A Stylish Contradiction: Furst’s Romantic Realism

Throughout his elegant and compact sequence of espionage novels set in the Europe of the 1930’s and 40’s—The Foreign Correspondent is the ninth—Alan Furst has been trying to marry romance and dread. This is not something that would have occurred to Eric Ambler who, in his prewar foreign-intrigue novels, wrote like a man hunkering down for the storm he knew was coming. For Ambler, European elegance—which Mr. Furst is in love with—has been worn down to a threadbare seediness that reflects the moral decay beneath. At the back of his books, like an unbidden thought, lurks the unspoken and thrilling prospect that the approaching deluge will wash away much of this rotting world. “He’s got a red Turkey carpet and stippled green walls, a Second Empire desk and a Chinese lacquer cabinet,” says a character in Ambler’s Background to Danger (1937), “a neo-Byzantine bookcase and six baroque chairs plus a Drage-Aztec cocktail cabinet that flies apart and exposes all the bottles and things inside when you press a button. Even if you didn’t know from experience what a complete wart the man is, that room would tell you.”

Nor would Mr. Furst’s marriage of romance and dread occur to Ken Follett, whose most entertaining World War II novels—Eye of the Needle (1978), Night Over Water (1991) and the wonderful Jackdaws (2001)—are written with a retrospective reverence for the nobility and rightness of the Allied cause.

As a voluptuary whose sensual appetites are held in beautiful check; a romantic who believes in the honor of the fight against fascism and Nazism; a storyteller in love with what-ifs? and narrow escapes and sheer dumb luck; and a realist who’s determined not to underestimate the ugly choices and pragmatic expediencies war forces upon people (not the least of them how the fight against fascism led to dalliance with communism), Mr. Furst is a contradiction. He resolves his contradictions by not stifling any of his impulses. His novels do honor both to the contingencies of the era in which his characters live, and to our knowledge of what their sacrifices and bravery won.

Nothing marks him as both a romantic and a realist better than the article of faith that the flawed world the Allied victory gave us is better than any that would have issued from an Axis victory. Which is not to say that Mr. Furst indulges in Greatest Generation sentimentality. For one thing, his books are set in Europe, and you can’t propagate Henry Luce–patented visions of sacrifice in a land where the ravages of war are experienced firsthand—not sampled in newsreels and photographs. For another, Mr. Furst’s taste is too continental for American boosterism.

With The World at Night (1996), Mr. Furst abandoned the broad panoramas of his earlier novels and concentrated on one aspect of the war, or of the years before the war. In his last novel, Dark Voyage (2004), he perfected the compression of language and plot he’d been working towards, and the writing reached an imagistic high point.

The Foreign Correspondent, another narrow slice, is also another argument in favor of Mr. Furst being one of our most pleasing contemporary novelists. Stylistically, it’s his most relaxed performance. There’s a clipped elegance to the opening sentence: “In Paris, the last days of autumn; a gray, troubled sky at daybreak, the fall of twilight at noon, followed, at seven-thirty, by slanting rains and black umbrellas as the people of the city hurried home past the bare trees.” The telegraphic bursts within that relaxation (“In Paris / the last days of autumn”) plunge us right into the story. The bleak, meteorological prose-poem sets the atmosphere for a murder—we’re already deep in Mr. Furst’s gloomy milieu before we’re fully comfortable in our reading chair.

The dead man is the editor of a clandestine antifascist newspaper being published, in Paris, by refugees from Mussolini’s Italy. The killer belongs to OVRA, the fascist secret police hunting through Europe for the enemies of Il Duce. Into the dead man’s shoes steps Carlo Weisz, a refugee Italian journalist working with Reuters in Paris. I won’t be a spoilsport by unraveling the plot of The Foreign Correspondent, which opens in 1938, except to say that it follows Weisz as he eludes OVRA, parries the Sûreté, and interacts with British intelligence as it tries to make propaganda use of a Spanish Loyalist leader who realizes the fight against Franco is lost.

Mr. Furst delivers the pleasures we expect from him, the distinctive mixture of vivid evocation of the past and you-are-there immediacy that almost constitutes a separate genre: the thriller as act of memory. And there’s a bonus: The Foreign Correspondent is the closest thing he’s written to an out-and-out love story. Weisz rediscovers a lost love, a German woman working against the Nazis who’s already attracted the attention of the SS.

There’s always been the danger that Mr. Furst would be dismissed as a mere peddler of World War II nostalgia. But something curious has happened since he began writing these novels. World War II revisionists are no longer limited to liars and loonies like David Irving. Now, respected academics and journalists, often depending on outright distortions or omissions to make their case, are telling us that the Allied war effort was overkill and barbarism directed at innocent civilians and an enemy about to be defeated anyway, and that much of the carnage could have been avoided if only the Allies had been willing to negotiate. In other words, these people look at World War II and decide not just that the moral thing would have been to be Neville Chamberlain, but to have been Neville Chamberlain in 1943. (Their counterparts today would have you believe that radical Islam is no more of a threat than the religious right.) In that context, Mr. Furst looks like not just a master entertainer but a novelist with a valuable and discerning grasp of history and morality.

Anchoring the revisionists’ assumptions is the belief that the war didn’t impede the banal, rational progress of life, and thus it’s possible for them to believe in rational solutions (“Of course Hitler would’ve negotiated”). Steeped in the day-to-day details of the years before the war, Mr. Furst writes about normal life in that period as a kind of shadow play. His characters are almost always taking part in the war effort by deception, sabotage, espionage, rather than combat at the front. For them, everyday life—which they try to cling to via friendship, love affairs, work, good meals, the pleasures of a cigarette—has already become unreal, the thinnest of tissues liable to tear at any moment.

Mr. Furst has something in common with the diarist Victor Klemperer, who depicted the incremental derangement of everyday life under the Nazis. A civilized sensualist, Alan Furst sometimes seems like the last sane man in the room.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.

A Stylish Contradiction:  Furst’s Romantic Realism