Alan Furst has written seven dark novels set in Europe at or on the eve of the start of the World War II. The hero of each tale is a somewhat battered but invariably sophisticated man in his late thirties, and he is always alive at the end - however precariously. At the heart of each story is a scheme to gum up the Nazi works, and the hero's adventures involve a great deal of murky espionage. Hitler's onslaught may be an absolutely bad thing, but Mr Furst's characters are rarely saintly or villainous. The atmosphere of ambiguity, evoked with powerful economy, is itself a kind of darkness, a perpetual dusk for the reader. Because he makes use of these common elements in each book, Alan Furst is susceptible to dismissal as a genre writer, but insofar as 'genre writer' is a put-down, it no more applies to Mr Furst than it does to Henry James, whose novels bear an even stronger family resemblance.
I had the idea of waiting until I'd read each of these books before writing anything about them, but having read six, I find that I'd rather not wait. Mr Furst's novels are, in order:
Night Soldiers (1988)
Dark Star (1991)
The Polish Officer (1995)
The World at Night (1996)
Red Gold (1999)
The Kingdom of Shadows (2001)
Blood of Victory (2002)
Dark Voyage (2004)
The World at Night, unlike the others that I've read (I've yet to get to Night Soldiers and Red Gold), is set almost entirely in France, and it has a French hero. Jean Casson is a film producer, with an office in the 8ième arrondissement and a flat in the adjacent 16ième. At forty-one, he lives apart from his wife, who for her part has taken up with an automobile importer. They're still friends, and their friends are friends in common. It's a cosy life notwithstanding the precarious finances of movie production, and Casson enjoys it. Although the story begins with the Germans emerging from the Ardennes, we get to see enough of the douceur of Casson's prewar vie to know what he has lost when the enemy comes to town and pretty much commandeers all the more marketable pleasures. We also see that this sweetness of life is a kind of bandage or poultice, shielding the still-tender wounds inflicted by the first war. Casson's France is a land of compromise and diplomatic evasion. It is no match for the invaders.
What makes the ensuing story fascinating, quite apart from the book's generous helpings of outright adventure, is the author's anatomization, conducted without labels, of Casson's shame under the occupation. It is in fact something much more complex than shame. Anger plays a part, of course, as does a reflexive impulse to thwart the Germans whenever possible. There is the satisfaction of employing the tactics of the weak against the strong, a taste for the surreptitious that is probably part of every movie producer's makeup. Finally, there is an allegiance to his homeland that is to patriotism what touch-typing is to hunting-and-pecking. A force that bypasses cogitation, Casson's love of France is positively shameless. A year into the war, battered by many things but above all the abrupt end of a rekindled romance with a film star (known simply as 'Citrine') Casson takes stock:
By force of will, he turned himself back toward commerce. Survival, he thought, that's what matters now. It wasn't a time for love affairs - maybe that was what Citrine understood better than he ever could, survival was more important than anything. The city had no difficulty with that, at the end of winter it discovered it was somehow still alive, then went back to business with a vengeance. It wasn't very appealing, some of it, but then it never had been. You work in a whorehouse, Balzac told them. Don't let anybody see how much you enjoy it and get your money up front.
Survival was the most important thing. In an interview that I found on the Internet, Mr Furst claims that as many as 75% of France's Jews survived the war. So did Paris, and most of the rest of France. Its population was not decimated, as it had been by the World War I. There would always be a certain shame trailing from collaboration with the Germans, but France and the French lived to live this down. (Watching The Day of the Jackal soon after I finished reading The World at Night, I understood for the first time the magnificence, truly rivaling the Sun King's glory, with which Charles de Gaulle restored his nation's self-respect, even more after the war than during it.) Rising from the ashes, moreover, France was more unified than it had been at any time since the religious wars of the 16th Century. Although The World at Night ends long before the war even turns against the Germans, it shows us the kind of mentality that survival required.
As a movie producer, Casson has a perfect cover for undercover activity. He can take in and pay out all sorts of sums to and from all sorts of people. It is not long before he is approached by a shady colleague about whose ancestry the only sure thing is that it's not what he says it is. Underestimating the danger and overestimating his own resourcefulness, Casson agrees to smuggle a suitcase of money into Spain, ostensibly to pay off a general who might otherwise attack Gibraltar - with what result I shall leave it to you to discover. Then he becomes embroiled in a maneuver to smuggle in plastic explosives - as a counter-counterspy. Although Alan Furst writes more economically with each book, the climax of The World at Night - several little climaxes bundled together - feels a little rushed, and I had to go over some of it to get it straight. The end is deeply juste, if perhaps a little too uncertain to be altogether satisfying. Satisfaction, of course, will be out of the question for Mr Furst's heroes until the war is over.
By now, I've learned to pay attention to the masculinity that these heroes display. It is certainly not heroism as Homer understood it - nothing could be quieter. Mr Furst's leading men are comfortable in their skin, and since their skin and other physical attributes are never repellent, women are drawn to them. Where they differ from most action heroes is in the quality of their reciprocal regard. They neither use women nor sentimentalize them. On the contrary, they're closer to their women (and there is usually only one, give or take a few flings on the side) than they are to any man. The natural place for a man, when he's not doing whatever he has to do, is by the side of a woman, usually in bed. No less manly is Mr Furst's reticence about what goes on in bed: he leaves it to the reader to imagine that. The preliminaries, if they're described at all, tell us more about where the hero is coming from - how exhausted, for example, he happens to be, after some exploit - than about where he's going. The most refreshing thing about these men is that their determination to do the best thing is never bound up with the desire to prove themselves. They're not anxious about masculinity, nor are they given to judging those around them in terms of gender stereotypes. The hero of The Polish Officer carries himself with a certain military dash, but of gratuitously macho behavior these pages are altogether free. Because the subject never comes up directly, characterizing Mr Furst's treatment of masculinity - and he certainly does treat it - requires extensive quotation. What follows is Casson's superficially pleasant but actually terrifying encounter with three Germans at a restaurant on the Champs-Elysées; one of them, Millau, is the control whom he is actually betraying, while the other two are strangers, and all the scarier for that.
He would remember the evening as a certain moment, almost a freeze-frame; three men looking up at him from a table on the crowded terrasse of a restaurant, Fouquet as it happened, on a warm evening. All around them, a sea of faces, the world at night - desire and cunning, love and greed, the usual. A Brueghel of Paris in the second spring of the war.
Casson had been driven back to the city by Singer, asked by Millau to join him "and some friends" for a drink. As he approached, the men at the table - Millau with his fine eyeglasses and cigar, and two pale bulky northern men, Herr X and Herr Y, looked up and smiled. Ah, here he is! Superbly faked smiles - how much we admire you.
They chatted for a time, nothing at all that important, a conversation among men of the world, no fools, long past idealism, Poor Europe, decadent and weak, very nearly gobbled up by the Bolshevik monster. But for them. Not said, but clearly understood.
The champagne arrived, brought by a waiter who had served him many times in the past. "Good evening, Monsieur Casson." Three menus in German, one in French.
Herr X wore a small pin, a black-and-gold swastika, in his lapel. One thing we wonder," he said, leaning forward, speaking confidentially. "We were talking to Millau here before you arrived and you told him that there was a copilot on the flight. We hear it a little differently, that the Lysander brought in an agent. Can you see any reason why somebody would say that?"
"No," Casson said. "That's not what happened."
Millau raised his glass. "Enough work!" he said.
For a time it was true. Herr Y was from East Prussia, the Masurian lakes, where stag was still hunted from horseback every autumn. "And then, what a feast!" Herr X worked over in Strasbourg. "some problems," he said reflectively, "but it is at heart a reasonable part of the world." Then, a fine idea: "I'll tell you what, I'll get in touch with you through Millau and you'll come over there for a day or two. Be a change of pace from Paris, right?"
It was after midnight when Casson got home. He tore his jacket off and threw it on the bed. He'd sweated through his shirt, it was wringing wet. He took it off, then went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. God. It was black under his eyes. A dark, clever, exhausted man.
This is all so cinematic that it's hard to understand why a movie hasn't been made. But no film adaptation will ever rob this book of its deep luster. (March 2004)
Dark Voyage, true to its title, takes place largely at sea. Our hero is Eric DeHann, the captain of a Nederlander tramp steamer. It begins in Tangier, but the prefatory map, with the legend 'The Baltic, June 1941,' tells us when and where the heavy action will occur.
At first glance, the marine setting looks like a departure from Mr Furst's practice, if only because of the crew. Although DeHaan keeps to himself as much as any of Mr Furst's leading men, and he is the captain, he cannot, of course, run a tramp steamer all by himself. But while the ship's officers and many of the other crewmen are named and given differentiating identies, they effectively as extensions of DeHaan - as, indeed, does his ship, the Noordendam. Mr Furst declines to use the plot device of the treacherous crew member. Indeed, there is never so much as a mutinous whisper. Having been enlisted by a remnant of his country's navy to assist the British, currently the only Western power at war with Hitler, DeHaan promptly tells his men that they will be facing danger. Mulling over the likely impact of his announcement, DeHaan is as sure of the crew's loyalty as he is of his own strength:
But, in the end, they were all sailors, who couldn't leave the life of the ships because they were - and they would say it just this way - married to the sea. A hard life, seen from the shore, brutal and dangerous and, often enough, mortal. Even so, it was in their blood, and it was the only life they wanted to live.
This is a lean novel indeed. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I felt that I'd just been treated to a very low-carbohydrate menu of cuisine minceur. Far from sated, I thought back to other, ampler meals - er, novels, with plots too tortuous to keep fully in mind, recurring moral dilemmas, and loads of atmosphere. The Atlantic in the spring and summer of 1941 is far too dangerous a place to carry much atmosphere, and as for the Baltic, it's a cul de sac. DeHaan is only once in danger on shore. And yet what Mr Furst serves is excellently prepared.
DeHaan and his men conduct three missions. For the first, the Noordendam is repainted in the colors of a Spanish line (Spain is neutral) and boarded by commandos, who subsequently raid a Nazi listening post in Tunisia. The raid is not a complete success, but the ship's next mission, as the Noordendam once again, is to ferry (highly explosive) arms from Alexandria to Crete. One does not have to be a history buff to remember that Crete was the last of the big catastrophes inflicted upon Britain before the tide of the war began to turn, ever so slowly; for the Germans, Crete was the first-ever victorious paratroop invasion. It is the Noordendam's luck to show up in the final stages of the disaster. Nevertheless, she squeaks back to Alexandria. How she gets back to Tangier under Nederlander colors in a sea full of submarines is not explained (think lean!), but it's in Tangier that DeHaan receives orders to repaint the ship yet again - as the Santa Rosa - and to take a shipment to a Swedish island directly across the Baltic from Germany. Each mission is more hair-raising than the one before, and the Baltic action has several payoffs, because Mr Furst has so timed things that the Noordendam puts into the Latvian port of Liepaja as Hitler begins his fatal invasion of Russia.
For the third and longest escapade, DeHaan has the company of a woman. She is a Russian journalist in flight from her Soviet compatriots, whom DeHaan has met before.
Across the little table, she was much as he remembered her, though now he realized she was older than she was in his memory. No one would ever call her pretty, he thought. But you would look at her. A broad, determined forehead, high cheekbones, eyes a severe shade of green, almost harsh, a small mouth, down-curved, ready for anger or disappointment, thick hair, a dulled shade of brown, like brown smoke, swept across her forehead and pinned up in back. She wore a pale gray suit and a dark gray shirt with a wide collar - shapeless and lax, as though worn for a long time - and carried a heavy leather purse on a shoulder strap. But the detail that stood out, above everything else, was the presence of some inexpensive and very powerful scent, the sort of thing to use if you were unable to bathe.
Maria begs DeHaan to take her to Lisbon, where with luck she can melt in. Getting her out of Tangier is a breathtaking little adventure. Getting her into Portugal proves impossible, which is not a complete surprise, but by the same token is not completely foreseeable, either. A few days at sea is all it takes to draw her to him - he has resolved not to make the approach - and presently they're in bed. "Where it was all rather forthright, to begin with, but that didn't last." Who says men can't do romance? Running beneath this romance, however, is DeHaan's anxiety about getting Maria back onto terra firma somewhere, which, together with a risks of war, prevents the mood from becoming idyllic. Another passenger is the mousy Herr Kolb (not his real name), an agent whom his British master wishes to spirit into Sweden, even if it requires blackmailing DeHaan. Herr Kolb has, in several interruptions of the principal narrative, had numerous close encounters with the Nazis, and he is something of a figure of fun, so weary is he of being chased across Europe.
The Noordendam is in fairly good shape, but it is over twenty years old and there are always little breakdowns, especially when the engine is pushed to the limit or when something in the cargo hold catches fire. The novel is divided into long sections, as is Mr Furst's wont, but within these the action is parceled out among ship's-log entries. The "Santa Rosa" steams up the coast of Spain, passes a flock of bodies, the jetsam of a sinking, proceeds round the Atlantic Isles and into the mouth of the Baltic, the Skagerrak, where, with the help of up-to-date charts to help her avoid the minefields, she passes into the Baltic, and a protracted confrontation with the Nazis. At no time does Dark Voyage lose the pulse of a straightforward adventure story, so that while it is a fine page-turner, it does not leave a strong after-taste. I happened to watch the recent French film, Bon Voyage, not long before settling down with Dark Voyage, and although that film is a farce it is, relative to the book, thought-provoking, as are most of Mr Furst's novels. But wouldn't characterize my reaction as one of disappointment. Future work by Alan Furst may teach me that I overlooked something. (October 2004)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press