Eric Ambler thrillers cleanse the palate between more ambitious books. They've got quite a lot of careful and convincing plot, no sex please, and jolly little nonsense about characters' feelings. Since they always involve people of various nationalities thrown together by fate into a small space or a common plan, they give Ambler a chance to enlarge on one of his favorite themes: what people of different nations publicly say and privately think of one another. At one point in A Passage of Arms, a Chinese chauffeur tries to understand why his American clients always chatter loudly about their most intimate affairs in his hearing, even though they know he speaks fluent English. At first he's tempted to think of it as insulting, but then comes to the conclusion that not only do the Americans. alone among all nationalities, seem to not mind it when other people become privy to their personal affairs, they actually enjoy it.
I had to think of that when I ran across this piece by Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard. He is by most accounts a smart fellow and is indisputably a middle-aged man:
For reasons which will defy any European's comprehension, he's decided to share with the world the following, er, proclivities:
I’m a man, but I like dressing up as a woman, in women’s clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets and bright rings and women’s shoes. Given my tastes, at the moment, it might be better to say that I like dressing up as a girl. I like to wear costume jewelry, and pastel nail polish, and I do that all the time. I like to wear skirts and tights, or dresses, too, in private sometimes, in public fewer times, and in company when I can find an appropriate occasion, which I rarely can....
Other prized girly possessions, recently acquired: opaque white tights; opaque bright blue tights; a micro-thin blue belt (it goes only with shorts or skirts); a black Maidenform padded bra, which converts a 36AA like me to a 36C; a cotton white-and-magenta circle skirt, which I have worn around Harvard Square; a sleeveless black top with small ruffles and white polka dots, which I have as yet had no occasion to wear. Ten years ago I lost, among other girl clothes, a pair of black and silver opaque tights. I still miss them.
As Burt might say in one of his girlier moments: ZOMG!! TMI!!!
The image of Burt prancing around in tights and sparkly rings and bras will haunt me for weeks. This may be turn out to be a more horrifyingly persistent unwanted mental image (Germans, we need a word for this -- like Ohrwurm, but for mental images) since I read in the Good Soldier Schwejk about the drunken Czech officer who stripped naked, crammed a large mackerel head-first into his backside, and pretended he was a mermaid.