Even if this weren't her first novel, Julie Orringer's Invisible Bridge
would be a marvelous achievement. Orringer possesses a rare talent that makes a 600-page story--which, we know, must descend into war and genocide--feel rivetingly readable, even at its grimmest. Building vivid worlds in effortless phrases, she immerses us in 1930s Budapest just as a young Hungarian Jew, Andras Lévi, departs for the École Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris. He hones his talent for design, works backstage in a theater, and allies with other Jewish students in defiance of rising Nazi influence. And then he meets Klara, a captivating Hungarian ballet instructor nine years his senior with a painful past and a willful teenage daughter. Against Klara's better judgment, love engulfs them, drowning out the rumblings of war for a time. But inevitably, Nazi aggression drives them back to Hungary, where life for the Jews goes from hardship to horror. As in Dr. Zhivago
, these lovers can't escape history's merciless machinery, but love gives them the courage to endure. --Mari Malcolm Questions for Julie Orringer on The Invisible Bridge
Q: What was your inspiration for The Invisible Bridge?
A: Ten years ago, a few weeks before I went to Paris for the first time, my grandfather told me he’d lived in that city for two years when he was a young man. That was the first I’d heard of it. He told me he’d been accepted to architecture school on a scholarship in 1937, but had to quit when the war began. Because he was Jewish, and a Hungarian citizen, he was conscripted into the Hungarian labor service and lost his student visa. Before that moment I’d never known he’d trained to be an architect. He’d been a window dresser for Sears Roebuck and Co. for thirty years: that was what I knew of his professional life. His war experience was even more patchy and abstract in my mind: he’d been in and out of forced labor camps, I knew, but I’d heard nothing about what he’d experienced and witnessed there.
Over the weeks and months that followed, he and I began to talk about that time of his life--how he’d won the scholarship; what it had been like for him, a Jewish boy from rural Hungary, to move to Paris; how he’d survived there; what he’d studied; where he’d lived; who his friends were; why he’d had to leave. Then I started asking about what had happened during the war. Those questions gave rise to a cascade of stories, events that no one in our family had ever spoken of--what his time in forced labor had been like, how his relationship with my grandmother had developed during his furloughs, how his own brothers had been conscripted, imprisoned, and killed. As I listened, it occurred to me that few Americans knew the fate of the Hungarian Jews during the war--Hungary wasn’t occupied by Germany until spring of 1944, its Jewish population left mainly intact until the Final Solution had become such an efficient machine that it did away with more than half of Hungary’s Jews in a matter of months.
As we talked, a narrative began to take shape in my mind--not one that followed my grandfather’s experience exactly, but one that began in 1937 with a young Hungarian Jewish man and a scholarship to architecture school in Paris, and that extended through the war years. I knew the story had the shape and scope of a novel. I had imagined I might always be a short-story writer, but this was a tale that demanded telling.
Q: Did you do any special research while writing the book?
A: I had long talks with both of my Hungarian grandparents and with my grandfather’s younger brother, Alfred, who had been imprisoned in Siberia. I took one research trip to Paris and Budapest before I began writing, and another trip three years later, after I’d written most of a first draft and had a better sense of what I needed to know in order to finish the novel. I spent a lot of time in those cities getting to know the neighborhoods where my grandfather had lived, the places he’d studied and worked, the streets he’d walked. In the National Hungarian Archives in Budapest, I met a scholar who recommended the works of Randolph Braham, a professor emeritus at CUNY and a former forced labor inmate himself, who had devoted his professional life to studying the Holocaust in Hungary. In those same archives I came across amazing documents: photographs, letters, and--most surprising--dozens of handwritten underground newspapers produced by the forced labor inmates, full of bawdy dark humor. Laughter in the face of death: that was what I’d least expected to find. I knew those newspapers had to be part of the book.
I met other Holocaust survivors and heard their stories; read dozens of books about the war; watched many hours of the Shoah Foundation’s videotaped interviews; listened to radio programs from the 1930s and 40s; pulled artifacts from the reserves of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; got to know the maps librarian at the New York Public Library; watched wartime films and films about the war; scoured the Internet; and spent many more hours talking to my family about their experiences. Novels like Jeff Eugenides’s Middlesex and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay provided inspiration: evidence of how good research could fertilize good fiction.
Q: After Andras, which characters came to you first? Who was the most difficult to write, and who was the easiest?
A: Andras and Tibor and Mátyás came into being all at once—each brother’s character is shaped by the others, and shapes the others. I knew that the eldest brother would be more serious, the youngest more prone to flights of fancy; I knew, too, that of all three, Andras’s character would change the most over the course of the novel.
From the beginning I knew that Andras would fall in love, but it came as a surprise to me that he would fall in love with Klara, a woman nine years his senior, instead of with her sixteen-year-old daughter. (The idea presented itself one morning in San Francisco as I was washing the breakfast dishes.) Another surprise was Madame Gérard, who at first seemed solicitous and helpful, but whom I later discovered was jealous, vain, capricious, and prone to schadenfreude. József Hász, too, began in my mind as merely a self-centered frivolous sybarite, but became truly dangerous as the novel unfolded.
Q: How do you create such three-dimensional characters, each with their own vivid and complicated pasts?
A: I’m glad the characters feel three-dimensional. Certainly each one took a long time to get to know, and evolved in my mind over a span of years. As soon as I knew that Klara was thirty-one when the novel started and had a sixteen-year-old daughter, I knew her past must hold some terrible secret. But it was quite a while before I knew what the secret was, and longer still before I knew how it would affect Andras and his family. As for Andras’s own history, when I first started the novel I wrote many pages about his village and his childhood home and his parents; almost none of that material remains in the final version, but it helped me understand who he was and where he came from. I wanted readers to feel that the characters’ lives extended beyond the scope of the novel in both directions, so I felt I had to know what happened to them before and after the events described in the book.
Q: Tell us a little about your writing process--how you write, when, etc.
A: Years ago, when I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, the writer Tim O’Brien came to talk to us about his work and his writing process. When he told us he wrote for eight hours a day, we all thought he was either crazy or lying. At the time, I wrote for around half that many hours, and it was exhausting. But now I work for eight hours a day, too—and it seems crazy that at one time, three or four hours felt like enough. Especially with this novel, the continuity seemed important—it helped so much to be able to work through a long section, or read and edit an entire chapter, in a single day. Time at colonies helped a great deal too; over the course of the seven years that I worked on this book, I spent about three months at MacDowell and two at Yaddo. There, all distractions were removed except the social ones, which were optional and welcome, and the natural ones (i.e., the woods, the ponds, the mountains), which were helpful to the work.
At home in Brooklyn I have a writing studio in the brownstone next door, a third-floor room that looks out over the garden. There’s a desk, a bookcase, a chair, a bed, three windows, and an automatic teapot. On the walls are old photos, maps, and postcards; on the desk, a miniature complete Shakespeare, each play separately bound; a little glass caterpillar; a wooden dog; silly pictures of my brother and sister; a childhood picture of my husband; a few books. Mornings are usually for revision, afternoons for composition. When I’m working on something new or difficult, I like to write late at night—the hours between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. feel particularly private and permissive.
Q: Theater and ballet play peripheral but significant roles in the lives of some of the characters in The Invisible Bridge. How did these art forms find a way into your novel?
A: Both forms are close to my heart. I began studying ballet when I was four, and acting in plays when I was seven or eight. In high school I spent more time in theaters than at home (and certainly more time acting, directing, and writing plays than I did writing fiction). The theater initially came into the novel because of a real-life connection—my grandfather worked as a gopher at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt when he lived in Paris—but I don’t think it would have played such a significant role in the novel, or become so important to the characters, had it not been for the fact that I loved the stage and spent so much time in the theater as a young person. Ballet seemed a natural choice too—I knew something of its pleasures and its language (though I found I had to learn a great deal more as the novel progressed).
(Author Photo © Christa Parravani)
--This text refers to the
Praise for Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge
"One of the best books of the year."
—Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“If you’re still looking for a ‘big’ novel to carry into the summer holidays—one in which you can lose yourself without the guilty suspicion that you’re slumming—then Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge
is the book you want. . . . Stunning. . . . In every admirable sense an ‘ambitious’ historical novel, in which large human emotions—profound love, familial bonds and the deepest of human loyalties—play out against the backdrop of unimaginable cruelty. . . . Orringer traverses this perilous rhetorical terrain with remarkable—and, more important, convincing, self-possession. . . . Remarkably affecting. . . . A life powerfully, unsentimentally and inspiringly evoked in this gracefully written and altogether remarkable first novel.”
—Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times
“The Invisible Bridge
deserves to be praised. It takes the introspective themes we’ve loved so well in American literature—from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself
to A. M. Homes’s Music for Torching
—and points them in a different direction. . . . Rendered in sweeping, epic fashion . . . a close look at the terrible ways that enormous historical events can affect individual lives. . . . The strength of The Invisible Bridge
lies in Orringer’s ability to make us care so deeply about the people of her all-too-real fictional world.”
—Andrew Ervin, The New York Times Book Review
“Evocative . . . exquisitely precise . . . rapturous . . . uses history as a backdrop to her story’s grand passions with a sweep akin to that of Dr. Zhivago
. . . . The horrors of war never become Ms. Orringer’s primary subject. She devotes far more attention to conveying the intricacies of Jewish life . . . writing with both granddaughterly reverence and commanding authority.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Intricately layered. . . . We have seen images like these . . . in the literature of eyewitnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész. . . . [Orringer makes] brilliant use of a deliberately old-fashioned realism to define individual fates engulfed by history’s deadly onrush. . . . With its moving acknowledgment of the gap between what’s been lost and what can be imagined, this remarkably accomplished first novel is itself, in the continuing stream of Holocaust literature, an invisible bridge.”
—Donna Rifkind, The Washington Post Book World
“Truly breathtaking . . . gloriously rendered . . . a sensual feast. . . . I didn’t want it to end.”
—Debra Spark, San Francisco Chronicle
“A straightforward storyteller, [Orringer] captures our attention with her sympathetic characters and lets her deft handling of time and place do the rest. She never indulges in melodrama. In her hands, the human drama, pared to its essentials, is heartbreaking—and inspiring—enough.”
—Lloyd Sachs, Chicago Sun-Times
“Haunting. . . . [The Invisible Bridge
] exhibits wonderfully evoked realism. . . . A literary throwback of sorts, a fat facsimile of a nineteenth-century novel, the kind of story that critics would faintly praise as ‘sweeping’ (commonly meaning they write it off in other respects) were the author not so obviously endowed with talent, and the novel’s particularities so vibrant.”
—Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune
“Dazzling . . . Like Tolstoy and Stendhal, she chronicles sea changes in European history through the eyes of finely fashioned characters, and like them she has created a story simultaneously epic and intimate. . . . An ambitious slice of literature, but Orringer fulfills her ambitions with crisp writing. . . . This stunning work manages to feel both original and part and parcel of the well-blazed tradition of historical novels that came before it.”
—Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly
“Bold, ambitious . . . beautiful, breathtaking and vital. . . . Orringer’s prose is unfaltering, and she shows remarkable skill in weaving together the two main sections of the novel—the first part, a coming-of-age story reminiscent of early parts of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage
; and the second part, a tense account of a family threatened with war and hatred, which recalls the heroic, romantic realism of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. . . . The Invisible Bridge
might not be the novel that Orringer’s fans were expecting, but it’s every bit as powerful and haunting as her debut. She’s no longer just a writer to watch—she’s a writer to follow, and one whose talent, daring and compassion are beginning to look boundless.”
—Michael Schaub, NPR.org
“Orringer avoids bathos and has a gift for re-creating distant times and places: a Paris suffused with the scent of paprikas and the sounds of American jazz, the camraderies and cruelties of the work camps. The ticking clock of history keeps it urgent and moving forward, and the result is, against all odds, a Holocaust page-turner. Buy it.”
“What begins as a jewel-box romance soon breaks open into a harrowing saga of war. Orringer, drawing upon assiduous research into Hungarian history (and her own), conveys a piercing sense of what it means to be fated by one’s blood, as well as a rich understanding of the capricious nature of survival.”
“The Invisible Bridge
is an unabashedly big, wartime epic à la Dr. Zhivago,
with ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ as a theme song instead of a balalaika ballad. And when it comes to the memory of love, you can’t do better than Gershwin.”
—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian-Science Monitor
“A Tolstoy-esque novel of the Holocaust, one that tracks the passage of quotidian life and the flutter of the human heart against the implacable roil of history. The Invisible Bridge
brings the pre- and early-World War II period to life in a way I can only compare to Suite Francaise,
which was actually written at that time. . . . Meanwhile, the love story that unfolds in Orringer’s pages is as romantic as Doctor Zhivago,
and the seamless, edifying integration of truckloads of historical and topical research (architecture, ballet, mid-century Paris neighborhoods) brings to mind Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
. . . . I was stunned, then awed.”
—Marion Winik, Newsday
“Julie Orringer’s sense of history, her keen eye for the smallest of details, her in-depth characterizations, help make her first novel, The Invisible Bridge,
an astonishing read. But what is arguably best about this epic story of Hungarian Jews in the mid-20th century is the author’s keen sense of pace and storytelling that unfurls the 602 pages with breathtaking (and heartbreaking) speed.”
—Rege Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“A rare achievement, a hefty and compellingly readable piece of literature that, published mere weeks ago, feels as if it pre-dates the author’s own 37 years. . . . In the expansive tradition of Pasternak or Tolstoy, Orringer seduces us . . . . Big, passionate ideas illustrated in so much masterly detail that we can taste and smell and see. . . . The Invisible Bridge
is dense with a master’s intelligence.”
—Darren Sextro, The Kansas City Star
“This is a big, old-fashioned love story set against the backdrop of war—the type Tolstoy might have scratched out with a gnawed pencil—but it’s also a modern riff on architecture, existentialism, and how people persist in making and remaking their lives when ‘the world has lost its mind’ . . . . The romantic exploits in Paris . . . are breathy and gilded, yet they never spill over completely into melodrama. . . . The small miracles that abound in Orringer’s novel make a strong argument that literature is the best way to get at the core of something in absentia
—Gregg LaGambina, The A. V. Club
“[Orringer] imbues the novel with a luminosity equally at odds with and inherent to Holocaust-themed works, wherein a turn of phrase results in a turn of fate, or a happenchance encounter results in a relationship that saves a soul. No less miraculous, however, are the tools by which Orringer builds these connections: Her writing is glorious, at times awe-inspiring. Her research is painstaking and deftly woven into the body of her work—never academic, yet consistently learned. And her grasp of detail—her knowledge of and affiliation with place—is front and center, highlighting the feisty merger of architecture and culture, theatrical review and politics, that roiled in the lull between the world’s great wars, that roils still.”
—Ellen Urbani, The Oregonian
“A major talent. . . . Reminiscent of 19th-century novels. . . . This fascinating book . . . has much to say about war, and how it affects individuals indiscriminately, changing their dreams.”
—Anne Morris, The Dallas Morning News
“Brilliant. . . . Orringer covers the darkest matters with a tender authority while imbuing her characters with the subtle, endless dimensions of love a...