Furst amongst equals

The beginning of a spy novel?” by onnoweb is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

There are spy novels…. & novels about spies.

Fleming, Deighton & Le Carre definitely wrote the former (& in doing so laid bare their inner classist prejudices) , whilst Ambler, Greene, & Conrad constructed far more nuanced stories. I would argue, dear Puffins, that Alan Furst – uniquely – bridges the gap between the two camps.

In 1984, Furst, an American born journalist and author of four novels, travelled to the Soviet Union and it changed his life. As he noted later, he saw fear in the eyes of the people he met, and it shocked him. He decided that he would never again write a novel set in contemporary times, and that the threat posed by every expression of fascism between 1934 and 1945 would be his subject. It should be noted that whilst Furst is a native of New York City, he has deep rooted family connections with Poland, Latvia & Russia.  To gain a greater grasp for the historical and geographical settings, he and his wife relocated to Paris – which became the environment, for most of his subsequent novels (although most other European capitals also feature). He purchased old books and maps to ensure even greater verisimilitude. As a result, readers can be confident that the streets, restaurants and nightclubs are accurately depicted and that they are not likely to find anachronisms; any book or film that a character or the narrator mentions could have been read or seen at the time of the novel’s setting.  So Furst embarked to create his own niche in the espionage literary domain and published the first of fifteen historical thrillers, Night Soldiers (1988), a set of novels that became known as the Night Soldiers Series.

However, apart from his mastery of historical detail, the debut of NS is an anomaly. It is the only panoramic entry which starts in Bulgaria in 1934 and ends on the West Side of Manhattan eleven years later. It, along with his next novel Dark Star (1991), is much longer than his later novels. By the time he published his fourth, The World at Night (1996), Furst had found his writing vocation, a leaner style that produced tautly-written novels of just over two hundred and fifty pages that combine historically researched “truthiness” with genuine humanity amidst terrifying inhumanity. He had also compressed his historical time span: his narratives covered the late 1930s before the war and ended with 1942-43 when the outcome of the war was very much in doubt. NS also does not contain the sustained erotic love interest that is prominent in the later novels where their protagonists are invariably fortyish, male, single, and with few exceptions, civilians who are reluctantly drawn into the shadowy, gray world of espionage. Nonetheless, the author’s signature trademarks are introduced in NS. Some of the characters reappear in later novels which only serves to re-inforce the belief that these books are designed to be read in the context of a larger work.

Reading the diaries, memoirs and histories of the 1930s, I’m often struck by the sense of a history that was not so much secret as unacknowledged. In his memoir “World Within World” Stephen Spender wrote, “Almost as terrible as the actions of the Nazis was the indifference of many people to those things, the lack of horror in the face of horror … It was a moral indifference among those not directly involved.” Spender goes on, though, to write about how everyone eventually became involved: “In a settled state of society … [politics] is the concern of the experts … But in certain circumstances, whole classes of people, not in ordinary times political, may have a politically conscious role forced upon them.” That’s a good description of the inadvertent heroes in the espionage novels of Alan Furst and of why, some 80 years after the events described in them, his books have an urgency that seems unimaginable in spy novels with a more contemporary setting. These are stories of a time when the most heroic possible act was simply to stay conscious – to resist both the moral indifference Spender spoke of and the natural human tendency to assume that things won’t get much worse. So, in Furst’s Europe of the ’30s, the secret world of the espionage novel — the passwords and hiding places, the people in low and high places whose jobs and day-to-day lives disguise other more desperate and daring lives, the ability to read the meaning of public events, to parse official language for signals to allies and enemies — becomes, paradoxically, the only way to live, if not openly, then at least with awareness. Furst’s characters feel the exhilaration and the burden of the realization that the history of humanity depends on them.

Not that Furst isn’t also a romantic. The titles of his cycle of novels tell you that: “Night Soldiers,” “Dark Star,” “The World at Night,” “Kingdom of Shadows.” These books are full of elements that we’ve learned to treasure from films of that period: ordinary heroes thrust into extraordinary circumstances who choose danger over their own safety, beautiful women using their charms to work as spies, secret lovers’ trysts that carry the promise of loss even in their happiest moments, rendezvous of another kind conducted in shabby, out-of-the-way cafes and well-appointed fin de siecle brasseries. Intrigue breeds romance here. The conventions are familiar, but Furst’s talent for creating thumbnail sketches of his players, the attention he pays to detail — what his characters eat and wear and read, the way the weather mocks, thwarts, or complements the dire circumstances — makes everything seem newly minted. It’s those other books and movies depicting wartime intrigue that feel clichéd, never mind that they came first. Furst writes with the vividness of an originator.

At times, the sophistication of the world Furst describes suggests the films of Ernst Lubitsch — wry elegance with a touch of the earthy. In “KoS,” a Hungarian aristocrat called away on a mission as he’s about to take his mistress on holiday, arranges to have a bracelet delivered from Cartier to appease her. He recalls the wisdom of his Uncle, the Count :  “Polanyi liked to say that the great fault of poets was that they never sang of the power of money in affairs between men and women. So for that we are left to the mercy of cynics — bartenders, novelists, or salacious aunts.” At other times, Furst seems to be channeling the melancholy of songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You.” In this passage from “TWaN,” a French film producer named Jean Casson, looks at Paris on the dawn that German troops cross the borders:

He got out of bed, walked to the glass door that opened on the little balcony. He pushed the drape aside; you could see the Eiffel Tower across the river. The rue Chardin was quiet — the 16th Arrondissement was always quiet, and Passy, its heart and soul, quieter still. One or two lights on, people didn’t know yet. So beautiful, his street. Trees in clouds of white blossom, dawn shadow playing on the stone buildings, a lovely gloom. He’d shot a scene from “No Way Out” here. The hero knows the cops are onto him, but he leaves his hideout anyhow, to see his rich girlfriend one last time.

Casson returns in the sequel “Red Gold“, and in these two books, Furst brilliantly highlights his deft depiction of the stresses & divisions in French society brought about by the invasion of 1940, & the bitter unofficial civil war between those within the French population who welcomed & assisted the Germans & those who didn’t. Furst’s books cram in all manner of information about the competing factions that existed in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, which group controlled which regions in which years, the particular hazards of train travel across European borders in the late ’30s and so on. At the turn of a page, you’ll find anything from the machinations of different factions slugging it out in the Spanish Civil War, an explanation of the covert signals of the Moscow show trials of the ’30s, to a list of people recruited by the American OSS (among them Julia Child, Archibald MacLeish, Sterling Hayden, John Ford, Arthur Scheslinger Jr. and circus heir John Ringling North). Driven by the missions and schemes of one central character more than by the events and institutions that dominate most espionage novels, Furst’s books are full of shards of information, anecdotes, & heartbreaking stories. In “NS” an aged Frenchman too ill to flee the advancing Germans is lovingly nursed and then just as lovingly buried by the housekeepers who have taken care of him for 30 years. And there are deeper currents of sadness in Furst’s stories, like the old Polish Jew who tells the hero of “DS“: “This is my fourth time along this road. In 1905 we went west to escape the pogroms, in 1916 east, running away from the Germans, then in 1920, west, with the Bolsheviks chasing us. And here we are again.” Another of Furst’s anecdotes (and this one is true, as it turns out) is told by German Jews lucky enough to make it to New York in 1937. They dock at Ellis Island and a well-dressed man appears and offers to buy their clothing in exchange for both money and good American clothing. “After that experience,” Furst writes, “who could convince them that they were not in the promised land?” It’s a good joke, a variation on the immigrant myths about cities where the streets are paved with gold. We get the punch line a few pages later. An OSS officer had begun stockpiling European immigrants’ clothing and storing it in warehouses with instructions that it not be dry-cleaned. “Because of his foresight, agents going into Europe would, at least, not be dressed by Brooks Brothers.”

However, Furst’s purpose isn’t to show off the information he has accumulated but to morally complicate the battle against fascism. He never questions the necessity of that fight, but he is forever illustrating the compromises and uneasy alliances inherent in it. That’s why his early heroes — a Bulgarian recruited into the NKVD (Soviet intelligence) in “NS , a Pravda journalist asked to do a “small favour” for the NKVD that sends him shuttling back and forth between competing interests in “DS”  — are compromised themselves. The most uneasy alliance in these books is the one that ends “DS“: The Soviet journalist, now hunted through Europe in one of Stalin’s purges, agrees to supply information to a German military officer who is certain that Hitler’s ambitions will destroy Germany.

“If one was young in the 1930’s,” wrote Sir Isaiah Berlin, “and lived in a democracy, then, whatever one’s politics, if one had human feelings at all, the faintest spark of social idealism, or any love of life whatever, one must have felt … that all was dark and quiet, a great reaction was abroad: and little stirred, and nothing resisted.”  Furst amplifies this sense in his novels — they’re rooted in the uncertainties of the ’30s and not the retrospective glory of the ’40s. The war that exists in these books is more as intimation than as fact. People know that it’s coming, and they for the most part choose to ignore it.

In his most startling metaphor, Furst says that the history of Europe in the ’30s is that of a secret love affair between two men, “a relationship based on a deep and sympathetic understanding, a shared passion for certain ideals, a common view of the human race.” The secret lovers are, of course, Hitler and Stalin. Furst continues, “Imagine that Shakespeare rewrote the final act of ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Now the lovers poison the wells of Verona and, in the final scene, they’re all alone and living happily ever after.”  That fairy-tale conclusion is delivered like a slap. Furst pulls off the idea of Hitler and Stalin as comrades because he isn’t an ideologue. He’s not pitting one against the other to make a political point, just insisting on the inconvenience of facts. Keeping one devil at bay means appeasing another and plunging into a whole new set of complications. By allowing that each system had its own distinct horrors, Furst invests even the most heroic actions with potentially terrible consequences.

Furst’s writing has grown more concise over the years. Scenes are now rendered with the brevity of stray thoughts passing through an observer’s mind. “KoS” his most apt title, revisits his themes of compromise and appeasement in precis. Nothing here is as it seems. Nicholas Morath, the Hungarian cavalry officer hero, is ensconced in a job as an advertising agency executive. His real work is for his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi. Polanyi, a diplomat, is also the most elegant deal maker ever to grace one of Furst’s novels, and possibly the most pragmatic. Working to save Hungary from Germany, Polanyi will bargain with whoever can help him, from anti-fascists to SS officers who want to topple Hitler for their own agenda. Nicholas is his uncle’s legman, ferrying money, making contacts, even unwittingly providing safe passage for an assassin. There is an ugly sense of quid pro quo to some of Nicholas’ missions, as he becomes the agent for his uncle’s conviction that in a world apparently spinning out of control the ends justify the means.

It’s difficult to sum up any of Furst’s far-ranging narratives, because to talk about one of his books is to talk about them all. He is writing one large book in which each new entry adds a piece to the mosaic of Europe in the years leading up to the war, as created by a master storyteller. The connection between the sensual pleasures in which his books luxuriate, and the open and covert battles he chronicles might best be explained by Cyril Connolly’s remark that World War II was opposed to “every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight of the senses.” In Furst’s novels the pleasures of horse riding, a good meal, of lovemaking, of scratching a lounging dog on the head or just enjoying a cigarette in the bath aren’t respites from the battle but victories in themselves. To come under the spell of his wonderful novels is to have those pleasures put into stark relief.

Those who eschew the written word might care to watch a dramatised version of one of the books here (Trailer):

On the whole quite realistic & faithful to the original narrative, but trust me, cher Puffinati, its not a patch on any of the books…….. Alan Furst at Penguin

© DJM 2023