THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO, by Julie Orringer. Alfred A. Knopf, 562 pp., $28.95.
Here’s a question: Is there such a thing as a genius?
A great deal hinges on the answer for the reader of "The Flight Portfolio" by Julie Orringer. It’s a novel about a real historical figure, Varian Fry, who traveled from the United States to Marseille, France, in 1940 and constructed a daring, effective network for refugees from the Nazis, with a particular emphasis on saving famous artists and their families. Among those were — well, geniuses, including Marc Chagall, Jean Arp and numerous others.
Fry was indisputably a member of another, more tangible phylum, the hero; with minimal backing, he ultimately saved thousands of lives, often breaking the law and taking desperate risks to do so. When forced to return to the United States in 1942, he wrote a furious article called “The Massacre of Jews in Europe” for The New Republic. Israel, in 1994, bestowed upon him the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations,” granted to gentiles who put their lives at stake to save Jews during the Holocaust. He was the first American to receive it.
"The Flight Portfolio" begins with a smart and resourceful depiction of this precarious work. It then interrupts Fry by giving him an unexpected encounter with an old lover from Harvard, the fictional Elliot Grant. Fry has a wife in New York, but his heart has never fully healed from this deeper relationship. When Grant asks Fry for help, the book’s political and personal narratives merge.
Orringer is a blue-chip writer with a string of prizes and fellowships and a previous bestseller, "The Invisible Bridge." That, too, was a long novel set during World War II, and both books are of the kind invariably reviewed using the same small cachet of words: rich, sweeping, ambitious, heartfelt, exquisite.
To her credit, Orringer earns them all. She’s a superb researcher, a natural storyteller and a clear writer. "The Flight Portfolio" is in a style I think of as high-unimpeachable, difficult but riskless, with only safe little darting flights of flamboyance — on Joyce writing "Ulysses," for example, “like a mad bee, packing its stacked hexagons with ideas, feeding them a nectar of words and images distilled from all of literature, flavored with his private pathology.” It’s impossible not to get caught up in rooting for Fry and Grant to fall in love again. It’s impossible not to hope that Fry’s refugees find safety.
But it’s there that one might begin to wonder about the idea of genius — “that lovely old bedtime story,” as the critic Peter Schjeldahl has called it. "The Flight Portfolio" takes its stakes (the rescue of great artists) for granted, just as Fry must have. Should we? You might start by asking why so many geniuses have been white men, for instance; or observing that a Danish economist recently discovered an overwhelming correlation between family income and the likelihood of a career in the arts.
In other words, it’s hard to know quite what to make of Fry’s brief. Was Thomas Mann’s family more important than a thousand others? Chagall’s?
But those difficulties aren’t within Orringer’s range. The Holocaust is an immense, impossible latticework of stories, its filaments running in every direction, breaking off, coming loose. "The Flight Portfolio" constructs of one of them a satisfying and commanding novel. Yet the farther we get from living memory of the war, perhaps the less the novels about it — Orringer’s, Alan Furst’s, Anthony Doerr’s — should be quite so rich, so sweeping, so satisfying. The stories move slower but cling longer in a writer like Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, the author of foggy, searching, desperate novellas that incarnate the haunted reality of that period.
Then again, he’s a genius.