In Paris and Moscow, a Novelist Finds His Time and Place

April 22, 2002


In Paris and Moscow, a Novelist Finds His Time and Place


A few months after I published my fourth book, I decided to become a writer. I would move to Paris and, as it's said, write my novel. "Isn't that," said a friend, "rather, uh, bohemian?" Perfect, I thought, she's not wrong, that's exactly what it is. But why not? I would sit in cafes, smoke Gauloises, look out over a courtyard and write a long, difficult, ambitious book with a doubtful future. My early novels had been acquired by the National Library of Oblivion, they were happy and at peace now, I was free to do whatever I wanted. And what mattered most of all was that I'd found something I wanted to write about.

The idea came, as usual, by accident. I'd gone to the Soviet Union in 1983 to do a travel piece for Esquire magazine and discovered that the country was a police state. Yes, I knew that, but I was, in some special American way, emotionally innocent of what it meant. When you handed in your passport at a Moscow hotel, there was a curtain hanging over the window, so you didn't see the security officer's face, just the hands. The Soviet authorities weren't subtle about it, they wanted you to be afraid of them, and it made me mad.

Moscow was a tense, dark city, all shadows and averted eyes, with intrigue in its very air, a city where writers should have turned out spy novels by the yard. So then, where was the Russian le Carr╚? Dead or in jail, if he or she existed at all. In fact I believed that Russian writers were not allowed to write spy novels ˇ or political novels of any sort.

Fine, I thought, I'll write them. And since I felt that Moscow and its satellite states in Eastern Europe were in some sense stuck in 1937, I would write about 1937. I had a recording of the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grapelli sessions at the Hot Club of France, recorded in 1937. There, I thought, right there. And what kind of novel would you write about Russia in 1937? Why, a spy novel, what else? So I would write historical espionage novels. Was that a genre? Not that I knew about, but it was now. I could write about Bulgaria and Romania, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Even Bohemia, up on the German border with Czechoslovakia, important in the autumn of 1938. So, yes, Bohemian at last.

Back in the United States, I went where all historical novelists must go, to the library. My favorite place. I have a theory that writers don't actually want to write books, they want to read them, but, discovering that they are unavailable to be read, because they are unwritten, they write them. Anyhow, I discovered a treasure trove. There were volumes and volumes on the history of espionage: Russian espionage; Russian espionage in the 1930's; Russian espionage in the 1930's in France; Russian espionage in the 1930's in France, but the other guy got it wrong.

And that was only part of it. Because I now realized that my favorite writer, Anthony Powell, was a novelist of the midcentury, his late youth and his war spanning the 1933 to 1944 period I'd taken for my own. For me, Anthony Powell is a religion. I read "A Dance to the Music of Time" every few years, as well as others, especially "Venusberg," a political fantasy of the Baltic.

There was more. Genre novels ˇ by Eric Ambler, six of them prewar, and Graham Greene ˇ and just plain novels, with characters wound up and set moving through the European political realities of that era. Christopher Isherwood's "Prater Violet," for example, and Arthur Koestler, Josef Roth, Babel, Bulgakov ˇ especially "The White Guard."

It's funny, the apartment in Paris actually had a garret, a room beneath the roof with a slanted ceiling, and I'd lie up there and read, and sometimes I'd turn on the radio, and there would be, "This is the BBC." News of war (Iraq) faded in and out and crackled with static. Damn.

And then, along with the espionage history and the fiction ˇ used as social and psychological history ˇ there was political history. The ascent of Hitler in 1933. Stalin's first purge, 1934. Spanish Civil War, 1936. Munich and Kristallnacht, 1938. Invasion of Poland, 1939. Fall of France, 1940. Invasion of Russia, 1941. With stories, endless stories. I don't happen to be able to write plots; they come out like plots. So what I do is use the stories that happened, then create the sorts of characters who could have taken part in those stories.

Fact is, during this period in particular, history twisted and turned in more intricate and desperate ways than anything a novelist could think up. In March I finished a new book, called "Blood of Victory." The title is taken from a speech by a French senator at a conference on petroleum in 1918. He said that oil, "the blood of the earth," had become in time of war "the blood of victory." And the central story of the book follows a real story of the period: the attempts of the British secret services in 1940 to impede the exportation of Romanian oil to Germany. This will be the seventh book in the series, and the number of available stories just grows with research.

Research. Once upon a time I toyed with the idea of a career in academia, as a medievalist. But academia toyed with me, and I gave up on the middle ages, because I didn't think of myself as somebody who would spend his life doing research. I leave the moral of the story to you, but eventually I became addicted, and I now see it as a vocational privilege.

Still, there is something to be said for the 300-page interior monologue in italics ˇ at least you won't get letters informing you that the British Beaufighter aircraft was not in service until the end of October. It's hard to avoid that sort of thing in 350 pages of manuscript, even with good editing and copy editing. I think it was Randall Jarrell who once defined the novel as a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it.

The word wrong takes on a particularly spicy flavor when you write for a living. At the beginning of my book "Dark Star," some of the action is set in Prague, and I wanted the 1937 name of the railroad station there. Given the custom of the time, it would have been either a version of the Parisian Gare du Nord, North Station, no doubt seductively exotic looking in Czech, or the name of a 19th-century hero, just as good.

When I finally found it, however, I discovered that the station had been named for Woodrow Wilson. I knew why, but that didn't help at all. You can't have your hero scuttling through the back alleys of Prague in the rain and show up there. So, eventually, his train "left the central station at 9:30."

And that's the easy part, facts, because the hard part is the words. Basically, if you write novels, you sit alone in a room and fight the language. For example, I had, in one of my books what I came to think of as the billowing problem. Everything was billowing ˇ smoke, parachutes, curtains, clouds. And what horrifies you, in retrospect, is that every single time you thought it was just a terrific word. Now, go and try to replace it. I knew enough, at that point, to avoid the malady I call thesaurusitis, the symptoms of which are ghastly: " `Oh, no!' he ejaculated," and like that. So in the final version, the curtains stay where they are, the clouds drift, the parachute billows on Page 28, while the smoke billows on Page 228, and you hope nobody notices.

No big deal, any of this, just the daily turmoil of a writer's life. A little penury, a little sciatica ˇ still no big deal. It's an honor to be in this profession, fiction writing. I see now and then that some people are concerned about its future, the novel, but I'm probably one of the worst people in the world to ask about that. I don't even own a computer. I work on a descendant of the magnificent IBM Selectric, using a typeface that has a sort of 1940's look to it, and I write 1940's-style novels about the 1940's.

Curious thing about the IBM Selectric, a writer's machine if ever there was one. I discovered, in Paris, that there's an IBM Selectric underground. Somebody I met at a party told me about it, and I went out the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, off in the commercial part of the 11th Arrondissement, where I followed the owner of an office supply store to the first basement, then the second, down a long hallway to a padlocked wooden door, which he opened with a key on a chain attached to his belt. He turned on a light and there, on metal shelves, stood a dozen well-used IBM Selectrics.

"I keep them around," he said. "There's always somebody who wants one."

Home | Back to Books | Search | Help Back to Top

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information