Posted: March 12, 2007
A review of The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel, by Alan Furst
illiam L. Shirer, one of the great foreign correspondents in the great era of foreign correspondents, was standing near a woman on the balcony of the Crillon Hotel in Paris on February 6, 1934, when she suddenly fell down. She had been shot in the head. She and Shirer were in a group watching the Stavisky riots from what they doubtless assumed was the safety of a grand hotel. Both fascists and communists, some armed, were rioting that night. Gunfire rang out; a random shot found her.
This unknown woman was not the night's only victim. Edouard Daladier, the moderate left politician, who had just been sworn in as the latest prime minister of the Third Republic, resigned the next day. In his resignation letter he told the president that he was unwilling to order troops to fire on armed rioters who were trying to bring down his government.
These events are recounted on pages 5-7 of Shirer's justly renowned Berlin Diary (republished in 2002 by the Johns Hopkins University Press). They occurred about three weeks after he arrived in Paris to work for the New York Herald. It must have seemed to him that this was an extraordinary baptism of fire and the rest of his journalistic career would be dull by comparison. In fact this random killing captured the essence of the next 11 years as he witnessed them: the feebleness of democratic leaders (Daladier returned as prime minister to sign the Munich Agreement), the ruthlessness of the two totalitarian extremes, a European atmosphere of growing violence, anxiety and suspicion, and political murder reaching from the streets to strike down the safest and most comfortable members of the bourgeoisie.
We feel we know this world because it has been described for us not only in histories of the period but also, more atmospherically, in the thrillers of Eric Ambler (A Coffin for Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear), the "entertainments" of Graham Greene (Orient Express, This Gun for Hire), and films like Casablanca and Arch of Triumph. It is a world of secret policemen and spies, frontier incidents and concentration camps, refugees and collaborators, honest journalists and corrupt newspapers. It is outwardly civilized—it boasts piped water, fast cars, and the radio—but there are Vandals and Visigoths under the smart suits and Balenciaga dresses.
Alan Furst is the latest and most scrupulous writer to describe this world for us. His is a very distinctive approach, closer to Greene than to Ambler, less the well-made thriller than a picaresque journey through Purgatory. A typical Furst story takes up a minor character at some moment of crisis—a Polish officer after the 1939 conquest of Poland, a liberal Hungarian diplomat around the time of Munich—introduces him to the demi-monde of secret intelligence, follows his progress in that world for some years, then abandons him a few years later just before or during the Second World War.
Furst has been rightly praised for getting both the "feel" and the details of the period right. In some respects his novels are like those BBC serials in which the dress and set designers are as important as the scriptwriter. They are richly atmospheric.
Furst also gets the "feel" of the period right in a deeper sense by leaving his characters still struggling in a world where the Nazis are an ever-present threat. No one makes Victor Laszlo's promise in Casablanca: "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win." These characters don't know they will win the war and for most of the period they feel uneasily that they are very likely to lose it. Even the reader forgets that D-Day, Liberation, Glenn Miller, and Lucky Strikes are just around the corner. They belong to a very different world. And this amnesia gives Furst's novels a dark undertone of foreboding that crystallizes the period more exactly than any research.
All these virtues granted, Furst's novels have been criticized for lack of narrative drive. There is something to this criticism, which naturally sticks to the picaresque. People who would be main characters in more conventional thrillers drift in and out of the action without much happening to them. In The Foreign Correspondent, Furst's latest book, the head of Italy's fascist intelligence network sets the plot in motion with a political murder. Thereafter he is glimpsed occasionally through the windows of his limousine. He gets neither a medal nor his come-uppance and at the novel's end is presumably still cruising the Paris streets to ensure that his murders are successfully carried out. A traitor in the circle of Italian anti-fascist exiles is unmasked. But this happens in a conversation after the circle has broken up for other reasons. Neither the traitor nor most of his dupes realize that he has been discovered. All that happens is that another member of the circle vows to bring him to justice once fascism has been overthrown—a relatively empty threat in 1939, when it is uttered. In short there is no neatly resolved plot that brings a series of events to a satisfying climax and in which each of the characters is punished or rewarded according to his deserts.
This criticism of narrative aimlessness is less valid in relation to The Foreign Correspondent than to Furst's earlier novels. Previously, their central character—invariably an anti-fascist of some kind—is simply abandoned in mid-espionage. He may have just been given a new mission by London, like the Polish officer, but essentially he is still engaged in the struggle against Appeasement or the Axis. Furst's latest protagonist, however, is the "hero" in a self-contained story as well as a man of courage. Carlo Weisz is an Italian exile in late 1938 Paris where during the day he works for a British news agency and at night edits a small anti-fascist magazine which is then smuggled into Italy. His character is the familiar blend of idealism and cynicism we recall from Greene and Ambler. Not quite a burnt-out case, he is emotionally dry and stunted—something traceable to his sex life which is quite extensive but loveless. He is jolted back into genuine feeling, however, when he meets a former mistress on a journalistic mission to Berlin and promptly falls deeply in love with her.
Christa von Schirren is the anti-Nazi wife of a decent German aristocrat and a member of the nascent resistance to Hitler. The Gestapo seems to be aware of her activities and is closing in on her. Weisz decides that he must get her out to Paris. His chance arrives when British intelligence, foreseeing that it may shortly need to strengthen the Italian resistance to Mussolini, recruits Weisz and offers to build his modest magazine into a serious force. Weisz has the usual idealistic qualms about selling out and being used; he and his fellow exiles see the British as equivocal allies because realpolitik may dictate that they woo Mussolini to detach him from Hitler. But he takes the king's shilling (and risks returning to Italy to recruit a larger distribution network for the magazine) in return for London's rescue of his girlfriend from under the Gestapo's nose. The novel ends with Carlo and Christa reunited happily in his small Paris apartment.
It is a happy ending of sorts, more Ambler than Greene. But since the reunion of lovers occurs only a few months before the invasion of Poland, it is hardly a conclusive ending. If they stay in Paris, Christa and Carlo will soon be interned by the French as enemy aliens and then handed over to the Germans after the fall of France. More likely, they will leave very shortly for London to work for Carlo's new friends in British intelligence. The struggle continues.
This story is told with Furst's invariable skill. The writing is crisp, the period details accurate, the atmosphere suitably full of foreboding. Real events are woven unobtrusively into the narrative. One of the advantages of making a foreign correspondent your hero is that he can be plausibly present at real historical events such as Hitler's seizure of Prague in early 1939-vividly pictured here. The total effect is persuasive: events like this really happened, people like this really existed, a nightmare was experienced in our own lifetime.
But how did this nightmare establish itself? Who worked for it? Who opposed it? And why? One standard feature of such stories was noticed some years ago by the Hungarian-Canadian writer and critic, George Jonas, in his critique of the film Sunshine. I quote from memory: "The fascist thugs in such stories are simply thugs, but the Communist thugs are figures of intriguing moral complexity." This is not here a complaint of political bias. None of the major figures in The Foreign Correspondent is a Communist. And Furst's bias is for civilization and against barbarism. Even so, we are given very little insight into such characters as the fascist intelligence chief whose assassination policy sets events in motion. Nazism, fascism, and their various offshoots were among the most powerful currents of modern history. They had a shattering impact on lives in all of Europe and half the world. But with a few exceptions—Irwin Shaw in The Young Lions, Arthur Koestler in Arrival and Departure—novelists have not sought to depict the interior life of Nazis or fascists.
It is easy to understand why. No one wants to give a sympathetic account of political mass murderers, and anyone who gives a realistic one risks being misunderstood at best. The portrait of Hitler in the film Downfall was denounced because it showed that the Führer had a human side to his personality as well as a demonic one. But the result of such nervousness, as Jonas pointed out, is that we get cardboard villains in black uniforms. That cannot be a satisfactory way of accounting for ideas and emotions that recruited both street barbarians and over-civilized intellectuals to make war on mere civilization. Such ideas and emotions may hibernate; they rarely die altogether.
If we cannot entirely understand the villains in Furst's world, we can identify them easily enough. But who are the heroes and what is "our side"? Some in Carlo's anti-fascist circle pass muster, but in addition to the fascist spy, there are doubtless some Communist ones. Being loyal to another totalitarian creed, they are on a third side to both ourselves and the Nazis. The British are equivocal because—remember, appeasement ends only with the seizure of Prague—they might be prompted by raison d'etat to join the wrong side. So they are potentially on both sides. And as for America, that was summed up by Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca: "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Since Rick was speaking in the small hours, Americans were not sleeping at all but eating dinner, listening to Benny Goodman, and laughing along with Jack Benny. In other words, the Americans were on no side. And, indeed, there is not a single American in The Foreign Correspondent. "Our side" is simply a handful of decent but understandably disillusioned liberals in all countries, including Nazi Germany.
Not long afterwards, however, the British and the Americans (soon to be christened "the Anglo-Americans" by perceptive Vichy propaganda) were struggling to end the nightmare. Though the state is (as de Gaulle said) "a cold monster" and though there is an irreducible minimum of realpolitik in the foreign policy of even the most idealistic nation, the moral atmosphere of both countries made their joining a struggle against Nazism likely and their joining an anti-Communist crusade alongside the Nazis an impossibility. Both were essentially liberal countries—and in the world described by both Shirer and Furst that distinguished them from continental Europe. The rules and restraints that constitute civilization had been breaking down across the channel under pressure from harsh new doctrines of violence, realism, and "action" since the mid-19th century.
The result was described, interestingly enough, by Eric Ambler in his thriller, Background to Danger. He put into the mouth of a British commercial traveler this trenchant cultural analysis:
People come over here for a fortnight's holiday and see a lot of pretty chalets and chateaux and schloesser, and say what a fine place it is to live in. They don't know what they're talking about. They only see the top coat. They don't see the real differences. They don't see behind the scenes. They don't see them when their blood's up. I've seen them all right. I was in sunny Italy when the fascisti went for the freemasons in twenty-five. Florence it was. Night after night of it with shooting and beating and screams, till you felt like vomiting. I was in Vienna in thirty-four when they turned their guns on the municipal flats with the women and children inside them. A lot of the men they strung up afterwards had to be lifted on to the gallows because of their wounds. I saw the Paris riots with the garde mobile shooting down the crowd like flies and everyone howling "mort aux vaches" like lunatics. I saw the Nazis in Frankfurt kick a man to death in his front garden. After the first he never made a sound. I was arrested that night because I'd seen it, but they had to let me go. In Spain, they tell me, they doused men with petrol and set light to them.
Nice chaps, aren't they? Picturesque, gay, cleverer, more logical than silly us.
Some allowance must be made here for chauvinistic exaggeration (the commercial traveler's, not Ambler's). But the sting in the tail really does sting. It was the rise and dominance of political "logic" in Europe that smoothed the path to torture and murders. Doctrines that argued all relationships were essentially about power, and that civilized restraints were therefore either sentimentality or hypocrisy, led naturally to a kind of logical brutalism. It was "illogical" not to press home power over opponents to the fullest possible extent because of restraints that were really their power in disguise.
Furst's world is the result. His Italian fascist spymaster cruising Paris to superintend his political murders has mastered the theory. In the end, of course, the theory failed. The struggle was won by "silly us" even though it took all of 50 years to defeat both sets of logicians. Odd to think that today a liberal professor of literature and media studies would probably be sitting alongside the spymaster, giving directions.