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
“Profound love, familial bonds and the deepest of human loyalties play out against the backdrop of unimaginable cruelty. . . . A stunning first novel.” —Los Angeles Times
“Truly breathtaking. . . . A sensual feast.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The Invisible Bridge
is a tale of war-torn lovers, family and survival of the luckiest rather than the fittest. . . . Wonderfully evoked.” —Chicago Tribune
“Orringer’s writing is glorious.” —The Oregonian
“What begins as a jewel-box romance soon breaks open into a harrowing saga of war. Orringer . . . conveys a piercing sense of what it means to be fated by one’s blood.” —Vogue
“At the risk of oversimplifying things, this novel shows how Michael Chabon would write if he grew up a ballet-dancing girl instead of a comic-book-loving boy.” —The Plain Dealer
“[Orringer] make[s] us care so deeply about the people of her all-too-real fictional world. For the time it takes to read this fine novel, and for a long time afterward, it becomes our world too.” —The New York Times Book Review
“One of the best books of the year.” —Junot Diaz
“An unforgettable, important work…. Extraordinary.” —Miami Herald
“Heartbreaking—and inspiring.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Brilliant. . . . Remarkably accomplished.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Dazzling. . . . A story simultaneously epic and intimate.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Beautiful, breathtaking, and vital.” —NPR, “Books We Like”
“To bring an entire lost world—its sights, its smells, its heartaches, raptures and terrors—to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul, as Julie Orringer does in The Invisible Bridge
, takes something more like genius.” —Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
“The word ‘epic’ seems inadequate to describe Julie Orringer’s phenomenal first novel, The Invisible Bridge
. You don’t so much read it as live it. . . . Profoundly moving. . . . This is one that cries for you to linger over it, page by enthralling page.” —Financial Times
“Orringer avoids pathos 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.” —New York
“Powerful. . . . So mesmerizing that in spite of the book’s heft, its ending comes too soon.” —Miami Herald
“The Invisible Bridge
is dense with a master’s intelligence…. The stuff of classic novels.” —Kansas City Star
“With The Invisible Bridge
, Julie Orringer has built a large novel in the grand old style, and out of that rubble made something new and beautiful.” —The Onion
’s A. V. Club
“Engrossing. . . . The Invisible Bridge
follows Hungarian Architecture student Andras Lévi and his older lover, Klara Morgenstern, through some of the most fraught and consequential years of 20th-century history, but Orringer never seems out of her depth.” —Time Out New York
“Orringer’s great achievement here is to give us the Holocaust anew, to remind us of the scale of what was lost and to cherish what survived.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“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 roll of history. . . . 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.” —Newsday
“As rich in historical detail as it is human in its cast of sympathetic characters. . . . Speaks to the power of love and the steadfastness of the heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Andras’s Europe is fully realized: its cornices and cobblestones, its frigid winters and chance meetings in cafés.” —Bookforum
“A work of impressive scope and powerful depth.” —BookPage
“In a field as crowded with artistic representations as the Holocaust, it’s easy to assume that there is nothing new to say. Julie Orringer reminds us that there always is, so long as there are individual stories to tell. . . . Brilliant. . . . As in her modern stories, here Orringer covers the darkest matters with a tender authority while imbuing her characters with the subtle, endless dimensions of love and suffering.. . . Gripping, fresh, and worth remembering . . . this novel will endure.” —Forward
“A fine first novel. . . . Has much to say about war, and how it affects individuals indiscriminately, changing their dreams.” —Dallas Morning News
“The sheer joy of storytelling fills each moment of Orringer’s novel. Like Tolstoy and Eliot’s work, it transports us completely into its world—that of young Andras, his friends, family and loves—and a landscape of war and redemption. Thrilling, tender, and terrifying; a glorious reminder of how books can change our lives. It is the novel of the year.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of A Marriage