Saturday, May 26, 2012

The 50 Percent Theory

 (Spoilers Ahead)

During last week's rant against the ubiquity of crap fiction in the world of e-books, I mentioned a “50 percent theory” that I recall encountering in The New Yorker awhile ago: That when we say we love an author’s books, what we really mean is that we love, say, around half of them.

This week, in true hyper-textual fashion, I thought I’d explore that idea by reviewing a less-than-excellent book by a favorite writer of mine, one of those listed-and-linked on the side of this page.

My hapless victim is the fine and highly regarded historical spy writer, Alan Furst, the author of the splendid Night Soldiers, the first volume in his continuing saga about World War II, anti-Nazi resistance movements. Furst is considered, rightly I think, a successor to genre pioneer Eric Ambler, along with Graham Greene and John le Carrê (though I think less so in le Carrê’s case).

I’ve been reading the Night Soldiers series in order and Kingdom of Shadows, which I’ve just finished, is his sixth, published in 2000. Of the six, I think this one counts as one of that other 50 percent of his, along with Dark Star and World at Night.

Furst lays out the story of the European resistance in clever fashion by portraying, novel-by-novel, resistance movements in individual nations (starting from Bulgaria in Night Soldiers, though he allowed that narrative to sprawl, quite wonderfully I thought).

Since I read Night Soldiers, I’ve found Furst’s work follows the outlines of the 50 percent theory, in checkerboard fashion. Night Soldiers was followed by the forgettable Dark Star, which was followed by the eye-opening and stirring The Polish Officer. (The Poles fought the Nazis a lot harder than you think, even as they were being crushed and betrayed 360).

The Polish Officer in turn was followed by World at Night, a frustrating, desultory story of Jean Casson, a Parisian film producer who is tugged back and forth by various subterranean factions before and during the early days of Nazi occupation.

Despite its elegant, indirect and painterly evocation of Parisian alleyways and cafes, its lackadaisical character’s dance with espionage made for a lackadaisical book. Things aren’t helped by Jean’s sudden melodramatic dive overboard into the English Channel, fully dressed; the kind of stroke works fine in a movie like Casablanca, but seems arbitrary in a novel.

Casson’s heart remains as elusive as the secretive world he spends much of the book trying to avoid, but not as intriguing. Jean Casson is the callow, reluctant hero, struggling with the decision whether or not to join the Resistance. Good enough, but the impacts of outside events on him never seemed to come to life. I never felt touched by the war raging inside Jean. He seems to be dressed a in a finely tailored but hollow suit.

However, I’m glad to say, Casson filled out that empty suit in Furst’s next adventure, Red Gold, a breakneck, harrowing thriller of Casson’s adventures after he commits himself body and soul to the Resistance. Here, Casson comes live as a dashing though still-ambivalent hero, thanks to relentless, hair-raising, sometimes horrific, encounters with both German occupiers and treachery from other Frenchmen. I closed that book with an admiring shudder and admiration for the bravery it must have taken to stand up to the Nazis. Like the best war stories, it gave me to feelings of both excited admiration for its heroes and gratitude that I didn’t have to live through it.

But now I come to Kingdom of Shadows. Here, the 50 Percent Theory again seems useful. This time, we’re with the Hungarian segment of the Resistance, starting in March 1938, when Hitler’s evil forces—with some assist from Stalin--were gathering and the whole world seemed willing to give way before his stew of manipulation, deceit, and proud-faced bullying.

We experience this world through the eyes of Nicholas Morath, handsome Hungarian nobleman, sometime playboy, and patriot who’s living in exile in Paris. Morath is resolutely anti-Nazi, willing to do his utmost to serve his country. Unlike Jean Masson, Morath feels no doubt about joining the good fight. Unfortunately though, thanks to Hungary's fraught internal politics, he’s never sure whose side he’s working for, pro- or anti-Fascist.

Morath rapidly finds himself wandering that mirrored hall so often found in the house of spies. Even his boss (and close uncle) Count Polanyi, has no idea if their high-minded actions are helping their side or playing into the hands of the crypto-fascist Hungarians. One hand never knows what cards the other holds and everyone is at dangerous cross purposes, except, unfortunately, the bad guys. No one seems able to tease out the tangled threads of espionage.

By itself, this is an exciting, emotional scenario about the dilemmas people can encounter in trying to do the right thing in a baffling world. And there are bursts of excitement and suspense.

But Kingdom of Night feels like a cold, distant book. Its fog obfuscates more than it beckons. Furst writes in a style that evokes place and time, filled with lovely details and pithy observations that feel poetically right: At one point he mentions a Paris café located “between a butcher that sold halal meat to Arabs and kosher meat to Jews” while, at another point, an old man describes life as being like “licking honey off a thorn.” Wonderful!

Unfortunately, the telegraphic style Furst employs--short punchy sentence fragments meant to flash like lightning, to stab and reveal--often conceals more than reveals, pushes away more than pulls in. Its jabs and hints seldom illuminate, piling into muddled shards of mirror glass.

And, like Jean Casson in World at Night, Morath is a remote man, his inner world out of reach, thanks in part I think, to Furth’s narrative style. His fragmentary sentences add up to a fragmentary mosaic of the hero.

It’s in this aspect, I think, that John le Carrê may be a better writer than Furst. While le Carrê’s people sometimes become entangled in winding sentence webs, they eventually knit together and come alive in their nuances, in their torment and ambivalence about the grim business they’re engaged in and the impact it has on their souls (and le Carrê’s people do have souls, as rounded and fully seen as anywhere). They are bound strongly to each other and the world they work in.

Furst’s characters sometimes seem like collections of attributes that only unify under the kind of duress they face in his best works. When they’re at rest, when the world is only impinging on them or confusing them, they’re less interesting, and so are novels like Kingdom of Shadows.

But don’t let that stop you from delving into the world of Alan Furst. Just don’t start with Kingdom of Shadows. Start with Night Soldiers. Believe me, after that, you’ll want more, and you won't mind that other "50 percent."

As for my own work,  I know I'll be behind the critical 8 ball myself someday; that moment when I realize that my efforts have fallen short and that I've not delivered the book I wanted to deliver. But like any other successful writer, I can't let that dread stop me.

(Re-edited 5/27/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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