A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)
Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.
Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.
A Divided Spyis the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.
Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)
Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.
And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?
If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth yourtime. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.
His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.
When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 he was virtually unknown outside France. He is a prolific author, with 30 books published in French, but very few had been translated into English. Yale University press promptly picked up several of them for American publication, and now Amazon teems with Modiano offerings.
The Kindle edition I read was promoted by the New York Review of Books, which supports many old or under-read novels that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.
I knew nothing of Modiano when the Nobel award was announced, but I started looking around among his works and settled on Young Once (original title Une Jeunesse), for several reasons, not the least of which was that the New York Times called him “Marcel Proust for our time.” I am not inclined to argue.
Young Once is a coming-of-age novel set in the postwar years, with its roots deep in the small and not-so-small cons and tricks the Parisians employed to stay alive during the German occupation. Modiano’s own father skirted the edge of the Resistance, more involved in staying alive than in making a political point. The father of his protagonist was a bicyclist of some note who rode at the Vel’ (for Vélodrome) d’Hiver, the Winter Stadium best known as the collection point for French Jews rounded up for deportation in 1942. It was part of one of the buildings left over from the World’s Fair that ended in 1900 and is remembered with a plaque near its location, which is just a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower (Google Maps).
The charm of “Young Once” will be obvious to anyone who knew Paris in the ’60s. I was there early in the 1970s, when not much had changed, and the book brings back the memories of dark streets, cheap hotels, and neighborhood restaurants where a good lunch could be had for less than a dollar. Despite what you read about the “Trente Glorieuses,” the glorious thirty years of rapid recovery after the war, times were still tough. In 1960 the Marshall Plan had only been operating for ten years, and it takes longer than that to recover from a national catastrophe that cuts 70% from GDP.
The story is simple and the writing is understated (in Damion Searls’s expert translation):
Louis Memling, not yet 20, is discharged from his national military service and takes up with a shady character, Brossier, who promises him what he wants most: waterproof shoes with thick crepe soles, and an overcoat. His new friend provides them.
While Brossier is out of town on one of his mysterious business trips, Louis meets Odile, a painfully timid girl who lost her job in a perfumerie for shoplifting a few lipsticks, but has ambitions of being a singer. Her first patron helps her cut an audition record, then kills himself. She, a minor, is picked up at a police roadblock and forced to be bait for a rapist. In desperation, with no friends and two francs less than she needs for her coffee, she goes to a café, where Louis finds her. From then on they are inseparable.
Brossier finds Louis the job he promised, as a night porter at a questionable auto-rental company. It soon turns to money-laundering (remember: this was the time of international capital controls and there was no EU). The first trip, to England, goes well.
It’s a subsequent assignment that changes the course of Louis and Odile’s lives. A felony, plus the passage of time, turns them from petty criminals into substantial citizens with a house in the Alps, far away from France.
Modiano became known in the United States as the co-writer of “Lacombe, Lucien,” the 1973 film about the French Milice (the French branch of the Gestapo), co-written by Louis Malle, who directed.
Young Once: Highly recommended for Paris lovers and fans of sparsely written, penetrating literature. Originally published, in French, in 1985. NYRB edition March 2016.
I read the Kindle edition, published by NYRB Classics, which I bought from Amazon at this page. $9.99. Also available in paperback.
Patrick Modiano was born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb of Paris near the end of the Nazi occupation of France. He studied at the Lycée Henri-IV and the Sorbonne. As a teenager he took geometry lessons with the writer Raymond Queneau, who would play a key role in his development. He has written more than thirty works of fiction, including novels, children’s books, and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien. In 2014, Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth-century writers, including Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861 and has translated Nescio, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Alfred Döblin, and André Gide. He is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.
Opening Peter Steiner’s new novel The Capitalist was like visiting an old friend in his quaint
cottage in the Loire — comfortable, relaxed (with a glass of good wine) and confident you’re about to hear a great story.
I came to Peter’s books with The Resistance, when he presented it at the American Library in Paris. His protagonist, Louis Morgon, is a retired (not by choice) CIA spook and sort-of diplomat who settles in the small French town of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême, which, in his depression after being fired and divorced, he chooses in a very simple way: he gets off the plane at De Gaulle airport, hitches up his backpack, and starts walking south. When he gets to a place he likes, he stops and settles in.
In The Resistance he bought a long-abandoned house where he found a stash of World War II pistols used by the Résistance, thus the title. I reviewed that here.
By now Louis is getting older. He’ll never see 70 again, but he’s accumulated a deep network of friends, including the local policeman (Renard) and a lover (Pauline), who play outsized roles in The Capitalist. Over the years in Saint-Léon-sur-Dême he’s become an accomplished painter, a skill that plays an oversized role in the resolution of the story.
Thomas Dunne Books. Available in Kindle ($12.99) or hardcover ($19.84) editions ****
I don’t know Peter Steiner well, in fact hardly at all. I met him that one time in Paris and exchanged emails with him, and he was nice enough to write a blurb for my novel Last Stop: Paris. I do know that he lives part of the year in France, and have to think that informs his descriptions of village life, just as my time in Paris informs my writing.
He’s been in the creative world for a very long time, mainly as an acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker, then as novelist. Remember the one from 1993, captioned “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog?” That was Peter’s, and it’s the most-reproduced cartoon in the magazine’s history.
Morgon’s bête noir is St. John Larrimer — “he pronounced his name SIN-jun in the English manner,” a little touch that tells you everything you need to know — a mini-Madoff who succeeds in fleecing all his money management clients. The most tragic of them is Pauline’s brother Jean-Baptiste, an unaware man who decides it’s easier to send his clients’ money to Larrimer than to manage it himself, so it’s gone. Unfortunately, he told them he was the manager, which turns out to be illegal, and his way out is to slit his wrists.
Pauline, her family and friends are seriously hurt, not least by the money they lost, and Louis is furious. As he has in the past, he determines to do something about it, and he does.
Stick with it through the first couple of chapters, which deal with some of the collateral damage of the excessively enthusiastic capitalism that marked the first few years of the century — it’s what James Michener called “weeding out the ribbon clerks.” Don’t be one of those and you’ll be amply rewarded.
The plot is complicated and tricky, and the best tradition of this kind of novel it’s very hard to tell if the good guys win or lose. I think I know, but I suggest you form your own opinion.
(This review is based on an advance uncorrected proof furnished by the publisher.)
Rue Daguerre is always a hoppin’ place, but on Sundays it really comes to life. It’s a magnet for Parisians and tourists looking for a good lunch or really choice groceries – today we bought slices of an outstanding rolled veal roast, from a butcher who normally deals only in poultry. It was a good dinner.
Rue Daguerre is in the 14th arrondissement, south of the major attractions, one of the middle-class districts without a lot of tourist interest. It is only 630 meters long, and its anchor at the east end is the wide Avenue du Général Leclerc. A grateful France renamed it in 1948 in honor of the French general who led his armored division up the avenue seventy-one years ago during the fight for the Liberation of Paris (August 1944). Today there’s an interesting museum to his life above Gare Montparnasse.
View down Rue Daguerre
Until the 1990s the first block of the rue, the most active part, was a covered shopping street. Today it’s a mostly pedestrian area with a half-dozen restaurants, a couple of vegetable vendors (primeurs, who only sell the prime stuff), a fancy honey shop, a little general store where you can find just about anything, two grocery stores and a wine merchant. Plus thousands of people.
It is part of Montparnasse. The west end of the rue is only a short walk from the Montparnasse railway station (Gare Montparnasse). Hemingway’s haunts aren’t far away, Simone de Beauvoir lived nearby, and Calder had a studio on one of the side streets. The apartment we rented this year has a view across Montparnasse cemetery, an oasis of green in city of stone. And there’s much more in the neighborhood.
One of the traditional go-to spots on the rue is Café Daguerre, which dominates the corner. It serves a great breakfast (either French or “English,” depending on whether you want an omelet; I had one, with ham). It seems to be open all the time, and there’s very little turnover among waiters. This is our fifth year to stay in the 14th and the faces seem to be pretty much the same.
Café Daguerre is where I learned to appreciate the “café gourmand,” a platter of small desserts with an expresso. It was developed a decade ago as a way to speed up lunch, but I view it as my chance to sample three or four different desserts at the same time.
Rue Daguerre was named after Louis Daguerre, who introduced the daguerreotype photograph in the early 1800s. He’s considered one of the fathers of modern photography and is one of the few luminaries whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.
The great square just above Rue Daguerre, Place Denfert-Rochereau (Google images), is one of the city’s major transportation hubs. It provides access to two metro lines, the RER B suburban train (which goes straight to Degaulle airport), and a half-dozen city buses.
It’s the entrance to the Catacombs, the ossuaries moved to the old quarries under the Left Bank when the Right Bank cemeteries burst their banks and threatened the city with disease and unpleasantness. (Most of Paris was built from stone quarried under the city, but that’s another story.)
Seventy feet under the square the bunker from which the Résistance fight for the Liberation 71 years ago was directed; it was built before the war as a precaution and the Germans seem not to have found out about it. My latest information is that it’s now used for temperature-controlled plant science.
Photo Gallery: Sunday morning on Rue Daguerre
Butcher wrapping our veal. No one had taken the pig’s head
A primeur. Note the cooling spray on the vegetables, with water running down the mirror behind them
Another offering from the cheese merchant. This one is good, I guarantee it
I CAN’T IMMEDIATELY THINK of a better premise for a novel than the one Peter Steiner found: “I invented two young men and put them in dire circumstances.” He made them members of the French Resistance.
“Dire” hardly covers it. Think about it: One of the brothers, Onesime Josquin, is a rifleman standing fruitless duty on the Maginot Line as the Germans sweep around it, destroying the French army in the process. He leaves his post and walks home to the small Loire village of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême, to his mother Anne Marie and his brother Jean. Soon Germans are building a logistics depot in the caves where wine has been stored for generations. The village is occupied.
Onesime and Jean start as small-time résistants. As they go about their daily routine — Onesime as farmhand for the local noble, Jean in a bicycle shop — they develop layer upon layer of useful information about their new occupiers. Onesime begins by drawing detailed maps. Jean collects order-of-battle information, although he goes on to other, darker pursuits. Neither has much of an idea what he will do with it until the mysterious Simon comes into their life. Their mother, unknown to them, is doing the same. And so, as we learn only at the end, are others.
Their initial floundering and confusion resolves itself into clear, hard action, but not before there is much loss of life and a great deal of doubt about the morality of what they and their fellow townspeople are doing. But one of the best features of The Resistance is that there is not a lot of agonizing over the morality of resisting openly, resisting surreptitiously, collaborating, or — the point of the book — some mix of all.
For example: The local beauty lost her husband to the Germans in World War I but falls in love with the first commander at Saint-Léon — who meets a bad end at the hands of his own side. She’s clearly a collaborator, isn’t she? The next German officer thinks so, up until the last instant of his life, when she turns into the paramour from hell.
The Resistance is the most recent in Steiner’s delightful Louis Morgon series, stories about an American intelligence operative who, after disgrace and divorce, finds his own redemption through a long walk from Paris more or less along the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. There he reaches the final decision that his future lies in Saint-Léon, a place he’s spent only one night. The old house he buys hasn’t been lived in since before the war, and under its crumbling floor he finds the package that provides the key to this story. Two keys, actually.
I highly recommend that you also read A French Country Murder for Morgon’s back story. You’ll understand his life and disgrace much better. (It was also published as Le Crime. Both are available on Amazon.)
The Resistance is billed as a thriller, and it has many of the thriller’s traits. Read it for the exciting tale of resistance, bravery, love and death — that’s why I started it. Steiner presented it at the American Library in Paris two years ago and I first read it after I heard and met him. I went back to it recently, and it was on second reading that I fully understood it was more than just a thriller. It’s a philosophical treatise, and it will make you think. How would any of us react under the circumstances Onesime and Jean (and their mother, and the local gendarme, and the mayor, plus many others) found themselves facing?
Jean-Paul Sartre summed it up pithily in his Paris under the Occupation: “The maquisards, our pride, refused to work for the enemy; but it was necessary for the peasants, if they wanted to feed them, to continue to grow beets, half of which went to Germany.”
Peter Steiner lives part of the year in rural France, and his knowledge of the countryside is evident. His next Louis Morgon thriller is scheduled for publication in Spring 2015.
He took to novels later in life, as you’ll see from the interview, after a long career as a cartoonist at The New Yorker and other places. His New Yorker cartoon captioned, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is the magazine’s most-reproduced cartoon. He holds a Ph.D. in German literature.
His Amazon page, bio, and all his books are here. His personal web site, a very pretty one, is PLSteiner.com.
The Resistance: A Thriller (A Louis Morgon Thriller) [Kindle Edition] 319 pp. Minotaur Books (August 21, 2012) $7.59. Also available in hardcover. It can be purchased on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and this review has been posted on both sites.
I’m the author of Treasure of Saint-Lazare, a novel of Paris, which reached #25 on the Kindle historical mystery best-seller list. A sequel, whose working title is Last Stop: Paris, will be published late this year.