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Socialism and suspense

Eric Ambler was born a century ago, but the morally compromised world of his left-wing thrillers is

The 100th anniversary of Eric Ambler’s birth on 28 June has produced a number of tributes. The most pleasing has been Penguin’s reissue of five of his best spy thrillers as Modern Classics, with introductions by fans such as James Fenton and Norman Stone, and black-and-white pho­tographic covers gorgeously evocative of their era and milieu – dingy, war-shadowed industrial Europe in the late 1930s.

Almost as pleasing, and a little more surprising, was a eulogy in the Times by Michael Gove, who called Ambler, quite accurately, “one of the most underrated 20th-century writers”, and praised him for illuminating the politics of the time: “The violent seediness of Italian Fascism, the precarious legitimacy of Balkan thrones, the shabby, compromised but essential decency of democratic Britain and Third Republic France, and the romantic appeal of communism as the most uncompromisingly vigorous element in the popular front against dictatorship; all the confused reactions of that time are rendered with conviction.”

Either Gove hasn’t been reading Ambler closely enough – I can’t think of any Ambler stories involving the legitimacy of thrones – or, more likely, that whole sentence is a carefully calibrated piece of euphemism. When he writes that the “romantic appeal of communism” is “rendered with conviction”, what he means is not that Ambler portrayed that appeal objectively, but that he felt and expressed it. These are left-wing thrillers: the plots emphasise the interweaving of capitalism with violence, the villains are sometimes Nazis but just as often bankers and industrialists, and socialists and communists are invariably portrayed sympathetically – two of the novels even feature idealised KGB agents. You can see why the Conservative member for Surrey Heath might want to fudge the matter.

Where Ambler’s political ideas came from is hard to deduce. He doesn’t give much away in his teasingly titled memoirs, Here Lies (1985); a few years before his death in 1998, he told an interviewer: “I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice.” On his account, the politics of the novels grew less from conviction than from dissatisfaction with other thrillers, whose heroes had nothing going for them but “abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones”. Ambler saw a gap in the market for books about ordinary, intelligent middle-class men reluctantly confronting respectable capitalist villains, with the Bolsheviks “on the side of the angels”.

But that doesn’t explain the scarlet thread of socialism that runs through his work, the deeply sympathetic light in which he portrays the left. In Uncommon Danger (1937) and Cause for Alarm (1938), the protagonists, Englishmen abroad, are rescued by the quick thinking and self-sacrifice of Andreas Zaleshoff, a charismatic KGB agent, and his beautiful sister, Tamara. The portrait of the Zaleshoffs is not one-sided: they are not always open about their motives, and they employ some nasty surrogates – in Uncommon Danger, a murderous Spanish thug called Ortega – though Ambler takes pains to have them express their distaste for these unfortunately necessary methods.

Uncommon Danger contains a particularly strange interlude in which Andreas expounds the political situation to the foreign correspondent Kenton: “When I tell you that a certain prominent exile from Russia seeks once again to taste power, much will be clear to you.” Does he mean Trotsky, Kenton wonders. He does: “. . . he has not ceased to plot against the State. Round him he has gathered a brood of fanatics drunk with the desire for power. They are dangerous . . . When a limb is poisoned it must be amputated, lest it infect the health of the whole body.” But this seems to be a bluff or a mind game – Zaleshoff is only posing as a zealot to fool Kenton, though his reasons remain obscure.

In the persons of the Zaleshoffs, the deadly politics of Stalinism have become too bizarre to take seriously, and they contribute to the rompish air of those books.

Elsewhere, however, Ambler’s socialists are more sincere and more plausible. The novel that followed Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy (1938), also inverts a genre convention – it is a typical English country-house mystery with a closed circle of suspects, which happens to be set in a small hotel on the French Riviera and to feature a cast of foreigners (the only British character is a pathetic and not entirely trustworthy old soldier). The story is narrated by Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee threatened with prison or deportation after his camera has been used to photograph naval installations.

Forced to seek the real spy, Vadassy’s suspicions light on a German fellow guest who is evidently using an assumed name. But Schimler turns out to be a Czech, Czissar, on the run from the Gestapo after working for the resistance in occupied Prague. Czissar has started out a social democrat, but been converted to Marxism by Engels’s Anti-Dühring: “I read passionately, and as I read I knew that I was seeing for the first time the tragedy of man, his folly and his genius, his destiny and the line of march to it.”

His experience is echoed by Mathis, the henpecked Frenchman in Journey into Fear (1940) who assists Graham, an English munitions en­gineer, to escape his Nazi pursuers. Mathis explains how he began by spouting socialist slogans as a weapon against his snobbish wife:
“For a time I was free. I could command my wife and I became more fond of her. I was a manager in a big factory. And then a terrible thing happened. I found that I had begun to believe these things I said. The books I read showed me that I had found a truth. I, a royalist by instinct, became a socialist by conviction.”

Ambler has often been praised as a precursor of both John le Carré (who called him “the source on which we all draw”) and Len Deighton. They follow him in the moral greyness of the worlds they inhabit and the ordinariness of their heroes and villains – men with no particular charm or physical prowess, little expertise with women or guns to charm the reader. But in one important respect, both departed from Ambler’s model: their heroes are professional spies, men working for the state; and, as a result, their stories have a misleading air of insularity (this is particularly true of le Carré’s early work). They remind me of the fantasy some people entertain about East End gangsters, that they’re not really a problem because “they only hurt their own” (I’ve heard this said in complete sincerity). By contrast, Ambler is always aware that the business of the state and the business of business can never be separated. At the very least, business can never be purely neutral. Marlow, the hero of Cause for Alarm, is an engineer who takes a job with a company that makes arms-manufacturing machinery and sells it to Fascist Italy; he thinks he has just taken a job, that morality doesn’t enter into it, and is forced to realise that neutrality is a dangerous illusion.

Graham, in Journey into Fear, is another engineer, an expert on naval ordnance: “For Graham a gun was a series of mathematical expressions resolved in such a way as to enable one man, by touching a button, to project an armour-piercing shell so that it hit a target several miles away plumb in the middle. It was a piece of machinery no more and no less significant than a vacuum cleaner or a bacon slicer.” He learns different when guns start being pointed at him.

Often, however, business is far from neutral. Uncommon Danger opens at the offices of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company in the City of London – the firm’s name seems to prophesy Orwell. The board of directors, anxious to secure Romanian oil concessions, sanctions the retention of a certain “Colonel Robinson” to take “measures”. These measures later include imprisoning Kenton, the journalist hero, who is at least equipped to analyse the situation to himself:

Someone spoke in an office in Birmingham or Pittsburgh, or maybe on board a yacht off Cannes, and a few weeks later a Mills bomb burst in a printing works in Bucharest. Between those two events, unknown both to the man who had spoken and to the man who had pulled the pin from the bomb, was a misty hinterland in which the “Colonel Robinsons” of the earth moved silently about their business.

Ambler mapped out that hinterland most convincingly in The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), in which Charles Latimer, a successful writer of conventional whodunnits, sets out to discover what a real murderer is like – a safely dead murderer, the Dimitrios of the title, whose body has been fished out from the Bosphorus. With Latimer, we follow Dimitrios’s progress from low-level killer and thief in Smyrna, as he becomes in succession pimp, assassin, spy and drug smuggler across Europe and finally, in Paris, director of a bank – the Eurasian Credit Trust (Orwell again). Business, espionage and crime merge into one another – something le Carré had to relearn for The Constant Gardener.

Postwar, Ambler’s politics cooled off – Judgement on Deltchev (1951), about a show trial in a fictional eastern European country, was an unapologetic attack on Stalinism, and apparently annoyed some of his friends on the left; but while he insisted that he was not a closet communist, he also found the Cold War distasteful. Later books kept up with current affairs – the Malayan “emergency” (Passage of Arms, 1959), Israeli-Arab conflict (The Levanter, 1972), South American revolution (Doctor Frigo, 1974) – but never the Cold War. For a long time Ambler was out of fashion and even out of print. Now, Cold War done with, his early books look contemporary again, the European underworld he drew in the 1930s, riven by petty nationalisms and connected by drugs and the “white slave trade”, far more familiar and real than the Europe of George Smiley and Harry Palmer.

“Cause for Alarm”, “Epitaph for a Spy”, “Journey into Fear”, “The Mask of Dimitrios” and “Uncommon Danger” are published by Penguin (£8.99 each)

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis