Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst (2000)

Furst’s sixth novel follows the adventures of Nicholas Morath, an aristocratic Hungarian who has secured a French passport and lives in Furst’s favourite city, Paris, where he has a half share in an advertising company, the Agence Courtmain. His uncle, Count Janos Polanyi de Nemeszvar, also lives a very comfortable life in Paris.

In the first few pages we see Nicholas arriving, after a trip abroad, at the apartment of his South American lover, Cara, who has been wondering whether to masturbate in his absence and then asks him which role he’d like to play with her – wicked old uncle, slavemaster, ‘perhaps something from de Sade’.

Not to be outdone, on page seven the Count receives in his office the famous chanteuse Mimi Moux, at her usual hour, who strips to her underwear then kneels before him, undoes his fly and performs oral sex. Later, there is dinner – chicken soup with dumplings and cream, and a bottle of 1924 Echézeaux. Mmmm yummy.

Furst is touted as an author of spy novels, but I find his descriptions of sophisticated sex, often with role-playing and numerous positions, along with the descriptions of delicious-sounding European meals and fine wines, and the many sequences of sauntering around beautiful Paris in the sun or the rain or the snow, all go to make up a unified, sensual and imaginative whole, a sex fantasy Paris which no amount of cloak and dagger incidents in Eastern Europe can really dent.

Tourist Furst outweighs spy Furst. Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that there are several magazine articles devoted to helping tourists find the real-life settings of Furst’s Paris locations.

The Munich Crisis

The novel opens on 10 March 1938 and focuses on the gathering international crisis over the Sudetenland ie the strip of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany and Austria which had a large ethnic German population and was given to Czechoslovakia after the Great War. Once Hitler was in power (1933) he began making speeches calling, among other things, for the Sudetenland to be handed back to Germany. After he annexed Austria in March 1938, Hitler’s calls became more strident and threatening. Since both France and Britain had guaranteed Czechoslovakia’s borders, all Europe held its breath expecting war to break out at any minute.

Half way through the novel come British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s humiliating trips to Germany to meet Chancellor Hitler and try and find a way out of the impasse. On the third trip, to Munich, on 30 September 1938, Chamberlain caves in to all Hitler’s demands, namely the handing over of the entire Sudetenland to Germany, and persuades the French to acquiesce also.

It is against this backdrop that Nicholas carries out various undercover missions to Eastern Europe, which are both tense in themselves and also give the characters opportunities to comment on the international situation, what it means for them and their countries – always a fascinating aspect of Furst’s fiction. In fact, Furst’s ability to imagine himself back into the minds of educated people at the time of these events who have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next and who speculate about the changing scenarios as the situation evolves – will Hitler end up ruling all of Europe? will Britain make a separate peace with him? – is, for me, the most rewarding, the most thought-provoking aspect. of Furst’s novels.

Morath’s missions

  • A trip to Antwerp, ostensibly to see a client for the agency, where he also touches base with a dressmaker who has information about German industrial output.
  • A long elaborate trip to Ruthenia, an area on the borders of Hungary and Romania, to collect a thuggish villain named Pavlo and smuggle him under a false passport over the border into Hungary. After he has shot an innocent taxi driver, had a small shootout with border guards and swum the river to freedom, Morath gets him on the train to Paris where he promptly vanishes leaving the reader no idea why Morath has gone to all this effort.
  • Another long journey to Czechoslovakia and into the Sudetenland, where he is shown the extensive defences the Czechs have built into the mountains to hold up the Germans attack long enough for France and Britain to come to their aid. During this trip he and his guide, Novotny, and a small village of Czechs come under prolonged attack from ethnic German (Volksdeutsch) militia, who burn down the police station and kill various Czechs. Nicholas is only able to escape when the attack withdraws the next day. He is carrying detailed sketches of the mountain defences with a view to publicising them back in the West.
  • On a journey to Hungary to ask his mother to flee the country with him (she refuses) he is also tasked with collecting money from rich donors (what for is never clearly explained) but after picking up a briefcase of cash from Prince Hrubal in a castle, Nicholas is ambushed by the Siguranza, the Romanian secret police, who beat him up and throw him in a cell. After interrogation, he is being moved to another station when there is an armed attack on the railway station where he’s standing with his captors, most of whom are shot dead, as Nicholas is spirited away in a fast car, has his handcuffs cut off and is transported safely back across the border.

During these adventures, we learn a lot of background information about all sorts of aspects of East Europe, from the food, the landscape to, of course, the political issues: about the Croatian fascists – the Ustache – about the chequered attempts of the Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy to bend to the Nazi wind without completely capitulating to them, about the all-pervasive anti-semitism of Eastern Europe.

But no matter how fraught these trips, the reader can have confidence that Nicholas will always return to the warm willing body of Cara or – after her father, Señor Dionello, appears and insists she leave Paris and return to South America with him – of the next pretty girl Nicholas effortlessly seduces.

He kissed her, reached over and undid her bra, she shrugged her shoulders, he tossed it on a chair. Some time later, he hooked a finger in the waistband of her panties and slid them down her legs, slow and easy, until she pointed her feet so he could get them off. (p.44)

In the latter parts of the novel various strands come together in quite puzzling ways. The French authorities start calling Morath in for questioning about the incident in Romania. The Count suspects this is the work of his colleague in the Hungarian Legation, Sombol, and one fine day goes to his office, asks him to stop interfering and then shoots him in the head. Unbelievably, he persuades the French police that this was suicide, but nonetheless disappears shortly afterwards, missing, presumed dead.

Certainly dead enough for Nicholas to inherit his estate and wealth, to the accompaniment of various celebratory parties – a posh one among the Hungarian émigré community in Paris, and a small one for Nicholas and his new squeeze, Mary Day, a senior figure at his advertising agency, who he finds himself seducing/falling in love with, who buys him a special cream cake to celebrate his inheritance and then allows him to lick the cream off her nipples.

Not that Morath doesn’t still have various missions to undertake: one to Antwerp to a family firm of diamond traders, to convert the money he collected in the Hungary sequence form various donors: this will be converted to diamonds and smuggled to America as funds to be saved against the very rainy days which are coming.

Early in the novel Nicholas had been tasked with finding a safe apartment for a senior German officer supposedly to have romantic rendezvous in; about half way through the book the Count told him the officer is somehow linked to the Wehrmacht’s attempts to get rid of Hitler.

As we all know, these didn’t work, which might explain why Morath is called from his warm bed one night to help the landlord dispose of the body of a senior German officer – not the man it was rented for – who has apparently shot himself in the apartment.

In a later vignette, Morath reads that the man he helped smuggle out of Ruthenia in the opening scenes of the book was in fact an assassin and terrorist, involved in numerous outrages – including the assassination of an anti-German journalist in the Luxembourg Gardens – but was later arrested in Romania and found hanged in his cell.

In the final sequence, a well-known Hungarian Jewish émigré, a musician who’s made it big in Hollywood, Kolovitzky, is at one of the parties Morath attends. Next thing Morath hears, Kolovitzky has travelled to Vienna under the impression that he’s inherited several properties there. Big mistake. It’s a scam. He is arrested by the SS who demand a ransom from his family.

Kolovitsky’s family approach Morath to beg his help and so he undertakes a mission with various helpers who we have been introduced through the novel: the Russian barman Boris Balki, the Jewish fixer Rashkow, and the middlemen, Wolfi Szubl, who found the German officer his apartment.

This motley crew are involved in a Mission Impossible-style rescue of Kolovitzky from the hotel in Vienna where he’s being kept under guard (along with other Jewish hostages), which Morath manages by starting a massive fire and panicking the SS guards.

After more episodes involving fake identities and rendezvous with diplomatic cars, Kolovitzky is finally smuggled across the border into Hungary, from where he and Morath catch a train back to Paris and then – at last – Morath can get back into bed and snuggle up next to Mary Day’s lovely bottom.

Paris

Paris is a major character in the novel, in fact in most of Furst’s novels – arguably far more real and present than most of the second-string human characters.

The rain slackened, that afternoon, Paris a little triste in its afternoon drizzle but accustomed to weather in the spring season and looking forward to the adventures of the evening. (p.7)

They walked in the Palais Royal gardens after lunch. A dark afternoon, perpetual dusk, Polanyi and Morath like two ghosts in overcoats, moving slowly past the grey branches of the winter parterre. (p.14)

Morath had been eighteen years in Paris and the émigré life, with its appetising privacy, and immersion in the city, all passion, pleasure and bad philosophy, had changed the way he looked. It meant that women liked him more… (p.19)

Paris that September was tense and brooding, on the edge of war, darker than Morath had ever known it. The retour, the return to daily life after the August vacation, was usually a sweet moment in Parisian life, but not that autumn. (p.139)

Morath had always liked the Novembers of Paris. It rained, but the bistros were warm, the Seine dark, the lamps gold, the season’s love affairs still new. (p.176)

‘Monsieur Morath – Nicholas, if you don’t mind – this is Paris. If you want to fuck a camel, all it takes is a small bribe to the zookeeper. Whatever you want to do, any hole you can think of and some you can’t, it’s up in Pigalle, out in Clichy. For money, anything.’ (p.75)

This fetishising of a city, this making it into the theatre of all your darker fantasies, into a bottomless pit of depravity and corruption, reminds me of the way Len Deighton writes about Berlin in his nine Bernard Samson novels.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast the way the two writers make use of a major city – as a location and backdrop, as a place to be physically criss-crossed in the course of the hero’s adventures, and so as a kind of grid or matrix for the narrative to be woven onto, as well as a psychological fantasy world where all our – the readers’ – naughtiest thoughts can be acted out and vicariously satisfied.

For me, living in boring, workaday London, Furst’s Paris and Deighton’s Berlin sound amazing – the settings of non-stop parties, orgies, cabarets and endless intrigue and adventure. It would be interesting to know what people who actually live in those cities make of their fictional portraits. I wonder if any German critics ever reviewed Deighton’s Berlin novels, or what French critics make of Furst’s Paris.


Credit

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst was published in 2000 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Red Gold by Alan Furst (1999)

The fifth of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series of historical espionage novels, and sequel to The World At Night, Red Gold picks up the career of French movie producer Jean Casson, and follows his further adventures in occupied Paris from 18 September 1941 until 5 April 1942. Once again the book is divided into ten or so ‘chapters’, each sub-divided into short sections headed by a datestamp – so there is a strong sense of the passage of time and the specificity of time.

Jean Marin

The 42-year-old is now hiding out in a poor neighbourhood under a false name – Jean Marin – and down to his last few francs, when he gets chatting to a crook in a low dive. He is recruited into joining a gang which is pulling ‘a job’ in a railway yard, where the gang break in, cosh a guard, and steal sacks of sugar. Flush with his share of the take, Casson goes to a low-life club, picks up a whore and is staggering towards a hotel when he is badly beaten and robbed by some toughs, before stumbling back to his flat.

He has barely awoken from a semi-conscious sleep when there’s a knock at the door and the police arrest him. Oh well. Only a matter of time. He is driven to an out-of-the-way police station where, to his surprise, the arresting officer offers him a job with the Resistance. He is driven to another office where he meets the French officer, Degrave, under whom he served, briefly, as an Army film director up at Sedan, during the German invasion of June 1940. In the same haphazard way as in the previous book, he finds himself being recruited into the Underground and tasked with contacting the communists, who have their own separate clandestine organisation.

In this book we are introduced to rather more characters, with independent storylines. Weiss is a communist agent. He instructs Renan, an old working class activist, to steal machine guns from the Schneider factory. Renan knows it is doomed, makes the attempt, is shot dead after the Germans are tipped off. Similarly, Weiss gets some old pistols and a hand grenade to a group of four students who make an amateurish assault on a German bullion lorry in the village of Aubervilliers, managing to get killed in the process.

In a later episode a young amateur patriot, Slevin, tries to assassinate a Luftwaffe pilot on a flight of stairs down to a Métro station but fails miserably. None of these incidents directly affect Casson. They are there, presumably, to create an atmosphere, to indicate the growing number of attacks made on Germans as the occupation enters its second year.

Casson contacts Kovar, a screenwriter and novelist he met before the war, very left-wing. An interesting character, Kovar marched with the communists but is more of an anarchist. He fills Casson in on the situation in Russia ie the Germans are at the gates of Moscow. Kovar agrees to see if he can put Casson in touch with the FTP, the communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans. Sure enough, a few days later Casson is taken blindfolded to a safe house and interrogated by a 50-something woman, Lila Brasova, political commissar. Apparently satisfied, she says he and his people must put their money where their mouth is -ie give the FTP guns.

Later we see Brasova meeting with an NKVD officer named Juron, Weiss, who has been commissioning these ill-fated resistance efforts, and a senior NKVD executive, Colonel Vassily Antipov. (Those with good memories will remember Antipov as the mystery man who arrived in a Bulgarian village and recruited Khristo Stoianev right at the start of the first novel in the series, Night Soldiers.) They have a power conversation in which they try to assess whether Casson’s approach to them is genuine or a trap: Antipin tells Weiss the Centre (Moscow) thinks it’s a scam and wants Kovar and Casson liquidated. Give me a month to see if it’s a genuine approach, asks Weiss. OK.

In the event, at further meetings of this group, a deal is done whereby Casson gets to live but Kovar will be ‘sacrificed’. In a later scene we see Casson and Kovar meet one last time and the latter tell Casson he’s going to be making an exit. Towards the end of the novel Kovar evades an attempt by two FTP assassins to kill him, probably on a tip-off from the sympathetic Weiss.

Two strands dominate the second half of the novel:

Hélène

In The World At Night Casson had been desperately in love with the movie actress Citrine. In fact, he jumped off the boat taking him to freedom in England in order to swim back to France and try to be reunited with her. This novel starts a few months later when Casson has been unable to contact Citrine who was located at a hotel in the non-Occupied Zone. Half way through this book, Casson reads that Citrine has married a fellow movie director that he knows. Tant pis.

Luckily it doesn’t matter so much because Casson acquires a new ‘squeeze’, Hélène, the Jewish friend of Degrave’s mistress. She is being bullied by her superior at work, Victorine, who knows she is Jewish and progresses from bullying to extorting money from her. Throughout the novel there is a growing sense of concern about Hélène’s plight, as Casson and other characters read reports in the newspapers about Jews being rounded up, disappearing, and so on. He tries several avenues before speaking to a man, de la Barre, who arranges Hélène’s passage to the Non-Occupied Zone and onto a boat, the San Lorenzo, bound for freedom.

Smuggling guns

At the centre of the novel is a long mission undertaken by Casson and Degrave to collect guns from a tramp steamer arriving at Marseilles. This is told in meticulous detail, starting with a trip to Amsterdam (!) to see a lawyer who takes Casson on to visit a convict with a long political history, currently in gaol, one Visari. It is this venerable crook who, at their request, arranges the transport of French army machine guns from the Middle East to Marseilles.

Then Degrave and Casson drive a lorry down into the Non-Occupied Zone, on false papers. There’s a delay at the port where corrupt officials ask for more money. Finally, the crates of guns are loaded and surrounded by innocuous-looking sardine crates for cover. There follows a long, minutely described journey in a beaten-up old truck north through France. The map of the journey carries great conviction, as do the sights and sounds of central France in winter (it is December).

Unfortunately, they are pulled over by a carload of cocky young milice, ie right wing militia and there is a firefight in which the three youngsters are killed – Casson executing their wounded leader, before running their car over a cliff – but Degrave is mortally wounded and dies later in the cab. Casson takes his body to the priest’s house in a little village, who agrees to bury him, then on to the rendezvous at the Quai Gambetta in Chalon. Here he meets sympathisers who load the crates of machine guns onto a barge, burying them deep in gravel. Gravel which the contact, Henri, points out, is being taken north to Normandy. A lot of building going on along the coast, defences against an invasion.

Luna Park

With Hélène safely despatched on her trip to freedom, and the big gun-running job concluded, Casson is at a loose end and beginning to suffer, once again, from lack of funds. He moves into the cheapest possible hotel, counting the francs, before getting a job at the amusement park, Luna Park. All this time he has been using the identity Jean Marin, and lives in fear that he’ll be arrested and identified as the same man who broke out of Gestapo custody in the first novel.

Casson reads a newspaper and is horrified to see that the ship Hélène was due to leave France on, the San Lorenzo, was blown up in the harbour – probably Resistance sabotage. He is distraught at the thought that he might have been involved in bringing in the munitions which killed her, until he gets a message that Hélène is alive, a little shaken, but basically alright, and heading back to Paris.

In the final scenes Casson is beginning to go hungry and can’t resist getting back in touch with his ex-wife, Marie-Claire, in her luxury apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Here she not only gives him a bath and new set of clothes and jewellery to pawn but also has sex with him. Several times.

Marie-Claire had crept into the bed, then her bare bottom began looking for him. (p.238)

This is the turning point in the plotlines because Marie-Claire, with her impeccable connections among Paris’s élite, knows a senior figure in de Gaulle’s network. To Casson’s horror it is a short, fat, smug man he met a few times and took an instant dislike to, Gueze. Nonetheless, he agrees to meet him at the Bar Heininger (Furst fans know that the Bar Heininger features in every one of his novels, like a running gag). Gueze

  • gives some interesting analysis of the political situation among all the competing resistance groups, some right-wing, some communist, some backed by Army officers, some controlled by de Gaulle from London
  • arranges for a lecherous German records clerk, Otto Albers, to be blackmailed into ‘losing’ Casson’s records at the local Gestapo
  • knows the owner of the high class travel agency where Hélène works, and has a word, suggesting it would be lovely ‘favour’ if she could be despatched to the Lisbon bureau

Happy ending?

In the last ten or so pages there is a rather rushed sequence of events as Casson works with Weiss and a number of other agents in attempts to blow up barges carrying gasoline across France to the Mediterranean ports, where it will be shipped to North Africa to fuel Rommel’s war effort. Casson escapes arrest by a few minutes and two of Weiss’s operatives blow up a dam.

Back in Paris he gets two postcards, one apparently from Kovars indicating he made safely it to Mexico; one from Hélène safely ensconced in Lisbon. With these loose ends neatly tied up, Casson can settle to whatever undercover work his various managers, Weiss, Gueze or others, require. The novel ends on a cliffhanger as he hears footsteps approaching his room in a cheap hotel, and then a knock at the door.

Goodies? Baddies? We are not told.


Comment

Emotionless

Furst’s prose style is pared back, clipped, often skipping verbs to convey urgency. The characters register almost no emotion except fear. This makes for quick, exciting and often very evocative reading.

The Seine, south of Paris. A hard, bright dawn, the sun on frost-whitened trees. Factories and docks and sheds, half-sunk rowing boats, workers’ garden plots – stakes pulled over by bare vines. The Michelin factory, one end of it charred, windows broken out, old glass and burnt boards piled in a yard. Bombed, and bombed again. (p.194)

However, it can sometimes appear rather superficial – in the literal sense that you feel like you are fleeting over the surface of events. As with so many thrillers, any emotions the characters are experiencing are left so much to your imagination that, after a while, you get used to the characters actually having no emotions at all, and settle into reading the narrative as a simple succession of one damn thing after another, with no pauses or analysis.

For example, if I was Casson I think I’d be upset at some level by watching my colleague Degrave bleed to death, but Casson doesn’t break down at any point, he continues driving the lorry on to the rendezvous and then accompanies the barge to Paris and then resumes his ‘normal’ life, going straight into ‘meeting with lover’ mode. At some level this is not good for the reader who, I think, would welcome some occasional concession to human feeling.

In-depth knowledge of France and Paris

That said, there is no denying the depth of Furst’s knowledge of the French, of the customs and dishes of the parts of France his characters travel through and, above all, of Paris. At various moment his prose seems to echo the limpid simplicity of much mid-century prose, like Albert Camus’s.

Historical background

Similarly, this novel like its predecessors, is rich in historical background. The characters routinely read newspapers, listen to BBC broadcasts, or discuss the latest rumours, so that the reader is fully informed of the various developments of the Second World War, mainly the ongoing German attack on Russia which is the backdrop to the novel. In addition, at various points characters have conversations which bring out the attitudes and responses of the different political parties, the different elements of the Resistance and even of characters themselves to each new development.

It was particularly interesting to see how the characters reacted to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour ie some are distraught that the Americans are ‘defeated’; others delighted that previously isolationist America has now been forced into the war, which will cut it significantly shorter.

Sex as anti-suspense

But for some reason the novel never really gripped me. There are tense moments, and plenty of well-written scenes. Furst’s first two novels gripped you by the throat with their all-pervasive air of treachery and paranoia; they terrified me.

By contrast, a lot of the imaginative power of these latter novels is carried by the succession of sex scenes – by Furst’s sensual descriptions of one woman after another standing in her slip, undoing her skirt, pulling off her jumper, undoing her bra and generally stripping off for Casson’s (and the reader’s) delectation, in hotels and apartments across Paris. Sure, barges get blown up and a few people get shot (not that many, actually, for wartime) but the reader can be confident that within a few pages Casson will be feeling another old flame or current lover or temporary mistress stroking his thigh or pressing her bottom into his loins etc.

think the juxtaposition of tender, sensuous love-making with nerve-wracking secret meetings or sudden violent action, is meant to intensify both, make you feel this is life really on the edge. But, for me, the certainty that another lissom 20-year-old with a willing bottom will be along in just a few pages undermined all the action scenes.

The soft porn quality of Casson’s seemingly endless progress through a succession of willing women gave the whole book a rather unreal sense of fantasy, and this, for me, spilled over into the undercover, espionage and action sequences, making them also feel like harmless fantasy. Furst’s first two novels felt genuinely tense because you felt the characters could die at any moment; you and they are entirely focused on the fraught political environment they were operating in.

By contrast, the way Casson escapes the Gestapo, survives the milice shootout, is selected for survival by the NKVD, is released by friendly police officers (twice), and gets out of a meeting room just a few minutes before the Germans arrive, is of a piece with the unspoken confidence that he’ll open his hotel door and find yet another gorgeous woman waiting in his bed, wearing nothing but a smile. All this sex is a relaxant, nice and soft and easy-going but, for me, ruining any sense of fear and tension.

Métro as character

A great deal of effort goes into describing the characters’ journeys across Paris, generally by Métro. The Métro map, the arrangement of lines and their junctions, is described more fully, and more repeatedly, than many of the actual characters.


Credit

Red Gold by Alan Furst was published in 1999 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 1999 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The World at Night by Alan Furst (1996)

In a dark corner, the piano player was hard at work: ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Time On My Hands’. Cocktail hour in Paris – heavy drapes drawn over the windows so the world outside didn’t exist. The bar filled up, the hum of conversation getting louder as the drinks arrived. The expensive whore at the next table was joined by a well-dressed man, Casson had seen him around Passy for years, who wore the gold seal ring that meant nobility. He was just out of the barber’s chair, Casson could smell the talcum powder. The woman was stunning in a grey Chanel suit. (p.115)

This is the fourth of Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels. It’s shorter than the others, at 303 pages in the paperback edition, and divided into more sections than previously, making them feel a bit more like conventional chapters.

The World At Night covers the period from the day the Germans invaded France – 10 May 1940 – until 25 June 1941. It closely follows the experiences of one man, French film producer Jean Casson as he finds himself abruptly called up to fight, then acquiescing in the German victory over France and then very slowly drawn into the underground Resistance to the German occupation.

The 16th Arrondissement

Jean’s day starts in the bed he shares with a lissom Italian girl, progressing through a day in the office, calls from America, a set designer borrowing money to flee the Germans, an apéritif in a cafe with his Jewish screenwriter Fischfang, then a classy dinner in the evening, at which a childhood friend, Bibi, makes it clear she wants to come back to his apartment and have 69-style sex. The extreme opposite of the inarticulate peasant opening in rural Bulgaria of Night Soldiers or the claustrophobic Stalin-purge atmosphere of Dark Star.

A Country At War

Casson is called up, appointed corporal in a propaganda film unit accompanying an armoured division, shuffles forward with them to Sedan where he watches the start of the Wehrmacht assault across the river, with Frenchmen abandoning their posts, in small groups and then droves. His truck and film equipment is destroyed by a Stuka so he’s decommissioned and makes his way back to Paris.

The Jade Pagoda

20 August 1940. The novel is strongly diarised, most sections starting with a precise date. He is back in a Paris abandoned by its population, has to surrender his nice sports car, is running out of money and wondering what to do. Fortunately he has lots of sex. In a café he is propositioned by a whore (always ‘whores’ in these novels, the very word ‘whore’ makes you feel grown up, like a man of the world). Then buys beans off a young woman in the market who comes back to his place to show him how to cook them and then, oops, her dress falls off and they are having sex. Although of rough peasant stock, she wants to learn ‘all those fancy tricks’ and is a quick learner. Lucky Jean. Later there is a woman who walks into a café and crosses her legs in a certain way, so she ends up in his bed as they cuddle through the freezing nights. His eyes meet those of a woman on the street, a 16 year-old, and another woman in a cafe. Maybe Paris is like this, middle-aged men can have sex with an unending stream of strangers. Or maybe it really was like this in 1940. Or maybe it is just the kind of novel in which a male hero beds a succession of nubile young women, with no complications or questions asked.

A German producer phones him, takes him for a gourmand meal in the country and asks him to work with the German production company on some ‘safe’ subjects. Well, you have to live. He signs up.

Hotel Dorado

Casson visits his ever-reliable scritpwriter, Fischfang, tucked away in a crowded garret, and notices he’s got a gun at hand. He’s been betrayed to the authorities for not registering as a Jew. Casson goes to the same nightclub where naked young women run around in zebra masks, whinnying and shaking their bottoms at customers (now Germans) which featured in The Polish Officer. He’s there to contact the actress and chanteuse Citrine who he wants for the new movie project he’s planning as a co-production with his German colleague. They trudge through the freezing streets and huddle in their freezing apartment. They don’t have sex, although Casson desperately wants to. Not to mind. He’s still sleeping with Albertine the enthusiastic farmer’s daughter.

He’s telephoned by an Englishman he knew before the war, Templeton, who tells him to see Erno Simic the Hungarian moneyman. At a Paris nightclub, surrounded by glittering whores and eating Parisian treats, Simic very forthrightly asks him if he wants to work for British Intelligence. Reluctantly Casson agrees. A day later he receives a message to go to a certain place and pick up a bag which turns out to be full of Spanish pesetas. It is part of a far-fetched plot to overthrow General Franco and replace him with a Spanish monarch who will be sympathetic to the British, in particular securing the safety of Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean. Casson is irritated because he was in the middle of stripping off a nice little blonde number in his bedroom, but luckily she is waiting for him when he gets back to his place, having conveniently removed her skirt and panties.

Later Casson is in bed with Citrine (his main lover, it gets a little hard to keep track) when they hear something and go to the pipes in the kitchen. Via them they can hear the extremely aloof baroness in the apartment below being caned by her Wehrmacht lover, making an impressive squeal after every stroke. Aha. That explains why the heating is back on. Allow the Wehrmacht to cane you; your apartment block gets coal!

By this stage, half way through the novel, the reader has got the message that Casson is a typical (?) Parisian man, drenched in sex and sensuality, with several mistresses on the go, knowledgeable about food and wine and champagne and liqueurs, who very slowly gets pulled into the underworld of espionage where he is completely out of his depth.

A Citizen of the Evening

His instructions are to take the money to Spain. He nervously gets an exit permit from the German authorities in Paris, then catches a train to Madrid. In the ninth sentence in this section he remembers making love to Citrine on a train. Basically, there is  sex, or thinking about sex, or remembering sex, or speculating about sex, or eyeing up women who might be available for sex, on almost every page of this novel.

On the train south he meets a gorgeous red-head, Marie-Noëlle. The novel well conveys the sense of anxiety as Casson along with all the other passengers has to disembark as the train crosses into the Non-Occupied Zone, then later crosses the border into France, then finally steams into Barcelona. There is some farce as he discovers the baggage he cleverly sent under a separate name on the same train has not been unloaded and so he has to chase the train in a taxi back north to its first stop, where it has been unloaded. It contains the 300,000 incriminating pesetas. At his hotel he is contacted and told to go to a cafe; at the cafe is a note telling him to go to a quay in the docks. Here he is guided to an unlit, rusting yacht and finally hands over the briefcase of money to Carabel. Who says it will be passed to a General Arado. He walks away from the yacht a happy and relieved man, having fulfilled his mission.

Back in the hotel he is drifting off to sleep imagining what it would be like to make love to the red-head, imagining precisely what shape her mouth wold make as he entered her, when the phone rings and it is Simic in the lobby, suggesting a meeting. What? He quickly brushes up and goes to the bar but no Simic, then he’s surprised by the appearance of the red-head, Marie-Noëlle. With no further ado she tells him she works for British Intelligence, that Simic is a con-man, that he and Carabel have conned the British out of this money and disappeared and she wants to know whether Casson was in on the scam. Is he a crook? Of course not, he says. Well, that’s what he’d say anyway. Go back to Paris, Mr Casson, and keep your nose out of matters you don’t understand.

New Friends

Casson goes to see a colleague directing a pirate movie. He writes to Citrine at her hotel in Lyons but the letter is returned and then her hotelier comes all the way to Paris to say she accidentally came across Citrine in the bath, weeping, with a razor blade by her side. He must see her! Meanwhile, his one-time secretary Gabriella turns up back from Italy and, well, they have to go to bed together.

The Night Visitor

A boy André smuggles him across a small river which forms the boundary between German-occupied and Vichy France. From there he makes his way to the hotel in Lyons – but instead of a suicidal Citrine, he finds her leading the revels at a drunken wedding. Later that night, both completely plastered, they go to bed and make love. Then wake up in the morning and make love again, followed by five paradise days of walking during the day, then drinking and making love every night. Eventually she sees him off at the train station.

Back in Paris various people have been looking for him including the German co-producer, Altmann. He invites Casson to a meal at the Bar Heininger (which has now featured in all four of these novels). Casson goes out to Montrouge to the factory of his friend Langlade, which he thought was an eccentric little thing making lightbulbs but turns out to be a big industrial complex producing a wide range of precision goods for the Germans. For the German war-machine. Urbane and smiling, he stops smiling when Casson tells him he told Citrine to send postcards to Langlade’s office address as a formal method of communication. He suspects his own mail is intercepted. Postcards can have brief meaningless messages, it’s not the message, it’s the mere fact that they’ve been sent… Anyway, Langlade asks him not to compromise him with the authorities…

Dinner at the Bar Heininger quickly turns into a tete-a-tete with a certain Franz Millau, who works for the Sicherheitsdienst, the SD. He quickly reveals that they know about Casson’s trip to Madrid, in fact they eavesdropped on his conversation with Marie-Noëlle, who they have arrested. The blood drains from Casson’s face. I think this is the aim of the novel: to take a fairly interesting, educated Frenchman – l’homme moyen sensual – to describe his job eg his working on the script for the next movie, the office chores, sorting out bills, socialising with his friends, sleeping with several different women… and then draw him slowly into the Underground, into doing small favours to people who ask or pressurise him, fondly imagining his old life can continue, and then – BOOM! Theses eruptions of pure fear as the little favours and trips he’s done suddenly expose him to arrest or worse by the authorities.

Millau asks Casson a) did Marie-Noëlle recruit him? No, Casson insists, nervously. b) Will Casson work for Millau; the resistance are planning bomb outrages – it is Casson’s patriotic duty to prevent them. Well, what can he say?

The Secret Agent

After two hundred pages of wine and women, the novel suddenly picks up pace on the espionage front – Millau continues Casson’s recruitment, taking him to a villa outside Paris where he hands him the identity papers of one George Bourdon, who is to play a part in a Resistance mission. Back in Paris Casson phones Véronique, the woman who had put him in touch with the people who helped smuggle him across the border into the Non-Occupied Zone. She arranges a meeting with a third party in a church, one Mathieu, an Englishman who speaks perfect French and is himself nervous. Casson briefs him about his situation. Mathieu says he’ll ask London and get back to him. Later, the message comes: ‘Go along with their plan.’

So Casson finds himself ordered to take a train to the countryside north of Paris where he poses as Georges Bourdon to a bunch of farm lads who take him to a field. There they light flares and a small British plane lands, unloads crates with guns and money and a slightly injured intelligence officer. Casson and one of the men and the injured Brit and the bags of guns, explosive and money, load into a car and drive the backstreets back to Paris, with one very tense moment when the car is stopped by a joint German-French patrol which lets them through.

He sees the Reistance man and injured Brit to a safe house, then gets a call from the German Millau and has to go see him. Here he is debriefed, and tells the Germans a completely accurate account of the men he met and the plane landing and dropping the bags etc, but gives the men codenames instead of their real names and then, when he gets to the Paris bit, makes up the address where he claims they are hiding. Good, Millau smiles: now they would like him to go to the SD offices in Strasbourg to make his report. Strasbourg? Why? Casson is now playing a very dangerous game.

The Escape

Casson reports to Mathieu, especially about the pending trip to Strasbourg. Back at his apartment he gets a distraught phone call from his friends. Langlade, one of their close circle and the man he went to visit at his big factory in Montrouge, is dead. Under cover of an RAF air raid, a huge explosion blew up the factory, killing Langlade among others. Casson goes to the wake/funeral party with a heavy heart. He knows his friend was killed with the explosives he smuggled into Paris.

He puts in a blank day at the office, feeling empty and returns to his apartment at nightfall, convinced the walls are closing in, convinced he has only days to live. Imagine his amazement when he opens to door to find Citrine there, waiting. they fall into each other’s arms, a dam of frustration and anxiety exploding in their caresses. Against the silhouette of the night sky she starts to do a strip-tease for him, slipping off her skirt, it is going to be another one of those evenings…

Except it isn’t. The phone rings and Mathieu at the other end garbles a frantic warning before the line is cut off. Galvanised, Casson and Citrine grab what they can and hurtle out the flat, down the stairs. Out the window in the hall he can see the German cars pulling up so he makes a split-second decision and bangs on the door of the aloof baroness downstairs. She draws herself up to her full height and of course agrees to hide Citrine. Casson could have gone with her but then they’d have searched the building from top to bottom. So he doesn’t; this way she will be safe.

Casson rushes out the front door and nearly makes it but they chase, catch and beat him up. They take him to Gestapo headquarters at the Rue des Saussaies. These last fifteen pages of the novel pass ins a blur of activity as Casson is hauled out of the cell where he’d been dumped, to be interrogated by Obersturmbannführer Guske, the rather kindly German official who had issued Casson his pass to go to Spain in what seems like another life and now, very angry, slaps him brutally round the face.

Casson asks to use the toilet and to his and our surprise Guske says yes and the guard who takes him waits politely outside. This gives Casson time to see there is a window in the toilet, which he quickly prises open and climbs out onto the guttering. It is a stormy rainy night and the guard, Singer sticks his head out, and then, madly, follows Casson out onto the guttering, leaning against the sloping tiled roof, his feet only supported by the guttering. Casson has found a hand grip at head height, clings on then pounds the guttering with all his strength and the German falls six floors to his death in the courtyard. Whistles blow, lights go on, guards run about down there, as Casson edges his way round to where a kind of parapet begins, gets onto it and runs the width of the building and round the other side where he sees someone behind a window and knocks. It is a French caretaker who takes him in to a part of the building not used by the Germans and hurries him down to the basement. Other colleagues cleverly leave windows and the front door open as if Casson has escaped that way.

Very quickly the novel hurtles to its conclusion. The people at the institute hide him, then when the German search has calmed down, equip him with new clothes and money. Casson crosses Paris to the café he knows Véronique frequents and, after she’s got over the shock of his sudden appearance and then of his story, she tells him to go to a certain house, ask for a certain person etc. In this way he is gathered into an escape route, given false papers and hidden until taken to a houseboat which trundles north along canals, until picked up by a truck and taken to the port of Honfleur, and then in a secret compartment, along with several other stowaways out to sea, where they will rendezvous with a British fishing boat.

When the boat has passed through the last of the German checks and is well under way, the fishermen allow the stowaways up on deck. Casson stares at the French coastline and reviews his life and his likely life in England, a land of strangers. All that matters to him, all that gives his life any meaning is his love for Citrine. Did the baroness protect her? Did she escape from the Gestapo? Where is she now?

Without any doubts, he jumps overboard and starts swimming back towards the French shore. Madness!

Commentary

The three previous novels have started in East Europe, featured East European heroes (Bulgarian, Polish-Russian, Polish) and a large and diverse cast of characters and, although all three of them gravitated towards Paris as one setting for their characters’ travels, a city Furst lived in for some time and obviously knows very well, there were countless other settings particularly in Eastern Europe, which gave them their special atmosphere.

This novel represents a kind of retreat from the East European settings and background which made the first three novels feel so new and exciting. It is an American writing about Paris, as have thousands of Americans. And a film producer hero, like the umpteen novels and films about film producers, directors or stars, whose life is a round of classy dinner parties and leisurely lunches in smart restaurants. Who starts the novel in bed with a leggy young Italian woman, lovely long hair, soap suds on her firm young breasts, just like Emanuele or Bilitis. This character, this setting, this milieu – not so new or exciting…


Credit

The World at Night by Alan Furst was published in 1996 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo.
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

In the Age of Giorgione @ the Royal Academy

At the very start of the 16th century Giovanni Bellini was still the leading artist in rich, imperial Venice. But a younger generation was emerging in his wake, including Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, and another newcomer, later referred to as ‘Giorgione’.

Little is known about Giorgione and there is little agreement on which works can be firmly attributed to him. According to the National Gallery website, he came from Castelfranco in the Veneto, and is referred to as ‘maistro Zorzi da Castelfranco’ in an inscription dated to 1506, Zorzi being Venetian dialect for Giorgi. Giorgione means ‘Big George’.

Giorgione in his time

This exhibition brings together 39 oil paintings, 6 drawings and one carved relief to set Giriogione in the context of the Venice of the day, among his eminent peers, Bellini and Titian, as well as other contemporaries such as Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto and the largely neglected Giovanni Cariani, with mention of notable visitors to the city at around this time, namely Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci (there are several portraits and drawings by Dürer, to show his influence, nothing actually by Leonardo).

Attribution

Giorgione was only active from around 1500 to 1510 when he died, probably in his 30s, probably from the plague. During that time he developed a style notable for its intimacy, sensuality and mystery. But study of Giorgione is plagued by problems of attribution. Numerous paintings here have had contested attributions: Is it Titian? Bellini? Big George? Listening to the audio commentary became quite confusing after a while because so many of the paintings have been attributed first to one, then to the other.

You think you’ve got the hang of Giorgione’s style from the second work in the exhibition, and maybe the best, the Terris portrait.

This is one of the few really brilliant works in an otherwise disappointing show and well worth the admission just to see it in the flesh. The use of shadow on the right side of the face, by the nose, the stubble, the darkness of the chin and jowls, create a tremendous sense of personality and depth. The commentary says the work appears to use or have been influenced by Leonardo’s technique of sfumato, or smokiness.

But having established this as Giorgione’s signature style, surprisingly few of the subsequent works attributed to him show this degree of subtlety and mastery.

Compare and contrast with the Giustiniani Portrait, below. The gaze is striking as is the pose with the hand on the lintel in the foreground, but it is not a complete masterpiece like the Terris portrait, it lacks the amazing modelling of the features, the softness and depth. And there’s something childish, almost naive, about the overall image, unlike the tremendous maturity of the Terris portrait.

Portrait of a Young Man ('Giustiniani Portrait') by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

Portrait of a Young Man (‘Giustiniani Portrait’) by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

The exhibition is divided into sections: Portraits; Landscape; Devotional works; Allegorical portraits. The room on landscapes includes a lot of bad paintings by contemporaries, and some so-so drawings by Domenico Campagnola and Titian. Look at the musician’s face and his post-Michelangelo weightlifter’s legs in this Arcadian idyll, attributed to Titian.

Titian, Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape by Titian. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Maybe Giorgione’s most famous painting is The Tempest, a puzzling and haunting work, the hazily realistic depiction of an unexplained and strangely symbolic scene, pregnant with meaning. Who is the woman suckling the baby? Who is the man watching (or guarding) them? What city lies (half ruined?) in the background? Why is it set during a storm?

This work isn’t in the exhibition. The nearest thing is the large and nearly as strange work, The Sunset.

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Only in the flesh can you appreciate its strange details: a tiny big-beaked bird in the centre right at the bottom, a strange beast emerging from a cave in the bottom right, another weird creature lying on the surface of the pond at the bottom right. The commentary complicates matters by saying the painting was only discovered in the 1930s in a badly degraded condition and was sent off to Rome to be restored. When it reappeared much improved it did so with the completely new figures of St George on horseback lancing the dragon in the centre right! Why? Did the restorer think it needed improving? Did the dealer who went on to sell it think it would sell better if it had a bit of narrative excitement?

And to the amateur eye, although the subject matter is obscure, the overall visual feel of this painting is very different from the Tempest, in at least two striking ways: in The Tempest the focus is very much on the human figures, especially the suckling woman looking at us; here the human figures are an afterthought in what is basically a strange landscape; and the Tempest is green, very green, green grass, green trees, even the river is green; this whole painting is a muddy brown.

This is just one of the most striking examples of the problems of attribution and authenticity which afflict Giorgione’s works.

Devotional works

The biggest room focuses on devotional and religious works by Giorgione and his peers. All of these struck me as ugly and clumsy. At one end is the big work, Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter which is attributed to Titian.

Close up, I didn’t like it at all: the clumsiness of the composition eg the dais St Peter is sitting on is wonky, the way it cuts into the floor tiles is not convincing. Worse still is the way the floor ends and the sea just begins, as if about to pour over the floor at any moment: something is badly wrong with the perspective.

Then there’s the subject matter: this painting glorifies the Pope presenting to St Peter, one Jacopo Pesaro, bishop of Paphos who led the Venetian navy to victory over the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Santa Maura on 28 June 1502. I think it’s a hilariously unsuitable subject for an oil painting: a portrait of the victorious admiral would be one thing: the Pope blessing the victorious admiral would work; but the badly drawn Pope presenting the victorious admiral to St Peter, depicted as sitting on a wonky dais decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, seems tackily ill conceived.

The paintings in this room glorify a Roman Catholic Papacy which was already a byword for rapacity and corruption. Only ten years or so after this painting was made, Martin Luther would rebel against the systematic theological and financial corruption of the Italian church, leading to the wholesale rejection of its organisation, theology and practice by the north of Europe – the Reformation; an upheaval which would then lead to the shambolic attempts to reform the Catholic church known as the Counter-Reformation.

Thus the religious paintings of Giorgione and his peers celebrate the Catholic church at the most corrupt period of its long history. Maybe we could overlook this fact if the paintings were of a ravishing and transcendent perfection. But they aren’t. Here’s Bellini (1430-1516) at his best – Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor. Not a very appealing painting, I think; the faces of the Madonna and baby Jesus are, in my opinion, actively unpleasant to look at, like looking at photos of deformed people. The commentary points out that the donor’s hand isn’t quite touching the baby Jesus’s feet, but is everso slightly overlapping them, as if this is clever, or as if it it redeems the unattractiveness of the painting. I know it was traditional in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond for rich people to pay for themselves to be included in paintings of the Madonna, of the Crucifixion and other key moments in Jesus life (less so the Sermon on the Mount or when Jesus attacked the moneylenders in the Temple) but to the liberal mind it always looks phenomenally crude, arrogant and blasphemous.

It is included in the exhibition to demonstrate Bellini’s clarity and crispness of image, the sharp outlines of the figures against the bright blue background, the detailing of the stone plinth behind the Madonna, a clarity which Giorgione and Titian were replacing with their more shady, smoky visions.

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

The Bellini and Titian are hung alongside 10 or so other religious paintings, but directly contrasted with the big painting at the other end of the room, Christ and the Adulteress, which is also attributed to Titian.

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

There is something appealing about the frank posture of the man with the red pantaloons but I am not much moved by the fainting adulteress, let alone the head of the old man in the middle or the dead-looking person at the far left. The audio commentary tells us that for a long time this painting wasn’t attributed to Titian, and even an amateur can see why, because it does seem completely different from the crisp sharp outlines of The Presentation of Jacopo Pesaro. (I was gratified to see the mismatch between these two paintings highlighted in the London Review of Books review of the show by Charles Hope, link below.)

It’s yet another contested attribution which undermines your confidence in a lot of the works here. As if that weren’t enough, the commentary then continues with the stunning revelation that we’re not even sure the painting is depicting the scene of Christ and the adulteress; just possibly it’s depicting the Old Testament scene of Daniel judging Susannah. We’re not sure who painted this painting and we’re not even sure what it depicts!

Mystery, intimacy and sensuality

Nonetheless, through the slightly confusing fog of problematic attribution and doubtful naming, I had just about got the general message that Giorgione’s works are notable for their use of shade and shadow to create a special closeness, a sense of ‘mystery, intimacy and sensuality’, when I came to almost the last painting in the show, an unsparing portrait of an old lady (maybe the artist’s mother, maybe not).

Probably, as so often in an exhibition about a specific artist, we are meant to approach the final works with a hushed feeling of sympathy and pathos, as if last works carry a special message from a genius who has plumbed the depths of wisdom to us, his earthly followers (cf the final work in the big National Gallery Goya exhibition which showed the artist and his doctor in a would-be moving scene).

Certainly La Vecchia is an appealingly vivid picture, a poignant depiction of old age – but surely it’s completely at odds with the smoky use of shadow, with the mystery and sensuality which we first saw in the Terris portrait and have been hearing about ever since. The clarity of the wrinkles, the lined flesh, the detailing of the sparse hair, the quality of the even, unshadowed light, these all look like the work of a completely different artist. Another case of mistaken attribution? Time will tell…

Conclusions

I thought hardly any of the paintings on show here were beautiful: none of them took the breath away for their masterful depiction of the human face, or evocation of the sights and smells of landscape, or pleasing composition or ravishing use of colour. Rather, this exhibition is quite a demanding lesson in art history; it sets out to illustrate the birth of a new, more smooth, sensual and mysterious style in the Venice in the early 1500s, but turns out to be as much or more about quite knotty problems of attribution and authentication.

Related links

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (2010)

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people.

In 400 pages of densely packed text, illustrated by numerous maps, backed up by 40 pages of bibliography and 40 pages of notes, American historian Timothy Snyder places the Holocaust within the broader context of the planned and institutionalised mass murder of civilians undertaken by the Soviet and Nazi regimes between 1933 and 1945.

The Ukraine famine He points out that Stalin and the Soviet apparat began killing people in bulk before Hitler even became Chancellor. In fact Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 coincided with, and helped to conceal from public interest, the vast famine Stalin caused in the Ukraine which led to the deaths of over three million people. Hunger was the most consistent tool used by both dictatorships to kill millions, as many as seven million victims.

The Nazi Hunger Plan I don’t think I knew about the Nazis’ Hunger Plan, a deliberate scheme to starve to death all the Russians in the area they invaded in the first winter of the attack on Russia (1941). Hitler intended to destroy Poland and Russia as states, exterminate their ruling classes and intelligentsia and then, in that first winter of conquest, deliberately starve some 30 million Slavs to death. Tens of millions more would have been killed or enslaved in what would have become permanent slave colonies supplying the Fatherland.

Nazi mass murder of Soviet POWs Snyder calls Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of Russia – a ‘fiasco’ for the complete dysjunction between plan and achievement: Russia didn’t collapse, the Red Army fought on with growing confidence, and the Nazis didn’t seize vast stocks of food to feed their army and people. But they could starve to death the Russians under their control and so they did. Russian POWs were corralled into prisoner of war camps which were mostly just barbed wire around empty fields, with no toilets or shelter and no food. Here Russian POWs were crammed, sometimes packed so tight they couldn’t move let alone sit, and then left to die, the living skeletons trampling over the growing mound of corpses. Snyder describes these (as all the other killing methods) in unsparing detail. Over three million Russian POWs are estimated to have died of starvation and exposure, as deliberate German policy.

The scale of the killing, the number of individual tragedies encompassed by these numbers, dwarfs anything else in human history until the great disasters of Mao’s China.

A hecatomb of examples

  • The flower of Belorusia’s literary culture deliberately exterminated: 218 of the country’s leading writers were all executed.
  • Ten thousand Poles of the officer class executed in the Katyn Forest, followed by mass killing of schoolteachers. The Nazi plan was for Polish children to be brought up to understand enough German to obey orders and to count to 20. Nothing more. A slave nation.
  • Over three million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately left to starve once it became clear Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation of farms had backfired and catastrophically reduced, not increased, harvests. Cannibalism became widespread, parents ate their children, children ate their parents, brothers ate sisters. Visitors to the region became used to seeing bloated corpses littering the streets. NKVD and communist officers were given quotas of peasant ‘saboteurs’ and ‘spies’ ie anyone who complained about starving to death – to be captured, interrogated and shot.
  • More broadly, during the great leap forward of the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture over five million starved across the USSR in 1932 and 1933. Starved to death.
  • When the NKVD ran low on bullets thy made prisoners sit side by side so one bullet could be fired through two or more skulls simultaneously, then tipped them into the mass graves.
  • Order 00447 ‘On the operations to repress former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ (dated 30 July 1937) led to the execution of nearly 400,000 Soviet citizens in 18 months in 1937 and 1938.
  • It ran concurrently with order 00485, mandating the ‘total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organisation’, issued 11 August 1937. Quotas were issued to all NKVD offices throughout the USSR to capture, interrogate, despatch to the gulag or just execute a fixed number per week; if you didn’t fulfil your quota you yourself would be arrested. Since there was in fact no Polish Military Organisation, the NKVD had to manufacture networks of spies by arresting anyone with a Polish name, who had Polish relatives, had been to Poland or worked for Poles, then extracting confessions under torture.
  • Evgenia Babushkina wasn’t Polish, she was a promising organic chemist, but her mother had once been washerwoman for Polish diplomats and so she was arrested and shot. One of millions.
  • Sometimes more than a thousand death warrants were signed by NKVD authorities per day, and then rubberstamped en masse by their superiors. It was hard to find secure places to execute so many people, and vast areas of mass graves had to be organised outside major settlements throughout the USSR. Work work work.

I gave up listing even random examples. There are too many, too many statistics on every page. 33,761 people, the entire Jewish population of Kiev, was forced to march to the Jewish graveyard, stripped of their valuable and clothes, forced to lie face down on the still warm corpses beneath them, and machine gunned through the head. Then another line. Then another. Then another. For years. In Europe’s killing fields.

He has a way with days:

  • On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in all the pogroms in the whole history of the Russian empire. (p.227)
  • On any given day in autumn 1941, as many Soviet prisoners of war died as the total British and American POW deaths in the entire war. (p.182)

Comment

This book sheds new light on well-known events because:

  • it brings together into one gruesome continuum Soviet and Nazi killing, usually kept separate
  • it uses newly accessible and translated archives all across Eastern Europe and Russia to give a detailed account of Soviet mass murder, and to put precise numbers to the Nazi killings
  • its focus on the Bloodlands – a broad loop of territory from the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) down through roughly Poland and east through the Ukraine to the Black Sea – unify the story and show how the competing dictatorships learned from each other, shared murder techniques and bureaucratic procedures

It is a transformative book, completely reshaping how you think about these events, placing them in completely new contexts and prompting new thoughts and insights, about the dictators’ aims and strategies and how these changed in the stressed, pressure-cooker atmosphere of the 1930s.

In its thoroughness and its presentation of unstoppable facts and statistics of mass murder, on every page, it drives the reader down and and further down into the deepest pits of hell, till you almost feel like one of the countless thousands, tens of thousands, of children thrown alive into the death pits and buried alive by the bulldozers.

Utopias of blood

But mostly it reinforces the terrible truth that all powerful leaders with utopian visions for transforming societies, always seem to start by having to murder some, then many, and then millions and millions, of their own citizens in order to get to the Promised Land of their dreams – but never do. All they leave behind is mountains of skulls – in Poland, Ukraine, Belarusia, China, Cambodia, Rwanda.

Building a paradise on earth is difficult, given that even building a house is demanding, raising healthy, happy children is well nigh impossible. But burning down houses, villages, entire towns – shooting, gassing and starving unarmed civilians. Easy peasy. The lazy way out.

Snyder’s long concluding chapter engages with various commentators on modernity or the industrial state or theorists of totalitarianism like Hannah Arendt. But maybe it’s just laziness and stupidity: neither Stalin nor Hitler were great thinkers, they were great manipulators of people’s stupid fears and stupid utopian hopes: ‘if only we can get rid of the Jews-kulaks-saboteurs-right deviationists etc, we’ll all be rich, everything will be better, we can sleep safe in our beds.’

Thus they tried to get rid of the bourgeoisie in Mao’s China and the the urban intellectuals in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croats and Bosnians in Greater Serbia, and now they are trying to get rid of the ‘infidel’ in the ‘caliphate’.

Primitive tribal fear of ‘the other’, shaped by dictators into genocidal violence. And when you’ve killed this lot of suspects and things don’t get better, well, it must be because of deeper conspiracies, of darker forces undermining the Volk or the People or whatever gibberish you’ve manipulated your people into worshiping – so that calls for another round of purges, killing and purification.

The hardest thing for humans seems to be accepting the otherness of other people, other beliefs and other traditions, of living and letting live – but the societies which manage to be truly tolerant and multicultural (the Ottoman empire in its heyday, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the British empire, the vast, diverse federation of American States) seem to be precisely the ones which last longest and give its inhabitants the best lives.

Related links

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it: in a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. (p.67)

Alan Furst’s second novel covers similar territory as the first, territory he has subsequently made his own in a series of 14 novels about espionage in 1930s Europe. This one felt even more complicated than its epic predecessor, Night Soldiers, because although it features one protagonist, André Szara, foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, both he and the reader are kept permanently confused by the bewildering hall of mirrors, the complex overlay of conflicting intelligence agencies and missions, in which he finds himself.

1. Silence in Prague

Part one finds Szara sent on journeys to Ostend, Prague and Berlin to write propaganda pieces for Pravda. But his experience is a confusion of secret meetings and instructions; in one set he is despatched to Berlin to meet an industrialist, Baumann and during a formal dinner with Herr and Frau Baumann (and a young Fräulein invited along to make up the numbers) Herr B very subtly makes it clear that, as Jew, he is against the regime. When Szara goes to visit him at his factory the next day, he realises it doesn’t just make steel, it makes high-tensile steel used as control rods in airplanes. Herr B shares with him production figures, which Sazara’s NKVD masters will use to calculate the German war effort.

The shy young woman is Marta Haecht. Szara is attracted to her, offers to walk her home, instead she comes to his hotel room and to his surprise they have championship sex. He is in love, a poet masquerading as a hack.

But parallel to this, Szara had been approached by a Russian on the Ostend ferry who asked him to keep an eye on another Soviet operative, one van Doorn, real name Grigory Khelidze. A day later he sends a message to his approacher, telling him which hotel Khelidze is staying in. The next morning he gets, along with his morning coffee and roll, a shred of paper naming a cafe. He goes there and is approached by a woman calling herself Renata Braun, who takes him to Khelidze’s hotel room, where they find the man horribly murdered and sprayed with acid. While Szara is sick, Braun searches the dead man’s belongings and finds tucked away a folded-up piece of paper which turns out to be the chit to a left luggage deposit box in a Czech railway station. Is it a trap?

Feeling like he is in way over his head, Szara sets off to Prague and, paranoid that his every step is being watched, finds the station, the box and the ancient suitcase inside. Back at his hotel room he rips open the concealed bottom to find a cache of documents going back to Tsarist times which seem to be records of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, in their dealings with a Bolshevik activist – known only as DUBOK – who was in fact a double agent, one of their informants. Sweat breaks out all over Szara’s body as he realises the dates and other references can only be to Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Stalin!

2. Rue Delesseux

It is spring 1938. Back in Moscow his ‘debriefer’, another Jew, Abramov, listens in horror to Szara’s experiences, then fills him in on the background to these puzzling events. There are different factions in the NKVD, arranged in khvosts or ‘gangs’ – a southern or Georgian one, an intellectual Jewish one, probably others, all of which operate abroad and conspire against each other; and there’s the Comintern, which has its own agenda abroad, and which Khelidze worked for – and the status of all of them is permanently unclear as the entire apparat is subject to wave after wave of purges. The Red Army has been decimated by Stalin’s purges; he, Abramov, suspects there is an anti-Jewish pogrom going on which might affect them both. The only protection he can offer Szara is to go officially on the payroll of the NKVD.

And so Szara undergoes spy training and then is sent to Paris to run the OPAL network, as well as manage ‘product’ from Herr Baumann and his German military secrets.

And so this 70-page section is about the nuts and bolts and personnel of the network of agents Szara runs in Paris, with a side responsibility for messages from Baumann in Berlin. One of the most interesting elements is that his control, based in Belgium, is the same Ilia Goldman who played such a large part in the first novel, Night Soldiers, here shown as an epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

The focal point of the section is a big stake-out he and operatives carry out after a tip-off from an agent who has taken a lover who works in a German liaison office. They arrange a meeting place for a VIP German visiting Paris, then stake it out and take photos. To Sazara’s amazement the man meeting the Nazi turns out to be a senior NKVD officer, Derzhani. What? Why?

After the VIPs have their meeting, our guys wrap up the surveillance and think they are getting away safely, when a slick car draws alongside driven by the security men who’d accompanied the Nazi. There is a car chase through the streets of Paris – for a moment they think they’ve lost the Germans and Szara alights at a remote Métro station, but moments later the car he was in is rammed by the pursuing Nazis and his agent, Sénéschal, killed. Back at the office he develops the 11 precious prints of the meeting, which Sénéschal died for. What the devil does it mean? Who is the Nazi, obviously a big wig? And what is a senior NKVD director doing in Paris without him or Goldman being told, and why is he meeting a Nazi? Szara hides the prints and tells no-one.

In the previous section, after he hid the Okhrana files, Szara was unnerved to hear an acquaintance at a cocktail party in Paris jokingly refer to the story – that Stalin was a Tsarist agent – in front of an American magazine editor, Herbert Hull. A continent away, months and many other incidents, later, Hull is invited from New York out for a country party with the kind of liberal intellectuals he knows, the Mays. After a day’s healthy activities, they have a lovely diner, then chat about politics and literature in front of a nice log fire, and Hull casually mentions the story about Stalin being a spy – ‘oh, that old one’, his host replies – but Hull goes on that he met someone in Europe who had some kind of evidence to back it up, and so he’s drafted an article on the subject. Days later his magazine offices are burned down, all proofs, all the furniture, files and records burned to ashes, and the gallon drum which fuelled it placed in the middle of the floor. Hull gets the message, his little magazine folds, and he soon gets a job with one of the New York glossies and forgets about the Okhrana story.

This anecdote is hugely thought-provoking, making the reader realise that the viper’s nest of espionage which the competing powers created in Europe extended far beyond its shores. Will this incident contribute somehow to the overall narrative or will it, like so many in Night Soldiers, simply add to the atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and to the sense of panorama – the fearful sense that similar incidents, spying, betrayals and deceits are happening all across the world…

3. The Iron Exchange

Szara meets Sergei Abramov on a deserted beach in Denmark, shows him the photos of the stakeout. Abramov says they can be interpreted in a score of ways; more importantly, he fills him in on latest developments in Moscow, namely Yezhov has been overthrown as head of the NKVD, replaced by Beria, one of the Georgian khvost. Along with Yezhov went his wife and any intellectuals or writers close to him, for example Isaac Babel. They speculate on how much of an anti-semitic pogrom it is – but then non-Jews disappear too, all the time.

Abramov tells Szara his stock is not high, to recover respect he must go in person to Berlin and tell Baumann to give more information, compromising information, about all the other board members and managers of his steel mill (because the apparat clearly expects Baumann to be done away with like all the other German Jews and wants to identify his successor).

So Szara goes to Berlin. He stays at the Hotel Adlon but is very keen to meet up again with Marta Haecht the young woman he slept with on his last visit. When he gets in touch, amazingly – in this world of dead and disappearing people – she is still alive and they meet up and they resume their relationship exactly as before, with her posing in silk underwear, whispering naughty words in his ear and play acting sex frolics. Ie they create a super-sensual world of their own in the disused apartment of an artist in the old Iron Exchange, a half derelict building in Berlin.

On a first meeting Baumann, in his home, refuses to tell more information about his firm, so Szara gets permission for a second go, which is a more elaborate rendezvous at a synagogue after hours in a Berlin suburb. They’ve barely begun negotiating when they hear a mob chanting and singing, which turns out to be Nazis who attack, ransack and set the synagogue on fire. Terrified, Baumann and Szara only just manage to escape undetected onto the roof of a nearby shed, wait till the crowd marches drunkenly off, then make their way back to the NKVD driver who’d waited for them.

What we have just witnessed is part of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the infamous night when the Nazis organised gangs to ransack and attack synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany, supposedly in ‘revenge’ for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jew. Szara drops Baumann back at his house and returns to his lovers’ apartment at the Iron Exchange deeply shaken.

There are numerous other plot strands and events, in this and each of the sections, but this is by far the most dramatic of  this part. This novel, more so than Night Soldiers, feels deeply involved with history, in fact several of the sections are divided into sub-sections marked with specific dates and explanations of key incidents in the countdown to war, so that we – like the characters – are hurtled along by the terrifying pace of events.

During this trip he briefly meets Nadia Tscherova, heavy drinking actress in Berlin, code name RAVEN head of a sub-network for OPAL, who turns out to be the sister of Colonel Alexander Vonets aka Sascha, who played such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers (though obviously Szara doesn’t know that).

Having failed to get more information out of Baumann, in fact having to doubt whether the information he is giving is actually correct, having reunited with Marta but realised she is not as innocent as he first thought, having worked with a sarcastic fellow journalist Vainshtok to file some innocuous cover stories, and having witnessed terrible scenes of Jews being humiliated all across Germany, Szara finally concludes his mission and takes the train back to Paris.

Here he is debriefed by his control, Goldman, a presence throughout the text, receives messages from other agents and resumes the running of the OPAL network, in among which he receives an invitation to a very up-market Parisian club, the Renaissance Club. The opulence of serious wealth, unobtrusive waiters, leather chairs. In a private room he is greeted by Joseph de Montfried, from one of the wealthiest families in France.

Their conversation brings the bubbling issue of the Jews to the fore in the novel. We’ve known from the start that Szara is a Jew from Poland, who has had a continuous trickle of memories from his brutal youth (the pogroms, beatings and murders of Jews there – in the synagogue he remembers details of ceremonies including the ceremony for cleansing a raped woman – a common occurrence). Goldman his control, is a Jew. General Bloch who interviews him on a train in the first section, is a Jew. And the man who debriefed him in the old days when he was just a journalist, who suggested he enrol as a full-time agent, and who still meets him from time to time, Abramov, is a Jew. The whole novel is set against the unfolding nightmare of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, while back in Moscow Stalin’s purges continue to gobble up huge numbers of people, many of whom are Jews so that Abramov and Szara speculate whether one element of the purges is a covert pogrom.

It is in this atmosphere that de Montfried launches on a long passage of historical exposition, an encyclopedia-style explanation of the background to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the ongoing issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Briefly, the British have limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to a tiny quota based on official emigration certificates; de Montfried wonders, in a polite and lofty way, whether Szara can obtain any. Szara’s NKVD straitjacket is chafing. He is sickened by events around him. He promises to do what he can.

Out of the blue Abramov orders Szara to meet him in Switzerland and bring an unusual amount of money. At the office appears Maltsaev, a slick unpleasant operative from Moscow, who is to accompany him and the money. We know that Maltsaev is the angel of death – in Night Soldiers he brought word to Kulic in the mountains that he had to execute some of his own partisan group. And so it is here – after a hair-raising drive to the village where Abramov is holding out, the latter bolts at the sight of Maltsaev, making it half way across a snowy meadow before he is gunned down.

Szara conceals all emotion, even as they bury the body, but his mind is racing. He speculates that Abramov must have shown people the photos taken in the garden in Paris of the secret meeting, maybe in some kind of power play that failed and rebounded on him. Hence the flight and execution. Maltsaev cordially tells Szara that he thinks he, too, should have met Abramov’s fate, but orders from high up were to preserve him. Shaken, Szara returns to Paris.

4. The Renaissance Club

Szara has become an habitué of the Bar Heininger. This is just one in a whole series of jolts of recognition to the reader who has read Night Soldiers, because a surprising number of characters, incidents and locations from the first book crop up throughout this one. The first time it happened was childishly exciting, the second time exciting – this is the 6th or 7th strong overlap, following hot on the heels of Maltsaev and complementing the persistent presence of Goldman as Szara’s immediate boss, the same Goldman who played such a pivotal role in Night Soldiers.

These aren’t coincidences, the two texts interpenetrate at multiple levels in numerous places via quite a few characters and this slowly changes your perception. These are the same sort of people, in the same profession, living through the same historical period; it comes to seem inevitable that there will be a lot of overlap.

So the reader of Night Soldiers remembers that the Bar Heininger was where Khristo hid out after fleeing from Civil War Spain, and where three hoodlums arrived one night with machine guns to shoot the place up and assassinate the head waiter, Omaraeff, because of his involvement in a hit on a Soviet diplomat. As a cynic predicted at the time, this bit of underworld violence has made the place more fashionable than ever and now – two years later in 1939 – Szara routinely hangs out there to play up his ‘cover’ role of high-visibility Pravda journalist.

Among the innumerable exiles and counts and princesses and poets and playwrights to be found in the Bar every night is the posh, promiscuous Lady Angela Hope. She invites Szara to a private dinner at Fouquet’s, for which he makes a big effort to press his suit and buy a new shirt. After some brief flirting, there is a knock at the door and they are joined by Roger Fitzware (who is an agent of British Intelligence; he appeared in Night Soldiers where he tried to recruit Khristo and, angry at being rebuffed, suggested to French intelligence that they lock him up).

Now Fitzware tries to recruit Szara and Szara lets him, but at a price. He offers information about German steel wire production (the ‘product’ from Baumann in Berlin), but to be paid for with emigration certificates to Palestine. They haggle and settle on 500 certificates per batch of Baumann information. Szara is sickened, but cold; this is the world he lives in.

Much else happens. One of the OPAL operatives, a prostitute, passes on the briefcase of a German officer which is full of Polish phrasebooks for fellow Wehrmacht officers. Goldman appals Szara by giving him advance warning that Stalin is about to make a pact with Hitler. In May 1939 Molotov replaces Litvinov as Soviet Foreign Minister, a signal to the alert that Soviet foreign policy will be conciliatory to Germany (and Litvinov was a Jew, difficult for the Nazis to respect).

Szara is sent on an official assignment for Pravda to Poland just days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced 23 August 1939. Thus he is on a sleepy provincial train trundling towards Lvov when it is dive-bombed by a Stuka, the first he or any of the passengers know that Germany has invaded. Recovering from blast injuries in hospital he is called to the office of a Polish officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Vyborg (p.278) who from that point keeps Szara at his side as they set off on the journey to Lvov and find themselves caught up in the German advance, witnessing the Germans fording the river River Dunajec under Polish artillery fire from close up, and on into a gruelling eye-witness account of the Polish Army’s defeat and retreat over the next 30 pages, so packed with incident, vignettes, walk-on characters and vivid scenes, they could almost be the basis of a novel by themselves.

5. Poste Restante

The final eighty pages are among the most exciting and dazzling I’ve ever read. Szara is recovering in a spa hotel near Lvov which has been taken over by diplomatic personnel from all countries fleeing the fighting when NKVD arrive and start processing everyone. This includes the angel of death, Maltsaev who, in a gripping moment, after interviewing Szara in one of the pools in the basement casually asks him to go ahead of him up the spiral staircase. There is a cinematic moment as Szara refuses and says, No, after you to Maltsaev who also refuses. there is a standoff for a few long seconds then Szara pulls his gun and shoots Maltsaev once, then again, drags his body to a cubicle and hides it. He has burned his bridges. He is now a fugitive.

He clutches the briefcase which contains  his false documents and walks calmly down the steps and into one of the parked cars of the NKVD officers, starts the engine and drives off before anyone can stop him. There follow three paranoid, intense days north through Poland to Lithuania, avoiding the invading German army to the West and Russian army to the East. He in fact makes it safely to Kovno where he finds tens of thousands of refugees ahead of him and no places available on any of the boats leaving the port for months.

After days selling the car then other valuables to feed himself, and after scary encounters with possible NKVD agents or plain thugs, he takes another approach when he hears the Germans are evacuating ethnic Germans back to the Fatherland. He pays a lot of money to a Lithuanian criminal to get the passport of a German man dying in a local hospital and have his photo pasted into it, and then undertakes the terrifying experience of being processed onto one of the Volkdeutsch repatriation boats at Riga. The journey gives him the chance to see the Germans up close, their inferiority complex coming out as anger. They are poisoned with themselves, he thinks, these monsters at the heart of Europe.

But his plan to slip away once the boat arrives in Hamburg underestimate German efficiency, as all the Volkdeutsch are corralled off the boat and onto a train taking them to Berlin for a triumphant rally. At the station Szara does, finally, manage to give officials the slip and rings the only person he trusts in Berlin, the agent Nadia Tscherova. Something clicked the first time they met and now there is an extraordinary interlude, for he finds her the mistress of a German general (away in Poland) set up in an astonishingly opulent mansion. Here she gives him a good bath, a good shave, a good meal and then there is some characteristically Furstian championship sex, deep and sensuous, with role playing and hard words before they collapse exhausted in bed. In the middle of a continent gone mad, there is time for pleasure, for the life of the senses, for poetry, for delight.

After several days he must move on, clean shaven and well dressed but in fact is picked up by the Gestapo an hour after leaving Nadia’s house, as he tries to board a train and finds an alert is out for his stolen passport. There are tense scenes in Columbia House, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and a lot of very intelligent insight into the psychology of interrogation, in light of which Szara comes clean about his full identity to the officer interrogating him, who is now worried to have such a high profile Russian prisoner on his hands at such a fraught political moment.

Thus it is that footsteps come clanking down the cold corridor to his cell and he is yanked out of his room and dragged to another room where we are fully expecting him to be beaten to death, but instead is presented with a wobbly character wearing a uniform over his pyjama trousers, released into his custody, ushered into his car and driven for hours into the remote hills where they pull up at an inn. Inside is Herbert van Polanyi who now gets a long speech of exposition.

Turns out von Polanyi is a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, still largely run by the kind of landed aristocrats Hitler and his gang despise. He was ‘running’ Baumann all along, deliberately getting him to feed Szara the steel production figures. the reason why leads to a long explanation of the political relationship between Russia and Germany, of their co-operation throughout the 1920s, the setback of Hitler’s election, but then the way both dictators came to understand each other. It is a long and fascinating and intelligent analysis. I haven’t brought out how intelligent the continual presence of Furst’s analyses of situations, of geopolitics for the micro to the macro scale, are, throughout these books.

Von Polanyi recognises Szara as a professional who has now become rootless, he is a man without a country. He is going to set him free on the understanding that he may be able to do them all a service and prevent Europe falling to a Hitler-Stalin tyranny. They shake on it and his man drives Szara to the Swiss border.

There then follows an intensely described section where Szara goes seriously underground, into the criminal underworld of Budapest, Athens, Smyrna. He begs, he is beaten up, he thieves, he loses weight, grows a moustache, gains a permanent scar, changes the man he is, ending up washing pots for a woman restaurant owner in Turkey, finding peace or oblivion on a straw mattress on an old door in a filthy cellar, where, in his little spare time, he writes out a full account of everything that happened to him and tries to piece together how the conspiracies he was involved in played their part in the collapse of civilisation.

When, in May 1940, he reads that the Germans have invaded France, he shakes the Turkish woman by the hand, shaves and presents himself at the docks as a patriotic Frenchman ready to do his duty, and as such is welcomed aboard a steamer setting off for Marseilles, and welcomed there as a hero. He makes his way across southern France and back to Switzerland for where he contacts his super-rich contact in Paris, de Montfried. He is cabled money which allows him to rent an apartment and begin planning. He makes wide contacts and does background research until he thinks he has identified an NKVD network. Then he contacts von Polyani, saying he is ready to go to work.

The funny little man who liberated him from Columbia House meets him in Zurich and hands him an envelope. Within are half a dozen nuggets of information suggesting Germany is planning to invade the Soviet Union, up to an including the operation codename, Barbarossa. The new thin, moustachioed, scarred Szara will feed this information to the NKVD network. He will use the skills he has acquired for good; he will alert the Russians to the coming invasion, he will prevent the triumph of evil.

The final act in the book is the fruition of his love affair with Nadia Tscherova. The little man took back to Berlin a message for her and a few weeks later, Szara is waiting at the Swiss border as a plush Mercedes crosses it with no questions asked. Half a kilometer down the road it stops as agreed. He rushes to open the door and into his arms comes his love, Nadia’s drive to freedom paralleling her brother Sascha’s escape to freedom at the end of Night Soldiers and the image of lovers embracing after long separation also ending both books.


Overlapping characters

  • Ilya Goldman trains at the NKVD academy in Arbat Street along with Khristo in Night Soldiers, and plays a key role in the narrative, saving Khristo’s life and freeing his kidnapped lover.
  • We learn (to our shock) that it was Goldman who organised the abduction of Khristo’s lover, Aleksandra, in Night Soldiers.
  • General Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa or the Lizard, subjects Szara to an intimidating interview on a train in the first section. He is the same General that Khristo found himself begging for his life to in NS.
  • Nadia Tscherova in a big coincidence is sister to Colonel Vonets aka Sascha, who plays such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers.
  • Maltsaev is a bringer of orders to execute in Night Soldiers and here. We are glad to see him shot dead.
  • Roger Fitzware, MI6 man, plays a small but key role in both books, suggesting Khristo’s arrest and imprisonment in Night Soldiers and recruiting Szara for MI6 in Dark Star, so that Baumann’s information is shared with British Intelligence.

1. Overlapping characters like this give a sense, not exactly of verisimilitude – surely the world isn’t this small – but of a graspable fictional universe. There is something gleefully childish about recognising this character from that scene and discovering, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to them.’

2. It occurs to me that another aspect of having so many recurrent figures is a dramatic irony, that we readers often know the past or future of a character which everyone in the fiction doesn’t. a) That’s standard dramatic irony, but b) it also reinforces the atmosphere of endless smoke and mirrors in the bewildering world of espionage, the sense of multiple levels, in fact a never-ending maze of levels, of secrecy, of characters never knowing what becomes of each other.

Sensuality

In among the densely described and densely analysed historical background and the complex mesh of conspiracies, are islands of tremendous sensuality. In Ostend Szara visits a nightclub where the showgirls came prancing out wearing zebra masks and nothing else, whinnying and shaking their bums at the male customers. Szara takes one of them back to his hotel room. Later he has a one-night-stand with the shy young Fräulein he meets at the dinner at Herr Baumann’s, and then is haunted by the memroy until he can see her again months later. These encounters are described with great lyricism and sensuality.

When I read The Polish Officer years ago, I thought Furst’s sensuality was a little over-ripe. Now I see it as a congruent part of the fantasy of these novels. All the historical accuracy in the world, all the paragraphs explaining the NKVD and Comintern and Red Army purges, can’t conceal the poetic power of the prose, which is permanently striving for lyrical description. The sensuous sex scenes are just a fragment of the larger lyrical sensibility, a poet’s sensibility seared by the brutalities of the 20th century.

It snowed on the night of the sixth, and by the time Szara and Maltsaev left the Gare de Lyon on the seventh of February the fields and villages of France were still and white. The nineteenth century, Szara thought with longing: a pair of frost-coated dray horses pulling a cart along a road, a girl in a stocking cap skating on a pond near Melun. The sky was dense and swollen; sometimes a flight of crows circled over the snow-covered fields. (p.223)

Note that it is not a poetic use of language – Martin Cruz Smith is my prose poet of the moment, a man who can bring off unexpected and miraculous turns of phrase. Furst’s language is plainer, Furst’s is a poetry of perception: the poetry is in the selection of detail which gives his prose the power of a certain kind of realist painting. On almost every page there is finely perceived detailing which brings to life the scores of minor characters which bristle throughout the narrative.

The owner was a Hungarian, a no-nonsense craftsman in a smock, his hands hard and knotted from years of cutting and stitching leather. (p.255)

He leaned out the window and peered down to find the old woman looking up at him from the yard. She stood, with the aid of a stick, like a small, sturdy pyramid, wearing sweaters and jackets on top, broad skirts below. Her dogs, a big brown one and a little black and white one, stood by her side and stared up at him as well. (p.269)

Vyborg’s driver was a big sergeant with close-cropped hair, a lion-tamer’s moustache, and a veinous, lumpy nose that was almost purple. He swore under his breath without pause, swinging the big car around obstacles, bouncing through the fields when necessary, hewing a path through the wheatfields. (p.281)

No special words or magical phrasing. It is the density of fully imagined detail, and the wealth of fully imagined people, places, scenes and events which fill the narrative to overflowing, which give this book its breath-taking and epic quality.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in Franceen

Russia and the Arts @ National Portrait Gallery

Textile industrialist Pavel Tretyakov started collecting Russian paintings in the 1850s and continued until 1892, when he donated his collection of over 2,000 works to form the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery.

He not only collected but commissioned works, especially portraits of contemporary artists and musicians. This small but beautifully formed exhibition brings together 26 masterpieces of portraiture from the Tretyakov collection, covering the period 1867 to 1914, arguably the high point of Russia’s cultural history, a golden era in literature, music and the performing arts.

It is divided into themed areas: poets, patrons, composers and musicians, critics and writers, three great novelists and so on. Each theme is separately introduced and then each portrait has a lengthy wall label explaining who the subject is and their significance. In the 40 or so minutes it takes to read everything and look at the pictures carefully, you get a good sense of the extraordinary achievements of this culture over this special period.

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin (1881) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin (1881) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This classic portrait of Mussorgsky was painted by Ilia Repin just days before the composer’s death in hospital, brought on by excessive alcohol consumption, at the age of just 42, a patron saint of the social disease which still plagues Russia.

As well as musicians like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, the show features portraits of well-known writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and, from the Revolutionary generation, the ill-fated poet Anna Akhmatova, alongside quite a few less well-known figures, actors such as Pelageia Strepetova, opera singers such as Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, and patrons of the arts such as Ivan Morozov.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov (1910) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov (1910) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The portrait of Morozov is by Valentin Serov, painted in 1910, towards the end of the period. Morozov came from a family famous for its patronage of the theatre and the arts. He personally built up a collection of post-impressionist painters which was big enough to influence the style of contemporary Russian artists, especially the 10 or so Matisses he owned, one of which – Fruit and Bronze – is brightly painted into the background here.

My favourite was Lensky as Shakespeare’s Petruchio by Ivan Kramskoy. It has an oddity, a realism and intensity, the realism of the face set off by the gorgeousness of the velvet costume and the chain studded with jewels.

The Actor Aleksander Lensky in the role of Petruchio in Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew’ by Ivan Kramskoi (1883) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Actor Aleksander Lensky in the role of Petruchio in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by Ivan Kramskoi (1883) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

One painter emerged as especially prolific, Ilia Repin. I counted 8 paintings by him out of the 26, of which the most striking were Mussorgsky the alcoholic showing off his proud Russian roots in dishevelled dressing gown and, at the opposite end of the scale of chic, the astonishing figure of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt.

Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt by Ilia Repin (1889) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt by Ilia Repin (1889) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

I happen to be reading the historical novels of Alan Furst, set in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, and so am soaked in the atmosphere of violence spawned by the Russian Revolution and Civil War, followed by Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s – an irredeemably wicked unleashing of humanity’s most bestial urges which destroyed hundreds of millions of lives.

The seeds of all that were sown in the period covered by this exhibition, and it’s hard not to look for signs of it, especially in the troubled relationship so many of these figures had with ‘the West’ and/or with their own Russian tradition; simultaneously criticising the political and economic backwardness of their own society and yet despising the ‘decadent’ West for its superficiality and frivolity, for its ‘liberalism’, as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy so fervently did.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov (1872) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Fedor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Dostoyevsky served 10 years of penal servitude in Siberia, an experience which is said to underpin the spiritual and psychological intensity of his novels. This portrait, painted by Vasily Perov in 1872, is the only one of Dostoyevsky painted from life. According to the commentary, Dostoyevsky became a figure of immense moral authority with the Russian public and the painting has, apparently, been reproduced on everything from stamps to biscuit tins. But for me he is an advocate of the glorification of suffering and a full-throated contempt for western ‘comfort’, which was to have such catastrophic consequences in Russia and then in Eastern Europe in the generations to come.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to see a group of masterpieces from one of painting’s golden ages, to revel in the range and depths of its achievements, and to ponder anew the depth of the tragedy which so quickly swept it all away.

Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)

This is an awesomely atmospheric, wide-ranging and astonishingly knowledgeable novel. The terms ‘spy novel’ or ‘thriller’ don’t get close to conveying the panoramic reach, the range of characters and places, and the magical depth of research which make it less a novel and more a portrait of an entire continent in crisis.

A spot of biography

Furst, born in New York in 1941, wrote four novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s which weren’t particularly successful. Then in 1984 he was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write about a journey down the Danube. Inspired by the scenery and history of Eastern Europe, he conceived the complex spy thriller, Night Soldiers, published four years later in 1988. This was the first of a series of 12 historical espionage novels all set in Eastern and Central Europe during the dark days of the 1930s and on into the Second World War, which have cemented his reputation as one of the most intelligent and distinctive spy writers of our time.

Night Soldiers is long, at 511 pages in the HarperCollins paperback. It is divided into five sections:

1. Levitsky’s Geese

It is 1934 and after his simple-minded brother, Nikko, is beaten to death by the village fascists, Bulgarian peasant Khristo Stoianev is recruited by a peripatetic Bolshevik talent-spotter, Antipin. He travels down the Danube with his minder, across the Black Sea and then up to Moscow where he joins a spy school run by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) in Arbat Street. In his class are a number of other characters who reappear throughout the book: Colonel A.Y. Vonets aka Sascha (p.61/415), small intelligent Ilya Goldman, lanky Drazen Kulic, Kerenyi, the quiet Pole Josef Voluta.

After a training exercise in a deserted village in which the results were manipulated by the bosses, Kulic jokingly carves the text BF825 into the train carriage taking them back to Moscow – all it means is a made-up name Brotherhood Front and that unit 8 (his and Khristo’s unit) should have come first, unit 2 second and unit five third (p.88). It is a small joke, but it will resonate through the rest of the book, thousands of miles away and years later.

Claustrophobic terror is the atmosphere of the whole novel, from the very opening when Khristo’s brother is killed, throughout the training period when they see some of their instructors themselves (eg Major Ozunov) denounced as traitors and dragged off for interrogation and execution. In one terrifying scene, Khristo is forced to execute his lover, the tough communist zealot Marike, whose loyalty doesn’t save her. With no explanation he is taken from the training school to an interrogation centre, down into the cells, all the time being told a conspiracy has been uncovered and terrified that it is he who is about to be tortured. But they open the door to a cell and point out the traitor kneeling in the corner of the room and put a gun into his hand, and it is only when he is directly behind her that he realises it is his Marike…

The opening scenes are written in an uninflected language whose simplicity captures of the simplicity of rural peasant life. In Moscow the language becomes more interesting as Furst conveys the stifling terror of Stalin’s purges, and the narrative is packed with tiny details – of Bulgarian village life, food, tradition, or of Moscow’s streets, slang, traffic – which are utterly convincing. Food in particular. After shooting Marike he is taken back to the barracks where the fat old matron is making lunch and she gives him an extra portion of pelmeni, ground pork and onions wrapped in dough and boiled then served with sour cream and hot tea (p.66).

2. Blue Lantern

Madrid 1936. The embattled city is surrounded by the army of General Franco which has staged a coup against the elected left-wing government. Varieties of left-wing political groups and volunteers from the rest of Europe and America are defending the city, with some forces scattered in the country outside. It is here that Khristo (under the nom de guerre Captain Markov) and several of his colleagues from Arbat Street are sent, to support the counter-fascist struggle. Here we meet Andres Cardona, another Russian pretending to be a Spaniard (real name Roubenis), his American girlfriend Faye Berns, their friend Renata Braun. Khristo and Kulic are supervised by the suave NKVD officer and poet Sascha. There are lots of Spanish characters, lots of references to Spanish food and customs and use of Spanish phrases, as well as a thorough grasp of the complex and dark politics of the struggle. This section could almost be a novel in its own right, it has such a powerful atmosphere.

It is named after an incident where a blue lantern is lit by a fascist spy on top of an apartment block containing (unknown to its inhabitants) a big arms dump for the Nationalists. Faye spots it as she is taking turns on lookout duty atop a nearby building and a) bravely goes up the dark stairwell to get it b) moves it to her building, which has a big machine gun sited on the roof. Thus, when a German fighter-bomber from the Condor Legion flies low on a mission to bomb the building with the blue lantern, it finds itself being strafed by machine gun bullets and abandoning the task. Petrol tank ruptured, the plane crash lands in the countryside nearby where, it is strongly suggested, the local peasants show the German pilot no mercy (p.138).

But the revolution is eating itself; Stalin’s paranoia extends even here and Khristo finds himself one of many called in for interrogation by a terrifying General from his own side, General Yadomir Ivanovich Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa, the Lizard. Almost everyone thus called in ends up sent back to Moscow to be tortured and shot – in a powerful scene his control, Sascha, reveals that he too has been ordered home and gives a long drunken account of the infighting at the top of the NKVD which is resulting in entire sections being decimated. So Khristo crawls to the Lizard and begs for another chance. He just makes it, and is told to spy on Cardona, to get something incriminating which the Lizard can a) sell his bosses b) use to get Cardona arrested.

The scene cuts to Kulic, now Lieutenant Kulic commanding a group of Spanish fighters in the Guadarrama west of the city. A city car drives up and he is told by NKVD apparatchik Maltsaev that four of the men are traitors – which means they signed up at some stage with a farming union which has affiliated itself with the anarchist POUM movement. Kulic’s orders are simple – to execute them. He marches them off into the woods separately from the rest of the group, ostensibly to gather firewood, then raises his gun… But can’t do it. He explains his orders and why he is disobeying them, and they nod and head off west towards Portugal. Feeling the same frustration and sense of being trapped as on the training exercise, Kulic carves BF825 into a tree, a minuscule gesture of revolt.

Sascha returns to Moscow where he is given a good desk job and is relaxing when one day he is arrested and starts being beaten and interrogated in the car. They beat him continually until he names and implicates everyone he knows. Seems they were after his superior General Grechko, but along the way Sascha had named Khristo.

Back in Madrid Khristo is at the apartment of Andres and Faye and Renata when they get a phone call tipping them off that they are about to be arrested. Khristo recognises Goldman’s voice; they agree that if they ever get back in contact they’ll use the BF825 sign. The foursome pack and leave in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later the door is kicked down by the arresting party, but they are gone.

They drive north to the French border on a hair-raising journey where the car keeps breaking down and through various patrols and frights. At a little sea port they pay everything they have to an old fishing boat captain who chugs them round the coast and dumps them on the beach at St-Jean-de-Luz, where they are immediately arrested by French police (p.204).

The men Kulic let go are caught by Nationalists near the Portuguese border and tortured to tell their full stories. The information is passed up the chain to a German officer advising the fascists. He turns out to be an NKVD double agent and passes the information that Kulic is a traitor back to Moscow. From here it is passed to General Bloch in the field, who passes it on to his fixer Maltsaev. Maltsaev assigns Kulic and his men an assault on a fascist-held police station in an outlying village. It is a trap. His men are wiped out by machine gun fire and Kulic feels a mortar shell rip off half his face, his eye, then all is darkness.

3. The World at Night

Khristo is in Paris. Through illegal means he forged an identity and finally escaped the French internment camp (Renata and Faye had been released immediately; Andres had produced a forged Greek passport and been released, p.217). Now Khristo has become Nikko Petrov, known to everyone as ‘Nick’, the popular waiter at the Brasserie Heininger, run by the massive shaven-headed Turk Omaraeff. In one heart-stopping moment he is addressed as ‘Captain Markov’, his name in Madrid, but it is by Faye Berns, bumped into in the street by coincidence. They have a long lunch and reminisce about Madrid before she catches her train…

This is another very densely researched, written and felt section, with many characters and details. We get to know the wildly cosmopolitan clientele of the restaurant who assemble every night to party till dawn in the hectic, end-of-the-world mood of 1937, including a number of posh Brits and recklessly rich Americans. We see behind the scenes at the brasseries, where Omaraeff is king. Unfortunately, he knows Khristo is an ‘operator’ and asks him – well, blackmails him – into getting hold of a pistol and training a small group of watchers to establish the comings and goings of Soviet couriers who are routinely taking gold consignments to a Swiss bank in the city. But things go badly wrong. The gold robbery Khristo thinks he’s involved in turns into the assassination of a Soviet courier, Myagin, with several related deaths. And then a murder squad comes to the Brasseries and shocks even its jaded clientele by pulling out machine guns and shooting up the chandelier and decorations before pursuing Omaraeff into the ladies’ toilet and blowing his head off.

In among this mayhem Khristo had advertised in the newspaper using the BF825 signal and, to his amazement, receives a reply and makes a rendezvous with Ilya Goldman, the man who saved his life in Spain. Goldman updates Khristo (and us) about the fates of various characters met either in Arbat Street or Madrid – Sascha arrested, Kulic betrayed by his own side in Spain but then escaped, Voluta the quiet one in Arbat Street turns out to have been an agent for a Polish nationalist organisation, NOV (p.267).

Goldman warns Khristo the NKVD are operating in Paris, tracking down defectors. In fact someone they both know was very publicly hacked to death with an ice pick by NKVD assassins who escaped in a fast car before the cops arrived. Violence from the East has spread its tendrils even into Paris.

Throughout this section Khristo has been consoled by a romantic love affair with the beautiful Aleksandra. Their sensual sex, dressing up and role playing, her warmth and affection are the only things which keep him going. After the meeting with Goldman Khristo hurries back to the apartment but Aleksandra has gone. He finds marks of her fingernails on the wooden doorframes which she clutched onto for a second before being dragged away. She has vanished into the maw of the century of death like so many millions of others.

There is some complex plot: An Englishman named Fitzware tries to recruit Khristo who tells him to get lost, but Fitzware knows a lot about Omaraeff and knows Khristo bought the gun which carried out the Myagin assassination. In the scene with Goldman Khristo tells him that Omaraeff was behind the assassination of the courier Myagin. This information is probably fed back up the chain and leads to the commissioning of the machine gun thugs who murder Omaraeff at the Heininger. In a key scene Fitzware meets with Théaud, a young man in the DST, French equivalent of MI5. Irritated with Khristo for not signing up with him, Fitzware tells Théaud about his involvement in the Omaraeff affair. But Théaud is horrified, because the newly elected Popular front government of France is closely allied with the Soviet Union, the last thing it wants is a scandal implicating their Russian friends. So the pair cook up a solution which is for the French authorities to arrest Khristo, hold the trial in camera to avoid publicity, and imprison him for life.

Khristo moves apartment again, keeping one step ahead of the assassins, but after Aleksandra’s abduction has lost the will to live, spending days staring at the wall or weeping. On 23 July 1937 he is arrested as an accessory to the murder of Omaraeff and sentenced to life imprisonment. The narrative describes the cell, six feet by four feet, the cot bed tied to the wall during the day, the daily meal of mashed lentils and sandy bread, the ‘exercise’ twice a week, for one hour, where he briefly meets the other convicts. The window is thick yellow glass, with just one tiny fragment in a corner broken. Through this tiny hole Khristo can just about see the blue sky, and it is this one fragment of the outside world which keeps him alive.

Surprisingly, he gets a letter from Aunt Iliane, obviously his fairy godmother, Ilya Goldman, telling him that their cousin Alexandre is better after a bad experience and has gone abroad for her health. Khristo reads the letter and weeps and turns over on his cot towards the wall.

Because there’s been such a large and fluctuating cast of characters, because so many of them have been arrested, murdered, executed, killed in combat – the reader easily thinks this is the end of Khristo, leaving us with a very heavy heart.

4. Plaque Tournante

The narrative makes a surprising leap to an advertising company on Madison Avenue, New York, introducing us to bored copywriter Robert Eidenbaugh. To his own surprise he is approached by a friend working for the OSS and recruited. After extensive training he is parachuted into occupied France in autumn 1943. His mission is to base himself in a rural French village and organise resistance. To this end we meet and get to know half a dozen inhabitants of Cambras, their families, their lives and loves, in yet another section which could almost be a stand-alone novel.

After this long excursus it is a surprise to return to Khristo in his cell. Gruelling description of his mental state during his long imprisonment and deterioration. In July 1940 there is a scrap  of paper under his bowl of soup with ‘BF825’ scratched on it, and a time 2:30. At that time he is released from prison by a French priest who walks him through a series of open doors and into the open air. Freedom. Along with many other dangerous men he is being released as the German armies advance into France.

There is a thrilling sequence describing how he arms himself, steals a car and escapes from Paris, charitably stopping to pick up a handful of the most pitiful refugees he sees among the crowds fleeing the capital. He is flagged over by two ageing sisters, Sophie and Marguerite who are trying to help their sick boss, Antonin Dreu, who has in fact had a stroke, on the grass verge by a river. Khristo struggles to give him the last rites in Bulgarian and then the two sisters prevail on him to join them. The boss knew a cataclysm was coming and bought a cottage in the country which he stocked with tinned food. It is too good an offer to refuse, and Khristo hands the keys to the stolen car to his little group of refugees, then gets in the big sedan of the two sisters and drives them to the isolated cottage in the hills.

For several years they live very quietly together, ignoring the war. But Khristo feels increasingly guilty at his inaction and in the winter of 1943 makes himself known to the local Resistance. By January 1944 he has been recruited into the extensive network which Eidenbaugh has organised and leads, though himself under instruction from the shadowy, sleek Frenchman, Ulysse.

Winter turns into spring and a fascinating account of French resistance organisational structure, its tactics, and accounts of its sporadic attacks on German targets and persistent low-level sabotage. The section builds up to an attack on German forces in the village of Cabejac, led by Eidenbaugh under his nom de guerre Lucien. But this turns out to be a trap, the Germans are waiting for them, there is a firefight and Eidenbaugh and Khristo only escape because a little boy whistles to them, and guides them through the maze of back gardens, rooftops and then a long gruelling elbows and knees crawl through a disused sewer out beyond the village boundaries, from where they escape.

They are debriefed by Ulysse, over extended conversations, shown photographs, asked to identify the forces that attacked them. Ulysse tells them the entire population of Cabejac was exterminated by the Germans for collaborating. Eidenbaugh’s nerves are shot. He is being exfiltrated to Switzerland. Does Khristo want to go with him? Yes. So, after a nerve-wracking search of the peasant vegetable cart he is driving as cover by a punctilious German at the border, he finally escapes into Switzerland, to a half-hearted ‘internment’ which in fact amounts to him reading newspapers from his homeland and writing intelligence reports. In one of them he comes across a photo of Faye Berns, now a leading light in the American war effort, and thinks of the days in Madrid.

Bessarabia

It is December 1944 and Ilya Goldman has been buried in a crap job as an inspector of the gold mine labour camps of the river Kolyma. Here, in camp 782, to his astonishment he meets Sascha, the one-time dandy and poet, now a wreck of a haggard survivor, prisoner number 503775, who promptly blackmails his old friend, threatening to tell the authorities about his membership of the sinister BF825 brotherhood unless Ilya can get him a transfer to a camp in European Russia, from which he plans to flee to Romania. The other part of his plan is to get Ilya to convey to Voluta of the Polish NOV organisation, the fact that Sascha wants to defect and bears a lot of valuable information for the West. (As an example he says he knows that operative Andres from Madrid was killed by slow acting poison on orders of the NKVD in 1937.) Sascha will make his way to the village of Sfintu Gheorghe, there to be collected on a certain date. There are some highly believable sequences which show the elaborate lengths Ilya must go to in order to forge the transfer documents for Sascha. But he does it.

In a complete switch of scene which we are by now used to, we see Khristo approached by the American intelligence agency, the OSS and asked to perform a mission in Prague, operation FELDSPAR. He is given some training then parachuted in with a new model of lightweight radio. He hides in a bombed-out factory and his mission is to use the cover of being a Yugoslav munitions worker in order to send radio messages to a specially adapted RAF Mosquito, describing the war effort and situation in Czechoslovakia for his US masters. There is a lot of circumstantial detail, not least the taking of a plump Czech lover, Magda. It is she who stuns him one day by bringing a message from a Mr BF825 to meet at a certain bar at a certain time. Khristo is terrified. Someone not only knows he is here, but knows his past that far back. Is he about to be handed over to the Germans? Executed by the NKVD?

In the bar he is astonished to be met by Voluta, the quiet Pole who Goldman told him had turned out to be an agent for Polish intelligence all along. They don’t speak, but eat separately, till Voluta palms him a note which Khristo reads in the toilets, saying let’s meet on the bridge tonight. But when he goes to meet Voluta, way after curfew, on a dark deserted bridge, he watches helplessly as Voluta is shot dead from a passing car. NKVD? Germans? Not Germans because the rendezvous had been staked out by German intelligence, one of whom follows Khristo back to his bombed-out warehouse base and dies a horrible death.

But Khristo had got enough of the message about Sascha to wind up affairs in Prague. To his amazement Magda helps him escape to Bratislava, by tucking him under the rug in a carful of her friends dolled up to the nines, stinking of perfume and booze which they drive there, getting through every checkpoint on the way by saying they’re going to meet their German boyfriends and show them a good time. Let out of the car in Bratislava, Khristo takes in the bodies of German deserters hanging from the lamp posts and the silhouette of the bombed-out derricks.

He watches in surprise a tug pulling barges full of German wounded being strafed by a Russian jet and then, on an impulse, dives into the wide Danube river and just about manages to swim out to the tug and pull himself aboard by a trailing rope.

Now begins a long rather hallucinatory journey down the river Danube on the tug Tiza, skippered by the immense, confident capable Annika. She doesn’t mind having an able-bodied man to help her out and they form a rough wartime alliance as she sets off in company of several other tugs, back east along the river. At Budapest this rough friendship comes to an end as Khristo is arrested and interrogated by the occupying Russians but then released, he is obviously a river rat and they have bigger concerns as their army fights its way into Eastern Europe. Khristo wanders through bombed-out Budapest and then sets off on foot along the road bordering the river south towards Yugoslavia, becoming progressively more hungry and thirsty, dirty and careless as he proceeds.

He is lucky enough to be hailed by a Russian soldier in a rowing boat, a man who had both legs blown off by a landmine, and would welcome some able bodied help. Khristo rows, the man gives him clean water and food. Near the town of Osijek Khristo sees the insignia BF825 carved into the bow of a rotting barge. He abandons the rowboat and says hello to the old geezer fishing from the barge, who stiffly stands up and takes him to his son.

It is the badly disfigured Drazen Kulic, who escaped from Spain and made it back to his native Yugoslavia to become a partisan. Kulic takes Khristo up to their mountain headquarters. He explains the ‘mission’ – to identify Sascha and protect him until handed over to the Americans, if they show up. He warns Khristo he has a bad feeling about it all; it might be a trap. He takes Khristo up to their little partisan graveyard and shows him the headstone of Aleksandra. Goldman managed to get her safe passage this far south and Kulic protected her until she eventually took up arms and fought with them and was killed in a firefight with the Germans.

Kulic arranges Khristo’s passage on a barge named Brovno. This carries him further down the Danube to the village of Sfintu Gheorge, where Khristo a) witnesses a drunken village celebration, as someone has left the villagers a surprise present of food, fruit and vegetables b) climbs up into the dark attic of the local church, whispering Sascha’s name only for – pop – a gun to flare in the dark and to be shot in the chest. Down the ladder he falls and crawls out into the night eerily lit by flames from the village bonfire and celebration, and down after him comes Sascha, now almost mad, run-down, disorientated. Against all the odds he has made it this far but when he heard a Russian voice his first instinct was to shoot.

As he dies Khristo dreams men approaching and lifting him, a boat, a flying boat, water, engines, all supervised by an American with a machine gun.

In a complete break from this gripping narrative, we are suddenly in Palestine in April 1945, where the tired reception clerk Heshel Zavi at an immigration centre is processing yet more refugees. Number 183 in front of him turns out to be more able and biddable than most of the specimens he sees, and volunteers to help, to become a night watchman, maybe more. This one will go far, thinks Zavi. It isn’t made explicit but this would seem to be Goldman, and the reader is happy that he has survived the bloodbath and the cumulated weight of his story adds to your understanding of the founding of the state of Israel.

The very last  scene moves to a third party point of view, a little in the manner of Graham Greene, who liked to switch things away from his protagonist at the last moment. In Greene it is done to emphasise the author’s despairing world-view and to belittle the protagonists. Here it does the opposite, and the novel ends with a very American happy ending, as two enthusiastic women greeters whose job it is at the New York docks to greet veterans of the European war with fresh doughnuts and coffee, watch an unusual Slavic-looking man, walking with a limp and touching his hand to his left side as if in pain (and that’s what identifies him to the reader as Khristo) look around disoriented as he reaches the bottom of the gangway. A young woman waves to him and they meet, shake hands and then, under the approving gaze of the two greeters, link arms and walk away.

Their names aren’t mentioned but it must be Khristo, patched up and returned to the States by American intelligence after performing sterling work for them, being met at the dockside by Faye Berns, with the very strong implication that, with all their shared memories, they will fall in love.

It is an immensely moving finale to an epic novel, and gives the reader a very profound sense of what America meant to so many people in the later 19th century and throughout the 20th century, escape, a real sanctuary from the terrors of a Europe gone mad, in the most literal sense, the land of the free.


Comments

Tough start The first 60 or 70 pages set in a peasant village in Bulgaria are very slow moving and don’t give any sense of the breadth and scale which the novel will eventually cover, nor the epic range, nor the large cast of varied characters whose stories shed light on a dozen countries. First time round I found it hard getting past this opening, but it is well worth persevering.

Permanent menace Furst establishes the atmosphere of menace right for the start, when Khristo sees his simple-minded younger brother get kicked to death in front of him by local fascists, who then attack a meeting of sympathetic villagers organised by the Bolshevik, killing another man and locking the others into a house which they set fire to. The atmosphere of permanent menace and unease increases in the Moscow of 1934, with the trainee spies under observation at every point. In fact from start to finish you are in a world where every single conversation is the intersecting point of multiple motives, from the personal, to the highly political, via a maze of conflicting power struggles.

Vignettes I came to this book having just read a couple of John le Carré novels, which had very defined lead characters and very strong central narratives. I found Night Soldiers a relief because it was much more contingent feeling: it contains hundreds of anecdotes and vignettes, some only peripherally related to the central characters, and with no very strong sense of a central narrative. For long stretches I wasn’t sure who were the central characters – after Khristo is put in a Paris prison I really thought that was the last we’d hear of him and the new section which begins with the American I thought might signal a completely new series of episodes.

This is a good thing because a) it made the novel a lot less predictable, in fact it made it drastically unpredictable throughout the second half, which made it feel much more tense and interesting; b) it made it feel panoramic: scores of episodes give a powerful sense not just of a handful of lead characters, but of an entire culture, of an entire continent, hurtling to destruction.

Lyricism And, surprisingly for a book which contains so much brutal violence and so much cynical betrayal, there are scenes of great lyricism, especially the moments when Khristo is in his lovers’ apartment with Aleksandre, moments when the smoke for his Gitane cigarette spirals delicately towards the ceiling, or Aleksandre’s silhouette is captured against the skylight, moments which feel like a powerfully atmospheric black and white photo from the era. The very harsh world the characters inhabit is leavened by these moments of sensuality and feeling, to give the whole production a very distinctive, smoky, richly varied flavour.

This is a stunningly brilliant book.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

HarperCollins paperback edition of Night Soldiers

The artwork for these HarperCollins paperback editions brilliantly conveys the atmosphere and setting of the novels, with the use of moody b&w shots of some European urban scene with shadowy figures under streetlamps at night. They are credited to Willy Ronis/Rapho/Network.

Related links

1988 Night Soldiers – An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Barjeel Art Foundation: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism II @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Last December the first of four exhibitions opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery next to Aldgate tube, showcasing highlights from the BAF collection. As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years. It will feature over 100 paintings by 60 artists.

This is the second instalment – on show until 17 April 2017 – and it explores the development of abstract and figurative art in the twenty years after the fateful Six-Day War in 1967.

The first instalment featured forty oil paintings in one medium sized room. This one has only 24 paintings and immediately feels more relaxed and accessible.

The paintings

But as with part one, it still feels like a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of styles and subject matter hanging side by side. Again, it was difficult to get an overall view.

Central to the room is this large painting by Syrian artist Marwan. I thought it was a novel and interesting way to depict the human figure and face. Not much emotion. The oddity of being human.

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation

Marwan had been represented in the first show by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures, Munif al-Razzaz (1965) and Der Gemahl (1966), now this. He is still alive and a quick google search shows that his later style changed out of all recognition since then.

Five silk screens from the 1980s by the influential artist Kamal Boullata (born Jerusalem) based on Islamic calligraphy – which is traditionally curled and flowing – abstracted and turned into geometric designs. I didn’t massively like them but they were the most distinctive works here. The Visitor Assistant in the room explained how Arabic letters had been reduced to primal elements, and also that they play with Islamic tenets, hence ‘There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’’, an obvious play on the basic Muslim creed, There is no God but God.

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939), Iraq’s most influential artist, also featured in the first show with the powerful Mask of the Pretenders. He was a co-founder of the New Visions group in Baghdad but fled the regime in 1976 and settled in London. Here we have three works (only two of which I can find online):

  • Untitled 1976
  • Composition 1980 Maybe my favourite piece in the show. I liked the ragged outline of the work, made of two sections as if cut out by scissors, the way the tongue of colour hangs down at the bottom, and yet it is all finished with a strong sense of design and colour.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work, but that doesn’t come across here, you have to visit his websites to see this.

Sulemein Mansour (Palestine 1947) – Olive field

Abdul Qader Al Rais (United Arab Emirates) Untitled (1970). Surely this is very bad, the kind of thing you see lined up against the railings of London parks to be flogged off to undiscriminating tourists.

Walid Shami (b. Syria 1949) – Maryam 1972

Hamed Nada (Egypt) – Fortune teller and cat Superficially scratchy and angley like George Grosz, but really something different.

Tayseer Barakat (b. Palestine 1959) – Untitled 1983

Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria 1922-96) – Al-Wahesh wal Muskeen, 1987. A red dog on the left is menacing some blue meanies in the centre.

Abdelkader Guermaz (Syria 1919-96) – Rêve 1975

Miloud Labeid (Morocco) Composition 1973

Shafic Abboud (Lebanon 1926-2004) – Relief 1977

Farid Belkahia (Morocco 1934-2014) – Aube

Huguette (b. Lebanon 1931) A very well known Arab woman artist, apparently. According to the wall label she is ‘drawn to nuanced representations of her own body’, and Erotic composition ‘focuses on the sensitivity of her own body.’ Compare and contrast with the women photographing their own naked bodies at Tate Modern’s Performing for the camera exhibition, from the same time (late 60s, early 70s).

  • City II (1968)
  • Erotic composition (1967) Googling this, you find out it’s only one of scores of similar drawings and paintings which refer very allusively to the body. Would have been nice to see a series of them to put them in the context of her work.

Jafar Islah (b. Kuwait 1946) – Colour with black and grey (1968)

Ibrahim el-Salahi (b. Sudan 1930) In the present, 1987. One of the leading figures in Arab and African modernism, el-Salahi mingles traditional and Western depictions of the human figure. Like so many of these artists, he left his homeland and settled in England in the 1990s. Again, googling this image, I discovered there are scores more done in the same style. Displayed on its own it looks isolated and inexplicable. Set in the context of lots of other images done in the same style would help you understand how it is a complete way of seeing.

Hassan Sharif (b. UAE 1951) – Man, 1980

Conclusion

It’s not a great exhibition, and only worth visiting for a few pieces (the Marwan, Boullata’s silks, the Dia al-Awazzi). Basically, for making a detour upstairs if you were visiting the Whitechapel anyway, for the Electronic Superhighway show. Mostly it looks like the undistinguished kind of provincial modernism my parents used to buy as posters or framed prints from Ikea in the 1970s. Lots of brown.

In conversation with the Visitor Assistant, we agreed we’d both seen more interesting, in fact some dazzling work, by some of the artists on display here. Most of the pleasure has come from googling these artists and discovering a world of achievement. It’s only by doing this that I’ve discovered how eminent (and great) some of them are.

Which leads to two thoughts:

  1. Four consecutive shows spread over the year, each dedicated to one of the obviously major artists here, would have had more impact. ‘An Arab Year’ would have been a real event. Tricky to choose which four, though…
  2. Maybe the Barjeel foundation, no matter how good its intentions, in fact only has a very average collection. Maybe what we’re seeing here is a misleadingly second-rate snapshot of Arab art, for the sake of comprehensiveness including works which are definitely not up to snuff, and even of the leading figures like Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi only showing very average examples.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of the better artists, just got to figure out where…

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