The Flight Portfolio is a bold, ambitious novel based on the true story of Varian Fry, an American journalist who, during 13 months spent in France in 1940-41, managed to arrange safe passage out of France and on to the U.S. for more than 2,000 refugees who were in danger of losing their lives. Eventually he was forced to leave France because neither the Vichy government nor the U.S. State Department approved of his activities.
Many, though not all, of the people he saved were eminent writers, artists, academics, and political figures. Many, though not all, were Jews.
The book is historical fiction, and to be honest, historical fiction always presents this reader with something of a conflict, because I strongly prefer to know which parts of a story I’m reading are factual, and which parts are fictional.
It turns out that in the case of The Flight Portfolio, while most of the characters were real people whose real names are used, and the broad outlines of the rescue operation are accurate, a very large part of the story involves not only invented details, situations, and dialogue, but also several invented people. This includes one of the main characters, who is necessary for a secondary plot having to do with a homosexual love affair between Fry and the (invented) love of his life.
A very helpful Author’s Note, which for some reason has been placed at the end of the book rather than the beginning, explains the rationale for the author’s decision to create this character and this subplot. “I believe that…Varian Fry’s perception of his own difference, and his need to hide it, sensitized him to the plight of others who were persecuted and made to fear for their lives,” Orringer says. (By “difference” she is referring to the complicated, ambiguous nature of his sexuality.)
I’m not sure I fully accept this premise, but I think it is a fair enough premise to support the story she has chosen to tell, and I appreciate her reasons for wanting to do so. After reading the Author’s Note, though, I was still bothered: some of the scenes developing this subplot are pretty steamy, and I wondered, among other things, how Fry’s family felt about this. So I read a few reviews, and discovered that there is a fair amount of controversy about this aspect of the novel, including a review in the New York Times Book Review by Cynthia Ozick, which stated that there is no evidence “beyond hunches and hints” that the historical Fry was homosexual. In response to this review, Fry’s son James wrote a letter to the editor of the Times in which he states his unequivocal belief that his father was indeed a closeted homosexual, and that his need to be closeted had contributed to his unhappiness in life. He added that he fails to see “how my father’s homosexuality could muddy the moral clarity of his cause or besmirch his reputation.”
Well, if it’s okay with Fry’s son, it’s okay with me too, I decided.
However, the book is very long (576 pages), and part of what makes it so long is this romantic subplot. For me this was a problem: I couldn’t seem to keep my desire to know more about the real story from being impatient with the invented one. Also problematic for me was the fact that the writing is uneven: some parts are beautifully well written and lyrical; other parts, not so much.
Many readers will not find these things to be problematic, and in The Flight Portfolio they will surely find a very interesting and compelling story. Through it Orringer has brought a relatively unknown heroic American figure into the spotlight at a time when such figures should indeed be recognized and appreciated for their courageous acts of service. It is also a story that sensitively portrays the practical, emotional, social, and psychological difficulties that people whose sexuality did not conform to the narrow attitudes and social standards of the time were confronted with. All of this is good, and should be appreciated, as well as the ten years of careful, thorough, rigorous research the author put into writing this book.
Readers who prefer to read history and fiction separately, or who simply wish to know more about Varian Fry will be pleased to know that there are also several biographies of him, as well as two books he himself wrote about his rescue operations during World War II. “I could not remain idle as long as I had any chances at all of saving even a few of [Nazism’s] intended victims,” he said.
He did so much more than that; and in so doing he took personal risks few people are willing, or brave enough, to take. The story of Varian Fry is a story of astonishing courage, selflessness, and sangfroid. And it is both sobering and inspiring.
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