When Alan Furst writes a novel about Europe during the time of World War II, the thing you discover almost immediately is that one of the main characters is always the place, the setting. Here is an example of what I mean. It comes from “Mission to Paris.” It is a simple walk to a Paris bar.
He puts you there:
Stahl retrieved a sweater and a pair of corduroy trousers, then went out to find Paris.
His Paris. Which was found by crossing the Seine on the Pont d’Alma and, eventually, entering the maze of narrow streets of the Sixth Arrondissement, the Faubourg Saint-Germain. And if the damp earth of the French countryside had lifted his spirit, being back in his old quartier was as though a door to heaven had been left open. Walking slowly, looking at everything, he couldn’t get enough of the Parisian air: it smelled of a thousand years of rain dripping on stone, smelled of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, or potatoes frying in fat. It smelled as it had smelled when he was twenty-five.
A warm evening, people were out, the bistros crowded and noisy. On the wall of a newspaper kiosk, closed down for the night, the day’s front-page headlines were still posted: CZECHOSLOVAKIA DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY. And, below that, GERMAN DIVISIONS PREPARE TO MARCH. Two women walking arm in arm passed by and when Stahl looked back over his shoulder he caught one of them doing the same thing and she laughed and turned away. In a cafe at the corner of the rue du Four and the rue Mabillon, an old woman with red hair was playing a violin. Stahl went into the cafe, stood at the bar, ordered a cognac, saw his reflection in the mirror, and smiled. “A fine evening, no?” said the bartender.
“Yes, it is,” Stahl said.
So, of course, I try to recreate Stahl’s journey on a recent visit to Paris. Walking, walking, and I’m starting to think that it must be a complete mistake. It’s all different now, more touristy. But still, as I get to the corner of the rue du Four and the rue Mabillon, all I can see is a Ben & Jerry’s. But then I realize that rue Mabillon doesn’t cut into the intersection for another half-block. And there it is.
I go in, order a cognac. It might be the third cognac of my life, but what the hell. The kid behind the bar gives me two choices — Hennessy and a better version of Hennessy. I go for the better version. What the hell.
It costs 9.50 Euros. It is measured out precisely by an electronic gizmo placed into the bottle. There is no easy conversation with the bartender, mostly because the little bit of French I do have is anything but easy, and mostly consists of words that appear on a restaurant menu. So.
I drink my cognac and stare at the television. It is a soccer game between Norwich and Tottenham, which is about as French as Ben & Jerry’s.
Still, a fine evening, yes.