In each of Alan Furst's 14 novels about spies--not spy novels, he insists there is a difference--characters inevitably end up dining at Brasserie Heininger in Paris. The fictional restaurant, based on the real Brasserie Bofinger, with its opulent marble staircase and shucked oysters, represents the glamour and the joie de vivre of 1930s Paris, a city he calls "the heart of civilization."
Furst lived in Paris for many years, and it was there that he wrote Night Soldiers, the first of his historical thrillers. At 75, Furst is a rarity in the publishing world, both a critical success and a consistent best seller. Furst's novels, set during World War II or the years preceding it, feature opposing intelligence agencies, reluctant heroes and nations on the brink of war. His atmospheric books are full of shadows, doubt and unanswered questions. Whether writing about military blueprints in Warsaw or German refugees in Salonika, Furst's gift is an extraordinary sense of place. In his new novel, A Hero of France, the place is 1941 Paris. The French are unhappily being occupied by the Germans, and the book's hero, Mathieu, the leader of a French Resistance cell, navigates a web of collaborators, informers and spies, to fulfill his clandestine assignments.
Today, Furst lives in Sag Harbor, but this self-described "typical Upper West Side Jew" still dreams of a Paris that's long gone. Furst speaks with Deputy Editor Sarah Breger about his new book, anti-Semitism and why he considers himself a "novelist of consolation."
Why do you write exclusively about the period between 1933 and 1942?
It's the most incredibly intense period. If you look at the chronology, Hitler comes to power in 1933; in 1934 and 1935, there are purges in the U.S.S.R; 1936 is the Spanish Civil War; 1938 is Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia; 1939--the invasion of Poland; 1940, the invasion of France and the Low Countries; 1941, the invasion of the Soviet Union. But also, if you look at the literature, people were incredibly passionate. A lot of people didn't think they were going to live out their lives. Life was so dangerous in so many ways. At the same time, Casablanca was made. There was a huge flowering of the arts. I don't know what got into the world, but it suddenly became incredibly dynamic--and perfect for a writer like me. I couldn't write about the 1950s.
It's John le Carre who writes about the 1950s. In the 1930s, everybody knew what everything meant. It was clear. Good and evil, sharply defined, as they aren't in le Carre's novels. He writes about the hall of mirrors--what does this mean, what does that mean? He has the perfect personality for it. He's chilly, ironic, cold, distant. Very funny. He's an excellent, beautiful writer. Can he write! But...