Our man in the shadows

With his romantic, complex spy novels about prewar Europe, Alan Furst is the heir to John le Carr

Published January 24, 2001 7:41PM (EST)

Reading the 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 writes, "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, nearly 70 years after the events described in them, his books have an urgency that seems unimaginable in spy novels with a 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.

In his 1989 book "Wartime," Paul Fussell angered many people by writing, "There has been so much talk about 'The Good War' ... and the like, that the young and the innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all." Furst tries to unite that unpopular sentiment with his frank admiration for the bravery of the time and his love of its stories; he also has a provocateur's instinct for insisting that even when we're faced with the clearest moral choice, things are never as simple as they seem.

Furst is also a romantic. The titles of his cycle of novels -- six so far, set in Europe from 1934 to 1945 -- 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 movies 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 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 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 "Kingdom of Shadows," a Hungarian aristocrat called away on a mission as he's about to take his mistress on vacation arranges to have a bracelet delivered from Cartier to appease her. He recalls the wisdom of his uncle, the count. "Polanyi," Furst writes, "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 lubricous aunts.'" At other times, Furst seems to be channeling the melancholy of songs like "I'll Be Seeing You." In this passage from "The World at Night," the hero, 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, the most romantic of Furst's heroes (he returns in the sequel "Red Gold"), embodies the tendency to see life as a movie. What Furst has in mind for him is both as romantic and as unromantic as anything he can imagine.

A great entertainer, Furst would probably be considered our finest practicing historical novelist if he weren't writing espionage novels. He's as good a historian as a novelist can afford to be. The result of prodigious research, 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 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 "Night Soldiers" 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 "Dark Star": "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. So here we are again."

My favorite 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 has 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."

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 "Night Soldiers" (1988), a Pravda journalist asked to do a "small favor" for the NKVD that sends him shuttling back and forth between competing interests in "Dark Star" (1991) -- are compromised themselves. The most uneasy alliance in these books is the one that ends "Dark Star": 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 exists in these books more as intimation than as fact. People know that it's coming, and they choose to ignore it or to thwart it or to hasten 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 coda is delivered like a slap.

Since the war, it has become fashionable to say either that communism was the only viable response to fascism or that communism was as bad as fascism. This last notion has been used, mainly by people more comfortable with right-wing dictatorships than left-wing ones, to deny the singularity of the Holocaust, its particular melding of the systematic and the irrational. 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, more epigrammatic over the years. Scenes are now rendered with the brevity of stray thoughts passing through an observer's mind. "Kingdom of Shadows," 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 ends justify means.

It's difficult to sum up "Kingdom of Shadows," or 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 partisan of the senses. The connection between the sensual pleasures his books luxuriate in 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 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.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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