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03.24.10

Writers to Watch

The Daily Beast introduces a series highlighting the best new writers in America. Lucas Wittmann talks to Julie Orringer, the first of 12 writers to be featured, about her debut novel.

Every year hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, leaving many readers at a loss about what to read, aside from the latest bestseller. Among these thousands of books are numerous debut efforts—first novels, collections of short stories, memoirs—that often get overlooked and lost in the rush of titles. And every year there are a number of writers who are worth lingering over and considering their new work, or perhaps their first work.

To highlight new and developing talent, The Daily Beast today launches a new series that over the next six months will present 12 writers worth watching. In the coming months, writers and critics will select their favorite new writers—writers who may have published a collection or even a novel but display ambition, craft, and storytelling that makes them worth special attention.

“We still live in an era shaped by the aftermath of the Second World War, and we’re still drawn together and pushed apart by forces that feel (and often are) beyond our control.”

The first writer to watch in the series is Julie Orringer, whose debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, is out in May. Seven years after her short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, came out to great acclaim and earned a place on The New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Orringer has changed course dramatically.

It is on the strength of this novel that I picked her to kick off the series. While her short story collection was a sharply observed look at the lives of children wrestling with their parents and forming their own worlds, her novel is a grand historical work of 600 pages. Set in the uncertain Europe of the late 1930s, The Invisible Bridge follows two Hungarian-Jewish brothers as they leave behind their modest upbringing and head off to Paris and Italy to study and find love. The story is centered on Andras, a determined architecture student who falls madly and inescapably for an older ballerina. What follows is an affecting love story that finds him maturing into an adult as the war overwhelms him as surely as it does Europe. Along the way we encounter Paris before the Nazis marched in, a cameo from Le Corbusier, smoke-filled cafés, despicable prison camp guards, sumptuous Hungarian meals, and all of the variety of pre-war Europe. There is something thrillingly unfashionable about Orringer’s novel, with its 19th-century themes and its unavoidable truth that history has an unfailing hold on us all.

Already at work on her next novel, based on the remarkable story of American journalist Varian Fry, who saved 2,000 French artists during World War II, Orringer was in Marseille conducting research when I caught up with her to speak about The Invisible Bridge. Impressed by the scope of her novel, I was curious to find out what inspired her to take on such a difficult, unwieldy subject as the fate of a Jewish family in Nazi Europe.

The idea for the book came from a surprising revelation about her grandfather, she said in subsequent phone and e-mail conversations. “Around 10 years ago, when I was planning a trip to Paris for the first time, my grandfather mentioned that he’d lived in Paris for two years when he was a young man,” she said. “That was the first I’d heard of it. He told me he had a scholarship to architecture school—as a Hungarian Jew, he’d been shut out of admission to Hungarian schools, thanks to a no longer official but still practiced numerus clausus. He studied in Paris for a couple of years before the war began, and then he lost his student visa, had to return to Hungary, and was conscripted into a forced labor company in the Hungarian army.

“I knew he’d been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive. As I started to ask questions about that time, a series of amazing and devastating stories emerged, and a novel began to take shape in my mind—the story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who’d envisioned one kind of life but who was forced by the turnings of history to live quite another.”

While some of the details in the novel are similar to elements of her family’s story, The Invisible Bridge is purely a work of fiction. Still, Orringer says she was certainly affected by the glimpses of the war in her own family: “Shadowy stories of the war pervaded my childhood, and seemed part of my inheritance; those stories, never told in full, were laced with horrifying and mysterious details—the Nazi doctor who delivered my grandmother’s first child; a baby carriage full of shards of glass; bread made with sawdust; parents speaking to their children through the wooden wall of a boxcar; a brother who died trying to save a forced labor battalion from the ravages of typhus.”

Although both her short stories and novel are filled with excellent prose, the difference in subject and tone couldn’t be more striking. Asked what compelled her to wrestle with World War II in the novel, while her first collection was focused on the present day, she said: “After I finished the story collection, it was my grandfather’s story that most immediately captured my attention. As I wrote, I knew that story and its problems remained relevant to our contemporary world; persecution, genocide, political extremism, military brutality—and love, of course, that perennial subject—are all matters of immediate relevance. We still live in an era shaped by the aftermath of the Second World War, and we’re still drawn together and pushed apart by forces that feel (and often are) beyond our control.”

I was fascinated by how the history in the book closes in on the reader as it does the characters. The first third we are almost unaware of what’s happening, and then slowly it dawns on us and on them what is going on. How did Orringer balance this, keeping the characters from being weighed down by what we all know?

“This is, I think, largely a matter of point of view—and part of why the form of the novel felt necessary to me,” she said. “I didn’t want to keep reminding the reader, through a contemporary narrator or parallel present-day storyline, of the way we think about the events of the war now; nor, for the same reason, did I want to place events out of sequence. What I wanted was to capture the fact that, in the years before the war, as Hitler came to power and the tensions between Axis and Allied powers escalated, no one could have imagined the astonishing scope of the disaster to come. The novel’s close third person point of view places us firmly within Andras’ perspective (and occasionally within the perspectives of his father and other characters); the book is concerned, at first, with the small and all-consuming details of Andras’ student life and love, and it’s only when he becomes aware of the larger forces at hand—when those forces derail his plans and send him on an unimagined course, and then begin to have a similar effect upon the lives of millions of others—that we must become aware of, and inhabit, our awareness of what happened.”

Paris may be the glamorous heart of the novel, where Andras falls in love, where students get smashing drunk and carouse, but Hungary and Budapest is the centerpiece. It is here that they must all return and see if their love and family bonds can survive the worst. But the fate of Hungarian Jews was particularly painful, as Orringer sensitively captures.

“It’s likely that I owe my own existence, at least in part, to the fact that Hungary wasn’t occupied until 1944, and that the deportation of its Jews, though carried out with devastating efficiency, took place over a relatively short period,” she said. “My grandmother survived thanks to her own fortitude and intelligence, but also because she happened to live in Budapest; deportations didn’t begin in Budapest until the fall of 1944. My grandfather, as a member of a Hungarian forced labor battalion, survived cruel mistreatment and unimaginable privations, but was also, for much of the war, considered essential to the functioning of the Hungarian army.

“In a sense, the fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly painful because the deportations occurred long after the Nazis’ defeat was inevitable. For a long time, Hungarian Jews believed they would escape the fate of the Jews of other occupied nations—not only because the Hungarian government considered Jews necessary to the financial welfare of the country, nor only because so many Jews had served heroically in the First World War, nor even just because Hungarian Jews were particularly assimilated, but simply because the Nazis were bound to admit defeat before deportations could occur.”

But in the end, the novel, like the story of Orringer’s own family, is a hopeful one. The last haunting scenes capture the fundamental truth that life, scarred and weighty, carries on over the invisible bridge of the title. Readers will judge for themselves, but I have a feeling that based on this novel alone, Orringer has proved to be a writer worthy of our attention.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Lucas Wittmann is the Books Editor at The Daily Beast.