Friday, March 22, 2013

The Time Machine That Got Me Through the Worst of This Cold, Dark Gloomy Winter

The Time Machine That Got Me Through the Worst of Winter

In the last six weeks I retreated from our cold, gray, snowy surroundings and immersed myself in a decade long ago and far away -- Europe on the verge of World War, from the Baltics to the Balkans, from Paris to Leningrad. It was the time that Auden summarized in his poem, "September 1, 1939."

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
. . .
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

American novelist Alan Furst covers the same territory in a series of spy novels he started in 1988 called "Night Soldiers," after the first book in the series. They're genre novels that transcend genre the same way that the genre novels of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carré transcend genre. I started with the most recent, published in 2012, "Mission to Paris," and worked my way back through all 12 books, ending up with the first two, "Night Soldiers" and "Dark Star," a couple of the best and longer than the others. The action ranges all over Europe but always manages to pass through Paris, Furst's second home. What's most addictive is the powerful sense of place and historical detail, driven by episodic but compelling plot. And there's always the tragic futility, as in le Carré, of spy missions that rarely accomplish what they're meant to accomplish. Failure is endemic and yet the fight continues.

I must be the last person in the country to get turned on to Alan Furst. The upside is that I've had 12 books available to read, one after another. It's like binge watching "House of Cards," but better. The experience has lasted longer and been more immersive (and done wonders for my sense of European geography).

An antidote to winter and a time machine with soul.

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