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Truth-Telling in the World of Fiction

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Julie Orringer's The Flight Portfolio

Chagall's Stained Glass Windows
Chagall’s stained glass windows in the Hadassah Hospital’s synagogue.

The Flight Portfolio and Varian Fry

I just finished Julie Orringer’s novel, The Flight Portfolioa massive undertaking of scholarship about the efforts of a young American named Varian Fry. Fry, along with other wealthy Americans cognizant of the threat to Jews, form The Emergency Rescue Committee. Together, they create a list of two hundred Jewish writers and artists to get out of German-occupied France while they are still able. Fry goes to Marseilles to head the organization and begins a courageous battle to protect the great Jewish minds of the era by providing any means of escape possible.

This much is true: Varian Fry was a real person who saved almost 2000 lives by getting them out of France. The Emergency Rescue Committee was also a real organization. Many of the characters, Hiram Bingham, Peggy Guggenheim, Hugh Fullerton, and Eleanor Roosevelt are all real-life pivotal characters who lived and affected the events in The Flight Portfolio.

Orringer does not exaggerate the life-saving feats that Fry and his committee were able to perform. They tracked down, entreated — sometimes begged — the artists, writers, and thinkers of the time to flee. In many cases, they had to convince them of the danger. Ultimately, Varian Fry secured passage for some of the greatest minds of the era. The most notable might be Marc Chagall, but the list is long and also includes Hannah ArendtMax Ernst, and Franz Werfel.

Varian Fry’s rescue of Jewish refugees is NOT fiction. In fact, his efforts were acknowledged post-humously. He was awarded the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur” by France, the Eisenhower Liberation Medal by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and designated as “Righteous Among Nations” by the Yad Vashem.

How much truth does historical fiction contain?

It’s an old question. Many a book club or literature lover has debated the integrity of historical fiction. Unless a character’s words were written in a letter or a speech, an author can NEVER know exactly what a historical figure said. How can anyone precisely re-create a person’s life when no record exists of ordinary conversations, off-hand comments, and actual dialogue? An author can never know EXACTLY what was in a person’s mind or heart, no matter how much research they do.

If a writer undertakes a historical fiction project, is she obligated to stick as close to the truth as possible? According to Hilary Mantel, the answer is an unequivocal “NO.”

“…novelists are not history teachers. It’s not our job to educate people, and if we start using words like “duty” and “responsibility” about historical fiction — or any fiction — we’re in danger of leaching all the vigour out of it with a sense of worthiness. A novelist has no real duty to anything except the story he or she is creating, the characters who inhabit it and whatever view of the world he or she is offering with the novel’s ending."

Julie Orringer's Fiction

Julie Orringer took the facts of Varian Fry’s work in Marseilles, France, and created a fiction that felt entirely real. The cities, the food, the hotels, the intermittent sprinkling of French phrases throughout the book felt real because they were.

The key figures of the book, however, Elliott Grant and Lev Zilberman, are both fictional. Elliott Grant, an old acquaintance of Fry’s, appears in Marseilles to beg Varian to help him get the genius-son of a friend out of the country. As the book progresses, we find that Varian and Grant are former lovers, a relationship that wasn’t over and is now rekindled.

The major focus of The Flight Portfolio is how Varian and Grant handle their relationship, what a non-conventional love is like, and how claiming an authentic identity can alter the course of lives.

While Orringer bases the relationship between Fry and Grant on research found while documenting Fry’s life, the reader has to remember that the relationship is pure conjecture. Likewise, the character of Lev Zilberman, the artist whose escape is a pivotal concern of Fry, is a work of fiction.

From the beginning of the book, Orringer so carefully interweaves the true fact of Fry’s mission with his fictional relationships that it’s difficult to discern the truth from the tale. The two plots are so intermingled that the book seemed more like fact than fiction.

And that’s where the dilemma lies for those of us who adore historical fiction.

Historical fiction demands a mental adjustment

Think differently. Remind yourself that while the book you’re reading may sound like fact, it’s historical fiction. Yes, the time period described, the events that occur, even the plot itself may be true, but the thoughts, conversations, and motivations of the characters are made up.

Reading historical fiction provides a framework for understanding events, but you always have to know that it’s NOT 100% accurate. If it were, it would be classified as Non-Fiction and thoroughly grounded in proof, not possibilities.

fact vs. fiction
Historical fiction, no matter how real it seems, is still fiction

The pointed, painful central question

Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio was a work I’ll remember. Her writing was masterful, from the power of her descriptions to the carefully crafted intertwinings of plot to the sympathetic and believable characters. (I’m humbled by her vocabulary have added words like susurrating, viridesence, dentition, and lenticular to my “shiny-new-words” list.)

But the thing I’ll remember most is the central question of the novel, a question that’s important for every person in every era:

Is one human life worth more than another?

Grant says to Varian:

“I always thought your project was wrongheaded…All that money, all that time, mustered on behalf of people who happened to know how to use a paintbrush or put a sentence together- and don’t mistake me, I know the value of art, I like to read and look at paintings as much as the next guy, more than most guys, if you'll believe that — but this is a goddamn war, a war, and they’re all human beings, and how can you presume to pick which ones to save and which to throw into the fire?”

Indeed. Is an artist more important than an average citizen?

Orringer illustrates this central question over and over throughout the story, effectively twisting the knife at the end. She makes it clear the difficult choices that Varian Fry had to make every day, and how doing them saved thousands of Jewish lives.

Varian Fry’s saving of lives is a historical fact that can’t be diluted with fiction.

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