Julie Orringer’s “The Flight Portfolio”

June 1st, 2019  |  Published in May 2019

“The Flight Portfolio”, by Julie Orringer, is another splendid, first-rate new novel, astonishing in its details and analysis of character and place.  Based upon the real career of the American Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated man who forms the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York, whose mission was to help well-known artists and writers trapped by Nazi Germany and Vichy France to escape to America.

Moving to Marseille, which, as France’s main port, was the epicenter of most underground intelligence (read Lynn Olson’s new biography, “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War” for an amazing history of the founding of the French intelligence and resistance by this most remarkable of women for details) in France.  Orringer’s writing is strikingly visual, and her descriptions of buildings, monuments, streets, cafes and the like in Marseille are amazing.  Fry finds a variety of people to assist him in his mission, strikingly fascinating people, from a Chicago socialite to everyday French heroes and heroines: you’ll note how strong and resilient the women in this novel are.  Fry has to work around the increasingly tight noose of Vichy French officials, most of whom were delighted to collaborate with the Nazis, and keep an eye on The Gestapo, who were all over Southern France early in the war.   Real life artists are writers are dotted throughout the novel; they all live together for long periods of time at Villa Air-Bel near Marseille.  Parties invented/created by the likes of Andre Breton and numerous Surrealists are highlights of the novel; Fry has one very friendly American who works at the American Consulate in Marseille, who both helps Fry and turns a blind eye to his ongoing search for forgers of visas, influxes of enormous sums of monies for bribes and to help escapees on their way to usually America. You’ll meet the Chagalls, the young Hannah Arendt (known then as Johanna), Peggy Guggenheim, Max Werfel, Max Ernst, and many others; Orringer brings them all to life admirably and complexly.

There’s another moral conundrum at the heart of this novel.  In Fry’s early days at Harvard (his stay there coincided with that of Lincoln Kirstein, for whom Lincoln Center in New York was later named), he was mostly homosexual, and part of a group of literary and artistic men, amongst whom is the love of his life, Elliot Grant. Orringer lets us know in her acknowledgments that Grant is wholly invented, based upon real research about Fry which shows him to have been sexually involved with men both at Harvard and in France, although he is married to Eileen; they have an equally open marriage, and Eileen’s letters to Fry in France show her to be a highly sophisticated, worldly woman who turns a blind eye to Fry’s interest in men, in Grant in particular.  Grant and Fry haven’t seen one another in twelve years, after Fry has chosen Eileen over him after a summer house party in Maine (Fry’s from old WASPY money/background), but Grant appears after all those years in France, where he finds Fry.

Grant involves Fry in trying to rescue the young son of Grant’s current lover, who’s now teaching at Columbia in New York, where Grant also teaches. This subtheme of the novel is terrific and painstakingly rendered in all its complexities.  The core issue is whether this son, whose achievements have been faked, Fry later learns, was worth saving ahead of a well-known (invented) artist, who ends up taken to a concentration camp, thus causing Fry terrible moral agony: whose life is worth more than whose? Doesn’t everyone have a right to be ordinary? Are artists and writers worth saving more than others? Underneath these issues, which evolve across the novel, is the relationship between these two men, who fall in love all over again. Orringer presents all the complexities of two gay men in a world of closets and fear, and this subplot is as agonizingly rendered as Fry’s daily attempts at rescuing artists and writers.

Orringer’s descriptions of the daily near chaos in Fry’s office and the hundreds of refugees without papers or money surrounding this office are the stuff of great literature. And the American ambivalence–at best–at receiving European Jews is brilliantly delineated, as well: no country in the world wanted these European Jews, and Fry frequently gets the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt to help him with his cause (she was stronger about saving Jews than her husband was, by far). These issues read as chillingly contemporary, as we’re living in another era where no one wants the thousands of refugees from The Middle East/Africa/Afghanistan now, and the current rise of antisemitism all over Europe, and partly in America, makes Orringer’s novel that much more urgent.  Tout ce change, tout la meme chose…..

Julie Orringer writes with a seeming speed, mirroring the urgency of what she’s writing about, but the descriptions of place–scenery, the built environment, delineations of character–are amongst the best in new fiction I’ve read in a long time. Although the reader will have to decide about her liberties with Fry’s involvement with the invented Grant, that affair is as compelling as all the other people who are saved, hidden, escaped. Fry is an amazing hero; his eventual return to New York is tender and poignant and bittersweet as he rediscovers Grant yet again, who left France after the situation with his lover’s son explodes in Grant’s and Fry’s faces.  Their reunion is one of the most tender and complicated meetings in recent literature.  Orringer is a writer of immense talent and gifts; her research is impeccable, and she brings back to life a time and place most no longer remember, and she does it both as a cautionary tale for the present, and so that we readers can understand the personalities who saved peoples’ lives while living their own complex and flawed ones.  “The Flight Portfolio” (the title refers to works of art all these artists made to show at MOMA in New York as a fundraiser; they’re all stolen by Vichy officials) is a truly great novel, astute and empathetic and smart and essential.

–Daniel Brown

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