Left, Varian Fry. Right, Julie Orringer [photo: Brigitte Lacombe]
From the fall of 2008 until the spring of 2009, I was colleagues with Julie Orringer at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. We both had the extraordinary fortune to receive fellowships to do research for our novels. I was researching New York City at various moments in the twentieth century, along with the history of AIDS in the city. Julie was researching the historical figure Varian Fry. Neither of us knew what we were about to make, nor could we make any sense of the pile of books the other had stashed in their office. Ten years have passed, and now we know: I wrote a novel called The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Julie has just published her novel The Flight Portfolio. It is an honor to watch a writer in the beginning stages of work, fiddling with their magician’s equipment, and an astonishment to see what flies, at last, out of their sleeve. In her case: a breathtaking work of wonder, set in occupied France. I waited for the world to take notice. Then I saw The Flight Portfolio featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, reviewed by fiction writer and critic Cynthia Ozick, who is now ninety-one. The words on the cover are glorious praise, but buried deep in the second page, I found an unsettling critique: Ozick was perturbed that Julie’s fictional Varian Fry is portrayed as gay. Ozick stated: “there is no evidence of homosexuality.” She even abstractly alluded to the dangers of keeping the record straight when writing about the Holocaust. And I did something I had never done; I wrote a letter. The New York Times Book Review printed it, along with letters from Fry’s biographer, and, of all things, from his son. Fry’s son clearly refutes Ozick: his father was gay. I wrote my letter about the invisibility of gay people in history, the lack of evidence, and the worth of the novel to use empathy and invention to imagine the lives of others. I have great respect for Ozick, as I know Julie does. But since I had seen the beginnings of The Flight Portfolio and the vast amounts of research, I wanted to ask her about the process of using history, biography, and imagination to create a novel—and, of course, about this strange misapprehension that occurred in the newspaper of record. What nerve did Julie strike here? And, looking at myself, what nerve did Ozick strike? These questions have been on my mind since I read that review. So I asked Julie.
Historical research can be overwhelming. How did you decide where to begin your story, and where to end?
The story of Varian Fry’s lifesaving mission in France has a seemingly obvious beginning and end—he arrived in Marseille in September of 1940 with a list of two hundred writers and artists he hoped to save. He left thirteen months later having rescued, against all odds, nearly ten times that many, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, Andre Breton, and Hannah Arendt, among others. But time in fiction doesn’t function along a strict continuum, or doesn’t have to. It can bend and loop, as we often experience it in real life. From the beginning, The Flight Portfolio explores how the past extrudes into the present, and how the prospect of our future—and of how our future selves might judge us—exerts pressure on our present moment. The more I learned about Fry’s personal history—his clinically depressed mother and work-preoccupied father, his decision to drop out of Hotchkiss in protest against its hazing rituals, his conflicts with the dean of Harvard when he was a student there, his relationship with future New York City Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein—the more I knew this stuff had to be present in the novel, and had to press upon Fry during his time in Marseille. That meant, of course, that my research had to push beyond its initial boundaries, a daunting prospect when the available materials already included twenty-seven boxes of Fry’s papers at Columbia. But it was necessary to go further for the sake of full emotional accuracy. It also meant I had to exercise restraint, or the book might have been a thousand pages.
Varian Fry is a real person, as are a number of the artists. But you have also created fictional characters, including artists and a past lover, who play major roles in the novel. When did you decide to take flight from your research? How did that feel?
It was always part of the project, and it always felt fraught with risk, despite the many analogues that exist—Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Colm Toibin’s The Master, to name a couple I was reading at the time. The risk, of course, was that some readers might say any element of fiction was unnecessary when Fry’s story was already so compelling, or that adding fictional characters might confuse readers who were learning about all of this for the first time. Novels aim at the truth of human experience, but not through a constrained rendering of fact. There are elements of Varian Fry’s story that wouldn’t or couldn’t have been told at the time, yet they seem essential to an understanding of his character. During his time in Marseille, Fry had an intimate relationship with the future French diplomat Stéphane Hessel, one you can read about in Hessel’s 2011 memoir, The Power of Indignation. For Fry, their weekends in Provence were a necessary respite from the work of running his organization. The Flight Portfolio posits a similar relationship, but with a further complication—a former Harvard classmate finds Fry in Marseille and recruits his help to save a friend’s son. Fry’s organization had charged him with saving only the most talented artists and writers, and for many, those decisions meant the difference between life and death. But personal biases, and personal relationships, undoubtedly played a role in Fry’s selection of clients, and the decisions he made had lasting consequences, both for his clients and for his own future sense of whether his work in Marseille had succeeded or failed.
Cynthia Ozick, who otherwise admired your craft, leveled two critiques in a recent New York Times Book Review. The first was that no evidence exists that Varian Fry was gay, which his own son wrote in to contradict. Why do you think his homosexuality is still a matter of tension even for his admirers?
It’s surprising to me—though perhaps it shouldn’t be—that in 2019, anyone would take issue with the idea of a Holocaust hero being gay. Or that anyone might refer to a gay relationship in the forties as embodying “the glamour of the homoerotic,” to use Ozick’s term—one with unfortunate resonance when used in reference to a time when Hitler was sending gay men and women to concentration camps. Richard Plant’s book, The Pink Triangle, is an illuminating text on the subject. Why does the prejudice still exist? Maybe it’s an issue of milieu. Ozick belongs to Fry’s generation, and her views originated at a time when the idea of a gay hero would have been impossibly transgressive. But other readers in their nineties have responded to The Flight Portfolio’s core relationship with acceptance and warmth. Is the problem, then, one of information—that a reviewer, engaging with a novel’s subjects for only a few weeks, might not have access to the novelist’s research materials, and might therefore make an innocent claim of violated history? Yet there’s a comprehensive bibliography in my author’s note, which Ozick quotes in her review. Many of those works can be downloaded in seconds on sites like Google Play, and term-searched. Perhaps the problem, then, is simply that we have so few analogues for heroes like Fry. Before the fifties, gay men and women couldn’t write openly about their experiences for fear of persecution or death. In that way, a vital swath of history disappeared. But a novel can reach beneath the surface of the historical record to recapture lost lives and lost truths, and to detail the inner workings of human minds, particularly those that have been forced to hide. One of fiction’s superpowers is to create empathy for those who are persecuted. It seems reasonable to imagine that those whose personal or family history involves the Holocaust might be particularly sensitive to that fact.
Ozick’s second critique was the blurring of facts when writing about World War II. Why do you think the subject is so sensitive?
Ozick wrote in a 1999 essay in Commentary, “When a novel comes to us with the claim that it is directed consciously toward history, that the divide between history and the imagination is being purposefully bridged … then the argument for fictional autonomy collapses, and the rights of history can begin to urge their own force.” This is particularly urgent, Ozick argues, in regard to the Holocaust. “What is permissible to the playfully ingenious author of Robinson Crusoe—fiction masking as chronicle—is not permitted to those who touch on the destruction of six million souls, and on the extirpation of their millennial civilization in Europe.” The Holocaust still exists within living memory, and yet there are those who deny that it happened, or who mitigate the horror of its facts. Acts of persecution exist, and anti-Semitism exists, and nationalist governments exist. A forgetting of history is an invitation to its repetition. But it’s important to distinguish, as Fry’s son James does in his eloquent letter to the Times, between Holocaust denialism and the accurate portrayal of a historical figure as gay.
Are all bets off for the novelist, or are there some crimes a novelist could commit when working with historical fact?
A novelist must not diminish the effects of broad-scale persecution. Nor should tragedy be aestheticized—the novelist can’t allow style to overtake substance when it comes to portrayals of human suffering. Nor should we rob historical figures of their full complexity, which means being rigorous in our research, especially when elements of our subjects’ lives have been misrepresented in the past. When I learned about Fry’s relationships with Kirstein and Hessel, I felt I would have been committing a crime against history—and against the LGBTQ community—if I’d suggested that his heterosexual relationships, most notably his marriages to two accomplished and erudite women, represented the sum total of his adult sexual and emotional experience. Fidelity to the historical facts seems particularly important in this case because Fry’s story isn’t as widely known as it should be. Certainly, he’d never before been openly portrayed as gay.
When a novelist does invent, in relation to history, the invention should ideally illuminate the history more clearly or deepen our understanding of it. That’s what Colson Whitehead does when he creates a literal underground railroad in The Underground Railroad, for example, or Nathan Englander when he creates the fictional Pinchas Pelovits in his historically faithful story “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which takes as its subject Stalin’s purge of Soviet Jewish writers and intellectuals. The novel thrives on intellectual and creative freedom. A sensitive novelist uses this freedom to shed light on truth.
How does a novel differ from a biography? What are the expectations, revelations, and limits?
A novel is far more intimate than a biography. It opens a window onto what we call, in the M.F.A. workshop, interiority. We pick up a novel to live an extended moment with a character—not for a pure delineation of fact, but for a truth that goes beyond fact, one that creates a commonality of experience between reader and subject through the suspension of disbelief. We delight in forgetting that the book is a made thing, a written thing, even when the work elicits our awareness of fiction as form. The revelation we strive for when we write, and the one we seek with ardor when we read, is that we’re not alone, that our human limitations are shared, that our self-doubt, our moments of avarice or weakness or self-interest, are universal and not incompatible with acts of selflessness and generosity. We want to be reminded that our experience is mirrored in the lives of others, even if indirectly. Biography must exist—it must capture what is known about a life, and it can go far toward a sensitive illumination of psychology, as in Hermione Lee’s elegant and comprehensive Virginia Woolf, or Brian Boyd’s two-volume Nabokov. But fiction must go further. It must capture what can never be known, but what can be sensed with transcendent certainty by the human mind and heart.
Andrew Sean Greer is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of six works of fiction, including the bestsellers The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Less.
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