Big Ugly Up-Bound into the Fog

Big Ugly Up-Bound into the Fog

This photo is a couple of days old, but fits the mood of this post, Nacht und Nebel, night and fog. I’ve just finished my first beach read, Alan Furst’s new novel, “Mission to Paris”. Furst’s novels are all of a feather, but are also evocative of their period that reading the next one, which was just like the last one doesn’t seem so bad. All of his novels start in pre-World War II Europe. Some make it into the war, but never past or even to the turning of the tide. He likes the harbingers of the gathering storm.

His novels are spy novels, novels of espionage and resistance, but it is not the plotting that drives his stories. It is tableau that he paints, the table that he sets, complete with marzipan tanks and planes at a Nazi banquet that I love to read. His heroes are always more than everyday men. They are good-looking enough to attract the sad and lonely women that populate his books. They are smart and lucky enough to always evade the Nazi thugs that they face. And they are moral enough not to be seduced by the easy way out of difficult situations. He has this one brassiere in Paris, where everyone one of his many novel’s protagonists have dined. Sometimes the protagonist from the current novel sees protagonists from past ones and rereading old stories shows hints of subsequent future intrigue.

Anyway, it was a good read and I know that Harry, who is also a Furst fan, is looking forward to reading it too. Speaking of Nazis, there is an independent German film that has come to my attention. It is called “Iron Sky”. The elevator pitch goes like this: At the end of World War II, Nazis launched a rocket to the dark side of the moon. They’ve been there for seventy-five years. Now they are coming back. Here is a YouTube video of the first four minutes of this rather campy movie. It gives you its flavor.

Red Gold

Sunday was another quiet day for me, but instead of playing Civilization all day again, I read instead.  Again though, I was too sedentary for Anne’s taste.  So, instead of accompanying her on her 19 mile bicycle ride in the Park Sunday afternoon, I finished my book and successfully held down the couch.  It has been a bit jumpy as of late.  I was reading or maybe more accurately rereading Alan Furst’s novel Red Gold.  I had just finished rereading another Furst novel, The World at Night, when I picked up Red Gold again on Sunday morning.  Maybe I read them out of order the first time, but this time, I realized that not only did both books center on the same character, Jean Casson, a French film producer, but that Red Gold picked up right where The World at Night ended.

Alan Furst writes novels that he describes as “near history”.  All of his books are set in Europe between the years, 1933, the year Hitler came to power and 1945, the end of World War II.  All of his works are well researched, with exquisite attention to period detail.  Critics exclaim that his fiction is as close to the feel of Casablanca, as has been produce since the movie was made.  Furst’s novels are chocked full with spies, intrigue, action and suspense, but unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Robert Ludlum’s Jason Borne none of Furst’s characters are superhuman secret agents.  Even John le Carré’ George Smiley is a professional, albeit a human one, compared to Furst’s cadre of amateurs.  

The pictures used in this post were photographed in occupied Paris by Andre Zucca, a Frenchman who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.  Zucca used rare Agfacolor film supplied by the Germans to take these pictures.  Many of his pictures also appeared in Nazi propaganda magazines during the war and painted a picture of Paris as both “animated and gay”.  Zucca was arrested in 1944, after the liberation but was never prosecuted.  He worked until his death under an assumed name as a wedding photographer.  The pictures included with this post are just a few examples from a photographic show of Zucca work that appeared in Paris in 2008.  This show created quite the uproar, culminating with the Mayor of Paris decreeing that a warning be made decrying the depiction of wartime Paris as such a sunny place.

In-between the Nazis and their deprivations, the Jews and their sufferings and the French and their fears, Furst always manages to insert a few sunny moments into his novels.  These are the everyday moments that someone like Zucca could have captured and then exploited.  Furst’s characters are everyday people who are just trying to live their lives as best that they can in terrible times.  I guess what I liked most about Furst’s novels was that compared to a Bond, Borne or even a Smiley, his characters seem like real people, people that might have actually lived in Paris and not just some comic book stereotype.

Spies of the Balkans

Alan Furst is an author of historical spy novels set just prior to and during the Second World War.  He has written eleven novels in this genre and I have read them all.  His latest work is Spies of the Balkans.  Anyone of these novels could substitute as the script for the movie Casablanca.  Although there are few Americans in these books, the rest of the polyglot cast is present and did I mention Nazis?  Yes, there are always lots of Nazis.

From his first novel in this genre, Night Soldiers, to his most recent, there are similarities between the different stories that border upon repetition.  Furst dances close to this line, but never crosses it.  Prototypical of this dance is his use of the Paris Brasserie, Heininger, as a scene in every one of his novels.  In each book this scene is populated by that novel’s main character, but in each book that character’s context is different.  For some it is a one time visit, for others it is a favorite meeting place.  In the latter case there are other occupants of the Brasserie that sometimes raise the protagonist’s suspicion.  I suspect that a careful cross referencing of Furst’s books will find a correlation between the suspicious glances of one book’s character with that of another’s.

What makes Furst’s novels compelling is the detail with which he paints his scenes.  He garners these details from period books by foreign correspondents.  According to Furst:

Their books were always called “Flames Over Europe.” They always told people exactly what was going to happen and they were never believed.

This is a genre that I am naturally susceptible to, Spies and Nazis and Bears, Oh my! 

The following synopsis is derived from Borders, where I buy all my books:

Set in Greece in 1940, Spies of the Balkans, focuses on Costa Zannis, a senior Salonika police official known for his honesty and discretion.  As the Nazis’ intentions for Europe’s Jews becomes clear, Zannis goes out of his way to aid refugees seeking to escape Germany.  When Mussolini invades Greece, Zannis joins the army, where he meets Captain Marko Pavlic, who as a policeman in Zagreb investigated crimes committed by Croatian fascists. With their similar politics, Zannis and Pavlic soon become friends and allies. Subtle details foreshadow the coming Nazi crimes.

Did I mention that I liked the book?