The Flight Portfolio
Secondary Category: Literature /
- Trachtman, Howard
- Date of entry: May-21-2020
Historical fiction, the artistic space that exists between actual persons and events and a writer’s imaginative ability to create a new story, is an established genre. The narrative usually is told by someone whose name does not appear in history books but who was a firsthand witness to events as they unfolded and the people who influenced their course. A variant are novels that are written from the perspective of someone who is in fact part of the historical record but is either unappreciated or overlooked. The extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Elizabethan novels written in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a chief minister to King Henry VIII, attests to the appeal of this format. Julie Orringer’s wonderful book “The Flight Portrait,” falls nicely into this category.
The novel is written through the eyes of Varian Fry. His name is not well known today. But he was a well-regarded journalist who wrote from Berlin in The Living Age and the New York Times about Hitler’s savage treatment of the Jews in Germany in the mid-1930s, well before most of the world came to realize the existential threat posed by the Nazi regime. After a brief period in the United States, he returned to Europe in 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Over the next year, with money that he helped raise, Fry was able to help over 2,000 embattled artists, scientists, philosophers, and writers to escape Europe and find safe haven in the US. Among those Fry saved were Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Arthur Koester and Claude Levi-Strauss. It is hard to imagine the counterfactual, a world deprived of the contribution of these people because they perished in Europe. The novel details the complications, emotional and physical, that Fry, a non-Jew from a wealthy family, endured as he arranged for safe passage across the Pyrenees or by boat out of Marseilles for his anxious petitioners. The fraught negotiations with Vichy officials and the against the grain support he received from some heroic individuals in the US consulate, specifically Hiram Bingham IV, are played across the taut chapters. The title refers to a collection of unique artworks that the artists created to call attention to their plight and help raise funds for the ERC. The tension is palpable, the threat is real, and outcome uncertain until the end. It is an intelligent and engrossing read.