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. Continue reading