Alan Furst is one of the best spy novelists of this or any era, and anyone skeptical of that assertion should immediately read his brand new novel, The Spies of Warsaw. All of Furst’s novels take place in the days just before or just after the start of World War II; this one is the story of a French military officer stationed In Warsaw who has an interest in German tank construction and tactics. The novel’s plot is lively enough, but plot is seldom the main point of Furst’s stories. They are more about character, mood, atmosphere—a way of life that knows it is about to be obliterated by the gathering storm. Furst is a wonderful writer—his descriptions of small gestures, his observations of small moments, are specific and illuminating, conjuring his characters from a familiar yet irretrievably lost time and place. Certain scenes were especially impressive—an informer’s rising paranoia as he approaches a checkpoint, our hero’s lunch with a world-weary superior, the walk two lovers take in a freezing gale. I’m grateful that Alan answered some questions for playboy.com.
PLAYBOY: All of your novels take place in Middle and Western Europe in the late thirties and early forties. How did you decide to focus on this period, and why does it speak to you?
FURST: The mid-century years saw a desperate conflict between tyranny–Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia–and freedom; Great Britain and France. This was an epic struggle, which saw the Soviet purges, the murder of Jews, the Spanish civil war, and the occupation of Europe. Those who stood against it were heroic, and often enough doomed. So this was a tragic and romantic period at the same time. This is very magnetic for a novelist, and, for a novelist who writes spy novels–or novels about spies–the fact that the intelligence services of all the countries in Europe fought each other, in the salons and the back alleys, even more so. (more…)
Had a happy lunch today with HBO’s endlessly delightful Kat Pongracz at Un Deux Trois. She swore that their new series Generation: Kill will be the greatest thing in military-themed TV since Sgt. Bilko. Plus she paid. (From right to left, above: Kat, me, waiter’s finger.)
Don’t look for Scott McClellan at any Bush administration reunions. His old mates seem none too happy with him these days. Of course, what they’re saying may not be exactly the same as what they’re thinking.
WHAT PRESS SECRETARY DANA PERINO SAID: “[The President] is puzzled, and he doesn’t recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years.”
WHAT SHE WAS THINKING: “Of course, if the president wasn’t puzzled, how would we know he was awake?’’
SHE ALSO SAID: “[The president was] disappointed that if he had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff.”
AS SHE WAS THINKING: “Consider, for example, the warm reception with which he greeted the dissenting opinions of Paul O’Neill, Christie Whitman and Colin Powell.’’ (more…)
As most of you who read this blog know, in my novel The Coup, President Mahone is forced to resign when the world learns that he has had an affair with a young woman who is also linked to the head of China’s espionage agency (although, as readers know, much about this relationship has been manipulated by Vice President Pope.) Well, big props to Canada, which has done a terrific job in producing their own version of that scandal. Yesterday, Maxime Bernier, Canada’s Alec Baldwinish Minister for foreign affairs, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had left confidential, NATO-related documents in the apartment of his now ex-girlfriend, Julie Coulliard, who, rather Judith Exnerishly, had previously been romantically linked to members of Canadian motorcycle gangs. Yes, in what is the most fantastic part of this story, it turns out that Quebec has a big problem with outlaw motorcycle gangs who “have long tried to infiltrate politics and the judicial systems,” as the Times reports. In a TV interview, Ms. Couillard acknowledged that beginning in 1993, she had lived for three years with a “well-known crime figure” who connected to the gangs, and was later married to an actual biker gang member. And then, not long after, Monsieur Minister! What brought this couple together? You tell me. (I don’t know if Ms. Coulliard measures up to Maggie Newbold, but she obviously knows how to capture eyeballs.) Was his downfall a set-up? Well, if a boyfriend leaves documents at a girlfriend’s apartment, do you expect her 1.) to give him a call and tell him, or 2.) phone a lawyer for advice? I don’t know if Bernier was manipulated by rival, but something sure smells fishy to me.
Fans of the late Patrick O’Brian (whom I admire above all others) who miss his tales of men at arms should take a look at a new novel by Steven Pressfield called Killing Rommel. No, the novel doesn’t take place on the high seas, but on the great sand sea of the North Africa desert, and no, it is not a story of British sailors facing the forces of Napoleon, but of British soldiers facing Hitler’s Afrika Corps. But Pressfield’s book is like O’Brian’s, in that he gives the reader an excellent idea of the real lives of these men–their exertions, their privations, their disappointments, their victories. And like O’Brian, Pressfield knows how to write action–the battle scenes here are very well done. But perhaps the most apt part of the comparison is that Pressfield, like O’Brian, tells the story he wants to tell. He doesn’t chain himself to some thriller format that requires that all cliches be invoked. Characters pop up and disappear, conflict is sometimes sidestepped, expectations are ignored. The result is a book with its own rhythm, its own texture, its own veracity, its own place in your memory.
My new favorite artist is James Gillray, a caricaturist who was one of the great satirists in British history. Working in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the rather solitary Gillray made engravings that savaged all the customary targets: parliamentarians like Pitt and Fox; the royal family, especially George III; the French, especially Napoleon; and high society in general, not excepting my beloved Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton. Gillray had great verve and style; sometimes his sketches remind me of Dr. Seuss, but almost always with a delicious edge. On eBay I found a dealer in Britain who was selling prints from a disbound edition of Gillray’s works from 1818, and bought three, including the one above, which shows the King and his ministers dreaming of a Napoleon in bondage. Gillray: my new enthusiasm.
Political buffs, malcontents, and those who wish to stay home and avoid Indiana Jonesy-crazed throngs at the tenplex are in for a treat this weekend when HBO debuts Recount, their new film about the most absurd moment in American political history, that is, the election interruptus of 2000. Although the film was directed by Jay Roach, who directed the usually hit, often miss Austin Powers movies and the terrible Meet the Fokkers, Recount plays the events of those tumultuous weeks reasonably straight; of course, letting those events speak for themselves means there’s laughs a-plenty. It’s true that the depiction of Katherine Harris, Florida’s beleaguered secretary of state (wonderfully played by Laura Dern) does mercilessly expose her inadequacies, and it is also true that the Democrats’ Warren Christopher comes across (much to his annoyance) as a colossal wimp (Christopher, by the way, is played by British actor John Hurt, while the GOP’s wily, steely James Baker is played by British actor Tom Wilkinson, which only goes to show that in hindsight, the Democrats’ biggest mistake was in failing to choose as a leader someone who could have been portrayed by British actor Jason Statham. All in all, the film seems pretty fair: Democratic fans will be happy that the film shows that they never got a fair count, and Republican fans will be happy that the film shows that after every count that was taken, their guy won. The GOP’s problem is that their guy was then, and always will be, George W. Bush.
Playboy Contributing Editor and Fox News correspondent James Rosen has just published The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, a massive biography of John Mitchell, the lawyer, Attorney General and Watergate felon. James spent 17 years on this biography, and his indefatigable research has led to some challenging and sure-to-be controversial views of Mitchell and his role in Watergate. I interviewed James for playboy.com:
PLAYBOY: Let’s start at the beginning: who was John Mitchell, and why should we care bout him?
ROSEN: John Mitchell was the closest thing to a friend Richard Nixon had in government, and, as a result, became the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to be convicted on criminal charges and to serve prison time. After a fabulously successful career on Wall Street, where his innovations in the financing of public works projects made him an indispensable figure to mayors and governors in all fifty states, Mitchell merged his law firm with Nixon’s in 1967. The next year, Mitchell served as campaign manager for Nixon’s amazing comeback presidential bid, and, after Nixon won, reluctantly agreed to serve as U.S. attorney general. As head of the Justice Department from 1969 to 1972, Mitchell served as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer during a period of extraordinary turbulence in American life, one that witnessed the Kent State killings, the Mayday riots, the heyday of radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, and a number of controversies unprecedented in their nature and seriousness, e.g., the desegregation of Southern schools, the Pentagon Papers, and the episode where the Joint Chiefs of Staff were discovered to have been spying, during wartime, on the commander-in-chief. After resigning to run Nixon’s ’72 re-election campaign, Mitchell became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and ultimately served nineteen months in prison for his role in the cover-up. (more…)
I was very flattered to have been invited to dinner by the members of the Book Club in Briarcliff, who had chosen The Coup as their April selection. Not since I was in a bassinette have I been the focus of a room full of women, and it was fun! Lisa Tane, Phyllis Neider, Christine Wexler, Ann Zampolin, Betsy Simons, Susie Mordoh, Hillary Messer and Sharon Hogan made me feel most welcome, and even laughed at many of my jokes. They asked me about my porcess, the publishing experience, the research I did, and how I came up with the characters. We also cast the movie. (If Patrick Dempsey is listening, he should know that he will always find a place to hang his hat in Briarcliff.) And most flattering, many of the ladies said that The Coup is not the sort of thing they would have ordinarily picked up on their own, but having done so, they liked it very much.
Anyone who cares about magazines should drop by Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, as my friend Ken Smith and I (above) did yesterday, where there is an exhibit devoted to George Lois, who was the art director for Esquire between 1962 and 1972. The word iconic gets thrown around a lot these days, but during his tenure, Lois produced one cover image after another that truly deserve the name iconic—Sonny Liston in a Santa suit; John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King standing amid the tombstones of Arlington; Muhammad Ali as the arrow-pierced martyr St. Sebastian; Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. Working before PhotoShop and other software programs made image manipulation easy, Lois had to combine meticulous photography and painstaking craftsmanship to execute some of his ideas. But of course, that was the technical part. Lois’s great genius was to imagine, again and again, the simple, striking, brilliant image that not only would jump off the newsstand, but that would complement the story inside. In the process, he became the foremost visual commentator of a tumultuous era. Here’s the greatest praise I can give Lois: again and again as I looked at the 24 covers mounted on the wall, I itched to flip them over and dive into the article.