Friday, June 18, 2010

Alan Furst: A Kind Redux

Author Alan Furst is about to release his newest novel of espionage on the cusp of the Second World War, The Spies Of The Balkans. He will be appearing at The Bookstore, a block or so from the West Portal Muni station in San Francisco, at 7:00PM on Tuesday, June 22nd.

I'll be there, to listen to the man read an excerpt, buy the book and have it autographed. I hope they allow reading Dogs.

I'm doing something now that I don't like to do, which is repost an earlier piece from January about Furst and his writing. But I've put in two twelve-hour days, back-to-back, and don't have the energy to do a completely new take on this good writer -- even though I can't think about him without The Story that's included.

Something about the times we're living through made me remember a scene from one of my favorite Alan Furst novels, The World At Night: In June of 1940, Parisian film producer Jean Casson finds himself remobilized into the army, part of a cinematography unit documenting what ends up as a massive defeat, and on the road walking back to Paris, in that order.

As Casson watched, the country died. He saw a granary looted, a farmhouse burned by men in a truck, a crowd of prisoners in gray behind barbed wire.

One night, he bumps into an old man, drinking something yellow out of a bottle, which he shares around a campfire with Casson. They talk, obliquely, about the coming occupation.

“We’ll all live deep down, now,” the sculptor said, throwing a stick of wood on the fire. “Twenty ways to prepare a crayfish. Or, you know, chess. Sanskrit poetry. It will hurt like hell, sonny, you’ll see.”

Casson has spent his life in the milieu of exclusive, wealthy Parisian society -- not quite Ancien Regime, old-monied nobility, but right next door. He found a niche in film production, made some money at it; but, assigning motive and direction to characters in a script was much simpler than determining where ethical, even moral, boundaries are in his own life.

Casson's story is where he draws those lines, and to what or whom he owes his allegiances. Furst is very good at presenting his character's search, warts and all.

Alan Furst

I admire Furst's writing, and enjoyed World At Night -- and a sequel, Red Gold -- among his ten novels of living in a Europe during the mid-thirties, and espionage, on into the Second World War. I recommend his work without reservation; it's good (You can see an interview with Furst here, talking about his 2008 release, The Spies Of Warsaw).

And, I only have one Alan Furst story: In 2006, with the release of his then-newest novel, The Foreign Correspondent, Furst was scheduled to do make a brief appearance at Stacey's Bookstore, an institution on Market Street since the 1930's; it closed in 2008, a victim of The Crash.

He appeared on the second floor at the back, with windows overlooking the street and a perspective that reminded me of a narrow Gustave Callibote painting of a Paris street seen from a second-floor balcony (the trunk of a tree; a circular iron grate around its base; a glimpse of a pedestrian).

There were thirty or so people there, at one o'clock in the afternoon on a workday in midweek. Furst seemed slightly preoccupied, but read the opening segment of his book easily in a warm contralto. When it was over Furst answered questions, then signed copies of the book.

Stepping up, I mentioned to Furst that I'd particularly enjoyed The World At Night, and the sequel, and particularly liked the Jean Casson character; would he make any other appearances in another book?

Furst took my copy of Foreign Correspondent and looked at me as if stung. "No!" he said, with emphasis. "I had a bad relationship with my publisher at the time, and was locked into a contract. They 'suggested' to me that I write a sequel with Casson in it, and that's why I wrote Red Gold, under protest. It wasn't a happy experience for me."

I was surprised at his response, but added quickly that even so, it was a good read; I'd enjoyed it. Furst, who had bent down over a table to sign my copy of his newest, remained in that position and turned his head to look up at me.

"Thank you; that's very kind," he said quietly, then turned his head back to my copy of the book, and signed it.

Ever since then, when I've wanted to say Hey, pal; know what? You're an idiot to someone without being so blunt, I use that line -- a soft emphasis on the word 'kind', which indicates the comment is anything but sincere, and an assumption that the listener is too ignorant to comprehend the subtlety of the insult -- or, not; in which case the point is made, anyway.

But, fortunately or unfortunately, I don't have to spend time with Furst; I just buy and read his books. He's a good, even gifted, writer; his evocation of Europe on the edge of the abyss of nazi domination and occupation, and of people who resisted it, is brilliant.

Here's a tip: You can find good, used copies in hardback or paperback of any of Furst's work, some even signed if that's your thing, by ordering them through, or ABEbooks.

These bookselling services list inventory held by secondhand booksellers, who were having a hard time competing with McBorders or Burned & Ignoble even before the economy tanked. Want to buy books? Use either or both of these services. You'll wait a few days -- it won't be instant gratification -- but it's worth it.

Of course, Alan won't receive a dime from these sales -- but the secondhand booksellers of America will; I'm really fine with that. And, isn't that gesture, well... kind?

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