Cover image for The flight portfolio : a novel
The flight portfolio : a novel
1st ed.
Physical Description:
562 pages ; 25 cm.
In 1940, Varian Fry--a Harvard educated American journalist--traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to rescue within a few weeks. Instead, he ended up staying in France for thirteen months, working under the veil of a legitimate relief organization to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and set up an underground railroad that led over the Pyrenees, into Spain, and finally to Lisbon, where the refugees embarked for safer ports. Among his many clients were Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall. The Flight Portfolio opens at the Chagalls' ancient stone house in Gordes, France, as the novel's hero desperately tries to persuade them of the barbarism and tragedy descending on Europe. Masterfully crafted, exquisitely written, impossible to put down, this is historical fiction of the very first order, and resounding confirmation of Orringer's gifts as a novelist. --


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"Bighearted, gorgeous, historical, suspenseful, everything you want a novel to be" (--Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less ), a new book inspired by the World War II story you've never heard--the real-life quest of an unlikely hero to save the lives and work of Europe's great minds from the impending Holocaust

In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. Instead, he stayed more than a year, working to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees would embark for safer ports. His many clients included Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall, and the race against time to save them is a tale of forbidden love, high-stakes adventure, and unimaginable courage.

"Masterfully crafted and impossible to put down, The Flight Portfolio offers a testament to the enduring power of art, and love, in any form." -- Entertainment Weekly

Author Notes

Julie Orringer was born in Miami, Florida on June 12, 1973. She is a graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her books include the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater: Stories (2003) and the novel The Invisible Bridge (2010). Her stories have appeared in numerous publications including The Paris Review, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The Best New American Voices. She received the Paris Review's Discovery Prize and two Pushcart Prizes.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Orringer's magnificent novel is centered around American journalist Varian Fry's work helping imperiled refugees out of Nazi-occupied France. In 1940, Fry leaves his wife and job behind in New York and travels to Marseille for the Emergency Rescue Committee, formed to get prominent intellectuals and creative artists safely to America. Faced with meager resources, an enormous task, and suspicion from both the Vichy and U.S. governments, Fry makes anguished decisions about which "clients" to help and which to leave in danger. Then he is contacted by his one-time Harvard classmate Elliott Schiffman Grant, with whom he shared an intense mutual attraction. "Skiff," who vanished from Fry's life without explanation 12 years before, wants helps getting his German-born Jewish lover, Gregor Katznelson, and Katznelson's son out of Europe. Fry falls in love with Grant again as he makes increasingly high-stakes decisions about who, and what, to save. As in 2010's superb The Invisible Bridge, Orringer seamlessly combines compelling inventions with complex fact: figures including Marc Chagall and Andre Breton make vivid appearances, while Skiff and his relationship with Fry are unforgettable fictional creations. Brilliantly conceived, impeccably crafted, and showcasing Orringer's extraordinary gifts, this is destined to become a classic. Agent: Kimberly Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Orringer's (The Invisible Bridge, 2010) gripping second novel centers on Varian Fry, the American editor who undertook great risk to rescue endangered European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust. Overseeing the Emergency Rescue Committee's work in 1940 Marseille, Varian and his fellow activists use delicate personal connections to ensure high-profile refugees' escape from Vichy France through legal and illegal means, amid limited finances and a less-than-supportive State Department. Into this high-pressure atmosphere arrives Elliott Grant, Varian's (imaginary) former lover, requesting a complicated favor. Through their revived affair, the story explores issues of identity and living one's authentic self. Grant is a convincing creation, but readers may be uneasy that considerable emotional weight and suspense hinge on a historical character's fictional relationship and its repercussions. Still, Orringer is a beautiful prose stylist who captures depth of meaning about complex human issues, and she addresses head-on the moral dilemma of making value judgments on individual lives. Ultimately Orringer crafts a vivid portrait of wartime Marseille, its innate sophistication darkened by Nazi oppression, and of Fry's heroic real-life accomplishments.--Sarah Johnson Copyright 2019 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

HENRY JAMES IN his tales liked to send his much-advantaged yet inexperienced young Americans abroad, to be steeped in the superior civilization of Europe: its grand boulevards and ancient seats, its paintings, its music, its unsurpassed literary heritage. At 28, on his way to Germany in 1935, Varian Fry of New York, born to affluence and Protestant probity, was just such an impressionable young man. His Harvard degree was in classics. His father was a Wall Street eminence. His bent was intellectual and writerly. And ultimately he did in fact encounter at close quarters European civilization at its 20th-century zenith. But in 1935, in the streets of Berlin, it was not high culture that he witnessed. It was barbarism: SS thugs savagely beating and bloodying Jews. What he saw then led to his extraordinary entanglement with the most significant thinkers and artists of the time. Five years later, when the Germans had overrun France and the collaborationist Vichy regime took control of what was no longer a refuge for Nazi prey in the south, Fry went to Marseille as a volunteer for a privately organized mission, the Emergency Rescue Committee. Initially encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt, its mandate was to facilitate escape for prominent dissidents and luminaries of the arts, many of them Jews: the makers of masterworks, the creme de la creme of European genius. This had a double intent: saving the refugees, and raising the money their fame would elicit to save them. By the close of his stubbornly daring sojourn in Marseille, bristling with peril, subterfuge, forgery, bribery and unrelenting hostility, Fry had delivered from the freight cars the lives of more than 2,000 desperate souls, both the renowned and the less so. (Among the renowned: Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, Jacques Lifschitz, Golo Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Alma Mahler, Claude LéviStrauss, Max Ophüls and countless others.) And if the young Varian Fry once resembled a type of dramatically evolving character in fiction, he has now become, in Julie Orringer's sympathetic and prodigiously ambitious novel, a fictional character himself. Orringer's scrupulous research into this turbulent period goes far beyond bookishness. Her landscapes regularly rise to a Keatsian sensuousness. Her Marseille breathes as a city breathes: architecture, gardens, streets, hotels, cafes, skies, smells, weather, food, cigarettes, the interiors of suites, offices, prisons, internment camps, the moods of authority and tyranny and spite, the cunning of confederates and criminals, the fury of betrayal by seeming allies. She evokes the crooked geography of flight - Spain, Portugal, Martinique, the trek on foot over the Pyrenees, the ships that disappoint. Many of her pivotal figures are familiar to history: Hiram Bingham, the heroic American vice consul who lavishly issued salvational visas to despairing Jews; Hugh Fullerton, the consul general who thwarted Bingham on the advice of Cordell Hull, the Roosevelt administration's compliant secretary of state; and the idiosyncratic panoply of Fry's assistants. All these, and the hapless refugees themselves, Orringer revivifies with cinematic verisimilitude. Yet it is the beating heart of Varian Fry that is the means and purpose of "The Flight Portfolio." A biography can read like a novel. Ought a novel to pose as a biography? Like an egg with two yolks, Orringer's novel has two centers: the trustworthy chronicle of the Emergency Rescue Committee, and the mind of Varian Fry. The first is at hand. The second is a door with no key. But must the verifiable past surrender to the sovereignty of imagination? Confident that it must, Orringer goes where no exacting biographer will go, and where the novelist is hotly obliged to go - into the veiled precincts of Fry's psyche: "He had always thought, given enough time, that he could crack any code, unravel any knot, unmaze any maze, master any beast, however venomous or wily. Since childhood he'd lived in an adversarial dance with his own mind, filling it with whatever seemed impossible, daring it to prove him wrong." The novelist is obliged also to the commands of plot - plot seething in contrivance, stratagem, revelation. In service to these, "The Flight Portfolio" invents a knot of intertwined characters, who together come to dominate, even to override, and finally to invade the historical Fry. In Orringer's scheme, we learn that her fictive Varian and her fictive Elliott Grant had once been lovers; at Harvard they quarreled and parted. Now, after 12 years, Grant turns up in Marseille, hoping to find and rescue Tobias Katznelson, an Einsteinlike young prodigy whom the Germans mean to seize for his value to weaponry development. Grant's interest in the boy is motivated by his sexual intimacy with Tobias's father, already safe in New York. But here in tumultuous Marseille Varian and Grant renew their old passion; plot begins to outstrip all else. Soon Varian's lover's obsession will overtake and outweigh - and then devour - whatever remains of biographical verity. And Tobias is not what he seems to be: the ruse leads to the endangerment of a celebrated (fictive) painter. The novel of chase-and-elude differs from the so-called literary novel not so much in its frantic excitements as in its influence on character. In one, story grows organically out of the elastic complexity of individuated traits. In the other, character is conditioned and flattened by contrivance. Even the glamour of the homoerotic, which fuels Orringer's engine of suspense, turns threadbare through overexposure. In scene after scene, Varian's leg slides seductively (and also schematically) along Grant's; or vice versa. For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality. Orringer in her illuminating author's note reports that she "made that a part of his character," borrowing from speculations by Fry's biographer, Andy Marino. "The skills he had developed to cope with and express his 'deviance' from the norm over the years," Marino writes, "may have stood him in good stead for the illicit and secret activities he took to so naturally and performed so extraordinarily well in France." Might this be a Freudian leap too far? A leap that lands Orringer's Varian in another man's bed. The mind of the Varian Fry of "The Flight Portfolio" is Orringer's mind, and how, in the war between history and imagination, can we deny her that? Literature is everywhere rife with parallel precedents. Shakespeare's Henry V is Shakespeare's mind. Tolstoy's Napoleon is Tolstoy's mind. Then why should it matter that Orringer's vertiginous unscrollings of event and intent, unfolding in the south of France in the very pit of Vichy brutality, are chiefly her own? But it does matter. Today we have no stake in the Battle of Agincourt. We have no stake in the Napoleonic wars. But we do have a stake in whatever touches on the historical integrity of the Holocaust, now increasingly denied, diminished, demoted, misapplied, perverted, derided; or else utterly erased. And what of the re-creation of a historical figure crucial to the necessary truth of a half-forgotten reality? Yet "The Flight Portfolio" will, to a degree, educate. It exposes America's dogged reluctance, at the very summit of its political will, to take in refugee Jews. It uncovers a moral flaw inherent in the primary aim of the Emergency Rescue Committee, premised on the principle of Orwell's Animal Farm. World-famous Chagall - yes. A pious 15-year-old in an obscure town in the remote Carpathians, who will one day be known as Elie Wiesel - no. Still, it was the real-life Varian Fry, writing in The New Republic in 1942, who recorded not the fate of Europe's superstars, but as his title had it, "The Massacre of the Jews." A thriller is above all meant to excite and enthrall. "The Flight Portfolio" is more Hitchcock than history. Then know, as you read on, excited and enthralled, that Orringer's Varian is movie-tone make-believe. Do not mistake him for Varian Fry. Cynthia oziCK is the author, most recently, of "Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays."

Kirkus Review

An elegant, meditative novelistic reconstruction of critical years in the life of Varian Fry, the American classicist who is honored at Yad Vashem as "righteous among the nations" for his work rescuing victims of the Holocaust.Focusing on the era that informed her first novel, The Invisible Bridge (2010), Orringer opens with an encounter in which Marc Chagall, one of the most beloved of modern artists, figures. He is living in Vichy France, convinced that because it is France he will be kept safe from the Nazis"These things happened in Germany." he says. "They won't happen here. Not to us." His interlocutor is Varian Fry, who, under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee, is combing the country for a couple of hundred "artists, writers, and intellectuals," most of them Jewish or politically suspect, who similarly imagined themselves to be safe in France even as the Holocaust begins to unfold and the Gestapo arrest lists lengthen. Fry has allowed himself a month to get those 200 sure victims to safety, and in doing so, as his old friendand moreElliott Grant, a shadowy figure of many connections, warns him, he is proving "inconvenient to the American diplomatic mission in France." The cloak-and-dagger element of Orringer's story is effective, though it runs somewhat long. Woven into the action is the slow reconciliation between Fry and Grant, whose friendship is deep but at first tentative, finally heating. Orringer nicely captures two worlds, the fraught one of refugee rescue and the more genteel but still complicated one of intellectuals in orbit, with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Victor Serge among the cast of characters. The central point of intrigue, providing a fine plot twist, is also expertly handled, evidence of an accomplished storyteller at work.Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and Andr Aciman, and you'll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted book falls. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



I   Gordes   There was, it turned out, no train to the village where the Chagalls lived: one of many complications he'd failed to anticipate. He had to pay a boy with a motorbike to run him up from the station at Cavail­lon, ten miles at a brainshaking pace along a narrow rutted road. On either side rose ochre hills striated with grapevines and lavender and olive trees; overhead, a blinding white-veined sky. The smell was of the boy's leather jacket and of charred potatoes, exhalate of his clever homemade fuel. At the foot of the village the boy parked in a shadow, accepted Varian's francs, and tore off into the distance before Varian could arrange a ride back. The streets of Gordes, carved into a sunstruck limestone hill above the Luberon Valley, offered little in the way of shade. He would have given anything to be back in Marseille with a glass of Aperol before him, watching sailors and girls, gangsters and spice vendors, parading the Canebière. The Chagalls had only agreed to see him on the basis that he not bring up the prospect of their emigration. But what other subject was there? The Nazis had taken Paris months ago, they were burning books in the streets of Alsace, they could send any refugee over the border at will. At least the Chagalls had agreed; that was something. But as he reached the house, an ancient Catholic girls' school on the rue de la Fontaine Basse, he found himself fighting the urge to flee. His credentials, if anyone examined them, amounted to a fanatic's knowledge of European history, a desire to get out from behind his desk in New York, and a deep frustration with his isola­tionist nation. And yet this was his job; he'd volunteered for it. What was more, he believed he could do it. He raised his hand and knocked. An eye appeared in the brass circlet of the peephole, and a girl in a striped apron opened the door. She listened, strangling her index finger with one dark curl, as he stated his name and mission. Then she ushered him down a corridor and out into a courtyard, where a stone path led to a triangle of shade. There, at a bare wooden table, Chagall and his wife sat at lunch: the painter in his smock, his hair swept back from his forehead in silver waves; Bella in a close-fitting black dress too hot for the day. "Ah, Monsieur Fry," Chagall said, rising to meet him. The painter's eyes were large and uncommonly sharp, his expression one of bemuse­ment. "You've come after all. I thought you might. You won't forget our agreement, will you?" "All I want is your company for an hour." "You're lying, of course. But you lie charmingly." They sat together at the table, Bella on Varian's left, the painter to his right--he, Varian Fry, sitting down with the Chagalls, with Chagall, author of those color-saturated visions, those buoyant bridal couples and intelligent-eyed goats he'd seen in hushed rooms at the Museum of Modern Art. Bella filled a plate with brown hard-crusted miche, soft cheese, sardines crackling with salt; she handed it across the table, assessing Varian in silence. "Had you been here a few days ago, we would have had tomatoes," Chagall said. "A farmer brings them up to the market on Thursdays. I'm sorry we don't have more to offer. The bread's a little hard on the tooth, I'm afraid, but c'est la guerre!" "This is lavish," Varian said. "You're too kind." "Not at all. We like to share what we have." He gestured around him at the bare yellow stones, the rough benches, the shock of gold-green hillside visible through an archway in the wall. "As you see, we're living a quiet and retired life in our little dacha. No one will bother us here at Gordes." "You have a studio," Varian said. "You're still producing work. That's what makes you dangerous." "Our daughter says the same," Bella said. "She's been saying it for months. But you understand, Monsieur Fry--my husband's reputa­tion will protect him. Vichy wouldn't dare touch us." "With respect, Madame Chagall, I don't believe that for a moment. Vichy is subject to the Nazis' whims. And we all know what they're capable of. I've seen it myself. I was in Berlin in '35--sent by the magazine I worked for. My last night in town there was a riot on the Kurfurstendamm. The things I saw--men pulled from their shops and beaten in the streets--an old man stabbed through the hand at a café table--boys dragging a woman by her hair--" "These things happened in Germany," Chagall said, his tone harder now. "They won't happen here. Not to us." "Let me speak to my friend at the consulate," Varian said. "Ask him to start a file for you, at least. If you do decide to leave, it might take months." Chagall shook his head. "My apologies, Monsieur Fry. I'm sorry you had to come all this way in vain. But perhaps you'd like to have a look at the studio before you go--if you've finished, that is." Varian couldn't speak; he could scarcely believe that a person of Chagall's intelligence, a person of his experience, could fail to see what he himself saw clearly. Chagall rose and crossed the courtyard to a set of ten-foot-high blue doors, and Varian got to his feet. He nodded his thanks to Bella, then followed Chagall across the bro­ken paving stones. Beyond the blue doors was a long, high-ceilinged room with a wall of windows: the former refectory of the girls' school. Canvases lay about everywhere, and for long minutes Varian walked among them in silence. As well as he knew the painter's work, he had never seen it like this: in its pupal state, damp and mutable, smell­ing of turpentine, raw wood, wet clay. From the canvases rose ghost­like images: a grave-eyed Madonna hovering above a shadowed town, serenaded by cows and angels; crucified Christ wrapped in a prayer shawl, his head encircled by grieving sages; a woman kneeling beside a river, pressing a baby to her chest; clusters of red and white flowers rising like flames. "It's no small matter to cross an ocean," Chagall said. "More can be lost than canvas and paint. An artist must bear witness, Monsieur Fry. He cannot turn away, even if he wishes to." "An artist can't bear witness if he's dead." The painter removed his hat and set it on his knee. "The Emer­gency Rescue Committee mustn't concern itself further with our wel­fare," he said. "Save your resources for those who truly need help. Max Ernst, for example--he's rumored to be in a concentration camp at Gurs. Or Jacques Lipchitz, my friend from Montparnasse. Who knows where he's fled to now? Or Lev Zilberman, who painted those massive murals in Berlin." "Yes, I know Zilberman's work. Alfred Barr fought to get him on our list." "You're not entirely on the wrong path, then. Help Ernst, help Zil­berman. Not me." And he turned away from Varian, toward his can­vases, toward the brushes and knives, the wooden boxes cluttered with crushed tubes of paint. "I'll mention your name among our circles," he said. "I know plenty who are eager to leave."   _____   Varian stumbled along the road toward Cavaillon, down the hill he'd seen through the courtyard arch. It would take him two hours to reach the station at this rate; another two on the train after that, and then he'd be back in Marseille, having made no progress at all. And what would he report to his colleagues in New York--to Paul Hagen, who directed the Emergency Rescue Committee, or to Frank Kingdon, its chair? That summer, when he and Paul and Ingrid Warburg and Alfred Barr and the others had compiled their list--two hundred art­ists, writers, and intellectuals who'd been blacklisted by the Gestapo and had no way out of France--they hadn't imagined that their clients might resist being helped, nor that they'd consider themselves beyond Vichy's reach. There were so many things they hadn't considered; his life in France had become a process of discovering them, often to his embarrassment. It was a miracle he'd managed to get anyone out at all. There had been only twelve so far, a minuscule fraction of his list. What he ought to do, he thought as he kicked stones along the rutted road, was to write his wife that night to say he was coming home. He'd confess--and what a relief it would be--that his work wasn't going as planned. How had he imagined it would take a month, one month, to find and extract two hundred endangered artists? He'd envisioned himself riding a rented bicycle through the countryside, rounding up refugees by the dozen, as if they'd be waiting in the lemon orchards with traveling papers in hand. He'd imagined that the consulate would contort itself miraculously to help him. But then the chaos of this place, the innumerable bureaucratic barriers, the cre­tins in the U.S. Visa Office, the resistance of the artists themselves. What a mistake he'd made, crawling out from behind his desk at the publishing house. How could he have presumed to take the lives of men like Chagall and Ernst into his hands when he had no idea how to manage them--no idea, even, of how to convince them they were in danger? Eileen wanted him home; she feared for his life. Her letter from last week had made that clear. Well, home he'd go. He'd write her at once; he'd write her as soon as he reached the Splendide.   Excerpted from The Flight Portfolio: A Novel by Julie Orringer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.