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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

I first read this as an old paperback picked up in a charity shop. It was a book-of-the-film with a photograph of Peter Ustinov as the protagonist on the back cover. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the film and I wasn’t expecting much from the book. Why should I have been? It was just another cheap paperback bought out of idle interest.

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read. The first-person narrator is Arthur Simpson, a neurotic, devious tourist-guide and petty crook living in Athens. He’s in his fifties and has bad breath and a paunch. He bears grudges, steals from his clients whenever he can, and has no redeeming qualities except his candour. But the more he reveals about himself and his past – from the anonymous notes he sent to get teachers in trouble at school to the indigestion he suffers whenever he foolishly gets himself into trouble again – the more you’re on his side. He’s a highly flawed but sympathetic character. You’ll finish this book not just wishing him well but wishing there were more books to read about him (according to the introduction, he appears again in Dirty Story, 1967).

He reminds me of two other flawed but sympathetic characters: George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman, a cowardly Victorian war-hero, and Anthony Burgess’s Nabby Adams, an alcoholic policeman in British Malaya. Flashman cheats and scampers his way through a long and entertaining series. Adams appears in only one book and like Arthur he leaves you wanting more. Burgess intended him to stand for the human race: he’s like our sinful, suffering forefather Adam, who is a prophet, or nabi, in the Muslim tradition. But Nabby lives to drink; Arthur isn’t sure why he lives at all:

I have often thought of killing myself, so that I wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember any more, so that I could rest; but then I have always started worrying in case this after-life they preach about really exists. It might turn out to be even bloodier than the old one. (ch. 7)

He muses like that half-way through the unwanted adventure that takes him from life as a tourist-guide in Athens to life as a criminal conspirator in Ankara. He’s being blackmailed, you see, by a tourist he tried to cheat and rob. The tourist, who’s going under the name Harper, turns out to be much cleverer and more dangerous than he seemed. He catches Arthur in the very act of stealing traveller’s cheques from his luggage, beats him up a little, then forces him to write a confession for the Greek police. Unless Simpson follows orders, the confession will put him in jail.

The orders are that he must drive a large American car to Ankara on behalf of a Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, who will meet him there and pay him for his work. Of course, he suspects that he’s being used to smuggle something into Turkey, so he carefully checks the car before he tries to cross the Turkish border. He finds nothing and tries to cross the border. That’s when his unwanted adventure really turns unpleasant: by the end of chapter two, Ambler has skilfully brought a petty crook into a big criminal conspiracy.

Or rather: he’s skilfully brought the reader into realizing, with a sudden shock, that the petty crook is in a big criminal conspiracy. Arthur was entangled as soon as Harper caught him with the traveller’s cheques at the end of chapter one. Ignorance, deception and self-delusion are important parts of this book: that’s why it’s called The Light of Day. Arthur often reveals more than he means to about himself, but he stays sympathetic. So do the other characters in the book: like Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959), you understand why everyone acts as they do. And like Passage of Arms, exotic cultures are brought to life for English-speaking readers. Ambler seems to know Turkey and Greece from the inside.

And Egypt too. That’s where Arthur was born, as he reveals at the beginning:

My correct name is Arthur Simpson.

No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British. (ch. 1)

No, he’s not British to the core: he’s selfish to the core. But you understand why and you sympathize with his rootlessness and his failures. After his father dies an army charity pays for his education in England, then he returns to Egypt to work with his mother in the restaurant she apparently owns. Things go wrong and he ends up in Athens, married to Nicki, an attractive younger woman who he thinks will leave him sooner or later. She’s attractive by his standards anyway, but not by Harper’s, as Arthur learns when he takes Harper to the club where his wife is still working as a dancer:

They have candles on the tables at the Club and you can see faces. When the floor show came on, I watched him watch it. He looked at the girls, Nicki among them, as if they were flies on the other side of a window. I asked him how he liked the third from the left – that was Nicki.

“Legs too short,” he said. “I like them with longer legs. Is that the one you had in mind?”

“In mind? I don’t understand, sir.” I was beginning to dislike him intensely.

He eyed me. “Shove it,” he said unpleasantly. (ch. 1)

Arthur’s dislike helps explain why he decides to try and steal some of Harper’s traveller’s cheques: as he says elsewhere, he always likes to get his own back. He also needs money because he’s struggling to pay the rent on his and Nicki’s flat.

But he badly underestimates Harper, which is why he ends up in Ankara. The conspiracy under way there is to steal jewels from the Topkapi, the museum in the old Sultans’ palace that gave its name to the film version of this book. The conspirators – Harper, his lover Fräulein Lipp and a boorish German-speaker called Fischer – are staying in an old house on the Bosphorus while they complete their plans. Arthur, who has acquired another and worse blackmailer by now, persuades them to employ him as a driver and guide to Ankara. They think the signed confession keeps him safely under their thumb. In fact, he’s under someone else’s thumb, which is why he has to spy on them.

But while he’s spying on them, he’s also observing the other servants in the house: an old Turkish couple called the Hamuls, who work as caretakers, and a Turkish-Cypriot chef called Geven. After Arthur himself, these three are in some ways the most interesting characters in the book. Like Evelyn Waugh, Ambler could make characters live and breathe on the page. But Waugh wouldn’t have been interested in Turkish-speaking servants in Ankara. Ambler definitely is and so is Arthur, partly because Geven, although “a good cook”, also “gets drunk and attacks people.”

Arthur doesn’t want to get on Geven’s bad side. He knows about Geven’s prison sentence for wounding a waiter before he meets him, but Harper and Company don’t. All the same, Harper guesses, with his usual perception, that Geven has been upset by Fischer’s high-handed treatment of him and is not cooking as well for his employers as for his fellow servants: “I’ll bet Arthur eats better than we do. In fact, I know damn well he does.” Arthur is eavesdropping as Harper and Fräulein Lipp are in bed together, making “the beast with two backs” (ch. 8). He’s already frightened of Harper; now he’s jealous too, because Fräulein Lipp is very attractive, with “long legs and slim thighs”.

In the end, it will be Harper who wishes he’d never met Simpson, but Arthur isn’t counting his blessings on the final page. He’s too neurotic for that and too full of resentments and grudges. I didn’t think the final page works. Nor does the climax of the book, as Arthur unwillingly joins the jewel-robbery. What worked for me were the glimpses into both the high politics and the low culture of Turkey: the importance of Atatürk, on the one hand, and the boozing of an unstable Turkish-Cypriot chef on the other. Arthur knows little Turkish, but Geven speaks English because of his time in Cyprus:

He drained the glass again and leaned across the chopping table breathing heavily. “I tell you,” he said menacingly; “if that bastard says one more word, I kill him.”

“He’s just a fool.”

“You defend him?” The lower lip quivered.

“No, no. But is he worth killing?”

He poured himself another drink. Both lips were working now, as if he had brought another thought agency into play in order to grapple with the unfamiliar dilemma my question had created.

The Hamuls arrived just then to prepare for the service of the evening meal, and I saw the old man’s eyes take in the situation. He began talking to Geven. He spoke a country dialect and I couldn’t even get the drift of what he was saying; but it seemed to improve matters a little. Geven grinned occasionally and even laughed once. (ch. 8)

The country dialect isn’t enough, as Geven shortly demonstrates. But Ambler has created a world that lives on the page. Like Burgess he was interested in foreign languages, not just foreign cultures, and he could use them to heighten the realism of his stories. Arthur is a hybrid man who’s always on the outside of what he’s observing, because he doesn’t truly belong anywhere: not Egypt, not England, not Greece or Turkey. He starts this sentence like an Englishman, but the memory he reveals isn’t at all English:

The day Mum died, the Imam came and intoned verses from the Koran: “Now taste the torment of the fire you called a lie.” (ch. 10)

Ambler knew about Islam too and in some ways The Light of Day is even more relevant today than it was when it was first published in 1962. Turkey is still a land of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, but the balance of power has shifted drastically. Arthur is told something that Atatürk is supposed to have said shortly before he died: “If I can live another fifteen years, I can made Turkey a democracy. If I die sooner, it will take three generations.” That was in 1938 and three generations have passed now. Atatürk’s dream is dead: Islam has re-asserted itself and Atatürk is no longer a Turkish hero.

So there’s even more irony in The Light of Day than Ambler intended. I think he would have liked that. History and human beings are complex. There isn’t just one world: there are as many worlds as there are people. Lives and cultures are both separate and interwoven. At their best, Ambler’s books convey all that better than any other books I know. And this may be the best of the best: The Light of Day is a very clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. As I said about Passage of Arms: it’s good that this edition was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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Front cover of Outsider II by Brian SewellOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

I’m slipping. When I said I hoped that the art-critic Brian Sewell would live to write the second volume of his autobiography and say more about Salvador Dalí, he had already written it and devoted an entire chapter to Dalí. Further, as a committed Guardian-reader, I’d already read a review of the book in Britain’s premier purveyor of progressive performativity. My memory must be suffering from all the drink, drugs and debauchery. I think the recycled title confused me too. I also think this is the better half of the autobiography. For one thing, it explains more clearly why Sewell matters and why so many people admire him, including me:

I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella – clammily unpleasant but, unfurled, an ineffective weapon. I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter), and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon as I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre. These small events, the screams of feminists and the low booing of billiards players in the Chelsea Arts Club, are expressions of rage easier to tolerate than the closing of ranks by those who run the art establishment, whose defensive refrain “He’s only an art critic” they believe excuses them from taking notice of anything I write or say. Even Nicholas Serota once felt it proper to terminate a discussion with “I’m a museum director and you’re only an art critic” when he thought he’d lost an argument. To compliant critics, however, serving their purposes, these panjandrums are quite prepared to drop to the low kowtow. (ch. 11, “The Venomous Critic”, pp. 205-6)

If Sewell had been compliant, he’d almost certainly have been knighted by now. But he’ll go to his grave as plain “Brian Sewell” and that is undoubtedly the way he wants it. At eighty-one and in poor health, he knows his grave isn’t far off: the sixteenth and final chapter is entitled simply “Death”. He describes the failure of his flesh – “My spine crumbles, my hips creak, and like most men of my age I have had the dreaded slippery finger of the urologist probing my prostate gland” (pg. 272) – but says he fears dementia even more than impotence and incontinence. He doesn’t fear being dissected after death, however, or the irreverence of medical students:

Ideally, what is left of me should be buried in the garden with the bones of the dozen dogs already there, nourishing the roots of yet another tree. (Loc. cit., pg. 274)

Dogs appear a lot in this book. So does buggery, both active and passive: “I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it” he says he once said to an offer of sexual service (pg. 134). That’s in chapter eight, “The Blunt Affair”, which is devoted to the unmasking of Sewell’s friend and lover Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent. Not that Sewell admits to being Blunt’s lover: for all the candour elsewhere about bath-houses (ch. 5, pg. 74), bumming in barracks (ch. 3, pp. 46-7) and banging one out for Salvador Dalí (ch. 4, pp. 54-5), he’s discreet about his sex-life when he wants to be.

His refusal to abandon Blunt is another example of his failure to be compliant and earn himself a knighthood. I’m less sympathetic with it than I am with his disdain for modern art and female artists, but it’s another example of Sewell, as a homosexual, putting loyalty to another homosexual above his loyalty to humanity. I don’t think that’s putting it too highly: communism was an evil and ugly system and Sewell has to pretend that Blunt was naïve in his politics, “drifting”, “uncertain” and “trapped by affections and unwise personal loyalties” into becoming “a Communist spy of sorts” (loc. cit., pg. 147). And it is true that Blunt led a detached and unworldly life:

One episode particularly amused Michael [Kitson] – in search of a restaurant we passed a McDonald’s and Anthony murmured, “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.” (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 127)

But Blunt spied on behalf of a system that did not allow people, scholars or otherwise, to lead detached, unworldly lives. Under Stalin, even poached eggs were subordinated to politics:

…for many years practically every work published in the Soviet Union or its dependencies was studded with references to Stalin and his glorious intellect. This applied even to manuals of physics, cookery books, and so on, though it was still possible to distinguish between ritual homage and genuinely Stalinist works: there was not really any such thing as “Stalinist physics”. (Main Currents of Marxism: Volume III, The Breakdown, Leszek Kołakowski, ch. vii, “György Lukács: Reason in the Service of Dogma”, pg. 254, Clarendon Press, 1978)

But there was definitely a Stalinist art-criticism and Blunt would have had to conform to it. And conformity might not have saved him from arrest, torture and execution: Stalinism destroyed countless innocent people, because terror was the fuel it ran on. Sewell notes that Blunt turned the Courtauld Institute “from a finishing school for witless girls into a seminary with a worldwide reputation”, then regrets his failure to do the same elsewhere:

The pity is that his political life was not subject to such a transformation … It is difficult to believe so intelligent a man … At heart he had no politics … he was touched by Britain’s evident poverty in the Thirties, touched by the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, touched by the inevitability of conflict with Germany, but it is to be doubted that he had any profound interest in the political reasons or remedies for them … How then could so scrupulously scholarly a man, so dry, precise and considered in everything he wrote of art and architecture, be such a fool as to put his scholarship at risk for a political philosophy in which he had virtually no belief? (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 147)

And Sewell’s answer? It was all down to “Guy Burgess, with whom he perhaps never went to bed but who won from him undying loyalty”. For “Burgess” read “Blunt”, for “Blunt” read “Sewell”. Sewell, of course, didn’t embrace Blunt’s politics, but if Sewell had been Blunt’s age, would he too have become “a Communist spy of sorts” and worked for Stalin? It seems entirely possible. There’s food for homophobic thought there, alas, as there is elsewhere in the book for Islamophobic and antisemitic thought. Sewell is no more an Islamophobe or antisemite that he is a homophobe, but he may supply material for bigots in his descriptions of homosexual gang-rape and cruelty to animals in Muslim countries (ch. 7, “Turkey”, passim) and in catty remarks about members of another much-oppressed group:

… Norman Lebrecht, [big-time Mahler-booster and] former music critic of the Daily Telegraph. … Never was a favourite so puffed-up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee. (ch., “The Evening Standard”, pg. 198) … [I] accepted [the] invitation knowing nothing of the programme but expecting it to be an evening of Schubert or Richard Strauss. It was not; it was an exquisite punishment knowingly inflicted – entirely of Sondheim unrelieved. I would rather have had a tooth drawn. (ch. , “Loose Ends”, pg. 255)

His remarks about Salvador Dalí’s halitosis and projectile-mastication, on the other hand, are candid, not catty. Sewell says “I wished he farted more and breathed less” (pg. 57), but Dalí himself “knew his breath was foul and claimed that [it] kept flies from perching on the wings of his moustache; when one once did it was made immortal in a photograph” (ibid.). That’s in chapter 2, “Salvador Dali in Cadaques”, which is perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of the book. Dalí is one of my favourite artists, but I’d never seen him in quite the light cast by Sewell’s recollections:

He was one of only two men I have known capable of sputtering, not only on himself with a napkin tucked below his chin, but over every neighbour at a table for four with napkins on their laps. The other man was Bernard Crick, founder of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, who, on the occasion of giving it to me, ruined a favourite tie in plain green silk, bought because it it perfectly matched (or so I thought) the green of Dali’s velvet [suits]. (pg. 57)

Sewell met Dalí because, having adopted “two beach dogs, Scipio and Hannibal”, on holiday in Catalonia, he was cutting up “the windpipe and lungs of a sheep, complete, intact and very bloody” outside a café. Dalí and Gala “whispered to a stop” near him in a “great green pre-war Cadillac” (pg. 51). Dalí, “dressed top to toe in velvet of a dark green to match the car”, then approached Sewell, who he supposed had been waiting for him:

“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his attitude imperious. “Of course. You’re Dali,” I replied – and to this day I do not know whether he was flattered that I knew or disappointed that he had been denied another opportunity to announce to all in earshot, “I am Dali.” “And you’ve been waiting for me” – half question, half accusation. He seemed surprised when I said that I had not. To me, but not apparently to him, it was a preposterous notion that anyone would lie in wait for him with the dogs, the blood, the knife, the windpipe and the lungs as an elaborate ruse to draw him into conversation, but this is indeed what he supposed. (Loc. cit., pg. 51)

This chance encounter produced an invitation to Dalí’s house, with its giant egg and phallic swimming-pool, and a Debris Christ in whose “left armpit” Sewell was invited to “masturbate (again the excessive rolling of the r)”. He nonchalantly obliged while Dalí “clicked” a “camera” and “fumbled in his trousers” (his own, that is, not Sewell’s) (pp. 54-5). Sewell doubts that there was film in the camera, suspecting mere “camouflage for a voyeur who, though brazenly addicted to the habit, was still, at his age, both embarrassed by residual shame and unwilling to admit to homosexuality” (pg. 56).

He realizes then that “Dalí, for all the fawning interest of strangers, was alone and could not bear his loneliness – Gala, his anchor in Cadaques since 1930, was not enough” (ibid.). And so, undeterred by his axillary initiation, he accepted Dalí’s hospitality again: that was the first of “four long visits to Cadaques” (pg. 65), which allowed him to observe “a dirty Dali so to speak” and to see “hundreds of drawings that could never be published or exhibited, revealing the depths he had plumbed” (pg. 66). Almost everything in this chapter is quotable, as Sewell describes Dalí’s egomania, eccentricity, neurosis, absurdity, pretension, self-parody and self-mockery. But the chapter ends with the simple, sane judgment that Dalí was “the last of the great old masters” (ibid.).

Sewell has met many other old masters in paint, if not in person, but it isn’t just Dalí who mixes art with absurdity in Outsider II:

At the bottom of the tree were the dozens of dealers who dealt from the back of a van and, in the case of Raymond de Romare, from a caravan; this, badly parked in Duke Street, St James’s, narrowing an already narrow street, was ripped to shreds one day by a passing army lorry, leaving his stock of ghastly paintings lying in the road among the splintered timbers. One of them, on a large sheet of copper, was badly bent; unwilling to pay the cost of a restorer’s attempting to flatten it, he gave five shillings to the driver of a steamroller to drive slowly and ever so gently over it – of which the consequence was a much larger and much thinner sheet of copper with not a flake of paint adhering to it. (ch. 2, “Scratching a Living”, pp. 32-3)

There’s also this, at the end of a section devoted to the charismatic and larger-than-life forger Tom Keating:

On his death in 1984, a partial clearance of his studio gave rise to an outpouring of respect by the art market in the only way it knows – it paid absurd prices at an auction. Christie’s had already held one sale, presumably to settle taxes, the year before, and this second sale was thought to be the last chance to buy a Keating. It was not – sales continued until at last the penny dropped and the salesroom recognised that there must now be a forger of Keatings… (ch. 6, “The Seventies”, pg. 91)

Both halves of Sewell’s autobiography are long and detailed, but they must represent a bare fraction of the memories and experiences that crowd his brain, which “has so long thrilled in wonder at masterpieces of art and architecture” (ch. 16, “Death”, pg. 274). Masterpieces like the mosque converted from a church at Barhal in Turkey, “the masonry as crisp as the day it was cut, the arcaded outer walls as mathematically precise and proportional as any of Bach’s Goldberg Variations” (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 111). Sewell also “fell” into “traps of longing, lust and love” for cars in the days before “art … surrendered their design to the computer” (ch. 15, “Loose Ends”, pg. 269). He says that, at the end of the Second World War, cars returned to the streets of London and Kensington “became an exhibition site of wonders from the Twenties and Thirties, not only of the familiar grandees, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lagonda, but of such now long-forgotten marques as Autovias and Packards, Salmsons, Railtons and Broughs, Hudsons, Cords and Auburns” (ibid., pp. 268-9).

Yet despite his devotion to man’s art and artifice, Sewell says this of the same trip in Turkey on which he saw the church at Barhal:

There were no bears, but at one point I disturbed an eagle on a ledge — and perhaps have seen nothing more beautiful than the one lazy flap of its wings that set it on a seemingly effortless vertical flight up the sun-warmed cliff behind it. (Loc. cit., pg. 112)

I think that is an example of something many people might not associate with Sewell: his humility. He is a far more interesting and erudite man than most of his critics, but he can echo Landor: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature art.” Landor goes on to say that he “strove with none,/For none was worth my strife”. Sewell can’t say the same: he has thought many people worthy of strife, if not in themselves then for the absurdities and pretensions of the art they produce or promote. Sewell’s sharp tongue and sharp pen have won him many victories, because he is cleverer and wittier than his enemies are. That’s why they have resorted to physical attacks, despite controlling so much of the art-world. Sewell has ruled a small corner of it, but he knows that there is much more to the world than art. Important truths like this are not found in art, for example:

Two in the morning is no time to find that the contents of one’s knapsack are sticky with ginger marmalade. (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 104)

That is Sewell in a nutshell: alive to the absurdity of life and able to describe it memorably. If you’d like to learn more about him and the ginger marmalade, Outsider and its Outsider await.


Previously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Mum, Bum and Caravaggio — review of the first volume of Outsider

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