My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As much as I love reading Alan Furst’s novels, I am not sure what to think of The Foreign Correspondent (2006). At times it wants to be a spy novel, and at other times a romance novel, and at still other times a novel reporting great moments in history.
The story mostly takes place in Paris (a few scenes take place in Spain, Nazi Germany and Italy) in 1938-1939 and surrounds a clandestine newspaper that fights fascism in Italy as Mussolini’s ties with Hitler strengthens. After a murder/suicide involving the head of one of the émigré newspapers, Carlo Weisz, a reporter working in Spain covering the civil war for Reuters, moves back to Paris and becomes the new editor.
At the opening of the book, Weisz is in Spain when he meets Colonel Ferrara, who is on the losing side of the ongoing war and the Colonel is attempting to flee Spain. Weisz and the Colonel, after the defeat, move to Paris where Weisz writes Ferrara’s ambitious biography called Soldier of Freedom. Weisz is also caught up in clandestine work as the new editor for Liberazione. The basis for this novel, or so it seems, is when Weisz visits Berlin and has a love affair with Christa von Schirren, a married Nazi who becomes Weisz’s great love. By the end of the novel, as the story twirls round and round without any solid direction forward to some definite outcome, Weisz strikes a bargain to work as a spy in exchange for Christa’s freedom out of Germany.
The novel is extremely well-researched and the history of the times and places do come alive and strike a chord of remembrance, but much come out in the end as mere shades of things past. Some of the best scenes were in Berlin, when Weisz has his secret rendezvous with Christa (one of the only characters that truly stands out and remains memorable) and, on his second trip, reports on Hitler’s signing of the Pact of Steel at Ambassadors Hall of the Reich Chancellery on May 22.
Many of the characters and scenes, however, come and go without any real significance, and by the end of the novel an experienced reader can know full-well that the writer has not planned or shaped this novel out with any great diligence (although the research is extraordinary and deserves applause).
This is one problem with professional writers who treat writing more as a job than a craft of art (a common, growing belief in the publishing world is that writers are proletarians and not artists). Some of these kinds of writers get up every day and just begin writing and writing, following mindlessly the characters along on their journey, and by page 250, the writer decides it is finally time for an end to this story.
The Foreign Correspondent doesn’t have a poignant or definite end as one should experience in a novel as well written as this one is. Weisz becomes abandoned in Italy while working undercover, runs into a rich entourage with a yacht (how so convenient) that shuttles him back into Paris, where Christa is waiting for him, and this all within the last five pages out of 273. For me, this book felt to be only half completed, and perhaps it is finished in a later book (this reader cannot say), but any book, in a series or not, should contain a definite beginning, middle, and end.
The Foreign Correspondent has an end, but it seems too easy, too haphazard, too much the hand and force of the writer than the actual fates of the characters presented on the page. Most of this story just winds round and round the main character, unsure of any practical reason for doing anything. Then at the last, the story attempts to be all about the love between Weisz and Christa. I am not so sure.
I will certainly continue to read Furst’s novels for their rich historical presence and espionage and romantic traits, but as for The Foreign Correspondent, a novel that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, I in good faith and conscience cannot recommend it to most readers.
If you’re a fan of Furst and beautifully written historical novels, then certainly read it, but if you’re reading for pleasure, then pass. A weak recommend.
- Master of the Historical Spy Novel (recordedbooksblog.com)
- Alan Furst Novel (Book Acquired, 5.22.2013) (biblioklept.org)
- IN THE MAIL: Alan Furst’s “Mission to Paris” (jpundit.typepad.com)
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers