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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he promised to deliver. But when he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter's recipient, he becomes privy to a secret that will alter the course of his—and his family’s—history. From the small Hungarian town of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in labor camps, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a family shattered and remade in history’s darkest hour.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

A Letter

Later he would tell her that their story began at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express. The year was 1937; the month was September, the evening unseasonably cold. His brother had insisted on taking him to the opera as a parting gift. The show was Tosca and their seats were at the top of the house. Not for them the three marble-arched doorways, the façade with its Corinthian columns and heroic entablature. Theirs was a humble side entrance with a red-faced ticket taker, a floor of scuffed wood, walls plastered with crumbling opera posters. Girls in knee-length dresses climbed the stairs arm in arm with young men in threadbare suits; pensioners argued with their white-haired wives as they shuffled up the five narrow flights. At the top, a joyful din: a refreshment salon lined with mirrors and wooden benches, the air hazy with cigarette smoke. A doorway at its far end opened onto the concert hall itself, the great electric-lit cavern of it, with its ceiling fresco of Greek immortals and its gold-scrolled tiers. Andras had never expected to see an opera here, nor would he have if Tibor hadn’t bought the tickets. But it was Tibor’s opinion that residence in Budapest must include at least one evening of Puccini at the Operaház. Now Tibor leaned over the rail to point out Admiral Horthy’s box, empty that night except for an ancient general in a hussar’s jacket. Far below, tuxedoed ushers led men and women to their seats, the men in evening dress, the women’s hair glittering with jewels.

“If only Mátyás could see this,” Andras said.

“He’ll see it, Andráska. He’ll come to Budapest when he’s got his baccalaureate, and in a year he’ll be sick to death of this place.”

Andras had to smile. He and Tibor had both moved to Budapest as soon as they graduated from gimnázium in Debrecen. They had all grown up in Konyár, a tiny village in the eastern flatlands, and to them, too, the capital city had once seemed like the center of the world. Now Tibor had plans to go to medical college in Italy, and Andras, who had lived here for only a year, was leaving for school in Paris. Until the news from the École Spéciale d’Architecture, they had all thought Tibor would be the first to go. For the past three years he’d been working as a salesclerk in a shoe store on Váci utca, saving money for his tuition and poring over his medical textbooks at night as desperately as if he were trying to save his own life. When Andras had moved in with him a year earlier, Tibor’s departure had seemed imminent. He had already passed his exams and submitted his application to the medical school at Modena. He thought it might take six months to get his acceptance and student visa. Instead the medical college had placed him on a waiting list for foreign students, and he’d been told it might be another year or two before he could matriculate.

Tibor hadn’t said a word about his own situation since Andras had learned of his scholarship, nor had he shown a trace of envy. Instead he had bought these opera tickets and helped Andras make his plans. Now, as the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to tune, Andras was visited by a private shame: Though he knew he would have been happy for Tibor if their situations had been reversed, he suspected he would have done a poor job of hiding his jealousy.

From a door at the side of the orchestra pit, a tall spindling man with hair like white flames emerged and stepped into a spotlight. The audience shouted its approval as this man made his way to the podium. He had to take three bows and raise his hands in surrender before they went quiet; then he turned to the musicians and lifted his baton. After a moment of quivering stillness, a storm of music rolled out of the brass and strings and entered Andras’s chest, filling his ribcage until he could scarcely breathe. The velvet curtain rose to reveal the interior of an Italian cathedral, its minutiae rendered in perfect and intricate detail. Stained-glass windows radiated amber and azure light, and a half-completed fresco of Mary Magdalene showed ghostly against a plaster wall. A man in striped prison garb crept into the church to hide in one of the dark chapels. A painter came in to work on the fresco, followed by a sexton bent upon making the painter tidy up his brushes and dropcloths before the next service. Then came the opera diva Tosca, the model for Mary Magdalene, her carmine skirts swirling around her ankles. Song flew up and hovered in the painted dome of the Operaház: the clarinetlike tenor of the painter Cavaradossi, the round basso of the fugitive Angelotti, the warm apricotty soprano of the fictional diva Tosca, played by the real Hungarian diva Zsuzsa Toronyi. The sound was so solid, so tangible, it seemed to Andras he could reach over the edge of the balcony and grab handfuls of it. The building itself had become an instrument, he thought: The architecture expanded the sound and completed it, amplified and contained it.

“I won’t forget this,” he whispered to his brother.

“You’d better not,” Tibor whispered back. “I expect you to take me to the opera when I visit you in Paris.”

At the intermission they drank small cups of black coffee in the refreshment salon and argued over what they’d seen. Was the painter’s refusal to betray his friend an act of selfless loyalty or self-glorifying bravado? Was his endurance of the torture that followed meant to be read as a sublimation of his sexual love for Tosca? Would Tosca herself have stabbed Scarpia if her profession hadn’t schooled her so thoroughly in the ways of melodrama? There was a bittersweet pleasure in the exchange; as a boy, Andras had spent hours listening to Tibor debate points of philosophy or sport or literature with his friends, and had pined for the day when he might say something Tibor would find witty or incisive. Now that he and Tibor had become equals, or something like equals, Andras was leaving, getting on a train to be carried hundreds of kilometers away.

“What is it?” Tibor said, his hand on Andras’s sleeve.

“Too much smoke,” Andras said, and coughed, averting his eyes from Tibor’s. He was relieved when the lights flickered to signal the end of the intermission.

After the third act, when the innumerable curtain calls were over—the dead Tosca and Cavaradossi miraculously revived, the evil Scarpia smiling sweetly as he accepted an armload of red roses—Andras and Tibor pushed toward the exit and made their way down the crowded stairs. Outside, a faint scattering of stars showed above the wash of city light. Tibor took his arm and led him toward the Andrássy side of the building, where the dress-circle and orchestra-floor patrons were spilling through the three marble arches of the grand entrance.

“I want you to have a look at the main foyer,” Tibor said. “We’ll tell the usher we left something inside.”

Andras followed him through the central doorway and into the chandelier-lit hall, where a marble stairway spread its wings toward a gallery. Men and women in evening dress descended, but Andras saw only architecture: the egg-and-dart molding along the stairway, the cross-barrel vault above, the pink Corinthian columns that supported the gallery. Miklós Ybl, a Hungarian from Székesfehérvár, had won an international competition to design the opera house; Andras’s father had given him a book of Ybl’s architectural drawings for his eighth birthday, and he had spent many long afternoons studying this space. As the departing audience flowed around him, he stared up into the vault of the ceiling, so intent upon reconciling this three-dimensional version with the line drawings in his memory that he scarcely noticed when someone paused before him and spoke. He had to blink and force himself to focus upon the person, a large dovelike woman in a sable coat, who appeared to be begging his pardon. He bowed and stepped aside to let her pass.

“No, no,” she said. “You’re just where I want you. What luck to run into you here! I would never have known how to find you.”

He struggled to recall when and where he might have met this woman. A diamond necklace glinted at her throat, and the skirt of a rose silk gown spilled from beneath her pelisse; her dark hair was arranged in a cap of close-set curls. She took his arm and led him out onto the front steps of the opera house.

“It was you at the bank the other day, wasn’t it?” she said. “You were the one with the envelope of francs.”

Now he knew her: It was Elza Hász, the wife of the bank director. Andras had seen her a few times at the great synagogue on Dohány utca, where he and Tibor went for an occasional Friday night service. The other day at the bank he’d jostled her as she crossed the lobby; she’d dropped the striped hatbox she was carrying, and he’d lost his grip on his paper folder of francs. The folder had opened, discharging the pink-and-green bills, and the money had fluttered around their feet like confetti. He’d dusted off the hatbox and handed it back to her, then watched her disappear though a door marked private.

“You look to be my son’s age,” she said now. “And judging from your currency, I would guess you’re off to school in Paris.”

“Tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

“You must do me a great favor. My son is studying at the Beaux-Arts, and I’d like you to take a package for him. Would it be a terrible inconvenience?”

A moment passed before he could respond. To agree to take a package to someone in Paris would mean that he was truly going, that he in?tended to leave his brothers and his parents and his country behind and step into the vast unknown of Western Europe.

“Where does your son live?” he asked.

“The Quartier Latin, of course,” she said, and laughed. “In a painter’s garret, not in a lovely villa like our Cavaradossi. Though he tells me he has hot water and a view of the Panthéon. Ah, there’s the car!” A gray sedan pulled to the curb, and Mrs. Hász lifted her arm and signaled to the driver. “Come tomorrow before noon. Twenty-six Benczúr utca. I’ll have everything ready.” She pulled the collar of her coat closer and ran down to the car, not pausing to look back at Andras.

“Well!” Tibor said, coming out to join him on the steps. “Suppose you tell me what that was all about.”

“I’m to be an international courier. Madame Hász wants me to take a box to her son in Paris. We met at the bank the other day when I went to exchange pengö? for francs.”

“And you agreed?”

“I did.”

Tibor sighed, glancing off toward the yellow streetcars passing along the boulevard. “It’s going to be awfully dull around here without you, Andráska.”

“Nonsense. I predict you’ll have a girlfriend within a week.”

“Oh, yes. Every girl goes mad for a penniless shoe clerk.”

Andras smiled. “At last, a little self-pity! I was beginning to resent you for being so generous and coolheaded.”

“Not at all. I could kill you for leaving. But what good would that do? Then neither of us would get to go abroad.” He grinned, but his eyes were grave behind his silver-rimmed spectacles. He linked arms with Andras and pulled him down the steps, humming a few bars from the overture. It was only three blocks to their building on Hársfa utca; when they reached the entry they paused for a last breath of night air before going up to the apartment. The sky above the Operaház was pale orange with reflected light, and the streetcar bells echoed from the boulevard. In the semidarkness Tibor seemed to Andras as handsome as a movie legend, his hat set at a daring angle, his white silk evening scarf thrown over one shoulder. He looked at that moment like a man ready to take up a thrilling and unconventional life, a man far better suited than Andras to step off a railway car in a foreign land and claim his place there. Then he winked and pulled the key from his pocket, and in another moment they were racing up the stairs like gimnázium boys.

Mrs. Hász lived near the Városliget, the city park with its storybook castle and its vast rococo outdoor baths. The house on Benczúr utca was an Italianate villa of creamy yellow stucco, surrounded on three sides by hidden gardens; the tops of espaliered trees rose from behind a white stone wall. Andras could make out the faint splash of a fountain, the scratch of a gardener’s rake. It struck him as an unlikely place for Jewish people to live, but at the entrance there was a mezuzah nailed to the doorframe—a silver cylinder wrapped in gold ivy. When he pressed the doorbell, a five-note chime sounded from inside. Then came the approaching click of heels on marble, and the throwing back of heavy bolts. A silver-haired housemaid opened the door and ushered him in. He stepped into a domed entrance hall with a floor of pink marble, an inlaid table, a sheaf of calla lilies in a Chinese vase.

“Madame Hász is in the sitting room,” the housemaid said.

He followed her across the entry hall and down a vaulted corridor, and they stopped just outside a doorway through which he could hear the crescendo and decrescendo of women’s voices. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear that there was an argument in progress: One voice climbed and peaked and dropped off; another, quieter than the first, rose and insisted and fell silent.

“Wait here a moment,” the housemaid said, and went in to announce Andras’s arrival. At the announcement the voices exchanged another brief volley, as if the argument had something to do with Andras himself. Then the housemaid reappeared and ushered Andras into a large bright room that smelled of buttered toast and flowers. On the floor were pink-and-gold Persian rugs; white damask chairs stood in conversation with a pair of salmon-colored sofas, and a low table held a bowl of yellow roses. Mrs. Hász had risen from her chair in the corner. At a writing desk near the window sat an older woman in widow’s black, her hair covered with a lace shawl. She held a wax-sealed letter, which she set atop a pile of books and pinned beneath a glass paperweight. Mrs. Hász crossed the room to meet Andras and pressed his hand in her large cold one.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “This is my mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Hász.” She nodded toward the woman in black. The woman was of delicate build, with a deep-lined face that Andras found lovely despite its aura of grief; her large gray eyes radiated quiet pain. He gave a bow and pronounced the formal greeting: Kezét csókolom, I kiss your hand.

The elder Mrs. Hász nodded in return. “So you’ve agreed to take a box to József,” she said. “That was very kind of you. I’m sure you have a great deal to think about already.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

“We won’t keep you long,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “Simon is packing the last items now. I’ll ring for something to eat in the meantime. You look famished.”

“Oh, no, please don’t bother,” Andras said. In fact, the smell of toast had reminded him that he hadn’t eaten all day; but he worried that even the smallest meal in that house would require a lengthy ceremony, one whose rules were foreign to him. And he was in a hurry: His train left in three hours.

“Young men can always eat,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, calling the housemaid to her side. She gave a few instructions and sent the woman on her way.

The elder Mrs. Hász left her chair at the writing desk and beckoned Andras to sit beside her on one of the salmon-colored sofas. He sat down, worrying that his trousers would leave a mark on the silk; he would have needed a different grade of clothing altogether, it seemed to him, to pass an hour safely in that house. The elder Mrs. Hász folded her slim hands on her lap and asked Andras what he would study in Paris.

“Architecture,” Andras said.

“Indeed. So you’ll be a classmate of József?’s at the Beaux-Arts, then?”

“I’ll be at the École Spéciale,” Andras said. “Not the Beaux-Arts.”

The younger Mrs. Hász settled herself on the opposite sofa. “The École Spéciale? I haven’t heard József mention it.”

“It’s rather more of a trade school than the Beaux-Arts,” Andras said. “That’s what I understand, anyway. I’ll be there on a scholarship from the Izraelita Hitközség. It was a happy accident, actually.”

“An accident?”

And Andras explained: The editor of Past and Future, the magazine where he worked, had submitted some of Andras’s cover designs for an exhibition in Paris—a show of work by young Central European artists. His covers had been selected and exhibited; a professor from the École Spéciale had seen the show and had made inquiries about Andras. The editor had told him that Andras wanted to become an architect, but that it was difficult for Jewish students to get into architecture school in Hungary: A defunct numerus clausus, which in the twenties had restricted the number of Jewish students to six percent, still haunted the admissions practices of Hungarian universities. The professor from the École Spéciale had written letters, had petitioned his admissions board to give Andras a place in the incoming class. The Budapest Jewish community association, the Izraelita Hitközség, had put up the money for tuition, room, and board. It had all happened in a matter of weeks, and at every moment it seemed as if it might fall through. But it hadn’t; he was going. His classes would begin six days from now.

“Ah,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “How fortunate! And a scholarship, too!” But at the last words she lowered her eyes, and Andras experienced the return of a feeling from his school days in Debrecen: a sudden shame, as if he’d been stripped to his underclothes. A few times he’d spent weekend afternoons at the homes of boys who lived in town, whose fathers were barristers or bankers, who didn’t have to board with poor families—boys who slept alone in their beds at night and wore ironed shirts to school and ate lunch at home every day. Some of these boys’ mothers treated him with solicitous pity, others with polite distaste. In their presence he’d felt similarly naked. Now he forced himself to look at József?’s mother as he said, “Yes, it’s very lucky.”

“And where will you live in Paris?”

He rubbed his damp palms against his knees. “The Latin Quarter, I suppose.”

“But where will you stay when you arrive?”

“I imagine I’ll just ask someone where students take rooms.”

“Nonsense,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, covering his hand with her own. “You’ll go to József?’s, that’s what you’ll do.”

The younger Mrs. Hász gave a cough and smoothed her hair. “We shouldn’t make commitments for József,” she said. “He may not have room for a guest.”

“Oh, Elza, you’re a terrible snob,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. “Mr. Lévi is doing a service for József. Surely József can spare a sofa for him, at least for a few days. We’ll wire him this afternoon.”

“Here are the sandwiches,” said the younger, visibly relieved by the distraction.

The housemaid wheeled a tea cart into the room. In addition to the tea service there was a glass cake stand with a stack of sandwiches so pale they looked to be made of snow. A pair of scissorlike silver tongs lay beside the pedestal, as if to suggest that sandwiches like these were not m eant to be touched by human hands. The elder Mrs. Hász took up the tongs and piled sandwiches onto Andras’s plate, more than he would have dared to take for himself. When the younger Mrs. Hász herself picked up a sandwich without the aid of silverware or tongs, Andras made bold to eat one of his own. It consisted of dilled cream cheese on soft white bread from which the crusts had been cut. Paper-thin slices of yellow pepper provided the only indication that the sandwich had originated from within the borders of Hungary.

While the younger Mrs. Hász poured Andras a cup of tea, the elder went to the writing desk and withdrew a white card upon which she asked Andras to write his name and travel information. She would wire József, who would be waiting at the station in Paris. She offered him a glass pen with a gold nib so fine he was afraid to use it. He leaned over the low table and wrote the information in his blocky print, terrified that he would break the nib or drip ink onto the Persian rug. Instead he inked his fingers, a fact he apprehended only when he looked down at his final sandwich and saw that the bread was stained purple. He wondered how long it would be until Simon, whoever that was, appeared with the box for József. A sound of hammering came from far off down the hallway; he hoped it was the box being closed.

It seemed to please the elder Mrs. Hász to see that Andras had finished his sandwiches. She gave him her grief-etched smile. “This will be your first time in Paris, then.”

“Yes,” Andras said. “My first time out of the country.”

“Don’t let my grandson offend you,” she said. “He’s a sweet child once you get to know him.”

“József is a perfect gentleman,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, flushing to the roots of her close-set curls.

“It’s kind of you to wire him,” Andras said.

“Not at all,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. She wrote József?’s address on another card and gave it to Andras. A moment later, a man in butler’s livery entered the sitting room with an enormous wooden crate in his arms.

“Thank you, Simon,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “You may leave it there.”

The man set the crate down on the rug and retreated. Andras glanced at the gold clock on the mantel. “Thank you for the sandwiches,” he said. “I’d better be off now.”

“Stay another moment, if you don’t mind,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. “I’d like to ask you to take one more thing.” She went to the writing desk and slid the sealed letter from beneath its paperweight.

“Excuse me, Mr. Lévi,” said the younger. She rose and crossed the room to meet her mother-in-law, and put a hand on her arm. “We’ve already discussed this.”

“I won’t repeat myself, then,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, lowering her voice. “Kindly remove your hand, Elza.”

The younger Mrs. Hász shook her head. “György would agree with me. It’s unwise.”

“My son is a good man, but he doesn’t always know what’s wise and what is not,” said the elder. She extricated her arm gently from the younger woman’s grasp, returned to the salmon-colored sofa, and handed the envelope to Andras. Written on its face was the name C. Morgenstern and an address in Paris.

“It’s a message for a family friend,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, her eyes steady on Andras’s. “Perhaps you’ll think me overcautious, but for certain matters I don’t trust the Hungarian post. Things can get lost, you know, or fall into the wrong hands.” She kept her gaze fixed upon him as she spoke, seeming to ask him not to question what she meant, nor what matters might be delicate enough to require this degree of caution. “If you please, I’d rather you not mention it to anyone. Particularly not to my grandson. Just buy a stamp and drop this into a mailbox once you get to Paris. You’ll be doing me a great favor.”

Andras put the letter into his breast pocket. “Easily done,” he said.

The younger Mrs. Hász stood rigid beside the writing desk, her cheeks bright beneath their patina of powder. One hand still rested on the stack of books, as though she might call the letter back across the room and have it there again. But there was nothing to be done, Andras saw; the elder Mrs. Hász had won, and the younger now had to proceed as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She composed her expression and smoothed her gray skirt, returning to the sofa where Andras sat.

“Well,” she said, and folded her hands. “It seems we’ve concluded our business. I hope my son will be a help to you in Paris.”

“I’m certain he will,” Andras said. “Is that the box you’d like me to take?”

“It is,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, and gestured him toward it.

The wooden crate was large enough to contain a pair of picnic hampers. When Andras lifted it, he felt a deep tug in his intestines. He took a few staggering steps toward the door.

“Dear me,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “Can you manage?”

Andras ventured a mute nod.

“Oh, no. You mustn’t strain yourself.” She pressed a button in the wall and Simon reappeared a moment later. He took the box from Andras and strode out through the front door of the house. Andras followed, and the elder Mrs. Hász accompanied him to the driveway, where the long gray car was waiting. Apparently they meant to send him home in it. It was of English make, a Bentley. He wished Tibor were there to see it.

The elder Mrs. Hász put a hand on his sleeve. “Thank you for everything,” she said.

“It’s a pleasure,” Andras said, and bowed in farewell.

She pressed his arm and went inside; the door closed behind her without a sound. As the car pulled away, Andras found himself twisting backward to look at the house again. He searched the windows, unsure of what he expected to see. There was no movement, no curtain-flutter or glimpse of a face. He imagined the younger Mrs. Hász returning to the drawing room in wordless frustration, the elder retreating deeper behind that butter-colored façade, entering a room whose overstuffed furniture seemed to suffocate her, a room whose windows offered a comfortless view. He turned away and rested an arm on the box for József, and gave his Hársfa utca address for the last time.


From the Hardcover edition.
Julie Orringer|Author Q&A

About Julie Orringer

Julie Orringer - The Invisible Bridge

Photo © Stephanie Rausser

Julie Orringer is the author of the award-winning short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the winner of The Paris Review’s Discovery Prize and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is researching a new novel.

Author Q&A

A conversation with
JULIE ORRINGER
 
author of
THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE
 
 
What was your inspiration for THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE?
 
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.
 
  
Did you do any special research while writing the book?
 
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.
 

After Andras, which characters came to you first? Who was the most difficult to write, and who was the easiest?
 
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.   
 
  
How do you create such three-dimensional characters, each with their own vivid and complicated pasts?
 
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.
 
 
Tell us a little about your writing process—how you write, when, etc.

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.        
 

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?
 
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). 
            

Praise | Awards

Praise

“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 magazine
 
“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 magazine
 
“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

Awards

FINALIST 2010 National Jewish Book Awards
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, topics for discussion, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Invisible Bridge, a sweeping novel of World War II told through the story of one family, their loves, and their losses. Julie Orringer, the author of the bestselling short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, brings their world to life with astonishing power and insight.

About the Guide

The Invisible Bridge opens in September 1937 as Andras Lévi leaves his brother Tibor to study abroad. Andras has a scholarship at architecture school in Paris, while Tibor remains in Hungary until he too is granted entrance to medical school in Italy. At the École Spéciale, Andras is one of a small number of Jewish students. He had experienced anti-Semitism in Hungary and feels it in Paris as well, but when a new Hungarian law forbids granting scholarships to Jews studying abroad, he comes face-to-face with the tide of ethnic hatred spreading throughout Europe. A job at a theater run by a fellow Hungarian gives Andras just enough money to stay in school—and leads him to Klara Morgenstern, a beautiful and enigmatic Hungarian émigré. Despite Klara’s secretiveness about her past, their love flourishes and survives a risky return to Hungary in the late summer of 1939. Tibor, forced to leave Italy when his visa expires, returns to Hungary with his Italian wife. As a German ally, Hungary is quickly building up its military forces, and soon after the beginning of the Second World War, Andras, Tibor, and their younger brother, Mátyás, are drafted into the Hungarian Labor Service, which supports the country’s army.

As Hitler’s armies march across Europe, the brothers and their families in Budapest see their world disintegrate. Amid reports of mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe, they grasp at the possibility of emigrating to Palestine. But their dream of escape seems to perish, first in 1942 when Andras is deported to the Ukraine and then finally in 1944 when German troops flood into Hungary and impose their virulent anti-Semitic agenda. Jews throughout the country are corralled into bleak ghettoes or deported to concentration camps. Andras, Tibor, and the other Jewish men in the Hungarian Labor Service are designated prisoners of war and packed into boxcars for transport to work camps. In the turmoil that follows the Soviet advance into Hungary, the brothers lose track of one another. After months of horror, Andras is liberated by Soviet troops and returns to Budapest to face what the war has cost his family and his beloved country.

An intricate mélange of historical events and personal dramas, The Invisible Bridge is a stunning portrait of a world at war and an unforgettable story of love, courage, and survival.

About the Author

Julie Orringer is the author of the New York Times Notable Book How to Breathe Underwater and the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Discussion Guides

1. What does the opening chapter establish about the cultural and social milieu of prewar Budapest? What do Andras’s reactions to the Hász household reveal about the status of Jews within the larger society? How do the differences between the Hász and Lévi families affect their assumptions and behavior during the war? Which scenes and characters most clearly demonstrate the tensions within the Jewish community?

2. Why do Andras and his friends at the École Spéciale tolerate the undercurrent of anti-Semitism at the school even after the verbal attack on Eli Polaner (pp. 48–50) and the spate of vandalism against Jewish students (p. 118)? To what extent are their reactions shaped by their nationalities, political beliefs, or personal histories? Why does Andras agree to infiltrate the meeting of Le Grand Occident (pp. 121–27)? Is his belief that “[the police] wouldn’t deport me . . . Not for serving the ideals of France” (p. 128), as well as the reactions of Professor Vago and Andras’s father to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia (p. 337) naïve, or do they represent widespread opinions and assumptions?

3. Andras and Klara’s love blossoms against the background of uncertainties and fear. Is Klara’s initial lack of openness about her background justified by her situation? Why does she eventually begin an affair with Andras? Are they equally responsible for the arguments, breakups, and reconciliations that characterize their courtship? Do Klara’s revelations (pp. 270–96) change your opinion of her and the way she has behaved?

4. Despite the grim circumstances, Andras and Mendel produce satirical newspapers in the labor camps. What do the excerpts from The Snow Goose (p. 419), The Biting Fly (pp. 457–58), and The Crooked Rail (p. 454–55) show about the strategies that helped laborers preserve their humanity and their sanity? What other survival techniques do Andras and his fellow laborers develop?

5. In Budapest, the Lévi and Hász families sustain themselves with small pleasures, daily tasks at home, and, in the case of the men, working at the few jobs still available to Jews (pp. 446–50, 464–78, and 514–21). Are they driven by practical or emotional needs, or both? Does the attempt to maintain ordinary life represent hope and courage, or a tragic failure to recognize the ever-encroaching danger? What impact do the deprivations and degradations imposed by the Germans have on the relationship between the families? Which characters are the least able or willing to accept the threats to their homeland and their culture?

6. What details in the descriptions of Bánhida (pp. 451–61 and 498–506), Turka (pp. 618–638), and the transport trains (pp. 709–19) most chillingly capture the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis? In addition to physical abuse and deprivation, what are the psychological effects of the camps’ rules and the laws imposed on civilian populations?

7. General Martón in Bánhida (pp. 506–11), Captain Erdó, and the famous General Vilmos Nagy in Turka all display kindness and compassion. Miklós Klein engages in the tremendously dangerous work of arranging emigrations for fellow Jews (pp. 536–37). What motivates each of them to act as they do? What political ideals and moral principles lie at the heart of Nagy’s stirring speech to the officers-in-training (pp. 641–43)? (Because of his refusal to support official anti-Semitic policies, Nagy was eventually forced to resign from the Hungarian Army; in 1965, he was the first Hungarian named as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute.)

8. Why does Klara refuse to leave Budapest and go to Palestine (p. 647–48)? Is her decision the result of her own set of circumstances, or does it reflect the attitudes of other Jews in Hungary and other countries under Nazi control?

9. “He could no sooner cease being Jewish than he could cease being a brother to his brothers, a son to his father and mother” (p. 57). Discuss the value and importance of Jewish beliefs and traditions to Andras and other Jews, considering such passages as Andras’s feelings in the above quotation and his thoughts on the High Holidays (pp. 253–57); the weddings of Ben Yakov and Ilana (pp. 323–24) and of Andras and Klara (p. 401–2); the family seder in wartime Budapest (pp. 446–50); and the prayers and small rituals conducted in work camps.

10. The narrative tracks the political and military upheavals engulfing Europe as they occur. What do these intermittent reports demonstrate about the failure of both governments and ordinary people to grasp the true objectives of the Nazi regime? How does the author create and sustain a sense of suspense and portending disaster, even for readers familiar with the ultimate course of the war?

11. Throughout the book there are descriptions of Andras’s studies, including information about his lessons and the models he creates and detailed observations of architectural masterpieces in Paris. What perspective does the argument between Pingsson and Le Corbusier offer on the role of the architect in society (pp. 354–47)? Whose point of view do you share? What aspects of architecture as a discipline make it particularly appropriate to the themes explored in the novel? What is the relevance of Andras’s work as a set designer within this context?

12. Andras’s encounters with Mrs. Hász (p. 7) and with Zoltán Novak (pp. 23–24) are the first of many coincidences that determine the future paths of various characters. What other events in the novel are the result of chance or luck? How do the twists and turns of fortune help to create a sense of the extraordinary time in which the novel is set?

13. Does choice also play a significant role in the characters’ lives? What do their decisions—for example, Klara’s voluntary return to Budapest; György’s payments to the Hungarian authorities; and even József’s attack on Andras and Mendel (p. 625)—demonstrate about the importance of retaining a sense of independence and control in the midst of chaos?

14. The Holocaust and other murderous confrontations between ethnic groups can challenge the belief in God. Orringer writes, “[Andras] believed in God, yes, the God of his fathers, the one to whom he’d prayed . . . but that God, the One, was not One who intervened in the way they needed someone to intervene just then. He had designed the cosmos and thrown its doors open to man, and man had moved in. . . . The world was their place now” (p. 549). What is your reaction to Andras’s point of view? Have you read or heard explanations of why terrible events come to pass that more closely reflect your personal beliefs?

15. What did you know about Hungary’s role in World War II before reading The Invisible Bridge? Did the book present information about the United States and its allies that surprised you? Did it affect your views on Zionism and the Jewish emigration to Palestine? Did it deepen your understanding of the causes and the course of the war? What does the epilogue convey about the postwar period and the links among past, present, and future?

16. “In the end, what astonished him most was not the vastness of it all—that was impossible to take in, the hundreds of thousands dead from Hungary alone, and the millions from all over Europe—but the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life was balanced” (p.709). Does The Invisible Bridge succeed in capturing both the “vastness of it all” and the “excruciating smallness” of war and its impact on individual lives?

17. Why has Orringer chosen “Any Case” by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska as the coda to her novel? What does it express about individuals caught in the flow of history and the forces that determine their fates?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Louis Begley, Wartime Lies; Philippe Grimbert, Memory; Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française; Marge Piercy, Gone to Soldiers; Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key; Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Anya; Simone Zelitch, Louisa
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