Human folly and the fictions of war

DJ Taylor on plain men in dark times; The Pardon of Saint Anne by William Palmer, Cape, pounds 9.99 The World at Nigh t by Alan Furst HarperCollins, pounds 16.99
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Novels about the emotional consequences of warfare tend to take place off the battlefield. Even Vanity Fair, much of whose impetus derives from the battle of Waterloo, offers only a single military snapshot - George Osborne lying dead with a bullet in his heart. Similarly, one of the best English novels about the Second World War is Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude (1947), set in a Thames Valley boarding house, where the tyranny is practised by domineering old armchair-loungers and the victims are browbeaten spinsters. While the heroes of William Palmer's and Alan Furst's new novels are both combatants of a kind, each seems exercised less by sudden death than by the emotional detachment canvassed in Hamilton's title. In these circumstances the dangers of flight are regularly anaesthetised by the promise of a brief recall from the disembodied half-state that war imposes on the average mind. As Furst's protagonist puts it, while contemplating his enforced departure from occupied Paris, "The preparation of an escape ... whatever else it did, showed you your life from an angle of profound reality."

How best to approximate that reality? It was Christopher Isherwood, back in the days of Herr Issyvoo and Sally Bowles, who popularised the idea of the protagonist as camera lens. The precedent has not been a happy one, and most novels with photographer heroes have a tendency to enmire themselves in rather banal theorising about the nature of pictorial representation. Fortunately Walther Klinger, the focus - no pun intended - of William Palmer's excellent fourth novel, affects a less exalted gaze: "I had a half-apprehended vision of being the cold, implacable eye that regards human folly" he remarks; the laureate of "the gob of phlegm as life turned brown, grey, dead again".

This being the Berlin of the Thirties - and the Isherwood connection, if slight, is unavoidable - Walther has a good many opportunities. The opening section of The Pardon of Saint Anne, in fact, is a series of snapshots pulled from the reel of a disintegrating world. Living in the French-occupied part of western Germany with his widowed, English mother, Walther acquires his first camera from a French officer with whom the mother seems to be having an affair. Subsequent instruction, both in darkroom techniques and seduction strategies, comes courtesy of Valenti, an itinerant Jack- the-Lad who sets himself up as the little spa town's official photographer.

Departing for Berlin in the dog days of Weimar to lodge with his decayed Junker grandmother, Walther finds his horizons sharply transformed in "an atmosphere of abandonment - of morals and conviction and hope". A lifetime's contacts are insufficient to save worldly Uncle Karl from the knock at the door, and Walther's decision to spend the period of his uncle's abduction in bed with a girlfriend ("I don't even remember her name") seems symptomatic of the wider malaise. Walther takes a job on a propaganda sheet called Signal, where Valenti is energetically in control, and balances his day job with covert help for a Jewish art photographer whose business he fronts while the woman moulders away in the seclusion of her flat.

Abruptly, time fast-forwards to spring 1944 to find Walther, most of his hearing gone in a bomb blast, part of a "crocks brigade" guarding the extreme south-west coast of France and embroiled with an Irishwoman who inhabits a deserted farmhouse. In a world where every action and thought is governed by the prospect of invasion, Palmer's account of the collection of Nazi officers, each seeking solace in some rarefied hobby, carries tremendous psychological conviction.

Appropriately enough it is Captain Wahl's anthropological researches, prosecuted by way of a trip to the ecclesiastical ceremony of the title, which set up the novel's climax. Surviving a resistance-laid car bomb that kills another of his colleagues, Wahl is charged with sifting through the dead man's belongings. Otto's photographs of the execution squads of the Eastern Front confirm his suspicions and - though the ending is ambiguous - prefigure his own destiny.

Unobtrusively done, with the photographic symbolism quietly shifted into place - "It was the Age of silver. Silver and black," Walther laconically remarks of the rise of the SS - The Pardon of Saint Anne is an impressive study of the effect of totalitarianism on the average emotional life. At present William Palmer's reputation languishes in that queer hinterland where the esteem of fellow-writers is cancelled out by the indifference of the world at large. It would be a shame if this novel didn't provoke the attention he clearly deserves.

With jacket salutations from William Boyd and Robert Harris, one rather feels that Alan Furst, in contrast, has already begun to get his just deserts. Set in occupied Paris circa 1940-41, and featuring a movie-director hero, The World at Night hits some similar targets. Leaving aside the lavishly-framed atmosphere of subterfuge, Furst's novel is built on more or less the same premise: the individual trying to retain some tiny sense of himself in an increasingly unreal world. Like Palmer, Furst is adept at conveying the sense of drift that draws his characters into situations they would probably have avoided if presented with a definitive choice.

Thus womanising, fortysomething Casson finds that the simple act of pursuing his livelihood - by making films acceptable to the authorities - drags him into an intricate web of collusion, complicated by an affair with an elusive actress. If anything undermines the novel, it's a slight feeling of genre-sanctioned theatricality (Eric Ambler's name is twice invoked). But even the tuppence-coloured love interest - all discarded stockings and small-hours cigarettes - can't detract from an absorbing piece of recreated time, for which the publishing taxonomy of "historical spy novel" seems over-modest.

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