Historical novels must be very challenging books to write, especially because, in one obvious way, they are deceptively easy to write. In the wrong hands they reveal this with every turned page.
Basically, the author looks back, notes how an era unfolded, and then creates a slate of characters to be carried along on the social and political currents of the time.
With an element of surprise lacking, in that we probably know how the major events played out, the emphasis must be on character, subplot and style. Writers who can’t handle these are buried by history.
There are some luminous precedents for such fiction being handled especially well — for a big instance, War and Peace, in which the main events play out about a half-century before its publication.
A little more than a half-century lies between the era portrayed in Alan Furst’s espionage novels and the years in which he creates them.
Not an epic writer, he is, nevertheless, a skilled craftsman and proves this repeatedly with works such as Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, and Dark Voyage.
Some of his major characters sometimes come off a touch too black and white, but he nevertheless manages to propel them into our consciousness and empathy, to make us care deeply about what happens to them.
And that holds especially true for the supporting cast, the minor characters, who are superbly nuanced. For instance in Furst’s most recent novel, The Foreign Correspondent, a frumpy, somewhat disreputable little SIS operative named Kolb is introduced to us as a prisoner of the fascists in Spain.
“Chained to anarchists, black scarves around their necks, and a pipe. Outside, in the adjacent alley, several shots were fired. Well, at least the queue was moving — when was lunch? ‘Hora de …?’ he asked the nearest anarchist, making a spooning motion with his free hand. From the anarchist a look of admiration. Here was a man at death’s door, and he wanted lunch.”
The Foreign Correspondent begins in the late winter of 1938. Spies, secret police, and exiled intellectuals have made their way to Paris from Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries beleaguered, or soon-to-be beleaguered, by fascism or Stalinism, or some combination of the two.
In Paris, which will soon face its own reckoning with the fascist devil, the émigrés try to influence the course of history.
Paris, as in most of Furst’s fiction, is a major character herself. An American, Furst lived there for many years, researching, and writing journalism.
This may be the 21st Century, but Paris wears her long, rich history proudly; Hitler failed to burn her down, and generations of city councillors couldn’t spoil her.
Among all the ghosts who give the city her rich character are the martyrs of the German occupation. Their memory lingers everywhere, and anyone who wanders a bit off the flashier thoroughfares is sure to encounter them.
Among the spectres are intellectuals who fled from Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
Furst gives one of them the name of Carlo Weisz, an Italian journalist who escaped in 1935, and now works for Liberazione, an émigré resistance newspaper, and Reuters.
As happens to primary protagonists in Furst’s novels, he gets drawn into espionage as the stakes rise along with the power of the fascism.
Weisz is a bit like Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, in the film Casablanca, if far less predisposed to selfishness and somewhat more of an intellectual.
He and his colleagues on Liberazione are hounded by OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police; in fact, the novel opens with OVRA assassinating the editor of the publication, an event which will propel Weisz deeper into the fray.
The émigrés must be careful of more than OVRA. They survive in France on the sufferance of the police.
“The French have laws against everything, then they book and choose. For the moment we’re tolerated, for political expediency, but I don’t think we qualify for protection,” Weisz explains to one of his colleagues.
Create too much of a stir, even if you’re being targeted by assassins and you can lose your working papers, and be deported back to where you come from, which for most émigrés would mean jail, torture and death.
As it suits British operatives to take an interest in and some control over the exiled journalists, the émigrés must make some hard decisions.
Do they surrender some autonomy for the support and sporadic, sometimes dubious, protection of the SIS?
“And making them happy, right now, wouldn’t be the worst thing for both of you. They’re thinking about your future… and it’s better they think good thoughts,” Kolb warns Weisz.
Making them happy involves a very dangerous assignment for the journalist. And here, as elsewhere, Furst displays a masterful, poetic touch.
Poetic in prose (as in poetry) does not mean lots of adjectives, much sighing and flowery speech, but rather concision that requires sharp images and brief expressions to stand for something larger.
Consider this exchange between Weisz and Kolb as the spy prepares the journalist for journey to almost-certain death:
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
“From Kolb, a melancholy smile. ‘Many times. Many, many times.’
“‘I appreciate the light touch.’
“Kolb made a face: ‘might as well.”
We don’t require all the gory details in order to comprehend the impending danger.
Meanwhile, a beautiful aristocrat, who has been trying her best to undermine Hitler in Berlin, is about to be picked up by the Nazis, and a heroic Italian officer, who turned his back on Mussolini and served the Republic in Spain, must be rescued from a French internment camp.
Life and love must go on, not because of some cold, cerebral biological imperative, but because Alan Furst makes those lives so rich and the love so powerful — that we believe in them and the necessity for their continuance, in our hearts. (He can even create a sex scene that doesn’t cause your toes to scrunch up in embarrassment.)
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to function despite fear.
In Furst’s Europe most people of conscience are afraid, Weisz and his fellow exiles are afraid, Kolb is afraid, and the German aristocrat is afraid: “She knew what was right, and when you knew what was right, you had to do it.”
And as these characters and their friends struggle to do right, the reader doesn’t want to lose sight of them for a moment. Theirs is a gripping tale.
Besides, we will need to possess the character they display — considering where terrorists, dictators, redneck consumers, politicians for hire, and amoral corporations are taking our planet, once again.