Posted: February 17, 2003
Novels by Alan Furst:
Night Soldiers, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 464 pages, $12.95
Dark Star, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 446 pages, $12.95
The Polish Officer, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 294 pages, $11.95
The World at Night, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 268 pages, $11.95
Red Gold, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 266 pages, $11.95
Kingdom of Shadows, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 246 pages, $11.95
Blood of Victory, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 237 pages, $24.95
It is said that No. 1 has Machiavelli's Prince lying permanently by his bedside. So he should: since then, nothing really important has been said about the rules of political ethics. . . . We introduced neo-Machiavellism into this country; the others, the counter-revolutionary dictatorships, have clumsily imitated it. We were neo-Machiavellians in the name of universal reason-that was our greatness; the others in the name of a national romanticism, that is their anachronism.
-From the diary of N.S. Rubashov, Darkness at Noon
t is 1934. You are a 19-year-old Bulgarian boy from a fishing village on the Danube. After seeing your younger brother beaten to death by the local fascist mob, you have been whisked off to Moscow, inducted into the Soviet NKVD, expertly indoctrinated body, mind, and soul in the darkest of dark crafts. Perhaps you have reserved some small corner of the soul? It doesn't matter, you are in their grip, you are theirs. There is no escape. They know it, and you know it. That is how it works. In any case, you prove adept at their unfathomable devices, their calculating and manipulating wheels within wheels; and some of their enemies are enemies worth having. You are inserted into Spain, into the labyrinth of the Spanish Civil War—where the world is rehearsing the great war that is coming—to do the work you have been trained to do. Then, in one of its endless purges, the NKVD turns on you—it's no particular surprise, it is what they do, it is the necessary working of the nearly perfect machine—and so you flee. With skill, and luck, and intrepidity you land in...Paris! The city of your dreams, the city of all dreams. You are free. Free to be an ordinary man, to live an ordinary life, all a man can ask for. Or are you? Is all this arranged? Are they running you still? How would you know? What will you do?
Or let it be 10 May 1940. Paris again, O Paris! And you are a French film producer—gangster films, not high art, but it fills the seats; a pleasant life. Your Italian assistant awakens you—you hardly know her, really: The radio, she says. What. It is broken? No. Through the familiar static, a man reading the news: "...Into the Netherlands. And Belgium. By columns that reached back a hundred miles into Germany," and heading southwest, to the Meuse, to France. The Wehrmacht. Merde! Again? Didn't we fight this war before? Paul Reynaud, premier of France, comes on the air: "The French army has drawn its sword; France is gathering herself." France will rise! Proud Frenchmen march in the streets and sing the "Marseillaise." But France does not rise; it falls, like bad bread. And you are living in an occupied city in an occupied country. Defeat is surprisingly uneventful, even strangely intimate; life goes on. Can that be possible? Then a faux Hungarian colleague, not altogether to your taste, invites you to join him working secretly for the British. You know nothing about such matters. You have never thought yourself a patriot, though you served in the last war, but you cannot help acting like one. What else is one to do? You say yes, uncertainly, un petit oui. Ah, but this is a complicated world. Your distasteful Hungarian is actually stealing from the British Secret Intelligence Service, and they, being the professionals they are, catch on to his intrigues. About you, they are not so sure. Are you a knave or a fool? But they have bigger fish to fry. They let you go:Go live your life. We may be in touch with you, one way or the other. But this is no ordinarily complicated world, it is a world turned upside down. And you know nothing of such matters. Who does? The counterespionage department of the German Sicherheitsdienst, the SD. They have been following your every move. They know that the British have approached you, and that the British will get back in touch, to recruit you. They want you to accept the offer. The British, they tell you, are planning massive sabotage on the continent, in France itself. So unreasonable. So unnecessary. Many Frenchmen will no doubt be killed as a result. Surely you will want to help. We will let you know what to do. It will all be for the good. You will see....
Late autumn, 1940. You are a famous Russian writer, "formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class," currently the executive secretary of an organization for Russian émigrés in Paris. Always Paris. You fled Moscow in the summer of 1938, no doubt just before Stalin's secret police came to knock on your door. Now your new home may not be so congenial. "Half of France [is] occupied by Germany, Poland enslaved, London in flames," and Hitler's and Stalin's armies are marching all over Europe, as allies! You are on a Bulgarian ore freighter "pounding on Black Sea swells" on its way from Odessa to Istanbul. You're only forty-two, and this is already your fifth war. You have come to consider yourself "expert in the matter of running, hiding, not caring." But what are you going to do now?
If you’re a hero in an Alan Furst novel, and you are, you will do what you must; what you can. What else is there to do?In the world of Alan Furst, you will be pitilessly squeezed in the most diabolical vice ever invented for the soul of man, between the Communist neo-Machiavellians of universal history and the fascist neo-Machiavellians of national romanticism, whose armies and secret police, resolute in murderous cynicism, are crushing between them what is left of the moral universe of Europe, of Western civilization in the epochal years 1933-1945.
I have only recently discovered Alan Furst and become a reader and a fan. I have not yet studied him, much less become a master of his oeuvre. But his works do invite study, and not just because they bring to life the endlessly complicated and interesting world of Europe in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Half of the books listed here have maps at the front of them, and Furst’s stories make you want to fold the map page over and go back to it again and again as the drama of history moves from one vivid locale to another. But much more unusual, each of the paperback editions includes at the end a “Reading Guide,” with a brief summary of his research, suggested further reading, and, most remarkable, “Questions for Discussion.”
Furst’s research is extensive, including standard histories, works on espionage and undercover operations, biographies, period novels and newspapers, diaries, and letters. He ranks Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon high on the list of writings from that time that reveal the deepest stirrings of its dark heart, and Furst has made Koestler’s shattering insights his own. He recommends Claremont Institute Distinguished Fellow Martin Gilbert’s A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Two, as a work in which “[a]ll the major political events that rule the lives of the characters in [his] novels are described, in chronological order.”
Furst, himself, did not discover the theme that has engrossed him for 20 years until he had already written a few books which, he admits without regret, “had been acquired by the National Library of Oblivion.” A chance trip to Moscow in 1983 opened his eyes. He had known, of course, that he was visiting a “police state.” But his visit brought home to his heart and spirit what his intellect had already known: “The Soviet authorities weren’t subtle about it, they wanted you to be afraid of them, and it made me mad.” He was particularly mad about all the stories that were going untold, unwritten, because of the repressive fear. “Moscow was a tense, dark city, all shadows and averted eyes, with intrigue in its very air, a city where writers should have turned out spy novels by the yard.” But, for good reason, they did not. So he would.
Since the Soviet Union and its satellites seemed “in some sense stuck in 1937,” he would start there. And if there was not such a thing as a “historical espionage novel,” he would invent the genre. The works listed here are the result, in the order in which he produced them, from 1988 to 2002. He had “found something [he] wanted to write about.” It turned out to be a world.
When you enter this world, and are charmed into the socks of an Alan Furst hero, as you will be, you will be forced, unwittingly and wittingly, to compromise, to negotiate, with unthinkable evil. To compromise, to negotiate, but not to submit; not to join the neo-Machiavellian ranks, not to despair. Because Machiavelli and his neo-Machiavellian henchmen are ultimately wrong. Their calculating and manipulating machine is, indeed, a nearly perfect instrument for compelling a man—compelling all men—body, mind, and soul. But it is not perfect, and the neo-Machiavellians themselves know it, the intelligent ones, late at night, when they are alone. Hem it in and grapple it however they may, there is something in the soul of man that escapes their relentless iron grip, and always will. Something ordinary and incalculably dear. Something invincible. Something human. And because you come to know this more surely than you know anything, more surely sometimes than you will admit to yourself or anyone else, you go on.
You do what you can. And as you do, you will be driven willy-nilly by irresistible events, back and forth across a continent in convulsion—a continent, like a woman, with a history. Where the earth herself, arrayed in the loving poetry of Alan Furst, seems layered with every aspiration and every disappointment know to man. Where tragedy has been heaped upon heroism, lost innocence upon betrayal, for a hundred generations; where century upon century of the heart’s irrepressible longings are steeped in baffled disillusionment. The rich soil sighs with memory, groans with atavistic prejudice and pride, weeps with lifetimes of lost hope and regret. The rivers trace the margins of ten thousand victories and ten thousand defeats, conquests and submission to the sword. Invading and retreating armies have crossed and re-crossed every plain, creating nations, races, myths in their wake. Every mountain range looms a monumental witness to the endless human folly and grandeur. The cities are encyclopedias; the great old buildings epic poems. Every street and alley whispers ancient secrets to the night.
It is a continent once again in the savage grip of fate. Just beyond her tortured shores, defended by the slenderest of ribbons, lies England. The neo-Machiavellians, would-be ministers of dark fate, sneer at her quaint notions of “fair play.” But they do not yet have her in their grip. And the bulldog has a grip of its own. Far, far beyond, across the ocean, in what seems another universe, is America. Naïve. Innocent still of the history that makes the souls of men so many-sided and complex. Because of that, dangerous in the midst of complexities. But formidable, amazingly well-equipped. Inexperienced, yes, but for that very reason open-minded and innovative. They will try anything! They don’t know any better. Eternal optimists. They do not yet know defeat. You can see it even in the way they walk. Brash, sometimes, of course. Annoyingly bright-eyed and vigorous. Nonetheless, somehow refreshing, even admirable—a cause of hope. The only hope? What will they do?
As they are deciding, fate will eventually, in all likelihood, drive you into Paris, in a train, or on a tugboat, or in a car of specified make, model, and year, and then on to the Brasserie Heininger, and to (what will become) the famous Table 14. There, on an ordinary night, you will find “magnificent bedlam—the music of forks and plates, the ring of crystal glasses touched in toast, manic conversation, unbridled laughter, shouted greetings to friends at far tables. The huge mirrors [glitter] red and gold, the waiters [run] to and fro with trays of langoustines and bottles of champagne.” And the most colorful characters in the world. Kiko Bettendorf, the racing driver. The Duchess of Trent, accompanied by her deerhounds. The mysterious Mlle. M., perhaps with both her lovers.
While at the Brasserie Heininger—and everywhere else—you will have a smoke, many smokes. And not just a generic, anonymous smoke. Depending on what part of the deracinated continent you find yourself in, or depending on who is offering, you will have a Gaulois, a Gitane, a Sobranie; someone will roll you a smoke from that black Makhorka, earthy tobacco grown in the valleys of the Caucasus mountains, or you may be offered a Camel or a Lucky Strike. You will find yourself in café after café, where the blue smoke has curled to the ceiling from every table for generations and has painted the walls a rich caramel color. You will, of course, have a drink, several drinks, each of distinct personality and name—a bottle of Echezeaux, a Ricon or gentiane, or a martini rouge; Polish vodka, poured impossibly to the rim of the glass, and drunk perhaps in the Russian manner—“with grace, but all gone.”
But before long, sooner rather than later, and frequently thereafter, you will—pardon me gentle reader—you will have sex (if you are the Frenchman, you will, of course, already have had it). It may be in a barn or on a barge or in a charming Paris apartment, a cramped room in Prague, or an embassy office chair. It may be desperate or luxurious; simple and traditional, or surprisingly innovative and complex. It may be in sweating detail or poignantly suggested. You may be listening to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on the crackling radio, or Duke Ellington, “In a Sentimental Mood.” Or you may just be listening to the thunder of German guns in the distance. And it will be at the very least forgivable, understandable. But on the whole, much more. Because what is at stake in this ravaged world is the possibility of being human. And here, at least, is one small sign, a tender proof, of human invincibility. A precious human consolation in an inconsolable, dehumanized, and dehumanizing world. And so, I think Alan Furst devotes a small part of his poetic gift to it. One must add: Although it is possible, however abhorrent, to imagine a neo-Machiavellian having sex—for hygenics? eugenics? the revolution?—no one can imagine a true-blue Nazi or Communist falling in love or having a romance. They do not have the equipment for les affaires de Coeur.
But you will fall in love—deeply, passionately, and vividly. And you will also have romances. And the two will not necessarily conflict, with one another, or with the call of duty. For they will both remind you, touchingly, humanly, of all that is lovable, all that deserves saving—and needs saving—in your bedeviled world, which becomes our world, the world of Alan Furst.