This grand novel of enormous scope tells the tale of the intermingled lives of three close and loving brothers, a ballet teacher with several mysteries to hide, and their friends and families. Its settings range from a small town in Hungary to the large cities of France and Italy. Passions, aspirations, and personal drama are played against the tapestry and heartbreak of Jews trying to deny death as the forces of the Shoah decimate Europe. Perhaps the grandest quality of Orringer’s writing is her ability not merely to describe and tell the reader but to place the reader within the locale of the story, which ranges from the seamy jazz clubs of Paris to a men’s bathroom awash with the blood of a beaten friend; from the avantgarde attic apartment of an artist to the scene of a Hungarian labor unit where that same naïve, eager student, now a married man with a child, slaves away under the domination of an unpredictable task master. Imagine battlehardened Russian soldiers advancing on Austria charmed by the slight woman who had learned her art at the Russian schools of ballet. Touching, too, is the way that Hungarian Jews trusted their Regent, Horthy, to protect them from deportation, the fate of the other Jews in Europe. If you want a story in the mode of a 19th century novel, with unforgettable characters, masterful descriptions, and the broad scope of love, mystery, and intrigue played against the cataclysms of World War II, this is your book.
The Storyteller and the Man With a Story
By Julie Orringer
On the eve of my brother’s college graduation, my grandfather and I sat on a rock at the edge of a gorge in Ithaca, New York, taking a break from a hike. I was in from San Francisco, my grandfather from Miami Beach; a walk together was a rare pleasure. When I told him I was planning a trip to Paris at the end of the summer, he became quiet, looking at the water tumbling below. “I lived in Paris as a young man,” he said. “For two years I was in architecture school. Then I lost my visa and had to go home.”
That was the first I’d heard of it. I knew my grandfather had lived in Hungary until 1956, where he was a window dresser for a department store; I knew he’d spent the war in forced labor camps. His older brother had died in one of those camps. His younger brother survived. None of them had ever lived in Paris, as far as I knew. But now my grandfather was telling me otherwise.
Why Paris? I asked him. Why architecture? How had he lost his visa? In a few minutes I learned that he’d always wanted to be an architect, but couldn’t get into school in Hungary because of anti-Jewish quotas; that he’d gone to Paris on a scholarship provided by a Jewish organization in Budapest; that he lost that scholarship thanks to more anti-Jewish laws, and had to scramble to pay his fees. Then, in 1939, he was conscripted into a forced labor battalion of the Hungarian army. The war began, and that was the end of his architecture career.
When he finished talking, we sat a long time in silence. I had a feeling I’d just heard a story that demanded to be told, in detail and at length. I was a short story writer, not a novelist; I knew little about the study of architecture, little about Paris or Budapest, not nearly enough about the Holocaust in Hungary, almost nothing about life in forced labor camps. But I would spend the next ten years of my life researching those subjects and unspooling this story — not just my grandfather’s tale, but the stories of dozens of other Jewish men a nd women who survived the war in Hungary and France, and some who didn’t.
Our Jewish lives are cyclical in nature. There’s the weekly caesura of Shabbat; the monthly celebration of Rosh Chodesh; our pilgrimage holidays — Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot — pacing the passage of the earth around the sun. Most important is the reading of the Torah, repeated every year in its entirety. We call ourselves The People of the Book; we live through telling stories, and each time we revisit them we understand them differently. We read through the lens of our experience, our age, the political events that shape our time. And as we change, our understanding of the stories changes too.
As I wrote the novel that became The Invisible Bridge, I revisited again and again that moment in Ithaca. At first I thought my grandfather simply wanted me to know about his abbreviated time as an architecture student, and maybe to see some of the places he loved: “I went to Paris; now you’re going there; I want you to know where I walked, what I saw, how I lived!”
A few years later, after I’d made my way into the draft and gotten to know my protagonist — a complicated young man with his own hopes, desires, and fears — I reached the point in the writing when I had to pull him out of school and send him back to Hungary and forced labor camp. It seemed an impossibly cruel act. But I wanted to be faithful to history, to recall what had happened to thousands of young men and women when the war began. As I wrote those scenes, I found myself thinking about that moment with my grandfather again. Maybe it wasn’t just the mention of Paris that had led him to tell his story; maybe it was also that my brother was graduating from college — a milestone he, my grandfather, never got to reach.
Time passed and the novel moved forward, through the darkest years of our shared history. Some of its characters survived through fate and fortitude; others died. One afternoon, after a character I’d come to know well died at the hands of a firing squad, I left my desk to take a long walk in the woods. Once again I found myself thinking about my grandfather’s story. He was eighty-three when we took our walk in Ithaca. He might have already been feeling the stirrings of his last illness; he might have begun to feel his memories slipping. He and I didn’t see each other as often as we liked. I was a storyteller; he had a story to tell. As we sat at the edge of the gorge, looking into that abyss, he knew the time had come to tell it.
My grandfather didn’t live to read The Invisible Bridge. He never knew how the story would end for my protagonist — how the novel would diverge from his experience, and how it would reflect it. But he knew that after I’d begun it, my writing life had changed for good. For years I’d been writing about young women in America, unwitting beneficiaries of their families’ struggles, fighting their own small battles toward adulthood. Now my work had found its context, had discovered its history. I was still telling the story of young people struggling toward independent lives, but I was doing so from within our shared fate as a people. I was writing with an awareness of the near-impossible good fortune of our survival, and with a deeper knowledge of what had been lost.
We can’t unmake the changes in our lives, any more than we can make the seasons unfold in reverse. We move forward and evolve. As Jews, from our earliest memories, we learn how important it is to revisit our past, at the peril of seeing it repeated. The Invisible Bridge is the book through which I came to know my past. But it’s also the novel that, I hope, will help me write into the future. The novel I’m writing now spun out of the research for that book; it’s about Varian Fry, the American journalist who saved two thousand Jewish and anti-Nazi writers, artists, and intellectuals who’d fled to occupied France. Infinite stories remain to be told; a writer can devote a lifetime to a few of them. Today when I think about that moment with my grandfather at the edge of the gorge, what I hear is a simple injunction: Tell our stories. Don’t hesitate, and don’t stop. With his voice in my mind, I’ll continue.
Twitter Book Club
Read a transcript from the Twitter Book Club for The Invisible Bridge.