Sunday, January 18, 2009

Alan Furst, Master of His Genre

Since I have promised myself a honeymoon period with the new Obama administration and refraining from negative criticism, I decided today to change the topic, moving from politics to literature.

I have just finished reading The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst's last novel, which means that I have read each of his books. For those of you not familiar with this author, Furst is probably the greatest author of the historical spy novel genre, and can easily be placed in the company of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John Le Carré; although I consider him superior to all of them.

Furst has written eleven novels of the spy-historical genre, and all of them take place in Europe between 1933 and 1942, the period coinciding with the rise of Hitler and the early stages of World War II, when Germany and Japan had reached their aegis as military powers, and the outcome of the war was by no means clear. What makes these novels different is that they are written with a realism rarely seen in this genre. As I have read each novel, I almost visualized the action in black and white as if watching a movie from the period.

The heroes are the men and women who get caught in the Byzantine intrigue of espionage and are rarely willing participants. They are enmeshed in the webs created by intrigue or persecution, and act accordingly. At no point do they emerge as James Bond, but rather as men and women who want to do whatever is necessary to defeat evil, and survive. This last element I see as crucial, since it prevents them from the reckless behavior that characterizes the spies of most novels or movies. They risk their lives because circumstances or mistakes force them to, but never because they want to impress a superior or a member of the opposite sex.

A few of the protagonists appear in more than one novel, and never in more than two. The only recurring theme in each of the novels is a meal at the Parisian Brasserie Henninger in table 14, where the mirror has a bullet hole, remnant of a shootout among Bulgarians in the 1930’s. When was the last time you read a book with Bulgarians among its protagonists? The reader learns to expect these recurring scenes, just as we waited for Hitchcock to appear for a few seconds in each of his movies.

I have done quite a few Internet searches trying to locate this brasserie, but to no avail. I guess the place is a figment of Furst’s imagination, however, it represents so many of the brasseries that existed in Paris during the period described.

Sex in the narrative is also different from the descriptions in this genre. The men and women in Furst’s novels make love as those who are aware that war is about to erupt and don’t expect to survive it. Making love becomes another tool for preserving sanity and to a large extent human behavior.

The descriptions of the locales and cities are so incredibly accurate that every book becomes a European cruise across time. Every scene that takes place in a train station allows you to almost smell the smoke of the steam locomotives. The runs on the nylon stockings, the ancient gas boilers heating the water for a shower, the cigarette smoke, the champagne, the canapés, the waiters with aprons, the cars, the French sentence uttered by nobility, the suitcases; all become part of descriptions that make the scenes as complete as a photograph taken in those days. This is no coincidence, but rather the result of Alan Furst's immersion into the period. He has lived in Paris and is the possessor of an extended collection of books from and about the period he describes. Furthermore, as he stated in an interview, Google helps a lot. All these elements and a lot of talent.

Alan Furst has mentioned that he doesn’t want his novels to be about the 30’s and 40’s, but to read as if they were written in the 30’s and 40’s. He definitely succeeds.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Brasserie Heininger is inspired by the real-life Brasserie Bofinger. I don't know if there was any spy-vs-spy shoot-em-up action there, but it fits in almost every other respect.