By Symi Rom-Rymer
Sitting on a faux cowhide bench with rock music blaring at full volume in a small coffee shop in one of Brooklyn’s hipper neighborhoods, it would be hard to feel further away from the turbulence and romanticism of 1930s Paris. But I was swept back to that era as I spoke with Julie Orringer, whose debut epic novel—The Invisible Bridge, among the New York Times’ 100 best books of 2010—I wrote about in a recent post. Inspired by her grandparents’ experiences before and during the Holocaust, Invisible Bridge follows the fate of Andras Lévi, a young Jewish Hungarian architectural student on the cusp of a new life in interwar Paris. Refreshingly, unlike many Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is not from the East European shtetl. He is urban, ambitious and, like many of his peers, seeking a better life for himself in Western Europe. Yet, just as he is establishing that life, he is forced to return to Hungary and becomes quickly subsumed by the onslaught of the Second World War. Though her tale is ultimately tragic, Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that it’s difficult to put the book down for long. I know. I tried.
In between researching her next book and playing with her new baby, Julie Orringer took time to talk with me about her inspiration for the book, her research process and how people never ask her about humor during the Holocaust.
Why did you choose the Holocaust as the subject of your first novel? What drew me to the story was hearing about my grandfather’s experiences when he was younger. Despite the fact that I grew up in a Hungarian family, I just didn’t know much about what had happened to Hungarian Jews during the war. Like a lot of families with Holocaust survivors, those years just weren’t discussed in my family. My grandparents certainly alluded to them and I heard bits and pieces about their survival, but I didn’t really have a sense of the whole picture because my grandparents didn’t talk about it. Once I started asking them questions about what had happened, they really wanted to tell their story. They wanted the novel to be written. But initially, I didn’t think I was going to write a book about the Holocaust. I wanted to write about a young man who moved to Paris who tries to study architecture and loses his scholarship, which is what happened to my grandfather. I thought his life was so fascinating and wanted to learn everything I could about how he got by and what he studied and how he managed to live. That was the initial impetus for the book. Of course I knew that there was the weight of history behind the beginnings of that story. Because I’m a fiction writer, once I started telling that story, the experiences of my characters became different from those of my grandfather. That was when I really had to start thinking about how the war was going to affect my characters and change the course of their lives.
What do you think fiction can tell us about the Holocaust that non-fiction can’t? I would like to answer the question without the qualifier of ‘Holocaust.’ The reason I chose to write the book as a novel rather than as a book about my grandfather’s experience, is that fiction has the ability more than any other art form to really place the reader inside the character’s experience. E.M. Forster writes beautifully about this in his book, Aspects of the Novel in which he writes that fiction is unique among other forms in its ability to inhabit the human psyche and do to so from within, instead of in a more distant way. I wanted to suggest something of what it would be like to be a young man, building a life at that time, falling in love, studying architecture, making close friendships, and then to have all that fall apart when historical circumstances got in the way. It would certainly be possible to do something similar in non-fiction, but when we read a piece of historical non-fiction, there’s a sense of foreknowledge of what comes later. In this case, even though the reader knows what comes later, the character doesn’t know and he’s able to inhabit a more innocent space then I would have been able to communicate otherwise.
Tell me a little bit about your grandfather’s background. My grandfather was born in Konyár, Hungary, a small town in eastern Hungary. As a young man, he moved to Budapest where he started working for a Jewish youth magazine called “Past and Future.” His work was in an exhibition in Paris and one of the people who saw the exhibition was a professor at Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris [Paris’ only private architecture school]. When the professor learned that my grandfather wanted to study architecture but couldn’t study it in Hungary because of the quota on Jewish students, he arranged for my him to study at the architecture school in Paris. A few months after his arrival, however, he lost his scholarship because the Hungarian government passed a law that prohibited sending money to Jewish students abroad. So he had to figure out a way to get by in Paris and stay in school. In 1939, my grandfather was conscripted into the forced labor service in the Hungarian army, lost his student visa and had to return home. Ironically, the forced labor service ended up protecting a lot of Jews because it allowed Admiral Miklós Horthy [the leader of Hungary at the time] to make an argument that the Jews were useful Hungary’s efforts in the war and thereby to the German war effort.
How did you prepare to write the book? I went to Paris in 2002 to do research and go exploring. I went to the Ecole Spécial and spent a lot of time getting to know the neighborhoods and doing the things my grandfather did. Although it was impossible to know those places as my grandfather did, I felt that at least I could get a sense of the shape of those landscapes and the sounds and feelings of them. I walked around town and took pictures of art deco and art nouveau buildings. I studied Le Corbusier and others who would have been influential on my grandfather at that time. Because the woman who Andras falls in love with is a dancer, I also had to do research into the history of ballet. I knew the technicalities, but not as much about its history.
One of the interesting things I found was that many things my grandfather described have remained the same; down to the very small details like my grandfather’s door in Paris was painted red and the door to his apartment in Budapest was painted green. The details were important to me. I wanted to learn the names of the birds in the trees and the small side streets—all the things my grandparents would have taken note of in their world. The same is true of the history. It was wonderful to sit with old newspapers and go through the daily lives of Paris residents. I wanted to learn the history on the large scale but I also wanted to learn a little bit about the smaller news events that came to my characters’ attention as they were going about their lives.
What was the most surprising thing you found out in the course of your research? The most surprising thing was a set of newspapers written by members of the forced labor battalions. When I went to the National Jewish Hungarian Archives in Budapest, I asked the archivist to pull anything out of her files that might give me insight into life in the camps. She pulled down this very dusty box from one of the shelves and inside it were hand-typed or hand-written newspapers that the men had made while in the labor camps. The most surprising thing was not the existence of the papers but the darkly comedic tone of the papers. When I came across these newspapers, I felt utter shock that anybody could make light of those circumstances, but at the same time I thought how characteristic that impulse was. The Hungarians in my life had always known how to make light of difficult circumstances. It’s very much in keeping with that mindset that even in a situation like that, they would find a way to take intellectual and emotional control by writing about it in that humorous way. I knew when I came across those papers that I wanted them to be part of the narrative development of the novel; not just window dressing.
Similarly surprising were the acts of compassion by labor service officers. For example, my grandfather was caught trying to send letters back to his family, which was prohibited. While he was being punished, a very exalted Hungarian army officer saw him and asked why he being beaten. When he heard that my grandfather was being punished for trying to send word to his wife and child that he was still alive, the officer punished the people who were beating him and cleared my grandfather of all charges. Even though the incident itself didn’t make it into the novel, it was important to me to show that there was conflict in the way non-Jew Hungarians saw the Jews in their midst.
The book has an old-fashioned sensibility to it, yet it is written with an eye towards contemporary mores. Can you talk a little bit about that? I was struggling with a couple of warring impulses. One was that I wanted to write a 19th century novel: a big sprawling book in which we follow a character through a bildungsroman-like transformation. On the other hand, I also wanted to write a very contemporary novel. I was aware that the contradictions and senselessness of war didn’t fit into the neat 19th century form. I was reading a lot of 19th century novels as I was writing the book but equally important to my reading were contemporary novels that appreciate or draw upon the 19th century form like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex or Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Books that are willing to be sprawling and lush like the 19th century novel,but that also bring a contemporary sensibility to the characterization and the language. In adopting that form, I also had to think about ways I could subvert it or break it open. Part of that happens though the language, part of it through the subject matter and part of it is through the fact that there’s no moral explanation or reason for what happened.
The story captivated me, but at the same time I constantly feared for the characters’ lives. How did you feel when creating these characters? I felt a real dread as I was approaching the part of the book where bad things were about to happen. The first draft of the book took about three years. By the time things really took a turn for the worse, I was about two years in and I didn’t want to send my characters to hell the way that I knew I would have to in the second half of the book. What happened, though, was that my family’s experiences became real to me in a way they hadn’t before. Part of what I found so difficult was not only sorrow for the characters I had created—in the end they are just figments of my imagination—but much more importantly, I experienced the real misery of understanding, finally, what happened to my grandparents and that whole side of my family. It’s one thing to hear bits and pieces but it’s another thing to be living the life of the characters for a couple of years and begin to see those lives break down. You really start to see that it wasn’t just this large scale tragedy, but an infinite series of tiny tragedies that added up to something completely beyond our imagining.
Did any of the character’s fates differ from what you originally intended? They did. The first big difference was that I didn’t imagine that the woman that Andras fell in love with was going to end up accompanying him back to Hungary. My initial conception of the novel had them separated during the war and not even able to communicate with each other. It was a surprise to me to find that Klara found a way to get back to Hungary with Andras. And things like that kept happening. I kept being surprised by how character’s fates differed from what I might have imagined in the beginning. There continued to be many surprises throughout the telling of the story.
Several of your characters have babies during wartime. Were you writing the book when you were pregnant? I wrote about pregnancies before I was pregnant, but all of those sections seemed cast in a different light once I was actually expecting a baby myself. It became even more incredible to me to think about what my grandparents went through knowing that they were going to bring children into this incredibly uncertain world. In fact my grandmother gave birth in October of 1944 while Hungary was under Nazi occupation. She remembers being in utter terror as she was in labor in the hospital giving birth to her baby and pleading with her Nazi doctor not to hurt her baby. She said that the doctor leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I’m a doctor first” and communicated to her that she was going to be OK and that the baby was OK. But the horror of that is just unimaginable to me. It was even more unbelievable to me after I had given birth. It threw into a very different light all of the luxurious preparations we make for babies today. And then there was the other side of it which was that I looked at my new baby after he was born and thought, “my God. The set of circumstances that resulted in your being here are so unbelievably fortuitous.” It was one of the greatest pleasures of my life to be able to bring him to Miami Beach where my grandmother lives and introduce him to my grandmother and say “this baby is here because you managed to survive.”
What is a question that you wish people would ask, but haven’t? I always appreciate when people ask questions about the humor in the book. I think that we don’t tend to think about how humor worked as survival tool during those times. It’s almost taboo to mention humor when writing about the Holocaust. But in fact, it was a central part of the fabric of people’s lives during that time. So I’m glad when people ask me about that.
What do you want readers to take away from the book? The more I talk to people who survived those years, the clearer it is to me is that so much of existence hinged on tiny things. Anybody who survived did so because of a series of fortunate coincidences. A lot of the stories that my family told while I was growing up had to do with these amazing coincidences of geography or accidental connections or the discovery of lost relatives. I came to understand that this is part of the Hungarian character, this delight in the unexpected connection. But also part of the mechanism of survival during the war was that you had to rely to a certain extent on felicity and the unexpected because so much was out of your control. While to contemporary readers it might seem miraculous, but survival during those years was often due to those felicities and coincidences. Any American Jew descended from Holocaust survivors is here because of great good fortune and of course the fortitude of the men and women who managed to survive those times of great uncertainty.
What are you working on next? A novel that’s set in Marseilles in 1940 and 1941 about a young American journalist named Varian Fry who went to France with a list of names of writers and a few thousand dollars and tried to save writers, artists and anti-Nazi intellectuals who had been blacklisted by the Gestapo. And more importantly, I’m also working on raising my 8 month old baby.