”Wouldn’t it be a better world if people revealed themselves? Did what they secretly wanted? ‘I know you want to kiss me,’ she said. ‘What are you afraid of?’ So he locked the door and they went ahead with it, his hands exploring her...She stood, removed hat and dress, then...suddenly self-conscious, ‘Would you look away for a moment?’ He did, discovering a perfect image of the dimly lit compartment in the dark window as she wriggled out of the girdle, freeing a cascade of soft, rosy flesh.”
Parisian Girdle from the late 1930s.
It is 1937 and Christian Ferrar is a Spanish ex-pat living in Paris making a very good living working as a lawyer for a prestigious firm. The Spanish Civil War is going on and times are desperate for the Spanish Republic as Axis troops from Germany and Italy have joined the Francisco Franco Nationalists effort to overthrow the government. Interesting enough the Soviet Union and Mexico are allied with the Spanish Republic. Ferrar has an extended family in France that he is supporting, and so though he wants to go join the fight to protect the Republic it would mean leaving his family impoverished.
I’ve always liked this shot of Hemingway working as a reporter and gathering material for a book in Spain in 1937.
Meanwhile he is enjoying his life in Paris so aptly described by one of his friends.
”The conversation drifted away, to life in Paris and then, as they worked through the second bottle of wine and ordered a third, to nightlife in Paris; nightclubs high and low, and brothels catering to every imaginable inclination…. ‘The Parisians are worldly in these matters,’ he said. ‘They believe that with money, all things are possible. They accept the reality of the human appetite, and the reality of markets. Here, one can have whatever one can pay for. I have always admired their point of view.’”
Ferrar is offered the services of a high class madam who has a stable of aristocratic women indebted to their dressmakers, but he prefers his lovemaking infused with passion.
”No, I like love affairs, a woman’s desire is the best aphrodisiac.”
I would give Ferrar a high five if I could walk into the pages of this book, sit down at the table with him, light a Gitanes cigarette (I would most assuredly have smoked in 1937.), and order myself a gentiane.
Gitanes Cigarette Poster from the 1930s.
The Spanish Republic is in desperate need of supplies, weapons that can be bought from the Soviets, but must be moved by ship and train through German controlled territory to Spain. (Danzig or Gdansk, a city with an interesting history.) Ferrar is asked to be a broker to help move those much needed weapons to his friends in Spain. His predecessor, a museum director, did not fare well. One of the issues for the Republic is that they don’t have a professional spy organization and so have to recruit amateurs to be those valuable facilitators to keep the war effort alive.
Iconic Robert Capa photo of a Falling Republican Soldier.
Ferrar meets people, some working for the cause and some selling information to whoever is willing to pay. I particularly liked the description of Professor Z.
”Finding Professor Z was not hard; he was sitting on a bench at the foot of a staircase beneath an ivy-covered pergola, reading a French novel. When he looked up and saw de Lyon, he kept his place in the book with his finger, and there it stayed for the length of the conversation. The professor was wearing a battered old chalk-stripe suit and had the sort of beard worn by men who don’t like to shave but don’t like beards either; a scraggly growth, brown and gray, chopped back when it grew too long. He was smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder and was, apparently, a chain-smoker--there were more than a few squashed-out butts on the brick cobblestones by his feet.”
Haven’t we all been in that position with our finger in a book waiting for someone to stop talking to us? Books always play a part in Alan Furst novels. Ferrar’s girlfriend in New York is a librarian by day and a lurid pulp fiction writer by night. Furst’s characters generally are readers and Ferrar is no exception. When time drags he picks up Robert Byron’s book The Road to Oxiana which is still considered one of the classics of travel writing about the Middle East.
Lose yourself for a moment along with Ferrar in Persia in 1933.
”The day’s journey had a wild exhilaration. Up and down the mountains, over the endless flats, we bumped and swooped. The sun flayed us. Great spirals of dust, dancing like demons over the desert, stopped our dashing Chevrolet and choked us. Suddenly, from far across the valley, came the flash of a turquoise jar, bobbing along on a donkey. Its owner walked beside it, clad in a duller blue. And seeing the two lost in that gigantic stony waste, I understood why blue is the Persian colour, and why the Persian word for it means water as well.”
Robert Byron, a writer who died way too young.
Alan Furst has a talent for infusing his atmospheric novels with elegance, sensuality, anxiety, sacrifice, and cleverness. His characters, generally, are common people placed in uncommon circumstances who sometimes have to choose between loyalty or survival. Things go wrong. Sometimes luck is as important as skill. His characters are learning the rules of the game on the fly and the penalty for losing is best not thought about. There is a stylishness that I really appreciate in a Furst novel. He places me back in time, a time that was full of danger and possibilities. A time when a beautiful countess might be the love of your life or she might be the one who tries to kill you. A time when criminals are useful and crimes have new definitions. A time of changing alliances and trust is a difficult commodity to earn. A time when a man might save the world and the world will never know it.
I highly recommend his Night Soldiers series. They all work fine as stand alone novels so no need to read them in order. I was first introduced to Furst with The World at Night so I have a soft spot for it. I believe that universally The Polish Officer is considered one of his best. I won’t disagree with that assertion.