Book review: Emergency mission

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.

VARIAN FRY poses on a balcony in Berlin in 1935. (photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
VARIAN FRY poses on a balcony in Berlin in 1935.
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.

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