• Review
By – September 26, 2011

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.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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