Through the Eyes of Others: an Interview with Alan Furst

I’m no historian, and like many who have read about WWII, my point of view was pretty much American and Western European—until I read Dark Star. I not only became an immediate and impassioned convert to the books of Alan Furst, but also to the notion of viewing WWII through communist eyes, through the eyes of Europe’s dying aristocracy, through Eastern European eyes, and of seeing how the differences between their perspectives and ours played into the currents and cross currents washing over the world in the 1930s and ‘40s. That interest has pulled me from one of Alan Furst’s books to another and in each he’s tilted the axis a little and given his readers yet another angle on war, on spying, on history. He’s also given us one compelling character after another, each conceived in understated but dazzling prose; plots that while often labyrinthine are always believable; narrative that is as addictive as it is brilliant. Each new novel by Alan Furst is an event at The King’s English, none more so than The Spies of Warsaw; we are eagerly awaiting Furst’s June visit to TKE on June 18, 7 p.m. – Betsy Burton

BETSY BURTON: The Spies of Warsaw, your latest novel, is set in Poland in the years leading up to the war, but the protagonist, Mercier, is French. This fact lends a dual perspective to the story you tell—and to the history behind it—that makes the novel doubly fascinating. I was wondering whether your obvious interest in regarding the war from different points of view, whether Eastern or Western European, is occasioned by something in your own background or whether it springs out of some journalistic or literary curiosity.

ALAN FURST: My interest is basically in the information furnished by seeing history through different lenses. And it’s such an interesting way to look at history. History’s a little like a visit to the optometrist’s office where they place a metal frame on your nose and put on different lenses for you to look through. In the same way, it’s useful to look at history through different lenses: through the lens of a different culture, or through the lens of prosperity or of a recession. The different ways cultures look at each other are what make history so interesting.

BB: Although some of your books take place during the war, many—including The Spies of Warsaw—take place during the years leading up to the war, a time when old-world Europe was headed for a direct collision with the brutal worlds of Nazism and Stalinism. Could you talk about your interest in these pre-war years?

AF: When I first started doing this I didn’t know much about the war. As I began to read (as an historical novelist), I discovered the richest part of the history of the war started long before the war actually began. In 1933, Hitler; in1934, purges in Russia; in 1936, civil war in Spain—I think that if the democratic governments in Europe had supported the Republican government, World War II might not have occurred. Franco’s victory encouraged the Fascists. Everyone in Europe was very engaged in that war and the Fascists won. All the horrible things we know of followed from that. In 1936, the March into the Rhineland, Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement tells Hitler he can do whatever he wants, Czechoslovakia is overrun; in 1938, The Night of the Long Knives, and then Vienna is taken (Vienna longed to be taken, loved being taken.); 1939-1940, by the time Poland is invaded in 1939, and France and the low countries in 1940, a lot has already happened. Then there’s a sort of phony war—until Yugoslavia and Greece are overrun in 1941, and Russia is attacked in 1941, the U. S. is just twiddling its thumbs. In December, 1941, the Japanese attack us, so—and it’s really in 1942—we finally engage fully and are truly in the war. And then, by winter of 1943, when the Germans are stopped at Stalingrad, everyone knows the war is over.

There was much more passion and idealism in Europe before that point. Once everyone knew it was over, no one wanted to be the last one to die. Except those who, now that they knew who was winning, suddenly joined the Resistance. Then there were terrible civil wars. I didn’t want to go there. I did in one book, Night Soldiers, because at the time I thought it was the only book I’d write about all of this. So I took it all the way to 1945. But when I decided I’d write many more books about this time, I had no desire to go there [to the end of the war]. And I never have.

BB: In all your books the protagonists operate in a moral universe despite their success in the immoral world of war. Mercier is a brutal realist in some ways; he uses the German engineer, for example, pushing him into mortal danger with little or no concern for Uhl’s safety. Yet Mercier holds the readers’ sympathy. This strikes me as a delicate balance to maintain—on the one hand creating behavior that is consistent with the reality of war and on the other maintaining a level of humanity. Most so-called thriller writers do so by creating obvious villains against whom the “heroes” are pitted. In your much more realistic and complex books every character is at least in part a villain. Can you talk a bit about this moral universe they inhabit and how you maintain that balance?

AF: The truth is your savior in this case—Mercier has a job that needs doing. He likes his job. He’s a fifth generation military officer. And he doesn’t like Uhl. But he doesn’t recruit Uhl either. I hope it doesn’t show, but that’s a novelistic device. He doesn’t like Uhl though. Because Uhl’s a traitor and Mercier doesn’t like traitors.

Then, Mercier doesn’t really think much about Uhl. He thinks about the information Uhl gives him. About tank specifications. History is full of the preparations for war. For example, during the time when the English were using long bows, did you know that every Englishman had to plant a Yew Tree? Have you seen the way the English give what we would call ‘the finger’? They hold up the index and middle fingers—their bow fingers. It means, I still have my bow fingers. Turn it around and it’s the victory sign. Or the peace sign.

But getting back to your question, a lot of my people do things in war that no one would approve of in peacetime. In war a lot of the things we like about ourselves are suspended. Novels are always about moral choices. In this case, war is not a lens but a magnifying glass.

BB: Two things immediately strike anyone reading your books; the first and most apparent is your staggering knowledge of WWII history—in such far-ranging locales as Istanbul, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, Paris, Prague, to name but a few—and the second is your literary skill. So my question is, were you trained as an historian? As a novelist? And whichever is the case, how did the confluence of these two skills first occur?

AF: I took only Classical history classes [in college] nothing European or American. But remember that so-called autodidacts, people who are self-taught, know so much because they teach themselves. I took writing classes in school, but only to get an easy A; I never learned anything in a writing class.

I was always interested in history, though. I was a medievalist in graduate school but I never thought I’d teach. Never wanted to teach, although a couple of times I applied when I was poor. I never was accepted.

Historical novelists work hard at writing. Mary Renault, for instance. I liked The Praise Singer. And Count Belasarius by Robert Graves. Many Shakespeare plays are historical. The story in the play “Hamlet” is based on “Havelock,” a 12th century legend.

BB: There’s a sort of noir sensibility coupled with an underlying romanticism in your books that I love. But there’s a huge difference between your characters and much of what is labeled as noir—books in which one man alone—or with a woman who loves him—is pitted against a hostile universe. Unlike many American hard-boiled mysteries which have their roots in American Western novels, or so it seems to me, your work appears to come out of a more European tradition in which each character is part of an intricate network of connections and loyalties. Did this view of character and of the way the world works grow out of your research on the war or out of your personal view of humanity?

AF: Neither. It came out of the fact that I was a Europhile when I was young and I read a lot of European novels. Critics have been kind to me but some of them look for a word that describes the atmosphere in my books and they say they’re “noir.” I don’t have a “noir” view of the world. It’s something else—it has to do with having absorbed the mood of the European novel. They’re [often] written as thrillers, The Stranger, The Plague by Camus. Conrad of course. They are thrillers. And I liked them. They’re nothing like American novels. American detective novels, good ones, those by MacDonald and Chandler, aren’t about the same people as European novels. They’re about city gangsters, cops, colorful crazy people. When I went to prep school and then to Oberlin College, I discovered European intellectuals. A Russian who taught Russian Literature. And the German professor who taught Comparative Lit. I’d never met people like this before.

When I stopped working on detective novels it was because I wanted to write about more interesting people. I wanted to write about Europeans and the way to do that was in spy novels. I wanted the exotic. Not the neon lights of L.A. The exotic. The real thing. Conrad is the real thing. He writes the political adventure novel. The intellectual adventure novel. So did Stendahl and Malraux. Orwell. I’m a novelist, but those writers are my background. The writers I loved. Malaparte, Moravia. Two Women. The Woman [of Rome]. Moravia writes a book about a woman prostitute and pulls it off. Elsa Morante. History is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but it’s unbearable. Too sad to read. Sometimes good writers just can’t hold back and something like History comes out.

BB: History has certainly come out in your case, in the form of one wonderful historical novel after another, all literary thrillers in the best sense of the word. For which we your readers thank you. And I thank you for your time today. We’re looking forward to your appearance at The King’s English in June.

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