Paris on the brink of the Second World War. A place of culinary, erotic, conversational, sartorial and so many other pleasures. A place of elegance and discretion.
MISSION TO PARIS
By Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 273pp, £18.99
The aromas of “a thousand years of rain dripping on stone,” of “rough black tobacco and garlic and drains”. And now, the smell of fear too. This particular Paris is the spy novelist Alan Furst’s home turf. He has been there many times in the course of 11 alluring novels. But he has never been there with a Hollywood movie star.
Hie latest novel begins in 1938. Its main character is Fredric Stahl, a Viennese-born American screen star who has honed his foreign accent to suit an American audience’s notion of glamour. He radiates quiet assurance in ways that can be pigeonholed. “He could play the sympathetic lawyer, the kind aristocrat, the saintly husband, the comforting doctor, or the good lover,” Furst writes, “the knight not the gigolo.” Throughout his career Stahl has mostly played “a warm man in a cold world”.
As the novel opens Stahl has been swapped by his studio, Warner Brothers, to Paramount France. The measure of his stature is that he has been traded for Gary Cooper. Stahl is sent to Paris to make a film about the French Foreign Legion in the First World War that is a fantasy even by Hollywood standards. Its title: Apres la Guerre, or “After the War”. Its timing: set to film just before the Second World War begins.
When Stahl arrives in Paris in September, he displays the same sixth sense for nuance that Furst’s leading men always have. Life in California gave him no strong sense of the looming German threat to France. But he is quick to pick up on such harbingers as the newly printed ink scent on a card from the German Embassy; it had been the Austrian Embassy until Germany annexed Austria that spring. He also notices that his identities as both an American star and a Viennese native are highly exploitable as Germany exerts pressure on France.
Furst writes a bit more broadly than usual – perhaps he intends Mission to Paris to echo the tone of late 1930s Hollywood artifice. Does he write a line like “When you are in Paris, you have to make love to somebody” in earnest? In any case, the book takes a winking view of the filmmaking process, from the moment Stahl reports for work in Paris and finds the office of a producer who makes “dark, tasty little films about Parisian gangsters with hearts of gold and wildly stunning girlfriends”. Sadly, Stahl must reluctantly pass that office and find the hack with the cliche-ridden Apres la Guerre script.
And he must do his share of publicity. But his newspaper interview with Le Matin comes as an unpleasant surprise. A reporter who doesn’t know much about Stahl’s career wants to sound him out on the subject of war, and the film’s story makes war talk unavoidable. But Stahl finds himself quoted out of context, sounding as if he supports the German-backed push for pacifism in France. In response he receives this telegram from his agent: “Political opinion puzzling we think that unnecessary stop No reaction from Warner Bros but one story like this is plenty”. Too late: Stahl is now in play as a political pawn.
This being a Furst book, Stahl will be seduced by various intriguing women. And he will be seduced into espionage too. The American embassy has plans for him, as do the Nazis. Much against his will, Stahl winds up going to Berlin to judge a festival of mountain climbing films, the genre being a national favorite. Furst’s descriptions of such films and their propaganda messages are chilling but witty. So are such piquant details as the marzipan tanks and fighter planes at a festive Nazi banquet.
When he is persuaded, much against his will, to dine at Maxim’s in Paris with a group of Nazi sympathisers, the shudder is palpable. He leaves just before dessert, to the sound of an omen of France’s near future: “The last thing he heard from the table of Germans was a cry of delight as the liqueurs in the crepe pan were set ablaze.”
To similar effect, Furst sends Stahl to Berlin on a night when the staff at the Hotel Adlon recommends he not go out in the street. And he is in Hitler’s suite, with a Russian actress in Hitler’s good graces, when they smell smoke and hear glass being shattered.
“I know that smell from 1917, that’s a burning building” says the actress, Olga Orlova, who, like Stahl, has put a movie star’s privilege and power to better use than mere celebrity. “Ah yes,” she tells Stahl, as a kindred spirit with a dangerous role to play. “There’s more to this business than the screen kiss.”
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