Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, is a stirring story of the human spirit. It is a story of an American putting his life at risk to rescue hundreds of people from a fate worse than death, and in the process, rediscovering himself, his love for life, and the love of his life. Varian Fry, a journalist, a Harvard graduate and happily married to Eileen Fry, has been posted in Marseille, France after the surrender of France to Hitler’s Germany in 1940. Varian Fry has been given the unenviable task of rescuing and evacuating high value individuals, refugees and citizens of France alike, to USA on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). The individuals mandated by the ERC are famous in the field of literature, arts and culture, with a significant majority of them Jews. Varian establishes an office, engaging similarly brave men and women to help raise money, transport refugees and identify the truly talented artists from the thousands of people begging from evacuation. Over the course of a year, Varian rescues many familiar faces, including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, and many other artists who are now household names. All of this did happen. The real Varian Fry did do exactly all of the above things in the above manner, risking life and limb in Vichy-controlled France. So great was his contribution that he was the first American to be named in the ‘Righteous Among All Nations’, a list of individuals felicitated by Israel for their efforts in saving Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
There is also a heavily invented and fictional part of the book, where Varian meets up with a close friend, Dr. Elliot Grant. Elliot is in France searching for his lover’s son, apparently being chased by the Nazis due to his prolific research in physics and maths. Elliot enlists Varian’s help and connections to help find this wunderkind. Over the course of this search, we discover that Varian and Elliot have an intimate history, and they reconnect almost immediately. Keeping in mind that this was during the 1940s, Orringer adds another layer of possible social ostracization, ridicule, and raises the stakes for the already tiptoeing protagonist. Along with his regular evacuation, the search and rescue conducted for Elliot, and the intimacy that Varian shares with Elliot, Varian decides to create a portfolio of art and literary works, something tangible to show the Americans back home what was at stake here. When the ERC and the Vichy government tire of his covert actions, Varian is forced to go back State-side.
There is a lot of beauty in ordinary things, as my favourite TV show rightly puts it. Orringer has not taken it upon herself to tell the story of an ordinary man. Varian Fry in real life and in the book is a superhero, saving countless lives and cultural artifacts from destruction. However, the book bares all of Varian’s thoughts, lets the reader into that mind, the insecurities, the guilt over stealing a few hours for selfish delights, the shame in accepting that he is what he is and life cannot be normal after the war, and the heartbreaking choice of having to pick who lives and who dies. The reader can empathize with Varian, and he feels real. The book exposes the prevalent atmosphere of fear and hate, the mistrust and the bravery of countless people who risked their own lives to protect the lives of others during World War II. Moreover, the vividly descriptive style picked by Orringer allows the reader to visualize the city of Marseille, the events, actions and the many lives these heroes lived in those precious few years. The reader does not simply read what happened in that time, the reader goes through it.
My favorite takeaways from the book are the portions describing the humanity exhibited by many individuals during the crisis. The book emphasizes on the beauty of the human mind, and the ability to draw comfort and joy during the darkest times. The ability of the human spirit to hope, to accept, to sacrifice, and to love in the darkest timelines. Maybe that is a lesson we can all come away with, and remind ourselves during this difficult year.