Thursday, 7 May 2009

Furst-class travel

My favourite author for a good read on a long journey is Alan Furst, who has now written 10 spy thrillers all set in the run-up to World War II. In his latest, The Spies of Warsaw, the aristocratic hero, Jean-François Mercier, decides to take a 17-hour train trip from the Polish capital to Belgrade in the hope of meeting up with a woman he has fallen for. He takes with him a copy of Stendhal's The Red and the Black; "[Mercier] had always had an instinct for something improving, demanding, but by page 14 he gave up and brought out what he really wanted to read, a Simenon roman policier, The Bar on the Seine…"

Now Simenon is a great choice but perhaps better for when you reach your destination – and in omnibus edition – because his books are, as Mercier finds, "all too soon finished". (The Bar on the Seine is an early, very good, Maigret novel, set in the guingettes Simenon would no doubt have known from his days sailing around France with his first wife, Tigy, and her maid, Boule, who was also his lover.)

In his latest book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes admits that as a young man he, like Mercier, used to carry an impressive book with him, though in different circumstances – Barnes was terrified of flying; "The book I would choose to read on a plane would be something I felt appropriate to have found on my corpse. I remember taking Bouvard et Pécuchet on a flight from London to Paris, deluding myself that after the inevitable crash a) there would be an identifiable body on which it might be found; b) that Flaubert in French paperback would survive impact and flames; c) that when recovered, it would still be grasped in my miraculously surviving (if perhaps severed) hand…"

Perhaps I am a reverse snob and happy to be caught reading a good thriller; certainly, if I am found in a crash clasping the latest Alan Furst, at least you can count that I died happy. There is another question here, too, of reading in public, being seen to read. A gentleman on my daily commute into Waterloo gives up his seat every morning to women passengers (never men) and is always grasping CS Lewis on Christianity (the same book for months); I can only assume this is some sort of pose. (And then there are those books you don't want to be seen reading: the Traveller's Companion Series of books were essentially pornographic novels published by the infamous Olympia Press within plain green covers.)

I've always found Arturo Pérez-Reverte reliable for a good travel read, though I haven't tried his Alatriste books yet. I can also recommend Philip Kerr for his Bernie Gunther mysteries, largely set in wartime Germany, though now going beyond; and Stieg Larsson is unmissable. It sounds as if I ought, also, try Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski who, like Kerr and Larssen, is published by Quercus – they're on quite a roll.

No comments:

Post a Comment