Post #10: Historical Fiction, Questions of Sexuality, and Varian Fry

In an earlier post (Post #4: Starting Over Again and Again: Schlioma Gruenberg’s Story: Planned Escape(s) published on February 2nd), I referred to Varian Fry, the wonderfully courageous figure, who in the 1940s saved thousands of people, including my mother and grandparents. Since then, I have thinking more about how the writer Julie Orringer portrays Fry in her gripping novel, The Flight Portfolio. There Fry is shown to live as a gay man during the time that he lived in France and yet it was not uncomplicated for him. In her interpretation Fry’s sensibility as a part of minority helped his work in France. When I initially read the book, and thought about Orringer’s view of Fry, it made sense to me that she connected his sexuality to his persona as a savior.  It still does. Part of the joy of my reflections in this blog is to use it to ponder about the connections between what I read, the past and its influences and perspectives on how we think today, my identity, and how that identity influences aspects of my life since I came out in 2014. After all, I have been writing reflections about my own life – both in terms of coming out later in life (see Post #5: My Coming Out: The Wonders of New Beginnings, August 2014 – August 2016) and as an educator who had worked with my students to write historical fiction (see Post #6: The Joys of Teaching History to 10th Graders in an Urban Setting), so that I wanted to share more thoughts about this topic, which is how one creates historical fiction. Yes, it is admittedly both a “flight” from reality (see Orringer’s point in Greer’s interview that is referenced below) and also expands our understanding of reality. I wonder whether fleeing too much can, however, also be problematic.

In order to do this evaluative work I re-read parts of Orringer’s novel, the writer Cynthia Ozick’s noted critique of Orringer’s interpretation as Fry as a gay man; responses to Ozick from, among others, James Fry, Fry’s son; an interview with Orringer; and then Marino’s book from which Orringer got many of her facts. (see Cynthia Ozick Reviews Julie Orringer’s ‘The Flight Portfolio’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com), Was Varian Fry Gay — and Should It Matter? Readers Respond – The New York Times (nytimes.com), and The Paris Review – Homosexuality, the Holocaust, and Historical Fiction: An Interview with Julie Orringer – The Paris Review See also Andy Marino, A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry (New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1999)). In reading all of this material, I wondered continually why didn’t Orringer focus on Stephane Hessel, with whom Fry spent considerable time and may have been his love interest as her back story instead of creating a fictional character for that role? Hessel (born in 1919 born a German and as of 1939 a naturalized French citizen) was a writer and a member of the resistance movement, who described Fry in his autobiography thus: ” Over the course of our nights in hotels, I quickly understood that his inclination toward me had a sexual dimension to it, something I had aroused from the depth of the great affection he inspired in me …” (quoted in Orringer, p. 557) Marino also provides countless hints to Fry’s sexuality, as well as to his relationship with Hessel (see for example, Marino, pp. 206, 207, 221, and 246-247)

Does it matter that Fry was gay and does that aspect of his life/identity help us in understanding Fry and his motivations? Absolutely. Just like it makes sense to know for example that Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were attracted to men, Fry’s sexual attractions – as apparently a “closeted” gay man (to use his son’s characterization) — is not unimportant in grasping Fry’s motivations and appreciation for the problems in which he faced. Yes, I am increasingly convinced that queer theory (See for example: Queer Theory – Judith Butler – Gender, Subject, Performativity, and Foucault – JRank Articles and C:\Documents and Settings\Katherine Harris\My Documents\Teaching\Current\Lit Crit_101\Handouts\QueerDef.wpd (sjsu.edu) adds to our appreciation of the past and of the present.

There is apparently so much that Orringer shows in her beautiful writing about Fry and his affair with the fictional character of Elliot Grant that she could have used her vivid imagination to have fleshed out a same-sex relationship between two real men instead of a real man and a fictional one? The description of Grant – as man who passed in more than one way – is intriguing and the fictional story of his life draws the reader into his life and helps us – perhaps – emphatically consider another problem of racism in the United States.

My concern with the book is not that Orringer includes material about Fry’s alleged sexual life – which in my view only enhances our view of him – but that by creating a fictional character for his “affair” when he was in France that she may trivialize the real relationship that he had with another man and that complex choices that men made in this period. When I think about historical fiction is the ability to connect themes together — which she does beautifully in terms of reminisces about his Harvard life and the 1940s (see for example pp. 100 ff), apparent risks throughout the 1940s (see for example trip to Arles), as well as her poetic description of the love and tensions between Fry and Grant over day-day life and misunderstandings that they had with one another. Yes, Orringer is correct that a description of the longer period of Fry’s life was instrumental in uncovering as she explains in the interview of his “emotional accuracy” – but why add a fictional character instead of focusing on a likely “real” one? Her empathetic description of Grant draws the reader into another world of make believe when the real one could add enough literary challenges to it. Excellent historical fiction needs to do that – in which a writer transports the reader to a world that could have been. In this regard the otherwise wonderful story that Orringer has created has fallen short.

And that comes to my critique. I would have stayed closer to the “facts” and developed a plausible relationship with Hessel. That way the writer of historical fiction creates something that is closer to reality and raises a different set of questions for readers. While the story about Grant is intriguing, I think that its development takes away from the real possibilities that were present. Nonetheless, I would wholeheartedly recommend this gripping novel, which portrays a moving account of the 1940s France and allows the reader to imagine to have been there, as we learn about countless fascinating real people who escaped France in the 1940s and the challenges that they had to do so, as well as the support from wonderful people like Varian Fry. In any case there is little question that Fry remains the true hero of this story in many ways.

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