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Here Lies by Eric Ambler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 234 pp.)

August 31, 1986| Charles Champlin

The most astonishing thing is true about Eric Ambler's autobiography: It is ever so slightly dull and flatly written, as if he had never really wanted to do it (he is said to be a very private man) but was yielding to pressure and getting on with a bothersome job.

Autobiography was obviously painful to the equally private Alec Guinness, but in "Blessings in Disguise," he turned reticence into a literary virtue and created a book of charm, interest, poignancy and, almost in spite of himself, passages of high emotion.

"Here Lies" (a title that nicely matches "Blessings in Disguise" for double meanings) does have its passages of high interest. Among them is Ambler's de-mythologizing account of working with John Huston in wartime Italy on a documentary. Ordered by Frank Capra back in the United States, the documentary was to have been about the ordinary Italian people in a liberated town.

The chosen town proved to be unliberated, and the film Huston made was "The Battle of San Pietro." "Most of it," Ambler writes, "was re-enacted 'combat' footage of a fairly impressionistic kind." Not re-enacted was the unceremonious burial of GI casualties, footage that caused the War Department to ban the film.

Ambler's vignette, in the same sequence, of Gen. Mark Clark arriving at the battle lines to pose for pictures, map in hand and pointing toward Cassino, then being driven rapidly in the opposite direction, is somehow worthy of one of Ambler's novels.

It may be that the creative process is incommunicable. It may be more simply that writers can't or won't write revealingly about their own work, preferring to leave the exegetics to critics, who can then be dismissed out of hand.

We learn, in all events, when Ambler's now classic thrillers were written, the slim advances the early ones fetched him, how they sold and how his sales and reputation grew. But there is relatively little on the making of the books. It is as if Ambler has led a thorough tour of the house, but tiptoes past the closed door of the study.

Well, the door is perhaps ajar, and what we learn is tantalizing. Ambler admits that he profited by good advice from a woman friend who read thriller manuscripts for a publisher. At her urging, he read Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden, or, the British Agent" and some thrillers by Compton Mackenzie. His second book, "Background to Danger" (1936), was in consequence more disciplined than the first, "The Dark Frontier," he believes.

It was a tumultuous moment in history: Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, Italy invaded Ethiopia, there was civil war in Spain and, Ambler adds, "It was a year of more refugees and of marriages arranged to confer passports. . . . Those were the things that I was trying, in my own fictional terms, to write about." He talked to refugees, listened to speakers in aid of good causes.

So it is that the early Ambler novels, "Epitaph for a Spy," "The Mask of Dimitrios," "Journey Into Fear"--there are 20 novels in all--evoke the fears and confusions of their time with great presence and enduring readability (in part because only the specifics of the fear and confusion change in a world never at peace with itself). Somehow there seems more to be heard of the writer at work.

Ambler's account of his life is generally so detached as to seem chilly: boyhood on the middle-class fringes in South London, schooling, careers in engineering and advertising before the writing caught on, the war years, the Hollywood years.

What is evident is that Ambler, now 77 and recovering from a near-fatal accident, does not endure fools gladly. Autobiographies are meant to be revealing, and Ambler reveals himself as a man of no large patience, unsparing to the point of arrogance.

He is scathing about his literary questioners, amateur and professional, especially those one meets at parties and who demand to know the autobiographical or nonfictional borrowings in the work and who suggest (damning with faint praise) that what he does is high-level hack work.

There is a rather malicious portrait of Maugham and a generally unfavorable account of Ambler's movie years, which seem to have been profitable and frustrating in about equal doses (his credits include "A Night to Remember").

"Here Lies" is informative, no quarrel with that, yet it stays largely at the surface of a life. It is as if there might be a following volume (a pleasing thought) in which the author allows himself to speculate upon his life, his times and his work, and is not simply the camera eye whose panorama includes, distantly, himself.

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