Orringer’s scrupulous research into this turbulent period goes far beyond bookishness. Her landscapes regularly rise to a Keatsian sensuousness. Her Marseille breathes as a city breathes: architecture, gardens, streets, hotels, cafes, skies, smells, weather, food, cigarettes, the interiors of suites, offices, prisons, internment camps, the moods of authority and tyranny and spite, the cunning of confederates and criminals, the fury of betrayal by seeming allies. She evokes the crooked geography of flight — Spain, Portugal, Martinique, the trek on foot over the Pyrenees, the ships that disappoint. Many of her pivotal figures are familiar to history: Hiram Bingham, the heroic American vice consul who lavishly issued salvational visas to despairing Jews; Hugh Fullerton, the consul general who thwarted Bingham on the advice of Cordell Hull, the Roosevelt administration’s compliant secretary of state; and the idiosyncratic panoply of Fry’s assistants. All these, and the hapless refugees themselves, Orringer revivifies with cinematic verisimilitude. Yet it is the beating heart of Varian Fry that is the means and purpose of “The Flight Portfolio.”
A biography can read like a novel. Ought a novel to pose as a biography? Like an egg with two yolks, Orringer’s novel has two centers: the trustworthy chronicle of the Emergency Rescue Committee, and the mind of Varian Fry. The first is at hand. The second is a door with no key. But must the verifiable past surrender to the sovereignty of imagination? Confident that it must, Orringer goes where no exacting biographer will go, and where the novelist is hotly obliged to go — into the veiled precincts of Fry’s psyche: “He had always thought, given enough time, that he could crack any code, unravel any knot, unmaze any maze, master any beast, however venomous or wily. Since childhood he’d lived in an adversarial dance with his own mind, filling it with whatever seemed impossible, daring it to prove him wrong.”
The novelist is obliged also to the commands of plot — plot seething in contrivance, stratagem, revelation. In service to these, “The Flight Portfolio” invents a knot of intertwined characters, who together come to dominate, even to override, and finally to invade the historical Fry. In Orringer’s scheme, we learn that her fictive Varian and her fictive Elliott Grant had once been lovers; at Harvard they quarreled and parted. Now, after 12 years, Grant turns up in Marseille, hoping to find and rescue Tobias Katznelson, an Einstein-like young prodigy whom the Germans mean to seize for his value to weaponry development. Grant’s interest in the boy is motivated by his sexual intimacy with Tobias’s father, already safe in New York. But here in tumultuous Marseille Varian and Grant renew their old passion; plot begins to outstrip all else. Soon Varian’s lover’s obsession will overtake and outweigh — and then devour — whatever remains of biographical verity. And Tobias is not what he seems to be: the ruse leads to the endangerment of a celebrated (fictive) painter.
The novel of chase-and-elude differs from the so-called literary novel not so much in its frantic excitements as in its influence on character. In one, story grows organically out of the elastic complexity of individuated traits. In the other, character is conditioned and flattened by contrivance. Even the glamour of the homoerotic, which fuels Orringer’s engine of suspense, turns threadbare through overexposure. In scene after scene, Varian’s leg slides seductively (and also schematically) along Grant’s; or vice versa. For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality. Yet Orringer makes it a part of his character, expanding on speculations by Fry’s biographer, Andy Marino. “The skills Fry had developed to cope with and express his ‘deviance’ from the norm over the years,” Marino writes, “may have stood him in good stead for the illicit and secret activities he took to so naturally and performed so extraordinarily well in France.” Might this be a Freudian leap too far? A leap that lands Orringer’s Varian in another man’s bed.