anti-Semitism, biographical fiction, biographical invention, book review, Harry Bingham, historical fiction, Holocaust, homosexuality, Julie Orringer, literary fiction, Marseille, Mary Jayne Gold, Miriam Davenport, Varian Fry, Vichy France
Review: The Flight Portfolio, by Julie Orringer
Knopf, 2019. 553 pp. $28
In 1940, Varian Fry, literary scholar and foreign policy historian, arrives in Marseille facing an impossible job: pry a handful of stateless, mostly Jewish refugees out of Vichy France and get them to safety. They belong to the intellectual and artistic cream of Europe, which poses a difficult question, whether it’s moral to save Marc Chagall or André Breton while letting nobodies die. In any event, Vichy won’t grant exit visas; the police have informers everywhere; the American consul in Marseilles, Hugh Fullerton, won’t help; and the U.S. State Department, patently anti-Semitic, sends threatening cables to Varian.
Varian Fry has long been a hero of mine; you’ll know why if you see the small exhibit about him at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. So I was very much looking forward to reading The Flight Portfolio, whose first hundred pages will take your breath away. You get the full flavor of Marseille, the perilous work of escape, the constant setbacks, arrests, exposures — did I say, “No; and furthermore”? — and how absolutely out of touch Varian’s Stateside supervisors are about the danger, the stakes, the costs, the methods required.
On the bright side, helpful people just show up at the committee office in Marseille, like Miriam Davenport and Mary Jayne Gold, whose skill, coolness under fire, judgment, and private funds keep the effort afloat. Orringer does a terrific job with these secondary characters (these two women, incidentally, are real historical figures) and how Varian learns from them to handle a job no one could have prepared him for. Together, their inventions are ingenious, their subterfuge and play-acting essential, their courage and humanity the stuff of legend.
Meanwhile, you read this in prose that could only come from a Muse herself:
The walk from his hotel took him down the boulevard d’Athènes and across the aorta of Marseille, the Canebière, where diners lounged at café tables and jazz angled from the open restaurant windows despite the post-occupation ban. The street smelled of diesel fuel and cardamom and wet gutters, of tobacco and women’s perfume.… At this hour the port was still faintly illuminated by a horizon line of brilliant yellow, the last liquid dregs of a sunset that had insisted its corals and ochres through the fog. But in the streets, darkness had already fallen; the alleys of the port district snaked into ill-lit caverns on either side of the boulevard.
Yet despite all that, The Flight Portfolio disappoints me. Partly that comes from the repetitive rescue process, similar to a revolving door. For instance, when Chagall refuses, at first, to heed Varian’s warnings that he’s in danger, there’s Walter Benjamin, the eminent philosopher, to consider; and after him, Walter Mehring, the poet and satirist of the Nazi regime. Each person’s case differs, and the traps and obstacles vary too. Yet, when one refugee makes it through the door (or not), another steps up. Despite the myriad complications and tension that results, it never spirals upward. That’s the nature of the story.
Perhaps to add context — personal and political — Orringer invents Elliott Grant, a former lover from Varian’s Harvard days, and ties him to the escape narrative. (Varian is bisexual; his wife, Eileen, remains an off-stage presence.) Grant doesn’t appeal to me; he seems like a golden boy too conscious of his aura, and a snob to boot. He’s there to teach Varian the symbolic link between saving hunted refugees and being hunted oneself as a homosexual, but that doesn’t click into place until the last hundred pages. During the huge chunk in the middle, Grant’s presence almost always leads me to ask why I’m reading about him when the clock is running out on the great intellectuals of Europe. The revolving door gains no tension, and in fact slows down.
Orringer wishes to argue that Varian’s devotion to the cause results partly from his sexual identification. Fair enough; but if so, must this home truth elude him for so long? I’m particularly puzzled because he readily grasps a different moral parallel, regarding a shameful incident from his past, which Orringer introduces as though it’s crucial, yet makes little use of it. I could have read more about that. I’d have also liked to hear more about Miriam Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold, and Vice-Consul Harry Bingham, who disobeys his boss to aid Varian, and about the others who do much of the clandestine work.
It’s a daunting task, biographical fiction — what do you include, omit, embellish, or invent? Orringer pours her heart out for The Flight Portfolio, and I admire her imagination and gift for putting it on the page. All the same, for me, this novel remains earthbound.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.