Archive for May, 2010

On The Brink Of History

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Intrigue. To arouse the curiosity or interest by unusual, new, or otherwise fascinating or compelling qualities. Intrigue is the mother’s milk of all good spy novels. It is something always sought by the authors of same, but not always found. Luckily for you, it is easy to find in the subject of this post.

Consider this. Something grand and awful is coming. You not only know exactly what it is, you know precisely how it will turn out. If you are of a certain age, you will have been inundated with fact and fiction about it all your life. Yet still, you are swept up in the lives of those who will be forever altered by it. Such is the allure of history fictionalized. Such is the power of a gifted author at the top of his game. Such is the intriguing nature of The Spies Of Warsaw.

It’s 1937. The Nazi Party has begun its assault on German Jews and is not bothering to hide its vision of European domination. In Warsaw, Poland, life goes on with a surface calm. But beneath that surface, behind the familiar commerce of everyday life, clandestine meetings are being planned, commitments are being compromised, treachery is afoot. A middle-aged businessman from Breslau meets his mistress in the afternoon and his control agent in the evening. An elderly Russian couple charm party-goers as they smile and nod and look for a way to avoid the secret police. Newspaper gossip columnists sell information for money and status. Embassy balls and dinners are filled with seemingly idle chatter that cloaks entreaties, agreements, or perhaps invitations to disaster.

In the middle of it all, Jean-Francois Mercier, a forty-six year old widower and French Military Attache, weaves his way among the aristocracy, high-ranking government personnel, artists and writers and hangers-on. He too is on the hunt. Not just for spies, but for information. War plans, armament specifications, defense preparations–these are the pieces of paper that can be turned into coin of the realm. Mercier, and his superiors back in Paris, know full well that once Hitler starts, he won’t hesitate to turn France into a conquest. But how will he come, and where, and when? These are secrets that lives are risked to uncover.

The author, Alan Furst, writes as the realists paint. He shadows his characters with ambiguities. He masks his brush strokes with dialogue authentic as pain. He foregoes explanation for representation. The reader, like the viewer, is drawn to the portrait and envious of the painter. Writers like Furst, ignite the black and white of the 1930’s and 40’s we can never erase from our memory. He recreates a world that knew evil was on the horizon, along with inhabitants of that world who either chose to ignore or engage it.

If you enjoy going back in time, if you agree that people can be against their government and still be for their country, if you love atmosphere and pace and a story well told, then you, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter will be intrigued with Alan Furst’s The Spies Of Warsaw.

Giants Are People Too

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “What could you possibly have to say about Ernest Hemingway that hasn’t been said countless times by countless writers infinitely more intelligent than you.” My reply, “The way to keep legends alive is to keep talking about them.” And I believe Hemingway is one writing legend we’ll be talking about as long as novels are read and loved and remembered.

It’s probably fair to say that Ernest Hemingway is America’s most famous writer. Living or dead. I realize that some living writers seem dead, but that’s another story. Hemingway is always likened to the man’s man that all men wanted to be and all women wanted to bed. Journalist. Soldier. Boxer. Trophy fisherman. Big game hunter. If it was testosterone-filled sport, he was part of it. That was/is his American appeal, I think. The outdoorsman who just happened to be as smart and intellectual as anyone in the room. But one to whom sitting in the room, seemed boring and wasteful. Unless one were writing. Or drinking. Hemingway once said of drink, “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” Perhaps that was part of what was going on when Hemingway himself was spending time with friends (fools?) and drinking (one assumes to excess) through the afternoons and evenings of Fiesta, in Pamplona, Spain in the mid 1920’s. Whether it was or not, it’s fortunate for us that he was there enjoying the bullfights and the sangria and the soft Spanish nights, because it lead to his first, and I believe, his best novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Published in 1926 and sold for $2 a copy, it’s still read and debated and studied today in literature classes all over the world. The title comes from Ecclesiastes, and says in part, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…The sun also ariseth…” Praised by many as the ultimate reflection of what Gertrude Stein is said to have labeled, the lost generation, it’s a novel about the generation still young in years after World War I, but made old by the recognition that so many lives could be snuffed out long before they had time to flower and grow. Hemingway seemed to grasp that permanence had little to do with people. He often reflected that all men’s lives have the same ending, and it is only the details of their lives that make them different, individual.

The Sun Also Rises traces the wanderings of a group of friends who travel and drink, squabble and fight, embarrass themselves and each other, run with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona, thrill to the bullfights and the matadors, and eventually go their separate ways. The plot, what little there is of it, concerns itself to some degree with which male will eventually wind up with Lady Brett Ashley. Will it be the narrator, Jake Barnes, a wounded war veteran, incapable of being the whole man he once was. Mike Campbell, the hearty fellow who gets mean when he gets drunk, Robert Cohn, the Jewish ex-boxing champ of Princeton who takes everything and everyone too seriously, Bill Gorton the writer, or the Matador, or the Count. It doesn’t really matter, actually, as Lady Brett pretty much sleeps with every male she comes in contact with anyway. Her character became the archetypical “liberated female”. A woman who does whatever pleases her, but actually finds little pleasure in doing any of it.

To this reader, The Sun Also Rises is a novel about the impermanence of all things human. It ends, like most lives do, I suspect, with reflections on regret.

If you’re a reader, you have to read Hemingway. If you read any Hemingway, you have to read The Sun Also Rises. It’s the book that made him famous and ignited the legendary literary light he was to become. If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’re a fan of good writing and great novels, you’ll find it unforgettable. Like one finds many of Hemingway’s quotes. I particularly like this one. “All good books have one thing in common, they are truer than if they had really happened.”