A Man of Action

His narration may be clunky and his sex scenes almost comical, but Alan Furst’s turns of plot can leave a reader breathless

Readers who have never heard of Alan Furst may be surprised to learn that historical spy fiction is still being written at all. After enjoying one final smash with Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978), the genre was gradually displaced from best-seller lists by the hi-tech thrillers of Tom Clancy et al. One by one the swastikas disappeared from airport book racks, and by the late 1980s, Follett had taken to writing about cathedrals instead. It was then, of all times, that Furst wrote Night Soldiers (1988), a spy novel about the Nazi-Soviet conflict. Departing from the standard screw-tightening plot, he sent his Bulgarian hero back and forth across Europe on a series of almost self-contained adventures. Reviewers were quick to compare Furst to John le Carré, but the two have little in common. Le Carré treats his readers like experienced fellow agents; we spend the first part of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)scrambling to figure out what on earth he’s talking about. Furst’s work seems too “on the nose” by comparison. In Night Soldiers, for example, someone throws gasoline and a torch inside a café and nails the door shut, whereupon the occupants hurl themselves against it—and the narrator hastens to inform us that “the intention was to burn them to death.” Even the least ambiguous gestures are explained in italics. “[He] pointed with an index finger, and shook it firmly twice … Meaning Naughty boy, see what happens when you curse your betters?” Foreign words come with a helpful translation. “Todavía?’ Still? Siempre!’ Always!” I would have wrongly guessed that todavía” means something like “the whole road,” but that’s beside the point; these asides play havoc on a reader’s wish fulfillment. A certain enigmatic quality, even the occasional feeling of being out of one’s depth, is necessary if a spy novel is not to feel like a boys’ adventure.

This is not to say that Furst’s prose is a smooth and easy read. The punctuation is exasperating: “She was, she said, Levantine, of Greek origin, and, hair, eyes, and spirit, dark in every way … ‘I did have a few, suitors, for a time … ’” (Dark Voyage, 2004) Awkward formulations routinely pull the reader up short:

In 1908 … the Turks withdrew, leaving alas, only a minor cultural legacy: bastinado, the whipping of bare feet; pederasty, the notion of sheep-herding mountain youths agitated even the pashas’ burned-out lusts; and the bribery of all high persons as a matter of natural law. The first two faded quickly from life in Vidin, though the latter, of course, remained. The local wise men would have been astonished to discover people who did not know that greed far exceeded sadism and lechery in the succession of human vice. (Night Soldiers)

One could perhaps argue that there were plenty of young shepherds where the pashas came from, and that sadism and lechery have never been outlasted by greed or anything else. More to the point, “agitated” is the wrong tense, “bribery” should be “venality,” and “exceeded … in the succession of” is gibberish. On the very next page is the formulation “Some had the straight black hair of the Asian steppe, others the blue eyes of the Russo-Slav,” by which time one starts to wonder how the bare feet of the North American copy editor might look after a little old-time Turkish justice. Furst’s erotic passages are especially clumsy. Some aim for “continental” bawdiness, others for Bogartesque melancholy, but either way, the Europeans tend to come off as visitors from another planet: “She chose him openly. Studied him, considered the genetics, the dialectics, the inevitability of history, then let her blue-veined breasts tumble out of her shirt before his widening eyes.” “Wound around each other like vines, they climbed the stairs together.” “Maybe the name she told him was a lie and maybe he did the same thing, but three in the morning found them … hugging like long lost lovers, riding each other’s bottoms through the night.”

Furst tends to do better in scenes of flight and pursuit. The Polish Officer (1995), his most exciting novel by far, has a page where a girl is trying to get on a moving train. (“Somebody yelled, ‘Save her, save her,’ like a chant, and others took up the cry.”) Upon finishing it, readers may find that they have been holding their breath. Still, it was not until Kingdom of Shadows (2000), the tale of a Hungarian advertising-executive-turned-spy, that Furst became as well known at home as he had always been in Britain. In interviews, he has suggested that 9/11 may have made Americans keener to read stories about ordinary men answering a call to defend their country. Perhaps, but stories about ordinary Europeans? (In none of his books is the central character an American.) My guess is that Furst’s popularity derives more from the growing fascination with World War II, a fascination that may have something to do with an aversion to globalization. His characters are constantly moving across militarized borders, showcasing the colorful checkerboard of distinct polities that Europe used to be. Arriving in Belgium from Greece, the hero of Dark Star (1991) sojourns in Ostend, Antwerp, and Paris before traveling to Czechoslovakia. And those are just the first twenty pages.

It’s hard to celebrate national diversity, though, without neglecting the diversity of the individual, and anyone who turns to these novels in search of psychological depth will be disappointed. The Parisian hero of two of Furst’s novels graduated, we are told, from “the most exclusive college in the Sorbonne … France’s Harvard, Yale and Princeton all rolled into one.” Yet here is his mind at work:

Albertine, tonight. His big, ugly treasure of a farm girl. Something good to eat. Vegetables, cow food—but garlic, salt, a drop of oil, and the cunning way she chopped it all up. Jesus! Was it possible that he’d reached that ghastly moment in life when the belly was more important than the prick? No! Never that! Why, he’d take that Albertine and spread her … (The World at Night, 1996)

Like an engine that knocks when you take your foot off the pedal, Furst’s prose cannot slow down without lapsing into this sort of waggishness and bad taste. Our age is such that he is considered a master wordsmith anyway. The New York Times Book Review recently called him “one of the few espionage writers who knows how to write sex scenes,” but that’s nothing; anyone who studies the blurb page before moving on to one of these novels of Nazi-roiled Europe is in effect getting two tales of a world gone mad. The Providence Journal assured readers that Furst “can’t write a bad sentence.” The San Francisco Chronicle spoke of a “style both gracious and unobtrusive.” A New York Times reviewer wrote that some passages in Furst’s fiction “could be passed off as the work of both a meticulous narrative craftsman at the top of his game and a symbolist poet.” The rest of the review makes clear that he did not mean to imply spuriousness. Another New York Times reviewer expressed her appreciation of “Mr. Furst’s famously succinct eroticism.” She also singled out as “poetry” a sentence in which he describes someone as “reading a slim, filthy novel in beautifully marbled covers.” Just how much contemporary literature does one have to read—and how little of the other kind—to be so easily impressed?

When it comes to discussing the arts, all opinions are completely subjective and thus equally valid, or so the orthodoxy goes. But surely there are limits. To assert that reading one of Furst’s novels is like hearing “Kafka, Dostoevsky and le Carré … talk to each other” (Kirkus Reviews) is just plain wrong, as wrong as any literary judgment can be. As for the claim in Men’s Journal that “Flaubert would have liked” The World at Night, it is no less preposterous for being hypothetical; I’d have an easier time arguing that he would have liked Men’s Journal.

All this nonsense bespeaks a certain consistency, if nothing else. Gone, it seems, are the days when literary critics had a lax standard for the prose of the artsy writer and a rigorous one for that of the “genre” storyteller. They now appear ready to praise a certain kind of bad writing wherever they come across it. What they will not tolerate is the slickly lucid, Barbara Cartland kind. A writer must slow the eye and furrow the brow. Whether he does so through clumsiness or deliberate incoherence, through a “playful” flouting of punctuation rules or a simple ignorance of them, is evidently no longer important. A fierce hostility to cliché was once a glimmer of good sense in the postmodern aesthetic, but here is a novelist who describes a woman as “afraid of neither man nor beast, rich as Croesus, cold as ice”—and the critics couldn’t be happier. The only thing holding firm in the chaos of values is that great constant of American taste, the equation of the stodgy with the serious.

Furst’s latest novel, The Foreign Correspondent (2006), tells the story of Carlo Weisz, an Italian who works for an anti-fascist press in France while dodging Mussolini’s spies. Even fans may groan to see pre-war Paris again, where all of Furst’s heroes seem to land at some point, but the struggle against Mussolini is a fresh and fascinating topic. With the dictator’s image now undergoing something of a rehabilitation in Europe, it would have been nice to see more space devoted to the anti-Semitic legislation that forced so many Jews to flee Italy. Still, Furst’s research findings are especially interesting this time. Who would have thought that the Italian resistance produced over 500 journals and newspapers in Paris alone, or that OVRA, the acronym for Mussolini’s secret service, was meant to remind the dictator’s subjects of the word for a giant octopus?

Unfortunately, the narration is lackluster; the same shallow stream of conscious­ness flows through a succession of European characters, with no variation in the all-too-American tone. (“Sit on this,” Carlo curses silently. “And spin.”) As usual, the sentences have been cast with a view to maximum comma use. “He … stood there, hands in pockets, until, five minutes later, she appeared, had been watching, apparently, from some vantage point.” The plotting is solid, though, and the sheer accumulation of incident ultimately engenders an affectionate familiarity with Carlo even if the pallid characterization does not.

Olivia Manning does a much better job of evoking the tension of a continent on the brink of war, not least because she experienced it firsthand. But for all its stylistic brilliance, her 1960s Balkan Trilogy has none of the turns that keep the reader of The Foreign Correspondent wondering how it will end. In an interview in 2002, Furst said that he had difficulty understanding why none of his best-selling novels had yet been filmed. With no apparent preciousness about what might be lost in a transfer to the screen, he added, “These really are movies.” In a sense, this is true. He has the ability to invent plots that work all on their own, which is, as Somerset Maugham once pointed out, a very rare gift indeed.