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Life during wartime
Alan Furstís novels evoke shadowy Europe of World War II
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Alan Furst writes spy novels set in Europe amid the chaos of World War II, but in describing his brand of espionage story, itís always easier to say what itís not. Furstís characters are never hardened warriors or trained intelligence agents, and theyíre never involved in sensational plots, like thwarting an assassination of Winston Churchill or stealing the plans for a Nazi atom bomb. His characters are ordinary people fulfilling their duty in an extraordinary time, operating on the warís fringes.
Furstís focus on the ďhuman factorĒ has earned him comparisons with John LeCarre and Graham Greene, but what Furst really does well is atmosphere. His evocation of a shadowy wartime Europe, its occupied cities and hushed neutral ports, is so vivid you can practically smell it ó pretty remarkable for an American-born journalist too young to have experienced World War II. His latest novel, Dark Voyage, features a Dutch freighter captain ďrecruitedĒ by British naval intelligence in 1941. FWR had a chance to talk to Furst about his novels.
Fort Wayne Reader: How did you stumble upon this subject matter and setting?
Alan Furst: I got interested during a trip to Moscow for Esquire magazine in 1983. This was the USSR period, and I thought the Russians should produce incredible spy novels, but of course they werenít allowed to write spy novels. So I thought Ďwell, Iíll write them,í and set out to write Russian-style, panoramic spy novels. If youíre going to write that, the 1930s and 1940s is the perfect period, since the spy services of many countries were active against each other, and had multiple services, so itís like a huge, D.W. Griffith espionage field, a lot of it going on, and a lot of politics going on. This was the Second World War, so it was the crux of the political warfare in this century, Nazism vs. bolshevism vs. British parliamentary democracy.
FWR: Was it difficult at the time to find information on the NKVD for your first novel Night Soldiers?
AF: No. Thereís so much intelligence history written. The bibliography was enormous for this stuff. Itís incredible. I had no idea how big it was, and when I started looking at it I couldnít believe other people werenít writing about it, but they werenít.
FWR: Have you heard from many Europeans? Whatís been their reaction?
AF: The reaction has been very good, when Iíve heard. Itís been very good in Britain. I was on the best seller lists in London before I was ever on a best seller list in the United States.
FWR: Do you hear from people who were alive at the time you are writing about? Do they think you got it right?
AF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Itís gratifying.
FWR: Your novels seem to have hopeful endings, and Iíve read where you said you did that because you felt those characters have earned those endings.
AF: In a sense, yes. I donít kill characters at the end of a book. To the degree that people are interested in fiction, they should know that if youíre going to do that, you have to start at the very beginning of the book, setting that character up to be in a moral position where his or her death is implicit to the moral structure of the novel. Itís not just like you kill them off at the end. What I tell people when Iím touring, I like to say that the characters fight on like all of us, and with a little luck and a little ingenuity, they live to see the end of the war. We donít know that for sure, butÖ
FWR: Your first three novels are these sprawling epics, and the books seem to tighten up after that.
AF: I changed the style of the books exactly between The Polish Officer and The World At Night, when I wanted to write about the French resistance. There was no panoramic or epic way of doing that, so the appropriate kind of book to write for that situation is more like an old-fashioned, European existential novel. So I changed that, and was quite happy with the way that worked, so Iíve continued that into the present, taking these small slices and character and one operation and what happens in their life during that period which will run from four to eight months, something like that. That turns out to be good fictional time for my kinds of stories.
FWR: Youíve made this era or setting your own. Do you ever see yourself writing a different kind of novel or are there still plenty of stories to tell?
AF: There are still plenty of stories to tell, and I have no impulse to write a contemporary novel.
FWR: On the flip side of that, do you ever worry that your public or your publisher is going to demand just a certain kind of novel from you?
AF: Of course they do. Thatís the whole thing with commercial fiction or commercial music or commercial anything. I donít feel constrained by it, no. I feel thatís an element of success. It would be like the Kellogg people saying Ďletís not make cornflakes anymore.í Itís what I do. I do it with a lot of heart and a lot of passion, but when it goes out on the marketplace, itís another retail item that people can buy. Any writer ó full-time, professional, life-time writer, a novelist especially ó has to understand that thatís the nature of the deal.
FWR: There are quite a few novelists mining this territory nowÖ
AF: I donít want to say I was the first to do it, but I think that may actually be true, because I havenít really found anyone else that came before me. You know, itís a big world. I myself started doing this because I liked what some other people did, so why shouldnít other people do it because they like what I do? Iím flattered by it. I donít worry about it as competition. Itís just normal.
You can usually find Alan Furstís books in the Mystery/Thriller section. His latest novel is Dark Voyage. Check out www.alanfurst.net.