i’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels, Alan Furst’s spy thriller Dark Star. Almost every page has some choice sentence or paragraph, but i liked this one. Perhaps some of the below could also apply to writers and their lives. Here, a Polish intelligence officer mulls over his (mainly purged) NKVD opposites, as the German tanks roll through Poland:

‘Seen together it is a curious group: Theodor Maly – the former Hungarian army chaplain, Eitingon, Slutsky, Artuzov, Trilisser, General Shtern, Abramov, General Berzin, Ursula Kuczynski – called Sonya, that bastard Bloch, all the Latvians and Poles and Jews and what have you – they are, or perhaps one ought to say, in most cases were, the very best that ever did this work. I don’t speak to their morals, their personal lives, or their devotion to a cause in which I do not believe, no, one really can’t see them in that light. But in the business of espionage there have never been any better, possibly won’t ever be. I suppose it could be considered a pity; all of them slaughtered to some strange, enigmatic purpose known only to Stalin, at least a pity you never came to experience their particular personalities.’

‘You’ve met them?’

‘Not in the flesh, no. They are paper men who live in file folders, but perhaps it is, for them, their truest manifestation. What, after all, is there to see? A little fellow with glasses reading a newspaper in a café. An overweight Jewish gentleman choosing a tie, charming the sales clerk. A man in shirtsleeves and suspenders, berated by his wife for some small domestic stupidity.’ Vyborg laughed at the thought of it, his gallery of rogues muddling through their daily lives. ‘Ah, but on paper, well, that’s another story. Here an ambassador is compromised, there a powerful émigré group simply disintegrates, plans for an ingenious ciphering machine are copied and no one knows how it has happened. An incident in Brussels, a disappearance in Prague – one must surmise that a fine hand is at work. As the stage magician says: now you see it, now you don’t. Ah, but dear ladies and gentlemen you must forgive me, I cannot tell you how the trick is done.’

Alan Furst, Dark Star