Sunday, 17 May 2015

Alan Furst: The Anti-Fascist Novelist

This essay originally appeared on 15 May in Critics at Large and is reproduced here because the the novels of Alan Furst encapsulate the historical era that constitutes a substantial portion of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013)


Novelist Alan Furst. (Photo by Rainer Hosch)

"… Don't tell the world, but Stalin's just as bad as Hitler." 
"Why not tell the world?" 
"Because they won't believe it, dear colonel." 
- Alan Furst, Spies of Warsaw (2008) 
In 1984, Alan Furst, a journalist and author of four novels, travelled to the Soviet Union and it changed his life. As he noted later, he saw fear in the eyes of the people he met, and it shocked him. He decided that he would never again write a novel set in contemporary times, but that the threat posed by every expression of fascism between 1934 and 1945 would be his subject. To gain a greater grasp for the historical and geographical milieus, he and his wife relocated to Paris – the setting, at least in part, for almost all his subsequent novels. He purchased old books and maps to ensure greater verisimilitude. As a result, readers can be confident that the streets, restaurants and nightclubs are accurately depicted and that they are not likely to find anachronisms; any book or film that a character or the narrator cites could have been read or seen at the time of the novel’s setting. Influenced by espionage writers Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the social novelist Anthony Powell, and perhaps by films such as Casablanca (1942) and the noirish, The Third Man (1947), Furst set out to create his own niche in the espionage literary domain and published the first of thirteen historical thrillers, Night Soldiers (1988), a set of novels that became known as the Night Soldiers Series.

Apart from his mastery of historical detail, the debut of Night Soldiersis an anomaly. It is the only panoramic entry which starts in Bulgaria in 1934 and ends on the West Side of Manhattan eleven years later. It, along with his next novel Dark Star (1991), is much longer than his later novels. By the time he published his fourth, The World at Night (1996), Furst had found his writing métier, a leaner style that produced tautly-written novels of just over two hundred and fifty pages that combine historical erudition with genuine humanity amidst terrifying inhumanity. He had also compressed his historical time span: his narratives covered the late 1930s before the war and ended with 1942-43 when the outcome of the war was much in doubt. Night Soldiers also does not contain the sustained erotic love interest that is prominent in the later novels where their protagonists are fortyish, male, single, and with few exceptions, civilians who are reluctantly drawn into the shadowy, gray world of espionage, not because of any natural inclination but because they feel that they have no choice given the monumental evil of Nazism. Nonetheless, the author’s signature trademarks are introduced in Night Soldiers. Some of his characters will reappear in later novels and his protagonists always manage to survive. More importantly, the author reveals his ability to deftly capture the historical ambience, a result of prodigious research that he has internalized. There is inevitably exposition, yet it rarely feels clunky because Furst’s priority is the subjective experience of individuals in the countries that were occupied, attacked or threatened by Hitler and Stalin. The global perspective that he provides is gracefully interwoven into the storylines that frequently detail the insidious effect of how war or the fear of war can disfigure, and sometimes ennoble, the lives of people who would rather pursue their quotidian activities.

What distinguishes Night Soldiers is Furst’s ability to recreate on a broad canvas how the myriad intelligence services – not only the Soviet and Nazi agencies but those operating under the aegis of the French resistance, exiled Bulgarians and the American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) – impact individuals in war and how putative allies can become deadly enemies, a motif that reoccurs in subsequent novels. Divided into four discrete sections, Night Soldiers is about a Bulgarian teenager, Khristo Stoianev, recruited to work for the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, after his brother is murdered by fascist thugs. He is secreted to Moscow to learn the spy trade, sent to Spain, in the grip of a murderous civil war to fight against Franco’s nationalists, where he learns that the NKVD seem to regard the fascists as a lesser threat than Republican loyalists or their own officers by ordering the murder of the former and arranging for the latter, who supposedly were ideologically contaminated by their experience in the West, to be transferred to Moscow where they will be purged through execution or dispatched to the camps. When Stoianev is tipped off that he is about to be arrested, he flees to Paris and adopts a new identity; in the final section, he is back in Eastern Europe to fight the Germans. Unlike the later novels, Night Soldiers feels episodic, with too many characters and not enough attention paid to the inner world of Stoianev. Yet Furst is very good at recreating the Bolshevik mind: its idealism, its capacity to manipulate, its paranoia and its utter ruthlessness. It is evident that he has read extensively the memoirs of those who survived the purges. The novel is a good start for anyone wishing to read Furst because it introduces the subjects that most engage him and that he will revisit in subsequent novels: the war in Spain, the machinations and lethal terror inflicted by the Soviet and Nazi intelligence organs, the struggle against fascism in Eastern Europe and most importantly, the fraught atmosphere in France, especially Paris, before and during the early years of the war.

Dark Star, operating on a timeline from 1937 to 1941, is a continuation of Furst’s exploration of the intrigues of Soviet Secret Services when they are confronted with the looming threat of a Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. His main protagonist is André Szara, a Pravda correspondent, a 40-year-old Polish born Jewish Bolshevik who is co-opted to become a Soviet operative and finds himself enmeshed in the schemes of three competing Soviet spy factions during Stalin's purges in the events leading up to the Nonaggression Pact. Furst explores two intriguing ideas in this superior novel: that Stalin may have been at one time an agent of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police – the central thesis of Roman Brackman’s The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life (2001) – information that a senior security officer is attempting to ensure becomes public to forestall an agreement with the Germans, and that Stalin is determined to extinguish any individual who may have knowledge of his pre-revolutionary past. Secondly, Furst suggests that Stalin’s purges were covert Soviet pogroms directed against Jews. They were covert because the Soviets during this time span enlisted the international support of Jews. Stalin’s show trials and disappearances, Furst rightly suggests, were the mirror image of Hitler’s overt anti-Semitic actions that Szara is witness to on Kristallnacht while in Berlin. Given that Szara is a Jew and an intellectual – both were regarded as indicators of treason in the paranoia of the times – he remains ambivalent about the revolution. He performs a risky balancing act using his intelligence network, among them a German aristocrat, to secure information about German steel-wire production and then provide it to the British in return for British passports that will save the lives of over a thousand Jews, enabling them to escape to Palestine. Yet later, he feeds information from neutral Switzerland to his Soviet masters about the German plans to invade the Soviet Union. Furst recognizes that, for a generation of Jewish Bolsheviks, the revolution became a vehicle for leaving shtetl culture and provided them with an alternative belief system. That sympathy is evident in his later Spies of Warsaw (2008) when the spymaster, the widowed French military attaché Jean-François Mercier (one of Furst’s few professional protagonists), assists in the exfiltration from Poland of two disillusioned former Jewish-Bolshevik spies because their lives are in danger (hence the dialogue at the outset of this essay). Before leaving Dark Star, one final comment is in order. Furst has stylistically improved upon his earlier Night Soldiers by placing his protagonist's inner thoughts in italics. It is a technique that he continues to use throughout the series enabling his characters to become more three dimensional.

The World at Night and Red Gold (1999) are both set in collaborationist France. They also feature the same protagonist, Jean Casson, a dissolute film producer of commercially successful but forgettable films who is currently on the verge of bankruptcy. Initially, Casson is apolitical – preferring to bed beautiful women and mingle with bon vivants in tony restaurants than roll up his sleeves and plunge into the risky world of politics. But the prick of conscience and a visceral hatred of the German occupation draw him into the dangerous world of amateur spying. As a film producer, he can easily travel between and around countries, an ability that makes him an attractive prospect for intelligence agencies. Approached successively by the Germans, the British, and the local resistance, Casson resourcefully steers his way amid the warring parties. He even manages to escape from the Nazi interrogation centre in Paris – the best set piece in the novel – and falls in love with an actress who was to star in Casson’s film before the project collapsed when the Germans invaded. I cannot give away the ending, but Casson reveals a side of himself that we have not seen before, a side that is not merely admirable but deeply moving.

Red Gold is a continuation of Casson’s travails, which begins with Casson, a refugee in hiding, living under a pseudonym and in a cheap hotel. The fear, hunger and hopelessness of Parisians living under the occupation are vividly evoked and the tensions between the Gaullist resistance and the Communist underground are sharply drawn as Casson ends up being a liaison between the pragmatic Gaullist resistance and the more fanatical CP who are indifferent to civilian casualties whose aim is defeating the Nazis and taking power after the war. Yet Furst does not demonize the Communist resistance movement; its membership does have its share of thugs but also Jews who are hunted everywhere, including France, and who have found a home in the Party. The problem is that context and atmosphere at times takes priority over the lives of the main characters, partly because the geopolitical stakes are so high and partly because we know the outcome after 1945; this tension, between the characters who cannot foresee the future and the reader who can, exists in every Furst novel. Given that dilemma, it is essential that the reader can empathize or at least care for the characters.

Blood of Victory (2002) is set mainly around the Black Sea and the Danube. A Russian poet, I. A. Serebin, who escaped from Stalin’s purges after serving in the Red Army, is recruited by the British to help sabotage the export of Romanian oil, “the blood of victory,” to the German armed forces. Through a Hungarian spy master, Count Janos Polanyi – who staged his own disappearance in Furst’s previous novel,The Kingdom of Shadows (2000) and has resurfaced to work for the British – Serebin is given the assignment to be part of a team in which he and his co-conspirators devise a plan to continually thwart the Nazi juggernaut as it rolls roughshod over Eastern Europe. Most of the action is set in Eastern Europe, and again Furst vividly recreates the fears, the brutalities and betrayals of a war zone with which most readers may not have much familiarity, a major strength of this novel. Still, Furst allows Serebin to reflect on Paris where he believed the city ''had died under the German occupation, the French heartbroken, grieving, silent.'' This statement I think movingly encapsulates Furst’s personal sentiments about Paris after 1940.

Nonetheless, Paris before the war was a haven for émigrés fleeing oppression, a gathering place where they could pool their resources and take a stand. Carlo Weisz, the protagonist of Foreign Correspondent (2006), has fled his native Trieste and is now a reporter for Reuters in Paris. He’s also on the editorial board of a resistance newspaper edited in Paris and distributed in Italy. In the novel’s dramatic opening, the head of the paper is assassinated while Weisz is in Spain covering the collapse of the Republican loyalists; Weisz is his logical successor. Again a Furst protagonist is ambivalent, particularly when the British Secret Intelligence Service attempts to lure him into the world of espionage to undertake clandestine operations. But the British exercise some leverage over Weisz. They know that he has reconnected with an old love in Berlin, a woman who has dabbled in resistance work there, and that she is in danger. The British offer a quid pro quo that leads to an action-packed climax. Throughout, we are treated to the machinations of the different spying agencies, somewhat similar to Furst’s first novel Night Soldiers but in this novel the writing is tighter and more fluid. And we are treated to the author’s droll and acerbic commentary: "There was a notable absence of Russian writers at the conference, as they were busy mining coal in Siberia or being shot in the Lubyanka.”

Spies of Warsaw (2008) deserves comment because it is one of the few novels in this series that is based on a historical personality. The French military attaché, Jean-François Mercier, in Warsaw is modeled on Charles de Gaulle, and the author lets us know that by linking the two of them: both were aristocrats, from the same graduating class and veterans of the Great War and their political views are similar. (The other example occurs in Dark Star, where André Szara is modeled on the Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg and he uses the same technique of linking the historical and the fictional characters.) Both military officers were preoccupied with figuring out where Hitler’s tanks will attack France, and both were presciently correct in arguing that those tanks would go around the Maginot Line and invade through Belgium. But officials in France, notably Marshall Petain, ignored their assessment and we all know the tragic results.

Janet Montgomery and David Tennant in Spies of Warsaw (2013).

Spies of Warsaw is also the only Furst novel that was adapted for a television miniseries that was broadcast in 2013. Generally, it is a competent transition, but I did note that the film double downed on the violence and softened the politics – the tensions remain but are presented more as a personality clash than as fundamental differences regarding the threat that Germany poses to France. Anyone familiar with the novel may be surprised by the film’s climatic ending but that set piece provides the dramatic opening in Furst’s third novel, The Polish Officer (1995), a fast-paced narrative that chronicles the titular officer’s underground work in Poland, his service as a prized operative working for the British from Paris, and his most dangerous work as a saboteur in the Ukraine.

The protagonist for Spies of the Balkans (2010) is a senior Greek police officer, Constantine Zannis, who handles sensitive political assignments in the Greek city of Salonika. As the novel opens in 1940, it seems likely that the Germans or the Italians will invade Greece as Hitler and Mussolini seek to add to their empires. When that happens, Zannis plans to join forces that will resist the invaders from bases in the mountains. In the meantime, the plot is built around three risky missions that the anti-Nazi policeman undertakes. First, he helps a wealthy Jewish woman in Berlin smuggle her friends to safety setting up an escape route through Austria, Hungary and the Balkans to Greece and a safe exit to Turkey. In another mission, he journeys to German-occupied Paris, where he works with the French Resistance to help an English scientist escape in a series of riveting scenes. Finally, using his police contacts and credentials, Zannis travels to Belgrade to assist in an anti-Nazi coup d’état. The first two subplots are bravura creations. For suspense, action-packed scenes and an admirable protagonist, Spies of the Balkans is one of the best novels in the series, and one that lends itself to a cinematic adaptation.

Mission to Paris (2012) is equally good and completely different. Frederic Stahl, the main character of Furst's 12th spy novel, is Viennese by birth and, after a varied career that includes living in France, has turned to acting in Hollywood and becomes a rising star in the Cary Grant mould. It is 1938 and he is in Paris to make an antiwar film called Après la Guerre, a title that carries an ironical resonance. What Furst explores in this novel is the powerful propaganda apparatus of the Reich Foreign Ministry that is attempting to influence the debate that is occurring in France: whether to rearm for an inevitable war, or as the Germans want, opt for appeasement and avoid war. Since memories of the terrible losses from the Great War are alive and that many French do not want a repeat of that cataclysm, the Germans are skillfully adept at exploiting those fears. To assist them, they are on the lookout for agents of influence who will sway the French debate. Given his background, linguistic skills and celebrity presence, Stahl is a coveted prize, a useful mouthpiece for the Nazis' political warfare in both Europe and America. Recognizing his naivety, they flatter and manipulate him; later, they become more ruthless by threatening the muscle of the Gestapo. Like so many of Furst’s leading protagonists, Stahl is not overtly political at the start of the novel. But events combine with his essential decency to change his mind. His trip to Berlin to judge a film contest, where he smells the burning of synagogues and hears the breaking glass on Kristallnacht, is one of those events. Mission to Paris is the first novel since Night Soldiers to explore the relationship between America and events that are transpiring in Europe. Through a contact in the American embassy, Stahl helps to channel intelligence to the White House with the goal of providing the Roosevelt administration with evidence that could be used to alter the appeasement mood in America. But espionage is always a risky business, particularly when recruits do not comply with the wishes of their masters. During the company’s filming in Morocco and then Hungary, a murder occurs and the lives of Stahl and his new love, a German refugee, are threatened setting up a dramatic and gripping conclusion.

In his most recent entry, Midnight in Europe (2014), Furst returns to the Civil War in Spain. It is December 1937, and the war is going badly for the Republican side. The Germans and the Italians have deployed air power against unarmed civilians in Guernica and elsewhere, the Vatican has recognized Franco’s regime and the Republican Armed Forces are desperately short of military hardware. The other European powers and America have imposed an embargo on selling weapons to Spain. The Soviets remain the Republicans’ only hope, but Stalin, whose priority was to maintain control over Communists rather than defeat the Fascists, is no longer willing to deplete his own stockpile by selling them arms. Cristián Ferrar, a senior partner in an international law firm, works in New York and Paris and lives a comfortable life far from the carnage in his native Spain. Though he is anti-fascist in his sympathies, he remains on the sidelines in the current conflict, a skillful negotiator in his professional life while he enjoys carnal pleasures on both sides of the Atlantic. But we know that he will be recruited to replace an intelligence officer murdered in an attempt to get weapons to the increasingly desperate Republican forces. The details may be different, but the reader may feel he has read this before and therefore may feel as I do that this novel is a disappointment. Furst, for all his strengths, needs to offer something fresh. We have encountered the reluctant decent man before who enters the world of espionage, but I never felt they were formulistic – until now. Hopefully, Furst will return with something original without sacrificing his proven skills.

Why read Furst? One reason for doing so is that he provides perspective. Whatever the global difficulties in 2015, as Roger Cohen argues in a cogent column, they in no way can be compared with the world between 1933 and 1945. Immersing oneself in the complexity of Furst’s literary world, we must recognize how fortunate we are, at least those who live comfortable lives in the First World, that we that we do not have to face the existential threats from the fascists of all shades, including red fascism in the Soviet Union, that impinged upon the daily lives of Europeans. Perhaps ordinary citizens in Europe could avoid political involvement in the 1930s but that was not the case during the war. In his essay on Furst, Charles Taylor aptly quotes from Stephen Spender’s memoir, World within World: “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.” But that soon changed: “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.” Spender’s musings accurately encapsulate the fiction of Furst. Secondly, at the heart of all of his thrillers is a dramatic rendering of what it was like to live under totalitarian rule, or the threat of it, when crimes against humanity were committed with impunity and thuggish impulses were given political legitimacy. At the same time, Furst demonstrates again and again that in a world filled with overwhelming threats and duplicity, heroism is possible when individuals act honourably and courageously. If you have not experienced a Furst thriller, I highly recommend you do so, not just for your pleasure but to nourish your spirit and give thanks.

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