novelist hooked on history

Alan Furst, novelist

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

Best-selling novelist Alan Furst says that as a young man he couldn’t have cared less for history or research. A trip to Moscow in the 1980s flipped a switch. He hasn’t stopped digging into the past since, which his historical spy thrillers make obvious. He reads from his newest, “Midnight in Europe,” on June 11 at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

FURST: I’m writing a book review about “The Zhivago Affair” by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, which is about the publication of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and the cultural wars between the US and the Soviet Union. It’s well written and an interesting idea for a book. I don’t review books very often and don’t review ones I don’t like. What good does that do anybody?


BOOKS: What are you reading for yourself?

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FURST: Of all things a biography of the 16th-century Venetian painter Titian by Sheila Hale. It’s a doorstop of a book. Venice has always fascinated me. Every country in Europe then was run by kings and the Vatican except Venice, which was basically run by councils. I’ve always wondered why.

BOOKS: Do you read biographies often?

FURST: I read the greatest biography about the filmmaker David Lean, who directed “Lawrence of Arabia,” by Kevin Brownlow. It was just a killer. That area, the history of film, is full of spectacular writers. Who knew? I discovered that when I started to research films of the 1930s for a previous book.

BOOKS: When you read for yourself do you read more history or fiction?


FURST: It’s become more history. I spend my life writing fiction so reading fiction isn’t much of an escape. That’s not always true, but I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I will read George MacDonald Fraser’s comedic “Flashman” series. When I get asked about novelists I like they tend to be white, male, and British, like Graham Greene. They write the kind of declarative sentences I like. I don’t like to be deflected by acrobatics.

BOOKS: Who are some of your favorite British writers?

FURST: I like Anthony Powell’s 12-volume series, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” which is terrific, although the first time I tried I couldn’t do it. I started with the first book and found it incomprehensible. Six months later, I tried again and still couldn’t get anywhere. Then one day, wandering idly around my library, I picked up a book in the series that was about World War II. Then the hook set. I went back to the first book and read the whole series.

BOOKS: Do you read about other wars?

FURST: Yes, all the time, except World War I. It’s too horrible. One of the wars I’ve started reading about is the Thirty Years’ War, which is cited again and again as the first modern war. I read the best book about it by C.V. Wedgwood, but I still didn’t understand the



‘Novelists I like . . . tend to be white, male, and British, like Graham Greene. They write the kind of declarative sentences I like.’

BOOKS: Which country in Europe draws you the most in your reading?

FURST: France because they have the UK on one side, whom they fight with, and then Germany on the other side, whom they also fight with. Recently I’ve been touting Graham Robb’s “The Discovery of France.” He’s a historical geographer, which is what I would be if I weren’t a novelist. The book is about how these French communities, where as late as the 19th century people still spoke regional dialects, managed to become a country.

BOOKS: Where do you like to read?

FURST: I have a beautiful, screened-in porch here in Sag Harbor. Let me tell you it’s loud out there from cars going by, especially in the summertime. And there’s a school across from me. An elementary school has its own noise about it. Sometimes it’s the kids. Sometimes it’s the maintenance guy who is OCD about his hedges. I don’t mind. When I went to prep school in New York City I had to ride the subway and learned how to do homework on the train. I can work and read through anything.

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