Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:16

Writers for Conservatives, 47 - The Historical Spy Novels of Alan Furst

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Writers for Conservatives, 47 - The Historical Spy Novels of Alan Furst

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Emphasis on the adjective because when Mr. Furst shifted his narratives from the present (he had written four spy novels taking place in present time) to the past, to the period from 1933-1946, he gave his books an intellectual and emotional weight they would not have had otherwise, creating for himself a very profitable niche which he exploited with a dozen novels over the following years. These were, after all, the crucial years, the white-hot time, of the last century. A contemporary spy novel, a plot with wholly imaginary consequences, could not engage our feelings as much as those ominous years could, presented contemporaneously.

Of course, to someone who grew up with that history (I was born in 1933) in a politically engaged family, the background is full of life: say "Munich" or "purge" or "Danzig" and my mind is filled with images and phrases, the tag lines of old thoughts, the echoes of old emotions. To those without the advantages of age, and that must be most of the reading public today, the author limns the history of the time as it is happening with a sure touch. Reviewers have praised the author for displaying the details of the life of those times: the trains, the cars, the color of the trams in Belgrade in 1938, and so on, but that sort of documentation in the service of illusion is as nothing beside Mr. Furst's familiarity with the thinking of the time: his convincing insights into the thinking of Germans, Nazis and otherwise, of Communists, Russian and otherwise, of Frenchmen, Englishmen, of petty Balkan officials, and of ordinary and extraordinary citizens of Europe in that time. That we know what's going to happen does not lessen our suspense and anxiety because we see everything contemporaneously; the author's skill imprisons us in time, preventing escape to the future. All the paraphernalia of illusion, the period details of daily life, help to keep us in that time.

The author's first historical spy novel, Night Soldiers (1988), is panoramic in time and space, following its protagonist from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria to Moscow to Spain to Paris to Prague to Washington to southern France to Rumania and finally, to New York City, with a correspondingly large cast of characters centering around a Bulgarian, Khristos Stoianev, who is recruited to a Soviet espionage school in Moscow. That serves as a unifying device because several characters from the school keep turning up in the story, showing in their changing lives and ideas the twists and turns of the complex history of the time.

The only other panoramic novel in the series is Dark Star, the third one, which is mainly about the complex (and fraught) relations between Russian Communists and German Nazis, culminating in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 which freed Hitler to attack Poland. The sympathetic protagonist is a Russian writer, a Pravda correspondent forced to serve the NKVD. Mr. Furst's technique here is very clever: he creates a wide cast of characters with confusing allegiances, so that through much of the book we are as unsure of our bearings as the protagonist, an ambiguity that mimics the Nazi-Soviet relations. It is only at the end, when Stalin and Hitler metaphorically embrace over the body of Poland, that everything becomes clear.

The rest of Mr. Furst's historical novels are about subsets of the panorama: attempts to keep Hungary out of the Nazi orbit (Kingdom of Shadows), an attempt to sink barges in the Danube to impede the shipment of oil from Rumania to Germany (Blood of Victory), smuggling Jews out of Germany to Greece (Spies of the Balkans), the Italian migr resistance to Mussolini (The Foreign Correspondent), a Hollywood actor's involvement in the plots and counterplots of the time (Mission to Paris), the involvement of a French movie producer in the war and later, espionage (The World at Night), French counterespionage against Germany in Poland just before the war (The Spies of Warsaw), the captain of a Dutch freighter working for the Allies (Dark Voyage). Characters appear and reappear throughout the series, making us familiars although they may be playing different roles. Count Polanyi, for instance, is a major figure in Kingdom of Shadows, plays small but significant roles in both Mission to Paris and Blood of Victory.

So far, I have discussed everything but the writing, which is, after all, crucial. This was brought home to me when I read one of his early, pre-historical spy novels, Shadow Trade, and noticed how slack the writing was. That's the last thing one would say of the historical novels. Here's the opening paragraph of Blood Victory:

On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the Eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized -red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.

Serebin is established immediately as sophisticated, ironic - the "private smile" and italicized thought. Then he lights an expensive cigarette and contemplates the water, hinting of a strong character in an ominous situation. He is not without wit: "A candidate, Serebin thought, for the oiliest man in Bucharest, which was no small distinction." Here's a hotel in Istanbul:

Home to commercial travelers and midday lovers, with twelve-foot ceilings, blue walls, the requisite oleograph of Mustafa Kemal, oil-printed in lurid colors, hung high above the bed, and, in the bathroom, a huge zinc tub on three claw feet and a brick.

The telling detail is the brick. Here's an encounter between the always demanding "Mr. Brown" of British intelligence and Count Polanyi about a proposed action:

"I will lose people."
"One does."
"Yes, but I try not to."
"Try what you like, but you can't let it interfere."

Polanyi looked at him a certain way: I've been doing this all my life.

"We are losing the war, Count Polanyi, do you know that?"
"I know."
"Hope you do."
Mr. Brown's chair squeaked as he moved back. He rose in order to leave, dismissed the food with a glance, then began to relight his pipe. He met Polanyi's eyes for an instant and, through teeth clenched on the stem, said "Mmm" and strolled toward the door.

The writing is clear and sharp without being so sparse as to be affected.

The author's frequent descriptions of weather and scenery, precise and evocative, help to make the scenes seem real, the outstanding quality of Mr. Furst's work:

The rain stopped at dawn, and the sun hung just below the horizon and set the sky on fire, rainclouds lit like dying embers, vast red streaks above the river" (Blood of Victory).

So the many descriptions of food:

. . . a large plate of steamed leeks, followed by rognons de veau, morsels of veal kidney, sauted with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and a mound of crisp pommes frites. . .Weiz finished most of his carafe of red wine, mopping up the veal sauce with a piece of bread, then decided to have the cheese, a vacherin (The Foreign Correspondent).

And drink:

[They] were drinking Amalfis - the choice of tout Bucharest - vermouth and Tsuica, the national plum brandy."

I have one major complaint: most (not all) of his protagonists are sex-obsessed, so we get a lot of what I call SIB, sex in books, which is always fantasy, quite unlike sex in life. I think this is pornographic and objectionable in itself, but its falseness weakens the illusion of reality so carefully built up by the scrupulous descriptions of the details of daily life.

Historical novels of Alan Furst: Night Soldiers, The Polish Officer, Dark Star, Shadow Trade, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, Spies of Warsaw, Spies of the Balkans, Mission to Paris, and The Foreign Correspondent. *

Read 4082 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 17:16
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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