It all started in a police state Moscow
Alan FURST writes elegant, atmospheric spy novels set in continental Europe in the 1930s and early ‘40s: He owns the pre-World War II period as completely as John le Carre owns the Cold War.
Furst’s latest novel, “The Spies of Warsaw,” comes out today and is the 10th in this series of books that are both dreamlike and grounded in period detail. The book’s protagonist is Jean-Francois Mercier, a French military attache to Poland and the latest in Furst’s line of heroic, introspective, world-weary aristocrats. We spoke to Furst, 67, from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY.
I think it was 25 years ago when you were visiting Moscow that you got the idea for this kind of historical espionage.
What happened was, I discovered the Danube, and that it went through the capitals of Eastern Europe, that it was the border between Romania, Bulgaria. I had no idea -- I thought it had to do with Vienna and the waltz. Like everybody else. And I asked the Soviets for a visa, and the only way they’d give me one is if I came to Moscow for a week.
For the first time in my life, I was in a police state -- I didn’t know what that was, emotionally or psychologically, and it had a huge effect on me. I didn’t like it. I thought, “This is the most dark place, full of intrigue”; the Russians are great writers, so there are probably great Russian spy novels. But then I realized, there are none, because they’re not allowed to write them. And I thought, “Fine, I’ll write them” -- which was a sublimely arrogant thing to do but fueled by my fury at the way a police state works.
What drove you to the 1930s and early ‘40s?
When I sat down and started reading and thinking about it, at play in Europe at the time were at least two or three Soviet secret services, at least two or three British secret services -- plus a secret service for every other nation in Europe.
I thought, “If I wanted to write a panoramic, historical spy novel, what better time to do it?”
What made Warsaw and Poland seem intriguing?
I’ve been there before in “The Polish Officer,” which is a book about how the Poles helped the Brits before and during World War II.
Poland is a wildly dramatic and tragic story. It’s just unbelievable what went on with those people. How they survive I don’t really know. The Germans had a particular hatred for the Poles, they really considered them subhuman Slavs, and they were very brutal to them.
With the present book, I wanted to write a “9/10 novel” -- what went on before the catastrophe. And the way to do that was to look at Poland and France, the countries that were early occupied, the real crushing defeats. I thought it would be natural to have a French military attache in Poland, concentrating on German war plans.
With this book and your work in general, we have the remnants of the aristocracy, country estates, wonderful little cafes -- it seems like the world destroyed by World War II. Do you feel like you’re keeping that alive?
Yes, it’s very strange. I remember sitting at my desk, in my apartment in Paris, where I wrote the first 2 1/2 of these books, and staring out the window and saying to myself, “Why me? Where do I get off recording the death of old Europe?” This seems supremely strange, since I’m in every way an indistinguishable Jewish writer from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But this interest that drives me, I don’t know where that came from.
How important is the research and historical fact to you?
It’s everything to me. Because I’m incapable of creating a plot. So what I learned to do early was to find some particular operation done by one of the secret services in one of the countries and make it my plot, and that’s basically what you have in “The Spies of Warsaw.”
Why does ‘30s Europe still compel people?
It’s two things. Number one, historical novels are an escape. If they’re done right, they take you to another time and place, completely away from whatever your daily toil is.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of resonance with contemporary politics with that 1930s period. It was a real battle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. They really had it out, and a lot of people died.
There’s a lot of romance and sex in your books. Why so much, and is that fun to write?
It’s not fun to write -- it’s actually very hard to write. I wouldn’t ever want you to see the first two or three drafts. Whoa. It comes out like porn.
But the fact is, I felt that’s the only consolation people had in the period. The reason we see the period between the wars as romantic is that people thought they were going to die. So the stolen night, between a man and a woman, becomes that much more important. Romantic love, or sex, is the only good thing in a life that is being lived in a dark way.
And if that would be true, I wanted to write it in a way that my friends, when reading it, would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s what we do.” I wanted it to be like the sex my reader has.
Is it hard to get into the mind of someone like Voss, a ruthless SS spy?
No, I understand people like that. He’s the jerk in every office. Haven’t you had the experience of encountering some monster of a human and asking, " Why does God make people like that? He’s the eternal Javert, from “Les Miserables.”
Were the Nazis made up of workaday people like that?
Yeah, opportunists. If you read the history of the national Socialist party, they’re all people who felt like life should have been better to them. They’re disappointed, vengeful, angry. They feel like bad tricks have been played on them, that life is unjust. . . . You know this personality type. Those were the people who flocked to Hitler. And if you want to give yourself a scare, take a look around today. It hasn’t changed.
Your books get into very heavy issues, and the writing has a lot of style. You call these genre novels.
If I’m a genre writer, I’m at the edge. In the end, they do work like genre fiction. You have a hero, there’s a love interest, there’s always a chase, there’s fighting of some kind. You don’t have to do that in a novel. But you do in a genre novel.
It’s not different from the guys writing Greek tragedy, you had to do this and you had to do that. But within that structure -- Aristotle said you had to have a structure -- you’re freer, for whatever reason. You’re freer because of boundaries.
I wonder if you think you’ll ever relocate your books to say, 18th century China, or the club scene in ‘80s New York or something else . . . ?
Nothing appeals to me like this does. This is like having a favorite pie. That’s the best I can describe it. Like you really like custard pie, or cherry pie, and someone says, “Wouldn’t you like to try lemon meringue?” No, no. I don’t. I like that kind of pie.
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