The Magazine

On the Brink

The City of Light under cover of darkness.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By MICHAEL F. BISHOP
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Long before their tanks roared through the Ardennes, the Nazi regime had Paris in its sights. Hitler’s lunatic ambition had its crafty side; as his urbane diplomats charmed French aristocrats, his secret minions mounted a cultural offensive aimed at softening the French will to resist. Deep in the bowels of the Ribbentropbüro, the German foreign ministry, nervous bureaucrats eager for distinction (or at least terrified of failure) assembled lists of prominent artists, scholars, and actors who could be gently, or perhaps not-so-gently, persuaded to lend their prestige to the Nazis.  

A couple in Paris

This cultural warfare is the subject of Alan Furst’s eleventh novel of historical espionage. Set in 1938, near the end of Auden’s “low, dishonest decade,” it is, like its predecessors, a love letter to the French capital, thick with atmosphere. Characters exult in the smells of “a thousand years of rain dripping on stone, .  .  . of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, of potatoes frying in fat.” Furst’s Paris is menaced by Hitlerite madness, but still hopelessly alluring; the sense of impending danger only heightens the pleasures of the table and the bed.

Like most of Furst’s protagonists, the hero is a sophisticated European besotted with the City of Light.  Frederic Stahl is a handsome, Vienna-born Hollywood star, a sort of Teutonic George Clooney. Fortyish and effortlessly charming, he travels to Paris to star in Après la Guerre, a melodrama set in the aftermath of the Great War. For Stahl, it is a sort of homecoming, as Paris had been his playground in his youth. 

He receives his warmest welcome from a group of German and French socialites determined to maintain “peace” between the two nations. Along with a less glamorous but more insistent Austrian official with whom Stahl worked years before, this team of appeasers asks him, in exchange for first-class travel and a handsome honorarium, to judge a Berlin film competition. The visit of so prominent an American would be a propaganda coup for the regime, much like Jane Fonda’s later cavorting with the North Vietnamese. Stahl, horrified by the rise of the Nazis and unwilling to lend them publicity, initially spurns the offer. But after a meeting with a bluff American diplomat “distantly related to the Roosevelts,” he agrees to serve as middleman between Roosevelt’s wealthy interventionist friends, eager for evidence of planned Nazi aggression, and a mysterious Russian actress and spy close to the Führer and his henchmen. In this, as in other adventures throughout this episodic but suspenseful novel, Stahl takes risks from which even his celebrity might not protect him.   

But the covert world is not without its compensations. Furst has elsewhere written dismissively of Ian Fleming, but even James Bond might envy the ease and frequency with which Stahl beds the women he meets. After the end of his tepid relationship with a fellow performer, Betsy Belle, he embarks on an affair with the glamorous Kiki de Saint-Ange, who may or may not be allied with the appeasers. She proves a most obliging lover, enlivening an evening showing of Hedy Lamarr’s Algiers with her amorous attentions. More of a challenge is Renate Steiner, a costume designer and émigrée haunted by her past. It spoils nothing to reveal that she eventually succumbs to Stahl’s charms, and their budding romance makes the risks they take more real.    

And Stahl, like so many Furst characters before him, dines at the Brasserie Heininger, a place of “hurrying waiters with old-fashioned whiskers, abundant gold leaf and red plush,” with air like “a heavy blend of perfume, tobacco smoke, and grilled sausage.” Table 14, with “a hole in the vast mirror over the banquette” that serves as a souvenir from an unpleasant incident involving gun-wielding Bulgarians, has been host to conversations, conspiracies, and romances throughout Furst’s oeuvre. With this, and the reassuring presence of the mysterious Hungarian Count Polanyi, a recurring character in the novels, Furst creates a vivid and self-contained world, rewarding longtime readers but remaining accessible to new ones.   

Furst seems to have an affinity for film; his novels may fairly be called cinematic, and one of his previous heroes is a movie producer. Much of Mission to Paris concerns itself with the process of filmmaking. He reminds us of a time when Hollywood had a trace of nobility, and did not automatically oppose the interests of the nation. Contemporary celebrities are lavish in their self-congratulation, always lauding each other’s “courage,” but Frederic Stahl risks his life in the cause of resistance to evil.