War Stories

lan Furst opens the door to his small house on a busy street in Sag Harbor, and all I can think is: You don’t look like a cult figure. Was I expecting someone taller, someone larger than life? Even more disconcerting, the man’s grinning at me. He isn’t supposed to be so … cheerful.

I had good reason to think he would be more brooding or dour, but it was going to take a lot more than his impish smile to disappoint me: The dark, romantic thrillers of Alan Furst – all set in Nazi-dominated Europe, more often than not in occupied Paris – have become something of an obsession to a growing number of dedicated fans, myself included. We devour them as soon as they come out, and the titles become our secret passwords: The World at Night, Dark Star, The Polish Officer. Inevitably, among the true believers, there’s always the question: When is the rest of the world going to wake up?

Furst leads the way to the back of the house. He wants to show me the converted one-car garage that he writes in. (It’s also where he can smoke without bothering his wife, Karen, a successful landscape designer.) A dusting of fresh snow coats the narrow, immaculately groomed backyard. Inside the garage, there’s a bare brick floor, a little wooden desk, and a sink and toilet behind a white curtain. It’s not unlike a prison cell – though hardly the kind so many of his characters wind up in when their luck runs out. It’s more Martha Stewart than Gestapo headquarters, even if there’s no heater. “I’ve learned that I can work out here down to 42 degrees,” he explains. “But when it drops below that, I have to move inside.”

Your typical Furst fanatic is a kind of literary orphan.

We used to read John le Carré, but Le Carré never recovered from the loss of his one great subject, the Cold War. We might have bought each new novel by Patrick O’Brian as soon as it came out, but O’Brian died last year, so there won’t be any more of those. Richard Snow, the editor of American Heritage magazine, is the man who single-handedly kick-started the O’Brian craze back in 1991 by calling his books the “best historical novels ever written” on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Snow is a Furst convert, too. “Now that O’Brian’s gone,” he says, “Furst is my favorite historical novelist.” And Charles McCarry, the dean of American spy novelists, says, “To be able to penetrate not only another culture but another time, as he does – I don’t think there’s anyone better at the moment.”

The books are addictive – if you like one, you have to read them all – but they weren’t always easy to find. Despite consistent sales, great word of mouth, and a decade of impressive reviews, Furst is still largely unknown in this country. He has a big following in Britain, but at home he remains a prophet without honor. And incredibly, even though he’s published in hardcover here by Random House, he hasn’t had an American paperback deal.

Now that’s changed. His latest novel, Kingdom of Shadows, which arrives in U.S. stores this week, has already been on best-seller lists in London (it was also just nominated for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize), and advance reviews here are rhapsodic. A small American publisher, Trafalgar Square, has been distributing Furst’s U.K. paperbacks in this country for the past six months – which means that for the first time, all his books are available in the chains and can be ordered from Amazon.com. And finally, Random House announced last month that it will be starting a new trade-paperback division later this year, and, according to Ivan Held, the new imprint’s publisher, Furst will be on the debut list.

Spy novels, of course, are supposed to be a dead genre, killed off by Reagan and Gorbachev. “When the Cold War ended,” Furst says, “there were all these articles saying, ‘That’s the end of espionage novels.’ ” We’re back in the house, in his winter writing office upstairs, where there’s a TV, a fax machine, and an electric typewriter (no computer). “They said, ‘Nobody’ll write these things anymore.’ ” But Furst was blissfully unaffected. Back in the eighties, he had already opted out of the contemporary in favor of a different world entirely. All his novels share a place and a time: Europe, from 1938 to 1941. They have the same satisfying effect as classic films like Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. “There was this magnet that pulled me to the thirties,” he says. “I had 1938 disease! The way people dressed, the way they looked. And as I read about the Spanish Civil War, the Stalinist purges, the ascent of Hitler, I realized you had this phenomenal period, simultaneously wildly romantic and evil, full of courage and brutality, where people were struggling desperately, one against the other.” On the low bookshelf across from his desk, there are memoirs from the thirties and forties, military histories, old Paris guidebooks, a small faded pamphlet titled Military Aircraft Markings. “I’m a throwback, but I’m happy to be a throwback. I wouldn’t want to try to write a contemporary novel.”

He is closer in spirit to Eric Ambler, or Graham Greene, than to Le Carré. Each book features a different hero – a disillusioned Soviet intelligence agent in Dark Star, a young Bulgarian resistance fighter in Night Soldiers, a world-weary aristocrat in The Polish Officer, and a cynical Parisian film producer in The World at Night and its sequel, Red Gold – but each story feels like part of one continuing saga because supporting characters and key locales recur from book to book.

“He really is the definition of a novelist,” says Ann Godoff, the publisher of Random House and Furst’s editor. “He thinks about things in pure narrative terms and has real ownership of a time and a place. And he does it almost seamlessly. Without any artifice. As if suddenly you’re back in occupied Paris, and everything exudes authenticity. He also writes great love stories.” People tend to die suddenly and violently in Furst novels, and there are no happy endings. As might be expected, sex offers one of the few real escapes, and the books are as much about clandestine sex as they are about secret resistance operations. “No matter how stark the historical backdrop,” says Godoff, “and they’re very stark indeed, you’ll find the romantic. And therefore hope springs eternal.”

These are political novels only in the sense that politics has forced itself into the lives of his characters. “Contending tyrannies literally enveloped Europe from one end to the other,” Furst explains. “These are the people caught in the middle.” The books are filled with refugees and displaced Europeans – many of them Jewish – all of whom, whether they are spies or not, must lead double lives.

“I don’t have any ideology in these books,” he insists. “It’s the politics of freedom. The politics of saying people should be left alone to live their lives, for God’s sake. And what is good is to love, on any level you want to talk about it.”

Furst, who is in his late fifties, came belatedly to what’s now become his life’s work. He says the turning point was in 1983, when he took a trip to Eastern Europe on assignment for Esquire. He was supposed to travel along the Danube River for a travel piece, but his first stop was Moscow, and something happened there. “The person I took to the airport,” Karen Furst tells people now, “never came back.”

The Furst who disappeared on that trip was a fairly typical product of the Jewish Upper West Side of Manhattan. He had been a teacher, he worked for the Seattle arts commission, for a time he freelanced as an ad copywriter. In 1976, he published his first novel, a pure sixties artifact called Your Day in the Barrel, whose protagonist was a hip Jewish drug dealer. He wrote two more mysteries about the dealer, followed by an attempt at a contemporary spy novel, but today he disavows those early efforts, refusing to even list them in his author’s bio.

His first visit to Moscow, and the subsequent trip down the Danube, from Ismalia to Vienna, blew his mind. Reagan had recently been elected president on a fierce anti-Soviet platform, but the fashionable position in intellectual circles was still the notion of moral equivalency: If the USSR was a nasty imperialist power, so were we. But in Moscow, Furst saw the fear in people’s eyes, and it was a revelation: “I went, Oh, no, wrong – this is not like us at all.

Later, when he returned to the States, his friends were shocked to hear him talking like a converted Reaganite. “I did a 180-degree turnaround,” he confesses. “There really was an evil empire. I felt that I had been conned.”

He also discovered a personal connection to the victims of that empire, which surprised him. “I don’t speak a word of Russian – but at the National Hotel in Moscow, there’s a woman behind the counter talking to a Romanian, and I knew everything that she was saying just from the body language, the way she used her hands, the intonation of her voice. It was just like all the Jews I had grown up with. It was very odd, the sense of recognition. I thought, I’m home.

It all came together as he stood on the deck of a passenger steamer on the Black Sea. There were Russian voices around him, and Turkish music coming over the radio. First the glimpse of real totalitarianism, then the sense of an entire part of Europe that had been cut off from the West since the war, finally that private link – it all conspired to change his life. “I looked at a map,” he says, “and I thought, It’s a novel. I’d never written a historical novel before, but right away electric sparks were coming out of my head!”

When he came home, he started writing Night Soldiers, a panoramic novel that starts in Bulgaria in 1934 and ends on the West Side of Manhattan eleven years later. “Why was I able to write this? I don’t know.” He shrugs. “But it flowed easily, like I already knew it.” Furst and his wife relocated from Seattle to Paris to get closer to the world he was trying to re-create. (They moved to the East End of Long Island seven years ago.) The hero of Night Soldiers is a Bulgarian recruited to work for the Soviet Secret Police. His adventures take him to Moscow, to learn the spy trade; to Spain, where he fights for the Loyalists; to Paris, after he breaks with the Russians and goes underground; and back to Eastern Europe to fight the Germans. The book is tremendously entertaining and beautifully imagined.

Night Soldiers was published in 1988. It was a stunning midlife correction, and a miraculous literary rebirth. “I was a pretty good writer before,” he says, “but I didn’t really have anything to write about. Boy, I did now.”

Since Night Soldiers, each subsequent novel has featured a hero from a different country. The sixth in the series, Kingdom of Shadows, revolves around a wealthy Hungarian, Nicholas Morath, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian Cavalry. We meet him on a gray, rainy morning in Paris, in March 1938, in bed with a young South American heiress. (Reading a new Furst novel always makes me feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day – with each one he starts by winding the clock back to 1938 or ‘39, and right on cue, the lights begin going out all over Europe again.) Morath owns a lucrative share of a successful advertising agency, which allows him to commute between Paris and Budapest, but his uncle draws him into clandestine work on behalf of anti-Fascists in Hungary, and soon enough he finds himself shivering in a pile of straw in a cold jail cell in Romania, being interrogated by the Secret Police. It’s the perfect nightmare for a pampered, comfortable era like ours. And the contemporary significance of such sudden turnabouts is always present in Furst’s mind.

“The only thing I can say is that when European Fascism came back in Yugoslavia, I think people again began to realize that this wasn’t just a German thing,” he says. “It’s ongoing, and it’ll be back again. I don’t know where it’ll be next time. Latvia? Pick a place. But it’ll be back again, like an infection.”

Writers usually keep a few telling little talismans over their desks, and Furst is no exception. There are several framed photographs and drawings. One is an ordinary street scene, but it’s Kiev in 1938. Next to it is a moody, evocative Brassai photo from the thirties: Two Parisian demimondaines stare insolently at the camera. And then there is a pen-and-ink portrait of someone I don’t recognize. Furst smiles and identifies it as Joseph Roth, the Austrian Jew who wrote one of Furst’s favorite novels, The Radetzky March, an elegantly moving portrait of a Europe destroyed by world war. “I grew up feeling that Europe is what made culture – films, art, novels.” Furst says, “And Jews were a crucial part of that. Then Hitler killed it.”

Just before he drank himself to death in Paris in 1939, a bitter Joseph Roth wrote, “We all overestimated the world.” Furst put Roth’s funeral in Kingdom of Shadows. “I think the only thing I ever really wrote about is the death of Europe,” Furst says. “That’s all that ever interested me, and that’s probably all that ever will interest me.”

War Stories