HISTORICAL FICTION ARISES out of a desire to see the human project in a continuum, out of the belief that it is possible to tell stories about a vanishing past that bear on the immediate present, forged at the place at which the archives end and the author’s imagination begins. The desire to hit the pause button — to “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his last completed manuscript, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) — underwrites Julie Orringer’s new novel, “The Flight Portfolio.” The novel tells the story of Varian Fry, a little-known American journalist who helped smuggle thousands of artists out of Nazi Europe. Among the artists Fry rescued were Marc Chagall and Max Ernst — but also, in a meta-twist, writers who would shape our understanding of the 20th century, including Hannah Arendt and the German novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger. Set in Vichy France, the novel seeks a kind of redress: restoring, to history’s vast panorama, a granular sense of how life on the borderlines of fascism feels. We’re treated to a glimpse of André Breton at a party, fashioning an impromptu brooch from a dead bumblebee, though the novel’s emphasis is not on charming details but the banality of a certain kind of evil made up of bureaucrats, bribery and lines of desperate people waiting for a lifeboat in the form of a visa that will never come, faced with exclusionary American immigration policies not so different than those in place today. As a semi-closeted gay man, Fry finds a nihilistic kind of freedom during his time in Marseille, but his task — based on the notion that some lives are worth more than others — resists heroic gloss. Orringer’s true subject, the moral peril of being alive, is a grandly timeless — and timely — one.
If history belongs to the victors, it’s generally fallen to everyone else — the women, the colonized or enslaved, those on the other side of wars and walls — to subvert conventional understanding of it, to make up for the burned or redacted documents, the missing transcripts and the experiences that were never recorded in the first place. In the 20th century, historical fiction acquired its dreaded “genre fiction” status, with its connotations of corsets, unfurling Nazi flags, the fetid smell of Victorian London — the dinner theater of literature, essentially. Notably, novels by women authors often transcended such categorization, including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987), Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire” (2003), Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy (1991-95), Mary Renault’s novels set in ancient Greece, Octavia E. Butler’s fiction built on slave accounts and, of course, Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis, “The Blue Flower” (1995).
While national identity and the historical novel have long been bound up with one another — Sir Walter Scott’s swashbuckling Scottish romances, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s tales of Polish glory written during the country’s long partition, Tolstoy’s Napoleonic Wars-set “War and Peace” — they have also existed alongside a parallel speculative tradition. Even before Scott’s “Waverley,” published in 1814 and credited by the Marxist critic Gyorgy Lukacs as the first and most quintessential modern historical novel, authors — mostly women — were using historic settings, creating a kind of alternative history in which female characters have all the fun. The most remarkable is Sophia Lee’s 1783 novel “The Recess,” told from the perspective of the imagined twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Predictably, such novels were originally perceived as slight entertainments. Even the best-known work of this subgenre of feminist historical literature, Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece “Orlando” (1928), with its gender-fluid heroine who doesn’t age from the 16th century to the 1920s, was critically dismissed as a lark. Woolf herself described the novel as “fun” and “fantasy,” but its bladed politics gleam all the more brilliantly today: It is a study of gender roles, of power and powerlessness, grounded in a character constrained neither by sex nor mortality — the dream of a life outside history.