Friday, January 16, 2009

A Slight Deviation - Alan Furst and Atmosphere




I know this blog is supposed to be about China and history but I feel compelled to plug Alan Furst. I know he’s been around for a while but I just discovered him browsing last year in a Sydney bookshop where I came across his latest book The Spies of Warsaw. I promptly devoured it on the flight home and immediately sought out everything else Furst has written.

The inter-war period is my period so Furst fits perfectly as his milieu is the eve and early years of the Second World War – spies, refugees, lost souls in occupied Paris, across mittel and Eastern Europe and quite often on passenger ships. White Russian émigré journalists, foreign correspondents living double lives and a host of amazingly seductive women characters - Furst has them all.

But what is most wonderful about Furst for the historian, who isn't hopelessly academic but rather likes the romance of the period, is that he is all about atmosphere – he captures all the style and small details of late thirties (Furst’s is certainly Auden’s 1930s – ‘the low dishonest decade’) and early 40s. Well worth reading all his books – not one is a dud.


I also think Furst has great covers with pictures often as atmospheric as the writing. The cover of The Spies of Warsaw (above, top) is especially captivating summing up all the romance, style and, for some reason, desperation of 1939 Europe. That you can't ever see the face of the women in the embrace is infuriating.Ultimately we, unlike Furst’s characters, know that their world is about to explode into flames and it is that pre-knowledge that makes his books so melancholy, or rather leave the reader with a sense of melancholy.

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