In Orringer’s latest, there’s much to like, except the prose
Julie Orringer’s “The Invisible Bridge’’ (on the heels of her fine collection of short stories, “How to Breathe Underwater’’) is an epic novel about a young Hungarian, Andras Lévi, who, leaves his family on the eve of World War II and travels to Paris to study architecture.
While in France he falls in love with Klara, a beautiful older woman with a secret, and he also falls into the company of three fellow Jewish architecture students, who, while laboring to distinguish themselves in their chosen profession, also fight against anti-Semitism. For a while Andras survives with the help of a number of guardian angels, including a devoted professor, a theater owner, and of course, Klara, who agrees to marry him right before he has to go back to Budapest to renew his student visa. Klara can’t go with him because of her secret, and when she objects to his going without her, Andras says, “Do you think I want to go without you?. . . Do you think I can stand the thought of it? Two weeks without you, while Europe’s on the brink of war?’’
A confession: I don’t tend to love epic historical novels in which characters actually say things like “Europe’s on the brink of war,’’ but I loved the last third of “The Invisible Bridge.’’ The novel’s final 200 pages are devoted to Andras’s and his family’s attempts to survive conscription, persecution, occupation, blackmail, betrayal, deportation, and Hungary’s shifting loyalties as the country embraces Germany, rejects Germany, refuses to send its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, sends its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, hopes for the Allied invasion, and then struggles amid the Allied invasion.
Orringer does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension by offering the possibility of hope (for instance, after overhearing Andras and his brother Tibor discussing ways to get out of Hungary, a woman “dropped her handkerchief on the table. . . Andras lifted it to reveal. . . the stub of a streetcar ticket, onto which something had been scratched in pencil: K. might be able to help you.’’ ) while simultaneously becoming irreverent. Her mischievousness is evident in the case of Andras’s satiric underground newspaper The Crooked Rail, which features in its Ask Hitler column a letter posing the question: “When will this hot weather end?’’ The response? “It’ll end when I goddamn say it will, and not a moment sooner! Heil me, HITLER.’’ That Orringer is able, and willing, to make us laugh in the face of such horrors is clear proof of her talent.
As I said, there is much in the final third of the book that I won’t soon forget. This is also true of the novel’s first two-thirds, but not in a good way and for reasons having to do with the prose itself, which is sometimes stiff and antique. For instance, this letter from Tibor to Andras on the subject of Tibor’s true love: “How my pulse raced when I read that she’d asked after me! How it moved me to hear that she’d spoken of me with tenderness!’’ The exclamation points exist to prove that Tibor really is moved. But instead of feeling moved myself, I wondered: Why is he talking, or writing, this way? Well, it’s a historical novel, you might argue, and this is how people talked in . . . history. But the novel isn’t set in 1840, but 1940, and by 1940 we already had novels by, to name just a few, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy — novels in which characters sounded much more modern than those in Orringer’s 2010 novel. Yes, you might argue, but those novels were set in English-speaking countries, whereas this one is set in non-English-speaking countries, where one’s English is bound to sound stiff. But this argument only begs another question: Why do historical novels written in English about people who are not speaking in English have to sound this way?
Likewise, in these kinds of novels, why does the writing have to be more thermostatic than ecstatic? In the span of less than 30 pages, poor Andras alone feels a “rush of heat’’ to his chest, but then Klara touches him and “he shivered, though he could no longer feel the cold,’’ although subsequently Klara’s hand felt like it was “burning through the fabric’’ of his coat, until finally, just the prospect of seeing her causes him to be “hit by a wave of panic so deep and cold he could barely breathe.’’ The problem is not that these characters feel emotion, but that the novel uses such familiar overwrought language to describe those emotions.
You might argue that readers don’t turn to such novels primarily for the prose and that the problem is me and not “The Invisible Bridge.’’ You’re probably right, and I think that many readers will love this whole novel as much as I loved its last 200 pages, even though its first 400 sometimes made my heart go cold with despair. Phrases just like that one periodically appear in “The Invisible Bridge.’’ It is unforgivable that in a review this short, with so few words to spare, I’d use that sort of tired language. But perhaps it’s more understandable that a novel like “The Invisible Bridge’’ might allow itself to waste a few words, since there are so many of them.
Brock Clarke is the author of four books of fiction, with a fifth, “Exley,’’ a novel, to be published in the fall. He can be reached at email@example.com.