In her lat­est work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, Julie Or­ringer brings to life the story of Var­ian Fry, a man who saved thou­sands of in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists from the Nazis

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ELAINE MARGOLIN

In nov­el­ist Julie Or­ringer’s ca­pa­ble hands, the real life of Var­ian Fry comes to light in a greater way than any tra­di­tional bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count­ing. Fry, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, was re­spon­si­ble for res­cu­ing thou­sands of in­tel­lec­tual and creative refugees from France as Hitler beck­oned. And Or­ringer, a bril­liantly beau­ti­ful writer, has brought us an un­for­get­table piece of work in The Flight Port­fo­lio. Her lat­est novel stuns, shat­ters and be­wil­ders us while some­how manag­ing to trans­mit the faintest glim­mers of hope and eu­phoric reck­on­ings hap­pen­ing in one man’s mind de­spite the dan­ger­ous grotesque­ness that sur­rounded him in Mar­seille as the Se­cond World War be­gan its de­struc­tion.

Fry was a Har­vard-ed­u­cated Protes­tant and a mid­dle-class son of a stock­bro­ker and a mother, whose mental health wa­vered, some­thing he was for­ever ashamed about. In 1940, the 32-year-old Fry, who had never be­fore shown a pro­cliv­ity to­ward reck­less­ness or brav­ery of any sort, left for France at the be­hest of the Emer­gency Res­cue Com­mit­tee, with $3,000 and a mis­sion to save as many elite artis­tic in­tel­lec­tual refugees from France as he could who were then in jeop­ardy. Fry was mar­ried and child­less at the time and strug­gling with sex­ual am­bi­gu­i­ties that he had al­ways tried to sub­merge.

There was lit­tle sup­port for Fry’s mis­sion in the United States, which still wanted to re­main out of the war, and Fry needed to rely only upon his wits and the de­voted staff he cul­ti­vated abroad. He some­times was lucky enough to get the ear of Eleanor Roo­sevelt, who was sym­pa­thetic to his cause, but even her power to help was lim­ited. He car­ried with him a list of names from the Emer­gency Res­cue Com­mit­tee who had been deemed pri­or­ity to save – both Jews and non-Jews alike – but all ex­cep­tional in their ac­com­plish­ments in art, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence and pol­i­tics. Men like Duchamp, Lam, Cha­gall, Ernst, Feucht­wanger, Wer­fel, Mahler, Mann, Lip­shitz, Hil­fer­d­ing, Bre­itscheid, Gide, Mas­son, and other aca­demics anx­ious to leave a world they sensed al­ready had no place for them. Fry saved thou­sands of refugees work­ing fever­ishly while Amer­ica lan­guished and its own an­ti­semitism fes­tered qui­etly.

Or­ringer tells us that Fry wrote his mem­oir in 1945, but stopped way short of re­veal­ing his es­sen­tial self. Mem­oirs writ­ten by oth­ers who were in­ti­mate with him filled in some of the blanks, but much about Fry re­mains un­known. How­ever, Or­ringer brings Fry to life with an in­cred­i­ble vi­brancy. We some­times swear we can hear the dead man breathe.

The most in­cred­u­lous part of Or­ringer’s nar­ra­tive in­volves Fry’s love af­fair with a man with whom he re­con­nected in France af­ter 12 long years. They had met at Har­vard, but Fry then aban­doned him, fear­ful that their ho­mo­sex­ual af­fair would de­stroy any chance he had of lead­ing a nor­mal life. Fry mar­ried Eileen, a high­brow wo­man with bo­hemian ten­den­cies he ad­mired, but who could never grab his heart the way his long-lost friend El­liot Grant had.

Or­ringer tells us that Grant came ex­clu­sively from her imag­i­na­tion, but some­how we have trouble be­liev­ing her. Like Fry, he breathes, all her char­ac­ters do.

When Fry meets up with Grant in a ho­tel bar in Mar­seille af­ter re­ceiv­ing a note from him, he is over­whelmed with feel­ings he has trouble con­trol­ling. Grant is with a new man

now called Gre­gor, whom Grant has promised to help. Gre­gor needs to find and save his son, a math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius wanted by the Wehrma­cht for his smarts, and he has gone miss­ing. But Fry at first can’t even regis­ter what it is Grant wants or needs from him. He can only re­mem­ber what they once had and what they might have again.

Fry tells Grant he will try to help him find the boy. Af­ter all, how could he not? He is flooded by mem­o­ries of nights with Grant at Har­vard, ly­ing naked in bed read­ing po­etry by Faulkner be­tween bouts of love­mak­ing, a sil­ver flask be­tween them, and all the ten­der se­crets they shared.

Fry was able to talk to Grant about his mother’s mental ill­ness that shamed and scared him. Grant told Fry about his se­cret her­itage. Grant had a Jewish mother and black fa­ther who left his mother by the time Grant was two. His fa­ther was a mu­si­cian, a tal­ent he passed to Grant that his mother no­ticed, and he co­erced her to get him piano les­sons, which

he mas­tered quickly. He had lied on his ap­pli­ca­tion to Har­vard and pre­tended to be white, since he passed as one, de­spite his dark curly hair and olive com­plex­ion.

THERE WAS al­ways some­thing spe­cial about Grant. Or­ringer ex­plains that he “pos­sessed a cer­tain al­chem­i­cal magic ca­pa­ble of trans­form­ing the old and the or­di­nary into the won­drous and the unique.” Fry saw it ev­ery time he looked into Grant’s un­usu­ally gray eyes, which re­flected the light in an al­most sur­re­al­is­tic man­ner. Fry tried at Har­vard to im­merse him­self in learn­ing Latin and Greek, and then Ger­man and French, and even­tu­ally He­brew, and then be­gan to study po­etry and lit­er­a­ture and the work of the Modernists, but noth­ing re­ally moved him the way Grant did.

Fry and Grant be­come closer and Gre­gor leaves for Amer­ica hop­ing Grant will help him save his son from the apoca­lypse that is threat­en­ing the world. But Or­ringer shows us how even un­der the threat of such madness, love and the prom­ise of some sort of per­fect love can some­times blot out gloom and de­spair. Or­ringer de­scribes how when Fry saw Grant and they spoke qui­etly and their hands briefly touched. Some­thing hap­pened again that this time was ir­re­versible. Fry could no longer deny it.

She de­scribes the changes in Fry with an al­most oth­er­worldly splen­dor: “There are mo­ments when the fil­a­ment of time bends, loops, blurs. The present be­comes per­me­able, the past leaps for­ward and in­sists it­self upon us with­out warn­ing. The or­derly pro­gres­sion of our day re­veals it­self to be a lie, and the sense-mak­ing brain floun­ders. What was he sup­posed to call this im­pos­si­bil­ity that in­sisted it­self be­fore him as re­al­ity? A hal­lu­ci­na­tion? Déjà vu, that cheap cin­e­matic trick of the mind.”

Many writ­ers at­tempt to de­scribe love and its se­cre­tive work­ings upon the mind, which both re­sists and is drawn to its power. But few writ­ers are able to do so like Or­ringer. In one mov­ing pas­sage, Or­ringer de­scribes Fry’s reck­on­ing in a man­ner that stuns us into an ac­com­pa­ny­ing eu­pho­ria. There is a party go­ing on de­spite the madness that sur­rounds them. Friends have gath­ered to drink and eat, though food is scarce and so is al­co­hol. Grant is playing the piano as he did years ago at Har­vard, and Fry goes up­stairs to lie alone on his bed and await Grant’s ar­rival. Fry re­al­izes that he is hope­lessly in love and all that might mean.

“But that was how we rec­og­nized love, he thought: It made the ex­cep­tion,” Or­ringer wrote. “It was the case that broke the par­a­digm, the burn­ing anom­aly. In its light we failed at first to rec­og­nize our­selves clearly for the first time. It re­vealed our bound­aries to be mu­ta­ble; it forced us to shout yes when we’d spent our lives say­ing no. For Grant, for this one per­son on Earth, he could imag­ine doing the un­think­able: liv­ing out­side what the world pre­scribed, even if they looked at him the way they looked at men like him, even if they called him all the worst names: in­vert, fag­got, abom­i­na­tion. For Grant, only for him, he would walk for­ward into the fate that fol­lowed the cast­ing of the die. And he would share the ter­ri­ble weight of truth-telling.”

Or­ringer’s past novel was about a Hun­gar­ian-Jewish stu­dent in Paris in 1937. The In­vis­i­ble Bridge re­ceived great ac­co­lades and got everyone’s at­ten­tion. Her new work, The Flight Port­fo­lio, soars into a strato­sphere all its own. The au­thor lives in Brook­lyn now with her hus­band and chil­dren af­ter a child­hood spent as a semi-loner in New Or­leans, where there were few other Jews. She has ex­plained that per­haps it was this ex­pe­ri­ence that al­lowed her to sense what be­ing an out­sider feels like first-hand. What she doesn’t ex­plain about her­self is what we most want to know, and that is how she learned to write with such ten­der­ness and brim­ming in­can­des­cence as she does here, much to the reader’s de­light.

‘There are mo­ments when the fil­a­ment of time bends, loops, blurs. The present be­comes per­me­able; the past leaps for­ward and in­sists it­self upon us with­out warn­ing’

(US Holo­caust Memo­rial Museum)

VAR­IAN FRY poses on a bal­cony in Ber­lin in 1935.

THE FLIGHT PORT­FO­LIO By Julie Or­ringer Al­fred A. Knopf 576 pages; $28.95

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