Gurney's Inn
August 09, 2006

Between The Covers

In his new novel, The Foreign Correspondent, Alan Furst once again explores the night and fog that descended on Europe in 1938, a territory and time he practically owns in the espionage genre. The novel begins: "In Paris the last days of Autumn; a gray, troubled sky at daybreak, the fall of twilight at noon, followed, at seven-thirty, by slanting rains and black umbrellas as the people of the city hurried home past the bare trees."

The sentence fragment sets the journalistic style that propels the plot: chapters are introduced with datelines, sometimes down to the minute — appropriate enough for a narrative of intrigue whose émigré hero, Carlo Weisz, half Italian, half Slovenian, works for Reuters, and who will soon become editor of the Paris-based Italian underground paper, Liberazione.

As always, Furst writes with authority, imagination and elegant efficiency, choosing le mot juste — the exact word — to situate moment and mood. A brief prefatory paragraph sets up the situation: "By the late winter of 1938 hundreds of Italian intellectuals fled Mussolini's fascist government and found uncertain refuge in Paris. There, amid the struggles of émigré life, they founded an Italian resistance, with a clandestine press."

Vintage Furst, those words "uncertain" and "amid" — the first, indicative of the growing Nazi threat in France, the second, suggestive of writing drawn from a historical record. Furst reinforces his reportorial tone by using a third-person point of view, a move that allows him to keep a bit of distance between Carlo and the reader and to follow other characters and distinguish, often with sardonic irony, between what they say to others and to themselves, their inner thoughts conveyed in italics. The technique works at a cost: The Foreign Correspondent, though beautifully written, is not Furst's most exciting work.

Carlo, his patrician face "spoiled by curiosity and sympathy" (wonderful phrase, that) does not emerge as fleshed out as other Furst heroes, though for sure his face — and body — are appreciated by Christa von Schirren, a German aristocratic, married to a Prussian noble, who is involved in her own resistance activities (though she does wear a diamond-encrusted swastika).

Former lovers who haven't seen each other for three years, they are blissfully reunited the day after Carlo arrives in Berlin to stand in for a colleague. Fifteen minutes after meeting, they are in bed, and their lovemaking, tame by contemporary standards, constitutes some of the best writing in the book. Their idyll sharpens, by contrast, the larger political theme. Though at first trapped into working for the resistance, Carlo has come to believe in it deeply, particularly as he ghost writes a novel about Colonel Ferrara (no real names, please), an Italian hero whose rebellion against Mussolini has infuriated the fascists.

Ferrara's story must be told, be disseminated widely, and Liberazione, though infiltrated by a mole, must continue to publish. But Carlo soon finds himself pressed into espionage, acquiescing finally, with the cynical observation that "spies and journalists were fated to go through life together . . . their jobs weren't all that different."

The years 1938-1942 have always fascinated Furst because of their ambiguity and existential challenge. It was a time when individual action might have made a difference. By 1942, it would be too late — gray would resolve into either black or white. In 1938, however, much of Europe was still poised on the edge — willfully slow to acknowledge what was happening. As a British secret service agent remarks, after discovering Ferrara locked away in a "concentration camp," the French find that expression "distasteful," preferring to call such a guarded barbed-wire enclosure an "assembly center."

Furst's cool account of French compromise is complemented by his lovingly detailed descriptions of Paris — its streets, food, wine, shops, cafes, parks and buildings, evoked in all their distinctive sensuality. With ease Furst translates his own prose. "`Les poireaux,' the waiter said, sliding a plate of leeks onto the table." But there is plenty of Italian, too. "We are fighting for the freedom of Europe," Ferrara says, "certainly, for liberty, if you like, for justice, perhaps, and surely against all the cassi fasulli who want to run the world their way."

Carlo says he can't write "phony pricks," but he'll do what he can. A line like this, full of old-fashioned virtue, could hardly be penned today, as Furst well knows. But it helps explain, as time goes by, the continued attraction of Casablanca and nostalgia for a time when the world seemed simpler in its moral demarcations and when individual heroes still roamed the earth.

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst. Random House, 273 pp., $24.95.

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