on 18 October 2000
Alan Furst has done another excellent job of portraying the world of espionage in the 30s and 40s. Like a latterday Eric Ambler, he has made this his own territory - and all of his books are worth reading.
The progress of Jean Casson, a cynical, apolitical man of the world into a spy for the British in Paris in 1940 is done very well indeed. One begins observing him, as he goes about his deal-making, meets his mistresses, joins his wife for her birthday party, making money and enjoying life. His change to committed anti-Nazi is both believable and enjoyable. Particularly well done is Furst's portrayal of the German invaders as not always efficient, certainly no supermen.
"The World At Night", is actually the first of a pair of books that tell the story of Jean Casson, a former movie producer who is faced with finding a way to survive the onset and extended occupation of Paris in World War II. France was not only divided into parts by the Germans, it was further sub-divided by a variety of groups that had their own agenda. Jean tries to maintain his life, and protects those he cares about, all the while coping with what it means to be a patriot.
Alan Furst writes about a narrow by eventful time from 1933 to 1945. His books are meticulously accurate to the point they would pass inspection by many readers of history. The author takes an unusual step at the end of his books by sharing with readers his sources for the novels he creates. This is not done in an academic bibliography or a blizzard of footnotes, rather he writes conversationally about what he reads, and what he suggests as reading for those who are interested.
In this first book Jean Casson will take part as a photographer during the short-lived French defense. He eventually finds himself taking on a task he believes will help France through his aiding the British. This is not a character that has a desire to be heroic; he seems to just want to find his place. Questions of what is honorable, and what constitutes loyalty constantly shadow him. In many ways he is the personification of the nation he lives in. He is conflicted to the point of pondering whether a barber who continues to cut hair during the war, including that of the German occupiers is a collaborator. At this level the question may appear simpler than the so-called larger issues, but the philosophical issue is the same.
Jean is given the opportunity to escape to England and continue to work in some manner for France. As he makes his way to The English Channel he continues to torture himself with issues both political and personal. His final act and the justification for it will surprise many, and seem appropriate to others. Whatever you may feel at the close of the book, you will feel your time has been well spent.
on 3 November 2009
The atmosphere and description of this (as all the other Furst novels I have read so far) is very strong and authentic, so that the reader is catapulted right into the heart of the scene. Having said that, in my view the plot is weak, and there seems to be very little rhyme or reason behind what takes place. Even Casson's relationship with Citrine, which seems to provide his main motivation, is not clearly explained: it did not work in the past, yet now it somehow springs into life. Similarly, his decision to aid the resistance is not satisfactorily explained, and I was left confused as the story unfolded. The last scene gave me the distinct impression that the author had run out of things to say and wanted to pull the plug: so that the reader is left wondering. A disappointment.
on 10 January 2013
As with his other excellent spy novels, Alan Furst succeeds in "The World at Night" in drawing credible characters in credible, though unnerving, situations, into which they fall rather than stride. To betray, or not to betray; to tough it out or run away; to be faithful to friends and lovers, or not; to try to live one's own life regardless of circumstances, or to bow to the inevitable and "collaborate"; to drum up the courage to deceive, or cynically to give in to your fear. Such are the dilemmas facing Jean Casson, the principal character - not so much the "hero" - of this novel.
It is a surprise to find that Alan Furst is an American. His use of language and his prose style, the drawing of the character and culture of Europeans, feels native. Furst's grip of the minutiae and quotidian details of life and politics in different parts of Europe in the late 1930's and early 1940's, in the preparation for war and in time of war and occupation, are what create the palpable atmosphere that pervades these novels. It is difficult to believe that he was not actually there at the time so convincingly is the picture drawn.
As with atmosphere, so with events. In real life, one rarely plans a goal and goes straight to it. Events happen. A deception is discovered. A friend suddenly needs help that involves risk, involves changing your plans. Against type, you fall in love. Your lover is suddenly on the other side of a border over which you cannot pass without hazard to life and limb. You are subject to all too credible threats of violence unless you comply with others' plans. Jean Casson, the urbane Parisian, finds that the outbreak of war rapidly turns from an inconvenience into the principal determinant of his every thought and action, just as it probably happened to millions of unsuspecting Poles, Dutch, Belgians, French, Greeks, and Brits in 1939-40 and after. The complexities that arise from the interplay of small lives and the sweep of history create the plots of Furst's novels in an entirely believable, real way. This is great writing.
Radio 4's recent series on European crime novels and novelists, showed how this genre is a primary means of exploring and explaining the character of contemporary European society. Furst's novels, along with Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels (with the possible exception of "Prague Fatale"), David Downing's Berlin Metro stations series, and others, provide a powerful illumination of recent European history, at least for this reader.
I would recommend all of Furst's spy novels to anyone interested in great writing, memorable characters well drawn, atmosphere you can almost smell and taste, and stories that draw you in and hold you. And a great place to start would be "The World at Night".
Furst's fourth WWII espionage novel is heavy on atmosphere but virtually plotless, and is disappointingly left to be finished in his next book, Red Gold. All his books feature loner male protagonists, and here the subject is Jean Casson, a midrange French film producer. In his early 40s, Casson is a somewhat hedonistic bon vivant, and as life comes to a momentary standstill during the initial weeks of occupation, he struggles to keep himself fed and clothed. One gets the distinct sense that Casson is supposed to be somewhat emblematic of a certain type or even France, rather than a distinctive character unto himself. A somewhat empty womanizing type, without the courage of any convictions, but with expensive tastes, Casson is recruited to help the resistance. It's a third of the way into the book, by the time this happens though, and-unlike in other of Furst's books-the intelligence aspect never picks up any momentum.
As amateur intelligence operation, Casson is mediocre at best, and it's never really clear why he agrees to help. The perhaps reflects a certain aspect of France at the time, the desire to retain honor, but without having to do too much hard work, or put oneself into too dangerous a situation. At the same time his espionage work starts, he rekindles an old relationship that is perhaps his one true love. This never transcends the generic potboiler romance level, and fails to add any depth to what little story there is. As in all of Furst's writing, the book is rich in detail when in comes to occupied Europe, one really gets the vibe of the cafés, restaurants, and street life in Paris. However, the espionage angle develops rather confusingly and almost randomly, resulting in a rather convoluted anticlimactic finale, which includes a ridiculous escape scene. This weakness is only further exacerbated by the book's abrupt end-why this brief story and Red Gold were split into two books is both annoying a bit of a mystery. The result is that this book is probably the weakest of Furst's espionage oeuvre.
Granted, Alan Furst is an acquired taste - see the unfavourable reviews. But there is a great deal to enjoy for readers who buy into his episodic structure and evocative recreation of period.
The author has cultivated a niche for himself: France, and fundamentally Paris, in the 1940s. It is a Paris of German occupation, of the shadow world of espionage, of fear and betrayal, and of forlorn love affairs. His novels are stories of the human spirit battling against melancholy, people to whom life happens.
The protagonist of The World at Night is Jean-Claude Casson, a film producer of only modest success. When war comes to France he is first a soldier and then a secret agent (for whom he is never quite sure)
His relationship with the actress Citrine is also ambiguous but it reads as convincingly as do the background details of the film industry and the manufacture of light bulbs. This is as good as anything Furst has given us so far,
on 5 May 2009
Another excellent book from Alan Furst.
Set, as usual in the complex world of plots and intrigue just before and during the Second World War. Great description of Paris and good characters as ever.
Furst's books open up a fascinating glimpse of pre war Europe, a lost world of countries, factions and politics whch have long ceased to exist, but gave rise to our modern world.
There's a certain similarity between some of the books - middle aged protagonist, doomed love affairs, lot of action in Paris and eastern Europe, impending Nazi/Soviet threat - but that's not a criticism, he does it very well and makes you want to know more about those countries (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria etc.) in that era.
Good complex, subtle, thoughtful plots, with plenty of action. I also like the way certain characters from the other books crop up from time to time, viewed in a new perspective.
on 10 September 2014
Bought this book as a result of picking up a copy of "Red Gold" by the same author at a "vide grenier" (like our car boot sales but more like a social event) in France. Hadn't read any Alan Furst before. Was mesmerised by the wonderful descriptions of France (especially Paris) during wartime so bought this. Storylines are quite complex but the author brings to life the conflicts in France during WW2 - Vichy or Occupied Zone? Collaborate with Germans or resist? Have often thought about my reactions had England been occupied - would I have resisted? And to what extent? Would I have collaborated? And to what extent? Furst has a wonderful written/descriptive style that takes you to the heart of France, the French and these conflicts. Very atmospheric and at the same time a really good story.
on 20 May 2011
In which we are introduced to Jean Casson, Movie producer and Bon vivant. I understand some of the other reviewers who say that there is not a lot going on . However in this we book we have a great protagonist , torn between having a good time in the boudoirs and restaurants and Paris and duty to his country and a growing realisation of the evils of naziism , primarily through his Jewish lover. He is a fascinating character and Alan Furst explores the many facets of his persona. He has enough adventures for any one person.
This book caught me and it held me all the way throug to the next book Red Gold which i read immediately after this one.
This is a good book well written , good characters and plenty of excitement
on 12 November 2014
The hero of the novel differs from most of Alan Furst's central characters in that he is a business man who really just wants to get on with his life and lovers but has his life swept off course by war. The description of the fall of France and the popualtion's gradual journey from bewilderment through pretence of normality to the narrow line between collaboration and resistance is worth reading. Furst's depiction of Paris and that certain class of French society has a certain fascination but I found feeling any empathy for the main character impossible.
I enjoyed this book but if you are new to Alan First's work start with another of Night Soldiers series.