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

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