Novelist Alan Furst has, over his career as a journalist, written for a wide range of publications. In the course of a piece he had done for Esquire in 1983 on the Danube, he began writing Night Soldiers. Since that novel’s publication in 1988, Furst has gone on to write Dark Star (1991), The Polish Officer (1995), The World At Night (1996), Red Gold (1999) and his latest, Kingdom of Shadows. He has also written three novels prior to Night Soldiers that he cheerfully dismisses and a commissioned, nearly published biography of cookie entrepreneur Debbie Fields. Alan Furst lives with his wife in Sag Harbor, New York.
Robert Birnbaum: Allow me to read from Night Soldiers…
“But nothing here was what it seemed. Even the gray stone of the buildings hid within itself a score of secret tints, to be revealed only by one momentary strand of light. At first, the tide of secrecy that rippled through the streets had made him tense and watchful, but in time he realized that in a city of clandestine passions. Everyone was a spy. Amours. Fleeting or eternally renewed, tender or cruel, a single sip or an endless bacchanal, they were the true life and business of the place where money was never enough and power always drained away…”
You have said that the subjects of your books are years — 1938, 1939, 1940 and on — but it would appear to me that they are also about Paris. Everything seems to come back to Paris.
Alan Furst: It is the central magneto of the engine, is Paris. There’s no question about it. Because I consider it the heart of civilization. And so did Adolf Hitler. When he captured Paris, he captured the heart of European civilization and gloated that it was his. And when it was lost, people committed suicide in Poland, by the score. And in other places all over Europe. Because if Paris was gone, what was there?
RB: But they didn’t commit suicide in Paris, by the score…
AF: (emphatically) No. They’re Parisian(laughs) I think it says in another one of my books, in The World At Night, Casson says to his assistant — who’s in the bathtub in his apartment, they had been making love all night, and the war has just started — he says, “Oh don’t worry, this is Paris, nothing is final here.” There are always arrangements to make…
RB: In The Polish Officer, you introduce the word “debroullier”…
AF: Yes, system D. Getting it done. It means to improvise. Life is so impossible, so confusing, everybody does everything wrong all the time. Somehow we are going to manage. The source was from the First World War with regard to railroad transport of troops and goods. To ‘debroullier,’ to muddle through. But it became known almost immediately as system D. And everybody in Paris says system D, “How am I gonna get this done, how are we going to find it, how are we going to buy it. Oh, don’t worry about it, system D.”
RB: You moved to Paris from Bainbridge Island in Washington to start Night Soldiers and this string of novels?
AF: I started it earlier. It’s complicated. I went to the Danube and came back to America and I wrote about the Danube. Then I realized I had to write about Paris. Off we went to Paris. I got a magazine assignment to cover it. Back to the United States. Wrote more. Then I realized I wanted to write about Spain. I got another magazine assignment — that’s why this took three years — off I went to the Balleric Islands. I got an assignment from Islands magazine. Then I wrote about Spain, and that’s how I got that book done. I think I actually finished it after we moved to Paris. But I’m not sure…because I did the Debbie Fields book in order to get the money to go to Paris. After that, I lived and wrote in Paris. Dark Star was written in Paris. It was completely a Parisian book. The Polish Officer, a lot in Paris. The World At Night is really a Parisian book and so is Red Gold. Kingdom of Shadows also takes place in Paris.
RB: On completing Night Soldiers were you clear that you would continue mining this fictional vein?
AF: Absolutely. I had found my place in life. I had found the little thing I did. It’s like an individual says, “I think what I want to do in life is collect something.” And then he says, “I think what I want to do is collect stamps.” And then he says, “And I think what I want to do in life is Europe between 1810 and 1890.” And then eventually he says, “What I want to do is Luxembourg, between 1840 and 1850.” That’s me. I think that’s everybody, but it’s certainly me.
RB: How do you choose the stories you fashion out of this vivid historical period?
AF: I choose it in two ways. In the usual way that it works in fiction, which is that you create characters, you give those characters something they have to do and then they will tell you their story as they go about doing it. That’s the way most fiction is written…
RB: For Kingdom of Shadows you have a Hungarian aristocrat lounging around in Paris in 1938, and his uncle gives him an advertising agency to occupy him…
AF: Not to occupy him. His uncle gives him an advertising agency, which is a classic way in which people who are going to interest themselves in clandestine things maintain themselves. It’s expensive, but that’s the way. When the Rote Kappelle [The Red Orchestra] was started by the GRU [Soviet military intelligence], the first thing that they did was buy a raincoat company in Belgium. In order to have an office, phones, people coming and going. That’s the way it’s done. Ditto film producers. There are at least three major espionage figures from World War Two who were film producers. Why? Because a film producer can order a hundred army uniforms. He can pay all sorts of weird money to all sorts of weird people. He can show up anywhere. Useful.
RB: By way of contrast, in another novel, you have the British viewing American espionage efforts as suspect because of the “American personality”: openness and straightforwardness. Would one really claim that espionage and subterfuge are really part of European culture…and that Americans are incapable of sneakiness and duplicity and subtle mayhem?
AF: The OSS [Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency] didn’t do so bad. The OSS did just fine and they had an opportunity and began mining those very qualities in the American personality. It came from lawyers. It came from oil brokers. A lot of them were foreign or had foreign backgrounds. That’s not unusual. And it’s not unusual in any intelligence service. The Brits always held themselves well above. And when Americans went over to London in ’42, the Brits were very arrogant about it. “You better tell us everything you are doing so that we can tell you if you are doing it right.” Maybe some Americans fell for that, at least initially.
RB: There is an episode in Night Soldiers at Ellis Island where someone is purchasing used clothing from immigrants…
AF: True story. That’s what the OSS did. Before they sent people…they couldn’t send agents into Europe in Brooks Brothers suits. They had to have ratty old European clothes and they went to Ellis Island and bought the clothes.
RB: Do you feel compelled to do research or is it a natural inclination?
AF: It’s natural. I love doing it.
RB: The Ellis Island story seems not to be the normal desiccated results of historical research.
AF: Well, I suppose facts have more or less juice in them. I will even sit down by the fireplace on a cold winter night and curl up around a diplomatic history of Rumania. For some reason I’m just strange for this. I’m bent, I think of myself that way because I have such and passion and such an interest in it. Why?
RB: European history? Not world history?
AF: No. Couldn’t care less. I don’t care about world history, and I care about it. European history…and if you do the thirties and forties you obviously have to go back to the late 19th century. You have to know where this all came from. It’s all in one string. One definition of history is, “…one damn thing after another.” Which is my favorite…
RB: I like that as much as the oft-referenced quote by Chou En lai [long time Red Chinese foreign minister] when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.” Your work is called historical espionage fiction?
AF: That’s what I’ve called it because I couldn’t come up with anything better. Although ‘espionage’ as a technical word doesn’t describe it at all. As you look around Europe from ’33 to ’44, you see resistance, you see black markets, you see false identity. You see every kind of underground and clandestine behavior across an extraordinary span of the population. I’m writing about Istanbul. Who was active in Istanbul? Well, there was the Hungarian service, there were the Italians. The Zionist intelligence service was there. It’s unending.
RB: That would be true of all Mediterranean capitols.
AF: Absolutely. I started counting the ones in France during the war. I got to ten or twelve right away. The French themselves had four or five different ones. Some of them opposed, some traitorous, some from Vichy…
RB: The Russians had the NKVD and the GRU…
AF: The Comintern did some spying as well. And it would be normal for the diplomatic service to have a little corner where they do that kind of thing. Basically the GRU and NKVD were very jealous of their turf and they were not people you wanted to argue with. That could be fatal.
RB: How concerned are you about allegiance to fact?
AF: It depends. I will compress time so that some of the dates are fudged because I want characters to know things earlier than they should. Basically, I am extremely careful about political and military events in my period.
AF: So many people died because of them. It’s like all these souls are let loose in that period; you can’t meddle with something that people cared enough to die for. Too many victims.
RB: It’s not about scholastic rigor?
AF: Oh no. Oh no. As it is, I get a lot of letters from Britain, “The Bullfighter was not flying in that year. It was not in service until the following year.” There are two ways to see that. One way is that somebody is being fussy about it. The other way is that person might very well have flown one of these things or had friends who died in them. So you have to honor the facts because of the price that was paid.
RB: You are immensely popular in Britain and just beginning, after six novels, to be popular here. Why do you think that is?
AF: I have no idea.
RB: Does it matter?
AF: Well, it matters in that my friends used to come back from Britain with photographs of shop windows, “Do you know what’s going on there?”
RB: Does it say something about British culture and American culture?
AF: I don’t want it to. I would like to think that we have a strong intellectual culture. I don’t buy the fact that they are more literate. They might be a little more literate. It shows up in different ways. In a common sort of way they write better, they are taught to write better. Some of their education might be a little more stringent, and you see the result of that. Plus they have a serious tradition of intellectualism in Europe, which is quite different than the one in the United States. You tell someone in France that you are writer, that’s serious stuff. They are very interested in that. They did a survey, while I was living in France, of 500 French women. And they said, “Who is the man you would most like to have a love affair with?” Do you know who won, hands down and going away?
RB: Jerry Lewis?
AF: Woody Allen. Think about that.
RB: Why is there so much admiration for the French culture?
AF: We all grew up highly affected by the French culture that followed World War II.
AF: Because it was so good. Truffaut. Because you had great French black-and-white films which were much more substantial…what were Americans watching? Doris Day. Okay. How to Marry A Millionaire. They were watching Jack Lemmon. Before The Apartment. That’s a European film made in America by a Hungarian director. You grew up with French food. That was considered important. Some people had actually been to Paris, the place where Hemingway and Fitzgerald had been. You went to the museum, what did you see? Monet, Pissaro, the great French Impressionists…
RB: Now you can’t avoid them…
AF: I know, done to death. But at that time, how was painting and art defined? It was defined by what the French had done in the first thirty years of the Twentieth Century.
RB: Will the French always be haunted by the stain of collaboration?
AF: I fear so. They will for a time. There are reasons for it. One has to forgive them for it, but they certainly did collaborate. They certainly tried to rehabilitate themselves after the war in all kinds of interesting ways…the Poles that fought back…but here’s the interesting question. If you really want to hang someone up on a question. What you ask them is this. All the right, the Poles fought. They lost 18% of their population. More than any other country during World War II, in terms of percentage. Their country was ruined, their major city was bombed and blown up, knocked flat. Ashes. They rebuilt it, but they were left with ashes. What did the French do? They collaborated, they didn’t lose that many people. They saved 75% of the Jews in France. And at the end, what was left? Paris was not blown up…
RB: The Germans would never have blown up Paris.
AF: They would have. I beg your pardon! They gave the order to blow it up. It was von Choltiz, that unknown hero who wouldn’t obey the order.
RB: The Nazis didn’t treat the French the way they treated the Poles. The Poles were [to them] scum.
AF: Absolutely. The French were to be looked up to because they had culture. And they turned Paris into an amusement park. They told them, “Open the race track or we’ll hang you.” Open the nightclubs…They had a program called “Paris for Everybody Once.” (I forget what was in German and there’s no reason why you should want it in German.) And they had a big travel agency, and that travel agency was infiltrated by the Red Orchestra. And so they knew where all the units were…where this division was, where that division was. They were very clever about where the information was and how to get to go about getting it.
RB: What about the mythology of Scandinavian righteousness? Clearly lubricated by selling the Nazis war materials…
AF: Absolutely. They collaborated like crazy.
RB: The word ‘quisling’ is not a French word.
AF: It is a Norwegian word. But the Norwegians were honorable in terms of resistance. It’s the Swedes who made money and then turned around and started giving Nobel Prizes. Clever fellows. (laughs)
RB: I have read that Anthony Powell is your favorite writer? Why?
AF: Yeah, pretty much. I think he is the finest novelist of the Twentieth Century. By a lot. Because he handles more things with more reserve and precision and with this most beautiful, oblique, quiet, knife-edged perception. He does a willing seduction in the second book, where Nicholas Jenkins seduces the woman who is to be his wife. It’s done in a hundred and fifty words. In the back of a car. It’s brilliant.
RB: Would he be a model for you?
RB: In reading and rereading your books, I noticed that as the books have gotten shorter, the silences and what’s implicit, what’s not said becomes more powerful. I have started to see you as a Thelonious Monk of words because of the way you repeat and what you leave out. I take it that this is deliberate?
AF: Absolutely, I’ve tried to do that very thing. That’s where I have been headed all this time. To say more by saying less. I have a piece of writing in the book I am working on now. The hero is at a dinner party on a yacht in Istanbul Yacht Club in late 1940, the fall. People are discussing the war, how bad it’s going to get and what they are going to do. And they ask him where he is going to be. He says, “I’m going to be as far away from the fighting as I can possibly get.” The woman who is his lover says, “Oh yes?” But she obviously doesn’t buy it at all, she knows him better than that. And he persists. He says, “Oh yes, absolutely.” And another guest at the dinner party says, “Well, why is that?” He says, “I’ve seen too many people shot.” And somebody else asks, “In battle?” And he says, “Afterwards.” Okay, that’s what I try to do now. I don’t have to say anything more than that one word and that tells you everything you need to know. I can’t always do that and you can’t do it on every page.
RB: Whereas in your first three novels that would have been a couple of paragraphs?
AF: Yeah. I went on and on in those books. I really wrote and wrote.
RB: In Dark Star and Night Soldiers in the end the guy gets the girl…
AF: Sure. Absolutely. You bet. Hey, it’s $24.95. (laughs) I think that’s the function of the novel. Especially, the novel on the level that I write it. Which is a very sophisticated form of genre. I am not in the business of making people feel bad. I’m in the business of telling people how it might possibly turn out, that in this situation love conquers all. There is a character in The World At Night that says that love doesn’t conquer all. But still I think it’s a good idea for us to believe that. It’s better for us to believe that. It’s better for writers to believe that. It’s better for writers to make that happen.
RB: You take into account the feelings of your readers?
AF: All the time. I’m in the business of consolation. I take it very seriously. My lawyer in Seattle wrote me a letter. His father had died of cancer and it had been a long battle. And he had spent the last month of his life reading and rereading The World At Night. And that’s probably the nicest compliment that I ever got. Ever. The one I took most to heart.
RB: Okay, some might say War and Peace is consoling. A good piece of writing…
AF: I agree with you. But there are also many American novelists who do not agree with me at all. And they are guaranteed to give you nightmares. John Gardner is my prime example. And his descendants. And Ray Carver and on and on. Ray Carver is a magnificent writer. You better understand that. However, he was not in the business of making anybody feel good. And John Gardner was in the business of making you feel rotten. You wonder why writers do that. I don’t understand writing from that perspective. But then we all have our little stalls in the big marketplace.
RB: And you all make choices…The first writer I thought of was Robert Stone, who is a great writer, but all his characters are people in trouble, and for the most part, they are not going to get out of trouble.
AF: A great writer, and that’s right they just get in deeper. I think if you write about brutal times you can afford to tell stories that are not. We have so much that, we’re so rich, so privileged. Our poor are rich compared to what poverty used to be. The instinct for a novelist in that kind of a society is to tell dark stories. Stories of bad feelings, that even though we have all these things life feels incomplete, wrong. One is lost. It’s dark out, etc. and so forth. Whereas I am writing about a very dark period in which there were a lot of lights being turned on all the time.
RB: My mother, who is from Lvov, once told me she thought life was better there than in mid-century and modern urban America. Life was better, more pleasant, humane…
AF: People loved one another. They did for one another because there was nobody else. When somebody died you were supposed to be there with them holding their hand. It was a slower life. It was a life where people were very concerned with ideals. Yes, they had to make a living. Yes, they had to struggle and they had to live in difficult times, but they were very concerned with ethics and religion. They cared about doing the right thing. They thought about doing the right thing. It was important to them.
RB: One of your characters, perhaps Casson in The World At Night, took notice of small friendships. The newspaper vendor, and the grocer, and such people that one for years had daily contact with for a few minutes every day. That’s a precious observation in a time when it seems that people assign best-friend status to someone they just met…
AF: Yeah, sad…
RB: …the point here is that your acceptance of being a genre writer seems to devalue the possibility that a precious and profound view of life can be found in your writing. I want to rebel against the designation ‘genre’ writing.
AF: I think that’s probably true. My literary agent recently informed me that I had no business saying stuff like that. That it wasn’t true. I don’t exactly know how to answer that. I grew up reading…my favorite things were always genre fiction. I never wanted to write or felt that I could write the kind of a novel that some of the people wrote that I liked. I never felt that I could compete with Bernard Malamud. I couldn’t imagine writing novels from that point of view. I like rules. And I like genre fiction and always liked it. Why have people used names like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler to talk about me? Because these were very literate writers who wrote at the top of the genre and are absolutely novelists. And I’m absolutely a novelist. It’s also true I write about certain things, and it means that I fall into the genre and that I’m not interested in breaking out of that pattern. I like where I am.
RB: Allow me to speculate that the difference between your acceptance here in the USA and in Britain has less to do with a certain kind of literacy and more to do with the ahistorical attitude of Americans. People seem not to care about history here.
AF: That’s possible.
RB: And you can make it palatable by fictionalizing it, but there is a ceiling…
AF: American literacy is on a permanently upward curve as we sit here…
RB: It would be nice to think so.
AF: More people have gone to college. More people have gone to Europe…
RB: And what does that mean? A bookstore owner here in Boston once told me that there is a downward diminishing curve in time spent reading the further college graduates get from graduation.
AF: Really? That’s terrible news. There’s readers…what are readers like? I’m a reader. What do I like? I like a book that’s good to read. What have I always tried to do? I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind about World War II. I’m trying to write a book that’s good to read. I love it when I find book that’s good to read. You can work your way through literature and say, “Aw it’s so good to read that.” Just pick something. Saroyan, The Human Comedy or My Name is Aram. That book is just delicious to read. You can’t wait to get back to it and pick it up and read it. What is it about that? It isn’t what it’s about. It isn’t even the way it’s written, exactly. It’s some other kind of quality that I don’t think has a name. But its definition is “pleasure to read.” And I when I get fan mail that’s what it says, “I hated to finish it. Because I wasn’t going to have the pleasure of it anymore.” A book is a wonderful thing in that way. You have the pleasure of it and then you can put it down. The only person who disagreed with that was Poe, who said you had to do it all in one evening. Which is a little restrictive. But if you look at what he wrote, he’s right on the money. You were supposed to go to bed at the end of one of those things and go scared. That’s what he wanted.
RB: Do have to pay attention to the business side of the writing life?
AF: Sure. One always does, it’s my business. It’s the business I’m in. The business side is difficult. I’ve been involved in covers, promotion, writing flap copy. I like the business. I like the whole book thing. I’ve had very good publishers and very good editors. I have been lucky. My publishing story is not a whining story. I have good treatment from magnificent people. It’s unbelievable. I have two editors-in-chief as my editors. In the US and Britain. That’s happenstance, I happen to be with them and up they went. I’m delighted at that. I’ve had a lot of TLC.
RB: Why do you think that is?
AF: I think they like these books. You know what editors are. Editors go, “I love it, but I don’t think everyone else will love it.” And sometimes, “I love it and I fear because I love it the world will not like it.” Over time editors become cautious about subjectivity and intuition. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they do.
RB: Would you be published today if you were just starting out?
AF: I have no idea. I can’t answer that. I guess so, why not?
RB: Because publishing has seemingly changed in the way publishers will nurture writers.
AF: That’s true, but an agent and a smart individual said to me one day, “Have you really ever heard of an unpublished masterpiece?” We talked about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 117 submissions and then it becomes a best-seller. I don’t think the great manuscript is around that is never going to be published. I think if it is quality, some publisher in a quality mode will buy.
RB: Have you disowned your early novels?
AF: I don’t like them anymore. My later novels are much better. The early novels were written with one eye closed, my feet tied together, written left-handed with a dull pencil. I imposed all those conditions on myself. Why I did so, I don’t know. They are written first-person present tense. Who can even stand that? They are murder mysteries — sex and drugs and rock n’ roll — nothing wrong with that. I then just came to a dead halt after four books. I said now I want to write something big and important and interesting. And I did.
RB: Do you reread your books? For continuity?
AF: For pleasure. I pick up book and I forget what’s there — there’s a lot. And I don’t always have it in mind. And rediscovering it is very pleasant for me. And before I start a book, I’ll read myself just to remember what I do, on a rather deep level.
RB: The shooting at the bistro Heinenger in Paris seems to reappear in some of your books.
AF: No, no it’s in every book. Each of the characters have a view of it that’s very characteristic of them. All my characters have a certain view of it. My abiding philosophy is the Blind Men and the Elephant, in writing these books. When I first read that story it unlocked the whole world for me. You can think of the whole world that way. There’s an elephant there all right, but it depends what part of it you’ve got.
RB: So the Heinenger’s reference is a signature? It’ll be in every book?
AF: Always. And there will be, when appropriate, characters from other books…
RB: You seem to be restrained in your depiction of the Poles. The Poles were reputed to be the most ardent anti-Semites…
AF: It’s difficult. For someone writing in my period one of the things you really have to handle is Polish attitudes toward Jews. I deal with it in two ways because there were two parts to it. There is no question that there were many anti-Semitic Poles…many Jews were murdered by Poles, there were Jews murdered by Poles when they came back to Poland in 1945 out of the concentration camp. What are you to do with that? At Yad Veshem, on The Avenue of The Righteous, there are more Poles than any other nationality — 5230 Poles accepted by the scholars as Christians that performed significant actions that saved Jewish lives during World War II.
RB: Remember the observation that an irony of the Second World War was that the Allies refused to go to war for democratic Czechoslovakia and went to war for repressive Right-wing Poland…
AF: That’s not what happened. At all. The real story of Munich is not a story of cowardice. Although, curiously, the appeasement people were all people who had not fought in the First World War. All the people in Britain who had fought were for fighting right then and there. In 1938, Chamberlain believed that every German bombing raid would cause 50,000 deaths. They believed the bomber would always get through and they believed that they could not tolerate another war at that time. They were wrong about themselves but they were right about the French. The French couldn’t tolerate another war. Every French family had someone whose lungs had been destroyed by gas, somebody missing a leg, missing an arm. There were nothing but women in black. Even in late 1930’s in France. Not a country ready to go to war. They had just done it. And they virtually lost, they were so damaged in WWI. The land had not even begun to heal where that war had been fought…
RB: They were ready a year later?
AF: The French. No.
RB: Then why declare war because of Poland?
AF: Diplomatic necessity. Because the Brits did it. They didn’t want to be on the wrong side. They didn’t want to be isolated in Europe. They were already isolated because they hadn’t worked out a deal with the Soviet Union, which is why the war happened. Had they worked out a deal, I don’t know that Hitler would have dared. In 1938, they were not prepared to fight a war and they let Czechoslovakia go. It was criminal. But it was criminal that the Germans were allowed to march into the Rhineland in ’36. Event of ’38 began earlier.
RB: What’s next?
AF: I have a couple of books that are completely different that I might like to do sometime. Not fiction. That’s as much as I’ll say about them. A back-of-the-drawer book. There’s a couple of novels I want to write. I’m working on one that I have to finish. And I have a couple more that are interesting to me and I’m looking forward to doing the research. The writing is hard. Would I take a year off if I could afford to? I might. And read widely. I’m not even beginning to get to the end of the books written about and in my period. It’s astonishing. They write them faster than you can read them. And they are good. John Lukas, one of my heroes, is down to two days. He started out 1939 to 1941. Then the crucial month. Now he’s down to the crucial week when everything is decided.
RB: Do we assume that because it’s recent history that we know everything about that period?
AF: That’s true. [Germany] was not such a monolithic sort of thing that everyone would like to think it was. There was room for resistance. Read Klemperer, I Shall Bear Witness. Everybody ought to go out and read that. It is the most fascinating fabulous exciting inspiring story of a little man who somehow survived. To the end of the war. As a Jew, in Germany. In Dresden. It’s incredible…
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing