Julie Orringer’s Unbearable Moral Conundrum

Julie Orringer is in her apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when we talk about her extraordinary second novel. The Flight Portfolio (Knopf, May) was conceived while Orringer was researching her previous novel, 2010’s critically acclaimed The Invisible Bridge, at Paris’s

Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. “I was reading a paper from Nov. 8, 1938, when I came across an article about the man who became the first person to be deported from France under the surrender-on-demand clause of the Franco-German armistice. When I searched online for ‘surrender on demand,’ up came a 1945 memoir published under that title by a man named Varian Fry.”

Fry, Orringer discovered, went to Occupied France in 1940 to try to save 200 writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo. Working through an American organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee, he managed to extract more than 2,000 refugees—among them André Breton, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst—through an ostensibly legal relief process. In fact, his operation often used forged papers and clandestine escape routes, earning suspicion from French authorities and resistance from the still-isolationist American government.

Orringer hoped at first to incorporate Fry’s story into The Invisible Bridge. As she learned more about Fry, she realized that this material deserved a novel of its own.

Though Orringer was familiar with the era’s history from her work on The Invisible Bridge, which begins in 1937, understanding the complexities of Fry’s story required extensive study. She moved to Park Slope in 2008 for a research fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where she had a year to use the library’s vast resources for her project. The move proved fortuitous in another way: Columbia University holds 27 boxes of archival material documenting Fry’s work in France.

After that, Orringer accepted a one-year fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass., which offered research assistance as well as convenient access to recently unsealed papers from Fry’s undergraduate years at Harvard. “I spent hours in the Cambridge and Columbia archives reading everything from Varian’s Harvard grade reports to accounts of what he did each week in Marseille,” she recalls. “The Invisible Bridge used elements of my family’s past as the starting point for an invented story, so I didn’t have to deal with the constraints of a historical figure’s well-documented personal experience. Writing about Varian Fry, I felt like I had to understand the historical record fully before I could craft a narrative in the apertures between the facts.”

Eventually, Orringer says, she found that there was no end to the information she could have gathered. Returning to Brooklyn from Cambridge, she tried to come to terms with the trove of material she had amassed. “I realized that if I tried to include everything I’d learned, there was no way I was ever going to finish the book,” she notes. “At that point, what I needed was a kind of inner quiet—an openness from which my own narrative could emerge.”

Orringer spent five days a week working at the Brooklyn Writers Space and says that at some point she started leaving her voluminous files at home in favor of a single book: Surrender on Demand, the Varian Fry memoir that inspired the novel. “I began thinking about how Fry had represented his own experience, how he teased out what was important to him. Exploring that structure helped me peel back the story I wanted to tell.”

Eliminating secondary figures, relationships, and incidents, Orringer gradually found the novel’s heart, which she describes as Fry’s “unbearable moral conundrum.” The need that faced him in Marseille was exponentially greater than the stringent limits of his budget, mandate, and time frame—originally a month, though he stayed in France for a year.

“Fry’s situation—trying to decide which human lives to save based on assessments of refugees’ artistic or intellectual value—was morally impossible,” Orringer says. “In the novel, I wanted to add a personal element to complicate that calculus still further. What if someone for whom Fry cared deeply needed help? How would he balance that imperative with the needs of others, of people with more legitimate claims to his attention and resources?”

The result of these questions is the fictional Elliot Schiffman Grant, a former Harvard classmate with whom Orringer’s Fry shares an intense mutual attraction. Writing in the 1940s, the real Fry didn’t acknowledge the homosexual liaisons documented in later sources. As Orringer explains, “Fry’s sexuality resists easy categorization—he was married twice and had two children—but we know he had relationships with other men. I gradually came to understand that Fry’s awareness of his own difference, as well as his need to hide that difference from the eyes of the world, sensitized him to the plight of others who were persecuted and forced to live in fear.”

In Orringer’s novel, Grant vanished from Fry’s life 12 years before they meet in Marseille. There, Grant asks Fry to help get his lover, a German-born Jew, and his lover’s son to safety in America. Fry, struggling with his reawakened desire for Grant and the unfinished emotional business between them, feels unable to say no. “I imagined Grant as someone with many reasons to hide parts of his own story,” Orringer says. “Yet he’s relatively open about his relationship with his lover Gregor Katznelson, which calls Fry’s decision to hide his sexuality into question. They’re characters who challenge each other in a variety of ways, and who I hope have a powerful effect on each other by the story’s end.”

Throughout the novel, Fry experiences the conflict that relief workers feel between saving others’ lives and fully living their own. An intellectually serious man given to rigorous thought, Fry lived with the knowledge that his decisions would save lives or cost them. Though Grant’s reappearance complicates Fry’s life, it also balances the darker elements of his story.

“Grant’s capacity for playfulness, as well as his sexual allure, encourage Fry to be physically present in ways he couldn’t have justified otherwise,” Orringer tells me. A number of the artists and writers whom the Emergency Rescue Committee attempts to save make vivid appearances in the novel, heightening the sense that its characters are living in two distinct realities at once.

“While working on The Invisible Bridge, I thought a lot about what allows us to survive in extremis,” Orringer says. “The artists in The Flight Portfolio use play and humor to keep themselves alive. The horror they’ve experienced emerges in their work, but they find moments of respite through parties, art exhibitions, and surrealist games.”

Orringer initially expected the novel to be significantly shorter than The Invisible Bridge, in part because it focuses on a single viewpoint and year. Ultimately, her attempt to do justice to her own invented story as well as to the feeling of life in 1940 France, the period’s intricate politics, and the logistical complexity of what Fry was trying to accomplish necessitated a longer book. As she generated pages and had two children, America’s dramatic political shift gave the novel an unexpected topicality.

“I don’t want to suggest that immigration was entirely uncomplicated during the Obama era,” Orringer says. “But there was a sense of openness and inclusion, an appreciation of America as a country of immigrants. I couldn’t have conceived, when I began this novel, how drastically that would change.”

Today, Orringer is glad that the novel illuminates some of the dangers of our historical moment, among them isolationism and xenophobia. “As I was coming of age as a writer, the prevailing ethos was to avoid letting one’s work be clouded by political issues or social commentary,” she says. “But as someone who grew up in America because my family was lucky enough to make it here safely, immigration policy has always held a personal urgency for me. And now we’ve arrived at a political moment when it’s impossible for writers not to engage larger social issues. If we’re not doing that, we’re neglecting one of the greatest powers of art.”

Suzanne Fox is a writer, speaker, and freelance editor in North Carolina.

A version of this article appeared in the 03/25/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: An Unbearable Moral Conundrum

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