Alan Furst, ed., The Book of Spies: Anthology of Literary Espionage (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 374 pp., $24.95.
Alan Furst, Dark Voyage (New York: Random House, 2004), 256 pp., $24.95.
Blood of Victory (2003), 272 pp., $12.95.
Kingdom of Shadows (2001), 272 pp., $11.95.
Red Gold (2002), 288 pp., $11.95.
The World at Night (2002,) 288 pp., $11.95.
The Polish Officer (2001), 304 pp., $12.95.
Dark Star (2002), 464 pp., $13.95.
Night Soldiers (2002), 480 pp., $13.95.
A new novel by Alan Furst has become an event. He has revitalized and perhaps even reinvented the genre of espionage fiction that had seemed to fade into irrelevance since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the same time, he has devised a compelling new form for the historical novel, set in Europe's 20th-century Dark Ages, from 1933-45. Over the past 15 years or so, he has built up a body of work that has slowly but steadily moved from cult favorite to worshipfully reviewed and now to best-seller. Rather like the Napoleonic naval tales of Patrick O'Brian, Furst's novels have become an interesting cultural phenomenon, not least because his plots are less than riveting and his characters (particularly the women) often wooden or sketchily drawn. But Furst, it is widely agreed, is a writer of genius when it comes to atmosphere, that elusive but magical mix of mood and time and place.
"Third Arrondissement--the old Jewish quarter", begins one characteristic passage about Paris.
"Cobbled lanes and alleys, silence, deep shadow, Hebrew slogans chalked on the walls. Rue du Marchâ€š des Blancs-Manteaux, the smell of onions frying in chicken fat made Casson weak at the knees. He'd been living on bread and margarine and miniature packets of Bouillon Zip when he could afford the fifty centimes."
This is a device Furst deploys often, using the atmospherics to advance the plot, to reveal a little more about the character. The place may be the same, but the character's circumstances have changed, and the world has shifted disconcertingly on its axis. In another example it is Paris again, and the same character, a modestly successful film producer named Jean Casson, who is on the run from the Gestapo, is in familiar surroundings, but exploring the wholly different topography of poverty:
"Place Clichy. He sat at an outside table at a cafeâ€š and sipped the roast barley infusion the waiter brought him. Coffee, he thought, remembering it. Very expensive now, he didn't have the money. He stared out at the square. Clichy a little lost in the daylight, the cheap hotels and dance halls gray and crooked in the morning sun, but Casson didn't mind. He liked it--in the same way he liked deserted movie sets and winter beaches."
Furst's scene is not always Paris, and even Paris is not always under German occupation. But even at decadent peace in the 1930s, with American heiresses parading at parties dressed only in diamonds, or English gentlewomen spies holding court at brasseries while waiters are shot in the lavatory, Paris is simply awaiting the coming of its jackbooted new masters. And almost effortlessly, Furst can achieve the same pitch-perfect sense of location at a Moscow spy school in 1932, in Warsaw as war breaks out, in Bucharest during a coup or in Istanbul as the spies bicker and plot their moves. He loves the lonely bustle of railway stations and ports, the anonymous intimacies of cheap hotels, the drama of even the most legal of border crossings. Furst opens his new novel, Dark Voyage, in a new location, but in his same old style.
"In the port of Tangier, on the last day of April, 1941, the fall of the Mediterranean evening was, as always, subtle and slow. Broken cloud, the color of dark fire in the last of the sunset, drifted over the hills above the port, and street lamps lit the quay that lined the waterfront. A white city, and steep; alleys, souks, and cafâ€šs, their patrons gathering for love and business as the light faded away. Out in the harbor, a Spanish destroyer, the Almirante Cruz, stood at anchor among the merchant steamers, hulls streaked with rust, angular deck cranes hard silhouettes in the dusk. On board the tramp freighter Noordendam, of the Netherlands Hyperion Line, the radio room was like an oven and the Egyptian radio officer, known as Mr Ali, wore only a sleeveless undershirt and baggy silk underdrawers. He sat tilted back in his swivel chair, smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder and reading a slim, filthy novel in beautifully marbled covers."
Silk and ivory. Mr. Ali is a man of private luxuries, and he is about to hear a QQQQ call on his radio, the merchant shipping distress call for "I am under enemy attack." Somewhere at sea, the submarines and bombers and E-boats pursue their crucial war of logistics, sinking the ships and tankers that fuel the armies in North Africa, and the good ship Noordendam is about to be recruited into the great game.
The plots and action of Furst's novels focus heavily on the importance of transport. Blood of Victory (originally published in 2002) is about the attempt to block the passage of oil barges from the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti up the Danube, by blocking the river at the narrows called the Iron Gates. Red Gold (1999) is about the attempt by a small group of would-be resistance officers in the Vichy regime to forge an alliance with the French communist underground, the Franc Tireurs et Partisans, by shipping them large stocks of weapons from arms depots in Vichy-held Syria and Lebanon. In return, the communists are to help block the French canal system to stop gasoline from the French refineries at Rouen from heading south to Marseilles and across to Rommel's Panzers in North Africa.
The time, April 1941, is pivotal, falling within that final three-month period when Britain stood alone against Hitler before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June. It is before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December plunged America into the war. These are the months of Hitler's invasion of Serbia and Greece, of Britain abandoning the prospect of overwhelming victory in North Africa to rush tanks and troops and ships to a doomed effort to help the beleaguered Greeks. It is the springtime of coups in Romania, of the paratroop assault on the island of Crete, and of the summer when Operation Barbarossa suddenly turned the Communist Parties of Occupied Europe from Hitler's sullen allies into his fierce enemy, the year when the Resistance became real. For Americans, a world away from Furst's novels, December 7, 1941 is the day that will live in infamy. For occupied Europe, it was the day Hitler promulgated the Nacht und Nebel decree. The phrase translates as Night and Fog, and it was the infamous order that said anyone resisting German authority was simply to disappear, with no information on their fate. No word would come from prison or the camps or the grave; better not to risk oneself by even daring to ask.
Furst writes beautifully, in what has become the classic, spare style of the genre. Take the following three examples:
"The boat left the Quai de la Joliette in Marseilles harbour about midnight. It was new moon and the stars were bright and their light hard. The coast with its long garlands of gas lamps faded slowly away. The lighthouses emerging from the black water, with their green and red eyes, were the last outposts of France, sleeping under the stars in her enormous, dishonored nakedness, humiliated, wretched and beloved."
"The night was stormy and the wind blew cold from the mountains, but the stodgy little steamer plodded sturdily through the choppy waters of the lake. A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone."
"Earlier that day there'd been fighting on the waterfront, a band of fascist Iron Guards pursued by an army unit loyal to Antonescu. So said the barman at the dockside tavern. Intense volleys of small arms fire, a few hand grenades, machine guns, then silence. Serebin listened carefully, calculated the distance, ordered a glass of beer, stayed where he was. Safe enough. Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring. Later, on his way to the pier, he'd come upon a telegraph office with its windows shattered, a man in uniform flung dead across the threshold of the open door, which bumped against his boot as the evening wind tried to blow it shut. Roumania had just signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, political assassinations were daily events, civil war on the way, one poor soul had simply got an early start."
The last is from Furst's Blood of Victory; the first is Arthur Koestler; and the second is from Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, which Furst suggests in his introduction to the new Anthology of Literary Espionage might be the best spy story ever written. There is a common voice at work, laconic and world-weary, fatalistic but pressing on. It is a voice that owes some of its language to Hemingway, and some to Camus, an existential attitude of the genre that has become a tradition that Furst respects. He uses the Koestler extract as an epigram in one of his books, and Maugham is one of the writers he chooses for the anthology. Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, John Le Carrâ€š, Charles McCarry and Eric Ambler pick themselves. Other selections are idiosyncratic: Baroness Orczy, creator of The Scarlet Pimpernel, is an unusual choice, and Maxim Gorky verges on the bizarre. Anthony Burgess is included, presumably to provide comic relief.Essay Types: Book Review