Friday, November 5, 2010

I should love ...

Alan Furst. Noirish espionage set in wartime Europe. Perfect. Here's a typical blurb from the back of The Foreign Correspondent, Furst's book about antifascists in 1938 Paris: 
"No other espionage writer touches [Furst's] stylish forays into Budapest, Berlin, Moscow and Paris. No other writer today captures so well the terror and absurdity of the spy, the shabby tension and ennui of emigre communities at the time. His characters are hopeless, lethal, charming. His voice is, above all, knowing."
Yet I've never been able to get beyond the first chapter of any Furst book I've picked up. I think he's lousy at exposition and there's always a lot of that in the first chapter or two of any book. I'm sure he's great at plot, characterization, etc., all those things that make any book good, but I may never know because I can't get past the first 20 pages or so. 

Here he is in the first chapter of The Foreign Correspondent, describing the book's protagonist, Carlo Weisz:
Weisz knelt by his knapsack, found a small bag of tobacco and a packet of papers - he'd run out of Gitanes a week ago - and began to roll a cigarette. Age forty for another few months, he was of medium height, lean and compact, with long dark hair, not quite black, that he combed back with fingers when it fell down on his forehead. He came from Trieste, and, like the city, was half-Italian, on his mother's side, and half-Slovenian - long ago Austrian, thus the name - on his father's. From his mother, a Florentine face, slightly hawkish, strongly made, with inquisitive eyes, a soft, striking gray - a face descended from nobility, perhaps, a face found in Renaissance portraits. But not quite. Spoiled by curiosity, and sympathy, it was not a face lit by prince's greed or a cardinal's power. Weisz twisted the ends of the cigarette, held it between his lips, and flicked a military lighter, a steel cylinder that worked in the wind, until it a produced a flame.
Okay, where to start. Lots of details, too many details, and they don't tell me much. He smokes, he's sort of a European mutt, which may be the most revealing part of the paragraph, he pushes his hair off his forehead, which tells me what?  I have a rich visual of the guy - 40, graying, patrician-looking - but that's all physical and tells me nothing about the character of the man. And the other details are either cliche - "inquisitive eyes" - or overwrought - "... it was not a face lit by a prince's greed or a cardinal's power." Plus it's all presented like a dutiful laundry list of physical attributes, like Furst is filling out an online dating profile. And he stops the narrative to tell the reader all this. To really nitpick, all those parenthetical phrases, which Furst uses a lot, are jarring.

I remember reading Joseph Kanon's most recent novel, Stardust, and marveling at his ability to tell me so much in the first chapter. If you're not familiar with Kanon, he's similar in subject matter and setting to Furst. He wrote The Good German, set in Berlin immediately after WWII and made into an unsuccessful movie by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.

Stardust is set in post-war Hollywood where the lead character, Ben Collier, is working to figure out who murdered his brother, a Hollywood writer whose death was assumed a suicide. The story revolves around a community of Communist sympathizers, mostly Jews, working in the movie industry and being threatened by politicians on a witch hunt in the state's capitol.

Here's the book's opening paragraphs: 
     As it happened, Sol Lasner was also on the train. Ben spied him first on the red carpet at Grand Central posing for photographers, like one of his stars. Shorter than Ben remembered, his barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, storklike, but with the same tailored look, natty. He gave a quick, obligatory smile to the flashbulbs, then herded a group of men in suits onto the train, back to business. At Croton, where they switched over to the steam engine, most of the suits got off for the ride back to the city, but two stayed on through dinner, so Ben didn't have a chance to talk to him until they were past Albany, when the landscape had already turned dark and there was nothing to observe from the observation car but blurs of streetlamps and platform lights streaking past.
     He'd been sitting near the rounded back of the car, smoking and staring out at nothing, when Lasner came in, holding a cigar. He nodded to Ben, not recognizing him, and for a moment Ben was tempted top let it wait, talk later on the Army's time. The next few days were supposed to be his, little shrouds of time to wrap himself up in, prepare for the funeral, stare out windows, get used to it.
There's loads of telling detail - barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, well-dressed, herding other well-dressed men, perfunctory grins for photographers, "like one of his stars." The reader knows Lasner is a powerful man in the movie industry, probably older, and the focus of press attention, whether due to his fame or something newsworthy that has happened. Ben, the book's protagonist, knows him, but not too well as Lasner doesn't recognize Ben or rush to greet him. But Ben, a military man, has business with Lasner. "... talk later on the Army's time." After he "prepare(s) for the funeral." In two paragraphs, the reader learns so much about the characters and what's ahead. The story moves, breathes.

In the end, I didn't love Stardust, but I do recommend it. And if you only get a chance to read the rest of the first chapter, do.

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