When the German occupation of Paris begins, film producer Jean Casson, the lead character in Alan Furst’s The World at Night, initially thinks that it will be a short-term thing, lasting maybe a year or two. He’ll just need to find a way to earn enough money to live on and wait it out. But when his friend tells him that he expects it could last 20 years easily, Casson is stunned.
If that were true, life could not be suspended, left in limbo until the Germans went home. It would have to be lived, and one would have to decide how.
Furst is generally described as a spy novelist, but the crux of the novel is this question of how to live in such a situation as the Nazi occupation. I actually picked the book up because I was in the mood for some action (and because Jenny put on my reading list for the year). This is probably not the best book to read if you’re looking for fast-paced adventure, but it’s a good book nonetheless—just not the book I was looking at read at the moment.
Casson says from the start that he could never collaborate with the Nazis, but he’s not drawn to the resistance either, although he’s aware of its existence. He decides that he can try to keep his film company going, so that’s what he does. Everything, from his work to his day-to-day survival, is more difficult than it used to be, but he gets by, living on what food he can scrounge and taking lovers as he can. It’s only after he gets an unexpected phone call with a request to help transport funds that the British will then use to fight the Nazis that he starts to do something more than drift through the occupation. He gets involved, but in a bumbling sort of way.
What spycraft there is in the novel is not James Bond–esque action; the spy is an ordinary man who is not equipped for this kind of thing. Casson is called upon because he’s well-connected and his work allows him to travel, not because of any special skills. That’s not to say that he’s a complete incompetent; he’s just a reasonably intelligent man doing work he’s completely unprepared for, and it shows. That, to me, is what makes this book interesting. How would I do in such a situation? How would any of us do? And what would be the effects of whatever action we choose?
There are some terrific moments when Casson notices someone noticing him, and the danger of what he’s doing becomes clear—and that’s despite the fact that he’s not good at it. This constant feeling of being on edge, of never being quite sure that you’re safe is depicted beautifully. Every encounter is fraught with potential for disaster, yet Casson cannot shield himself from all risk. He has to live his life. Even if he were to decide not to actively participate in any kind of anti-Nazi work again, he’s now been marked. He will never feel safe again until the Nazis are gone—and when, if ever, will that be?
As Casson gets deeper and deeper, agents who are working for the Nazis and against the Nazis both end up getting their hooks into him. At times, it becomes just about impossible to determine the various characters’ loyalties. To some degree, this had to be intentional because of course the questions of loyalty would be difficult to untangle in such a situation. There were several occasions, however, when I think Furst expected readers to remember that a particular character was a Nazi collaborator or a British agent, and I just couldn’t. Too many people coming and going and not enough to embed their status in my mind, especially when someone else comes along and accuses them of lying. A problem that’s as much my fault as the author’s perhaps, but a problem just the same.
I realize that I haven’t mentioned the romance. That’s because the romance was unconvincing, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about it. Casson realizes relatively early in the novel that he’s in love with an actress named Citrine. He had a brief affair with her years ago, and he’s now hoping to cast her in his next film. I enjoyed the scenes showing the cabaret where she worked and the sequence involving Casson’s journey to Lyon to see her, but I never believed that they were in love. Maybe it was all the other lovers Casson was taking? And her feelings are never clear at all, perhaps intentionally on Furst’s part. The problem is that I think we were supposed to get the idea that this love motivated Casson to some of his later, more daring actions. She’s his reason for living or something. I just didn’t buy it.
Despite these reservations, I really loved how Furst created atmosphere. Furst is an excellent descriptive writer, and the prose is extremely evocative. If there’s such a thing as a literary spy novel (and why wouldn’t there be?), Furst’s work would belong in that category. Here’s a sample of his prose, taken from an early chapter, just after the Germans have crossed the border into France:
A little after ten, Casson left for the office. In the streets of Passy, the war had not yet been acknowledged—life went on as always; très snob, the women in gloves, the men’s chins held at a certain angle. Casson wore a dark suit, sober and strong, and a red-and-blue tie with a white shirt—the colors of France. But the blue was teal, the red faded, and the shirt a color the clerk had called “linen”. He stopped at a newspaper kiosk for Le Temps, but it was not to be. A huge crowd was clamoring for papers, he would have to wait.
So much is revealed in this short passage. There’s Casson’s effort to look patriotic, although the colors aren’t quite right. And his blasé attitude toward not getting a paper—he’s not in that clamoring crowd. It’s all so revealing of the type of man he is. But what to make of the statement that life goes on, held against those clamoring crowds? Do the crowds show how people know something’s going on, while the gloves show that standards must be met in dress? That’s the kind of thoughtful, revealing writing I like. Because of it, I’m sure there’ll be more Furst in my future.