Saturday 11 July 2009

Eric Ambler - The Levanter

Coming rather late to the online debate about Eric Ambler (see blog reviews here and here, and lengthy Guardian piece), I've just finished after some effort The Levanter, one of his later (1972) novels. Ambler is mainly known - to the extent he's known at all - for being a thriller writer of the '30s. I haven't read any of those, although Penguin Modern Classics have recently republished five of his novels to celebrate his centenary.

I first came across him thanks to a second-hand copy of The Intercom Conspiracy, which I bought about ten years ago and finally read about five years later: found it very good. The setting is Geneva; the protagonist is a hack who edits a specialist magazine which has no staff and is read by almost no-one, and then he begins to receive information, for publication, from sources about whom he's far from sure. Naturally this sparks the interest of other parties...I'm sure you can see how it goes from there. Apparently this trope of regular guy becomes piggy-in-the-middle for shadowy business and security organisations is a standard one for Ambler: certainly The Levanter follows that pattern.

What I admired about it was how thoroughly realistic it seemed. I'd worked in Brussels for an NGO (counting the commercial ones, there were estimated to be around ten thousand lobbying organisations in Brussels) and I was familiar with the milieu Ambler was describing of a city soaked in international politics, and of small publications and groups all trying to report on and influence decisions affecting their specialist field. The way that everything which appeared to be normal was slowly becoming subverted, undermined and threatened I found completely credible.

The Levanter, on the other hand, gave me problems. It has the same virtue of being a 'flat tire' thriller - while there is a plot, one doesn't feel that everything which takes place in the book is geared to driving it forwards. One feels that there is plenty of real life beyond the bounds of what is described and related, and that one could have an extended conversation with the protagonist about what happened, about all the things which are not told. No clunking of machinery here. That's no small achievement.

On the other hand, it could have done with another edit. It seems to take a long time to get to the meat of the story, as if Ambler was discovering the background as he wrote the first draft, and while this leaves the reader with a thorough grounding in Middle Eastern politics, business practices in the Levant and the character of the levanter himself, Michael Powell, there's simply too much of it. The realism weighs down the thrills. It pays off in the end, but as they sometimes say on Friday afternoons on fivelive, there's an awful lot of Shawshank before you get to the redemption. Granted, most of the story is told by Powell and he's a businessman and an engineer, as Ambler himself was, but...less, Larry. Less.

Here's an example:
Something had to be done quickly. The Howell reputation was at stake, and my own self-confidence had taken a beating. After an exceedingly unpleasant session with Hawa, I secured his agreement to my withdrawing all unsold stocks from the dealers. I also stopped production and did the quality-control research that I neglected to do before we started. Most of this work concerned the zinc containers. These were formed on jigs and had soldered seams. Obviously, faulty soldering would cause leaks, but the chief problem was with chemical impurities. For example, zinc sheeting of a quality that could be used for covering a roof would not necessarily do for battery production.
Etcetera, etcetera. There are people who lap up this kind of stuff - in fact Anthony Lane has said the reason it exists is to keep Americans of a Puritanical streak from feeling that they're wasting their time with frivolities like novels. (He quotes an instance of the narrative of one particular novel being interrupted thus: '[...] covering everything within a hundred feet (33 metres)') It has been done since, and better, in Smilla's Feeling for Snow, in which one learns quite a lot about ice floes and obscure jazz performances and diving and the techniques of spinal injection, although by the third or fourth time it would be nice to come across someone in the book who isn't a bloody expert on somedamnthing or other.

The other issue I have with The Levanter is foreshadowing statements, portents, warnings that things ain't gonna work out as they should. The only novel I've come across which uses them to the same extent and to an equal degree of teeth-grinding annoyance is The Book of the New Sun, which is incapable of closing a chapter without a gnomic utterance along the lines of, 'Of course, I was to break this, as well as many other confidences which had been entrusted me, in my time.'

Howell's part of the narrative opens:
On the fourteenth of May I was in Italy, and I wish to God I had stayed there.

Even an airport strike - if it had delayed me for twenty-four hours or so - would have helped. At least my ignorance would have been preserved a little longer. With luck I might even have escaped direct involvement. But no. I went back on the fifteenth and walked straight into trouble.
Which is not a bad opening, but I'm of the get-on-with-it school, and it irritates me. He's still at it in the penultimate chapter:
I had spent a long time thinking over what I was going to tell Captain Touzani and had rehearsed it carefully. Although I never supposed that he would swallow the story whole - that would have been too much - I had hoped that he would find it politic to pretend to do so. So I did my best to make it easy for him.

It was wasted effort.
I should have worried more about that walkie-talkie, seen the danger it really represented and so been better prepared to counter it.
All of this may be true to character - and you do get a strong sense of Michael Howell as worldly-wise, shrewd, equivocal, wanting to control every last detail - but it has the effect of yanking you back just at the time you want to be moving forward. My wife read the book before I did, and I asked her how she found it; she replied that she found it irritating to read but you still wanted to find out what happened in the end, and that's it in a nutshell.

It still won the Gold Dagger, but I couldn't recommend it wholeheartedly unless you're on a serious Ambler streak, are a thriller devotee who wants something a little bit different, or a businessman in search of a decent read, in which case all the technical stuff is unlikely to slow you down as it did me.