Friday, May 31, 2013

Brad DeLong revisits some 20th-century nightmares from which, perhaps improbably, we escaped

[I posted this in 2010, but a conversation with a former student leads me to think that it might be worth re-posting.]

Brad DeLong has just re-posted a review of Alan Furst's novel Dark Star that he wrote back in 2003. It's a wonderfully insightful and evocative review. And having read Dark Star a few years ago myself, on the recommendation of a good friend to whom I remain grateful for the advice, I know that Brad is right to describe it as "a very fine novel."

But it's also more than that. I will just quote the first three paragraphs of Brad's discussion, which zero right in on the key points:
When I talk to practically any of my undergraduates these days, I have a nearly impossible task to do when I try to convince them that the twentieth century has, after all, ended much better than it might have been. The half-full undergraduates talk of how wonderful and advanced our industrial civilization is, and how human progress to this point was nearly inevitable. The half-empty undergraduates talk about poverty in the developing world, inequality, and injustice, and seem deaf to the idea that the world we live in is much better than the world that we seemed headed for during the second quarter of this century. The Great Depression. Stalin's purges. World War II. Hitler's genocides—they have read about these, but they are not real, and the idea that for decades people thought that the forces headed by Stalin or by Hitler were the wave of the future (or the last chance to stop an even greater evil) does not penetrate below the surface.

So the next time I teach a course on the entire politico-economic history of the twentieth century, I think I may assign Alan Furst's novel Dark Star, for it does a better job than anything else I have read to catch the atmosphere of the days when Josef Stalin seemed to be the lesser of two evils—and it is a very fine novel besides.

This is not my judgement alone. Historian Alan Bullock calls Dark Star "a classic.... Furst brings to life better than most historians the world of fear in which so many human beings felt trapped." Reviewing it for Time, Walter Shapiro sees it as a "classic black-and-white movie that captures the murky allegiances and moral ambiguity of Europe on the brink of war.... Nothing can be like watching Casablanca for the first time, but Furst comes closer than anyone has in years." And a third reviewer calls it "exceptionally fine... Kafka, Dostoevsky, and le Carre..." [....]
Now you can read the rest of the review here ... and then read Dark Star.

—Jeff Weintraub