The Flight Portfolio: A Novel
by Julie Orringer
Knopf , 576 pp
Reviewed by Erika Dreifus
Julie Orringer’s latest novel, The Flight Portfolio, opens in early September 1940 in southern France, with an American named Varian Fry visiting Marc and Bella Chagall in the Provençal village of Gordes. It ends with Fry returning to New York about a year later. Across the intervening pages, the reader follows Fry’s efforts, based in the port city of Marseille and aided by a small team, to facilitate the flights of high-profile European artists and intellectuals made vulnerable by their Jewishness and/or politics. In addition to the Chagalls, an incomplete list of familiar refugee names includes Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, multiple members of the extended Thomas Mann family, and Mr. and Mrs. Franz Werfel (Alma Werfel having previously been known by another married name: Mrs. Gustav Mahler).
Some facts: Varian Fry actually existed. In September 1940, he was a 32-year-old Harvard alumnus with a wife named Eileen at home in New York and a background as a journalist and editor. For a period of time in 1940-41, with no ostensibly relevant operational experience but keenly aware of the dire nature of what was unfolding in Europe (based in part on what he’d earlier witnessed and reported from Germany), he represented a privately-organized American “Emergency Rescue Committee” on the ground in France. Some 2,000 people were assisted by Fry and the Europeans and Americans with whom he worked to procure both valid and forged papers; arrange travel by car, train, ship, and foot; and finagle the occasional concentration-camp or jail release. Posthumously, Fry became the first American whom Yad Vashem recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for his Holocaust-era actions, but his name remains too little-known. Orringer’s novel is likely to increase awareness of the deeds that ultimately earned some additional public acknowledgments, including a traveling exhibition organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Equally indisputable: the prodigious and varied research that Orringer has put into this project, which is detailed in an essential “Author’s Note” at the book’s end. Nor can anyone argue Orringer’s literary gifts. With echoes of Henry James, she excels in particular at the art of description:
The grapevines and olive trees and rows of skyward-pointing cypresses presented themselves, as expected, but often they appeared against hills furred with ugly
gray-green scrub and toothed with great molars of limestone; often the ubiquitous lavender and almond gave way to low, hostile cactus, gnarled kermes oak, rusty lentisk, or wind-stunted pistachio. The sky was the washed-out blue-green of weatherbeaten copper; the few clouds overhead seemed wrung out and dry.
As with the experience of reading James, too, one can’t help but notice that the descriptive prose expands the novel—in The Flight Portfolio’s case, to well over 500 pages.
But the novel’s door-stopping heft stems also from authorial choices concerning plot and character. As Orringer explains in the author’s note: “In these pages I’ve portrayed a real history—Varian Fry’s heroic lifesaving mission in France—alongside an imagined one, his relationship with the entirely fictional Elliott Grant.” For this parallel storyline, Orringer invents a significant backstory and narrative momentum: a relationship history dating back some 12 years to the couple’s time as Harvard undergraduates; Grant’s re-appearance in Fry’s life, in France in September 1940, to seek assistance for his current German-Jewish lover and the lover’s twenty-something son (who are also fictional creations); an identity for “Elliott Schiffman Grant” that includes not just homosexuality but also parentage that is both Jewish and African-American (as complicated as this intersectional identity may be today, consider how it raises the stakes for a story set in 1940); and a renewed passion that obsesses Fry for the remainder of his time in France, both in the tactile narrative present and in his ruminations about a possible future.
In her author’s note, Orringer is clear about the purpose driving these creative choices, which is to encourage the reader to assume une certaine idée of Varian Fry, one that has not characterized most historical appreciations to date: “I envision Varian Fry as a brave and brilliant person whose sexuality happened to resist easy categorization. My hope is that he’ll be celebrated that way in the twenty-first century and beyond.” Much might be written about this motivation. In her review of the novel for The New York Times Book Review, Cynthia Ozick devoted significant space to Orringer’s vision of Fry’s sexual life; two weeks later, the Book Review published a full page of letters in response.
Focusing exclusively on the artistic implications, however—considering the effects of Orringer’s choices on the novel as a novel—one discerns some pitfalls in the parallel plotline. Some readers may regret its effects on the pacing of the mission-focused narrative. Others may tire of certain repetitions in the love story: Regardless of the sexual identities/orientations involved, there comes a moment when, after yet another reference to an “erotic charge” or “electricity” or a “jolt of electricity,” this reader, at any rate, begins to wish that some fictional pairs might quickly uncouple.
The novel’s page count increases further thanks to Orringer’s deployment of the titular portfolio itself. In reality, a portfolio did exist, and in “The Rescuer” (2012), an extensive piece for Tablet magazine that is available as a Kindle Single—oddly missing from the copious sources listed in Orringer's concluding note—Dara Horn recounted that project’s sad history:
The refugees’ ingratitude became painfully clear in 1966, the year before Fry’s
death. That year Fry decided to raise money for the International Rescue
Commission—a philanthropic group loosely evolved from Fry’s Emergency
Rescue Committee—by putting together a fundraising album of original lithographs from the artists the committee had rescued. Fry thought this would be simple;
after all, he had saved these people’s lives. It wasn’t.
Horn went on to chronicle what she characterizes as “enraging” responses from the former refugees. Chagall, for instance, was ultimately persuaded to contribute a sample of his work, but, as Horn notes, “refused to sign it, deliberately reducing its value by orders of magnitude.” Ernst “largely rebuffed” Fry’s requests (note the plural), “capitulating only,” Horn writes, “when Fry arrived in France…to beg him in person.” Breton refused altogether.
Orringer’s fictional portfolio differs in several key respects. First, it is generated in the novel’s narrative present, in wartime France, rather than 25 years later in New York. Next, the novel’s portfolio is credited not to Fry’s inspiration, but instead to that of a (fictional) Jewish artist-refugee: About halfway through the book, Fry sees the first drawings that “Zilberman” has taken it upon himself to collect (including one that was “unmistakably Chagall’s”):
"What do you propose to do with these?" Varian said.
Zilberman raised his cap to smooth back his hair. "Liberate them from France.
Get them to the States. The artists have agreed already to donate the work.
Chagall has many friends in New York, and my wife has contacts in Boston.
Let us transport these works to America, stage a series of exhibitions. Show
everyone what’s at risk. What might be lost. Do you not think money can be raised, Monsieur Fry? Perhaps we can make lithographs, a set. The Flight Portfolio,
we could call it.”
The fictional portfolio is thus put in service to both plot and character(s) in ways that diverge significantly from the historical record. (No spoilers here, but suffice to say that the more Orringer incorporates the portfolio into the novel, the more she needs to invent.)
But isn’t that her prerogative? Isn’t it the historical novelist’s right and privilege to decide what to omit, change, or invent for her narrative purposes? Maybe. But then, perhaps, we must turn to the reader. For it occurs to me that the novelistic right may produce something beyond the artistic creation itself: an invitation for the reader who seeks to be educated as well as entertained to investigate further.
The degree to which this invitation may inspire readers will vary. As for myself, I brought to this book an unusual set of “pre-existing conditions.” Like many others, I’d admired, greatly, Orringer’s previous novel, The Invisible Bridge, whose similarly Holocaust-and-World-War-Two-grounded narrative is inspired by Orringer’s own family background (Orringer is also the author of a short-story collection, How to Breathe Underwater). But it’s hard to know how many fans were as intrigued as I was when I first learned, nearly a decade ago, that Orringer was at work on a novel about Varian Fry.
I’d discovered Fry’s name, and his own and others’ accounts of their life-risking, life-saving work in Marseille, back in the mid-1990s, when I was a doctoral student in history who was exploring potential dissertation topics. Ultimately, the dissertation went in another direction. Still, I likely know more about France in 1940-41—how its map was divided between a German-occupied and a “free” zone under Vichy control; what it means to describe a character as a “passportless” Jewish refugee who’d “entered France on foot some months before [fall 1940] and drifted toward Marseille during the pagaille”(p. 22); the status of Franco-American diplomatic relations during the period, etc.—than most. (Similarly, I wish that this novel included a map to situate not only the numerous “real” French cities and towns where so much of the narrative takes place—and perhaps one map devoted entirely to Marseille and its environs—but also the essential and oft-mentioned Spanish, Portuguese, and North African locales.)
At the same time, like Orringer, I hold a master’s degree in the fine art of fiction writing. I know firsthand the alchemy involved in building a fictional story around a “real” person, whether that individual is one’s own family member or someone plucked from History. I understand the impulse that motivated Orringer, as she explains in that author’s note, to imagine “what might have happened in the interstices between the events Fry describes in his memoir, Surrender on Demand.”
“A biography can read like a novel,” Ozick wrote in her review. “Ought a novel to pose as a biography?” And if it does, to what extent should the fictionalized life hew to its recorded history? Does the threshold change depending on whose life the novelist has chosen to recreate? And has Orringer, with her fairly explicit goal of ensuring not just the memory of Fry’s recorded deeds, but also a newer interpretation of the inner life and motivations behind them, gone too far?
I’m not about to rule on those questions. If Varian Fry’s name is new to you: I recommend that you read Julie Orringer’s novel. Then, read Dara Horn’s shorter nonfictional work as well. Both are vividly written. Both are deeply researched. Both prompt big moral questions about risk and courage, about how some lives are more valued than others, about what makes a person a hero. Both offer reminders of the ways that officialdom—including, sadly, American officialdom—so often conspired against Fry’s mission, and of the extent to which those who dared to help him made a difference
Read them both. And then, decide for yourself.
Erika Dreifus, a former lecturer on history and literature at Harvard, is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal honor title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Her first poetry collection, Birthright, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books in November 2019. Web: ErikaDreifus.com.