well, with a break of several hours between sessions of the conference that’s brought you to town. You decide to stroll a bit in the neighborhood of your hotel. No more than five minutes later, you come across an old-fashioned bookstore of the kind where you have spent countless hours over the decades but the likes of which you’ve rarely visited in recent years. You begin to browse: heavenly!
You’ve already picked up a couple of finds when you reach the fiction section, divided into various categories, and your eye is caught by the name of an author you’ve heard of but haven’t read: Eric Ambler. You pull one of his books, a 2004 Vintage/Black Lizard paperback, from the shelf: Passage of Arms, a novel first published in 1959. The epigraph, from Webster’s New International Dictionary, is intriguing:
9. A mutual act or transaction; something that goes on between two persons mutually; a negotiation; an interchange or exchange of vows, endearments, or the like; an interchange or exchange of blows; encounter; altercation; a fencing, as in argument; as, a passage at or of arms.
You find that epigraph very appealing, and you flip through the first several pages until your eye is caught by this: “When the time came for Girija to leave, however, he asked for only one thing that had belonged to his father: the bus-body manufacturer’s catalogue.” What?! A substantial description of the catalogue follows, the paragraph concluding thus: “It was Girija’s most treasured possession.” You’re hooked.
My own introduction to Ambler, ages ago, was far more prosaic, but even so there was a sense of discovery, of encountering for the first time a remarkable sensibility, a mind with a very strong flavor. Decades later, in the midst of an Ambler reread, I feel it still.
I often use the word “reread” as a noun, self-defined thus: “reread: a chronological revisiting of a fiction-writer’s work, typically but not always comprehensive.” (I may skip a book or two or three that I simply didn’t like.) I never undertake such a project out of a sense of duty; it overlaps with but is not the same as the selective rereading one does for a review (of a biographical-critical study of Kafka, for instance, or a late novella by Cynthia Ozick). In fact, my rereads are usually set in motion by impulse. Quite recently, a bit from Ambler’s novel A Coffin for Dimitrios at the Literature Clock made me realize that more than a decade had passed since I made my way through his novels. I resolved immediately to begin a reread.
Some rereads are leisurely, spread out over many months; this is especially the case when the writer in question has produced an enormous body of work. (I’ve never even attempted a comprehensive Henry James reread; I’ve done it over a long while in selective chunks.) Others are concentrated; the day after I finish one book, I start the next in line (so it has been for Ambler). Sometimes, closing a just-completed novel in the wee hours, I’m tempted to embark on the next one that very minute! But I (usually, wisely) resist that impulse.
If you haven’t read Ambler, Passage of Arms wouldn’t be a bad choice to start with, to see if he’s your cup of tea. The deviously complex “transaction” adumbrated in the epigraph turns out to involve a cache of arms in Malaya, a prosperous and naïve American engineer and his wife on a cruise to Southeast Asia, a Muslim guerrilla leader, Chinese smugglers, and more, all set in motion by our unassuming hero, Girija, whose lifelong dream has been to “operate a bus service”!
I have no business telling you what to read, but supposing that you do read and enjoy A Passage of Arms, consider going back to Ambler’s second novel, Background to Danger (1937), and reading through the rest of his novels in order of publication (as far as you’re inclined to go—at least through The Levanter, I hope). Then read his first novel, The Dark Frontier (1936), in the 1990 edition that includes an introduction by Ambler looking back at the genesis of this book, which began as a parody.
If you are inclined to read something about Ambler, there’s a chapter in Gavin Lambert’s excellent book The Dangerous Edge (American ed., 1976) devoted to John Buchan and Ambler; Lambert also takes up Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Someone should reissue Lambert’s book with an intro by a superb writer; I can’t imagine why that hasn’t happened already.
Ambler’s view of our common world is in many respects different from mine, but I have learned a lot from his books as well as enjoying them immensely. Maybe you will as well.