by: Rachel Zarrow
How do you assign a price to a human life? Are some lives worth more than others? In a world that is on the verge of collapse, do the rules of the living apply? In her second novel, The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer explores these questions.
The Flight Portfolio is a riveting fictional story of a real person, Varian Fry. In the novel, Varian, an American journalist, works for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) evacuating artists and intellectuals from Europe during the second World War. Stationed in Marseilles, skirting the Vichy regime, and back-channeling money and visas around the ever-nearing threat of the Nazis, Varian is responsible for the safety of thousands. The novel unfolds as a race against the clock. How long until Varian is forced out of France or worse, incarcerated? How many lives can he save in that time? How much longer will there be funding for his work paying bribes and forging escape routes? How long until he returns to his wife in New York? And how much more time will he have in the arms of his lover Elliot Grant?
This last question is the sucker punch of the novel. In Marseilles, Varian reconnects with his former lover, a man he knew at Harvard twelve years earlier. Now married to a woman, a part of Varian still belongs to Grant, and their encounter in France reopens the floodgates of their highly charged romance. “How like him, Varian thought, to show up out of nowhere after an eon, still in possession of Varian’s inmost self” (15). Varian marvels at the command Grant has over him:
How could this person evoke in Varian a series of feelings so uncontrollable as to seem a threat to his sanity….Under the present circumstances, and considering the weight of responsibility he bore, how could he find himself thrilled like a plucked string at the prospect of meeting Grant at the Vieux Port? (69-70)
Though he is a man with a very serious mission, Varian finds himself suffering from an affliction that has plagued many before him: lovesickness. Varian fears that an affair of this emotional magnitude with this particular man is different than the “occasional adventure on the side” (111) that he’d had in the past. “[H]ow was he to be honest with [his wife] about Grant, when Grant’s presence was still a matter of consternation and confusion?” (111).
Throughout the novel, we follow Varian on two major emotional and moral dilemmas: his affair with Grant and the excruciating nature of his work. For every person Varian helps, there is someone else who gets left behind. Plagued by guilt, doubt, and a “bad gut” (103), Varian leads readers through impossible decisions.
Varian and Grant’s relationship grows fragile and tenuous as more questions arise. What will happen when they’re back in New York? Will he (Varian) or won’t he leave his wife? As Varian and Grant begin to question their future, Varian is plagued by doubt. First, a colleague, Miriam, and then Grant, question the nature of Varian’s work. Miriam asks, “Don’t you think it’s rather silly? And not just silly, wrong-headed, or maybe wrong-hearted….to decide whether someone lives or dies?…Don’t you think a middling artist deserves a chance as much as a great one does?” (195). When Varian replies that the names on the list mean something, Miriam says, “Everybody means something to someone” (198). This line of moral questioning around Varian’s work increases his doubt in his work and in himself.
Surrounded by a makeshift family of surrealist artists and colleagues in Marseilles, an unfamiliar place that “smelled of diesel fuel and cardamom and wet gutters, of tobacco and women’s perfume” (9), Varian disconnects from his life in New York. “The outline of his life, once as firm as if inked, had become obscured” (103). His sense of disconnection increases along with his understanding of what is at stake in Europe, something that was not clear to many Americans at the time. Having traveled through Spain on his way to Marseille, Varian knows the effects of the war, “the decimated buildings, roofs blown open to the sun…children walking near-naked in the streets, begging for bread” (95).
Every day, in the hotel where Varian has set up his makeshift office, refugees vie for a meeting with him, forming a line that snakes down the hallway. Varian and his colleagues must determine who to help and in what order, following commands from the ERC, including a mission to rescue specific artists and intellectuals based on a list. The names on this list are both real artists (e.g. Marc Chagall, Max Ernst) and creations of Orringer’s imagination (“Lev Silberman”).
This blending of historical and imagined characters is an example of how Orringer wields her command of this particular sub-genre of historical fiction, sometimes referred to as “fictional biography.” In this form, the author often writes a novel based on a real person but elaborates with the freedom and abandon of a fiction writer. Any reader would be remiss to judge this book as a biography and should instead read it as a work of fiction. In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer blends not only fact with fiction, but also characteristics of many sub-genres of fiction: war novel, thriller, romance, and historical fiction.
In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer creates a world so riddled with moral gray areas that black and white no longer exist, all the while painting sensory details with the care of one of the artists she describes. With painstaking attention to detail and immaculate prose, Orringer invites the reader to ask herself the most difficult questions, including: What would I do?
Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at www.rachelzarrow.com