Rene Guillot, the last weekend of a small seaside
hotel in the south of France. Danielle Aubin (Citrine)
is ravishing as a mysterious stranger.
THE WORLD AT NIGHT.
A Reader's Guide.
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The Research of Alan Furst's Novels.
Alan Furst describes the area of his interest as "near history." His novels are set between 1933--the date of Adolf Hitler's ascent, with the first Stalinist purges in Moscow coming a year later--and 1945, which saw the end of the war in Europe. The history of this period is well documented. Furst uses books by journalists of the time, personal memoirs--some privately published--autobiographies (many of the prominent individuals of the period wrote them), war and political histories, and characteristic novels written during those years.
"But," he says, "there is a lot more"--for example, period newsreels, magazines, and newspapers, as well as films and music, especially swing and jazz. "I buy old books," Furst says, "and old maps, and I once bought, while living in Paris, the photo archive of a French stock house that served the newspapers of Paris during the Occupation, all the prints marked as cleared by the German censorship." In addition, Furst uses intelligence histories of the time, many of them by British writers.
Alan Furst has lived for long periods in Paris and in the south of France. "In Europe," he says, "the past is still available. I remember a blue neon sign, in the Eleventh Arrondiss.e.m.e.nt in Paris, that had possibly been there since the 1930s." He recalls that on the French holiday le jour des morts (All Saints' Day, November 1) it is customary for Parisians to go to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. "Before the collapse of Polish communism, the Polish emigres used to gather at the tomb of Maria Walewska. They would burn rows of votive candles and play Chopin on a portable stereo. It was always raining on that day, and a dozen or so Poles would stand there, under black umbrellas, with the music playing, as a kind of silent protest against the communist regime. The spirit of this action was history alive--as though the entire past of that country, conquered again and again, was being brought back to life."
The heroes of Alan Furst's novels include a Bulgarian defector from the Soviet intelligence service, a foreign correspondent for Pravda, a Polish cartographer who works for the army general staff, a French producer of gangster films, and a Hungarian emigre who works with a diplomat at the Hungarian legation in Paris. "These are characters in novels," Furst says, "but people like them existed; people like them were courageous people with ordinary lives and, when the moment came, they acted with bravery and determination. I simply make it possible for them to tell their stories."
Questions for Discussion.
1. If you asked Jean Casson to define the word honor, what would he say? Which, if any, of the following would be included: Loyalty to friends? Loyalty to country? Loyalty in love? Loyalty to self?
2. After his meeting with Simic, in which he is first offered the chance to work for British intelligence, Casson thinks to himself, "You think you know how the world works, but you really don't. These people are the ones who know how it works." How would you say Casson's understanding of the world has changed by the novel's conclusion? Has he become one of the people who know how the world "really works"?
3. To what extent is Casson culpable for the death of his friend Langlade?
4. During the early years of the German Occupation of France, a common question, which Langlade poses to Casson, was this: "If your barber cuts hair under the Occupation, does that make him a collaborator?" How would you respond? What would you have done in similar circumstances?
5. Alan Furst has said that his books are written from the point of view of the nation where the story takes place. Describe the French point of view as it appears in The World at Night.
6. Critics praise Furst's ability to re-create the atmosphere of World War II-era Europe. What elements of description make the setting come alive? How can you account for the fact that the settings seem authentic even though you probably have no firsthand knowledge of the times and places he writes about?
7. Furst's novels have been described as "historical novels," and as "spy novels." He calls them "historical spy novels." Some critics have insisted that they are, simply, novels. How does his work compare with other spy novels you've read? What does he do that is the same? Different? If you owned a bookstore, in what section would you display his books?
8. Furst is often praised for his minor characters, which have been described as "sketched out in a few strokes." Do you have a favorite in this book? Characters in his books often take part in the action for a few pages and then disappear. What do you think becomes of them? How do you know?
9. At the end of an Alan Furst novel, the hero is always still alive. What becomes of Furst's heroes? Will they survive the war? Does Furst know what becomes of them? Would it be better if they were somewhere safe and sound, to live out the war in comfort? If not, why not?
10. How do the notions of good and evil work in The World at Night? Would you prefer a confrontation between villain and hero? Describe Furst's use of realism in this regard.
There is an enormous body of literature, fiction and nonfiction, written about the period 1933-1945, so Alan Furst's recommendations for reading in that era are very specific. He often uses characters who are idealistic intellectuals, particularly French and Russian, who become disillusioned with the Soviet Union but still find themselves caught up in the political warfare of the period. "Among the historical figures who wrote about that time," Furst says, "Arthur Koestler may well be 'first among equals.' " Furst suggests Koestler's Darkness at Noon as a classic story of the European intellectual at midcentury.
Furst, as a novelist of historical espionage, is most often compared with the British authors Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. Asked about Ambler's books, Furst replies that "the best one I know is A Coffin for Dimitrios." Published in 1939, a month before the invasion of Poland, Ambler's novel concentrates on clandestine operations in the Balkans and includes murder for money, political assassination, espionage, and drug smuggling. The plot, like that of an Alan Furst novel, weaves intrigue and conspiracy into the real politics of 1930s Europe.
For the reality of daily life in eastern Europe, Furst suggests the novelist Gregor von Rezzori, of Italian/Austro-Hungarian background, who grew up in a remote corner of southeastern Europe, between the wars, and writes about it brilliantly in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which takes place in the villages of Romania and the city of Bucharest in the years before the war.
To see life in that period from the German perspective, Furst says that Christopher Isherwood's novels The Last of Mr. Norris and Good-bye to Berlin are among the best possible choices. The sources for the stage plays I Am a Camera and Cabaret, these are novelized autobiographies of Isherwood's time in Berlin; they are now published as The Berlin Stories. Furst calls them "perceptive and wonderfully written chronicles of bohemian life during the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the n.a.z.i party."
For a historical overview of the period, Alan Furst recommends Martin Gilbert's A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Two: 1933-1951. All the major political events that rule the lives of the characters in Alan Furst's novels are described, in chronological sequence, in this history.
ALSO BY ALAN FURST.
The Polish Officer.
Kingdom of Shadows.
Blood of Victory.
The Foreign Correspondent.