This year's Orange Prize reading continues at what feels like an agonisingly slow pace. With barely five weeks to go until prize night, I've only read 8 of the longlisters (and only one book from the shortlist). I'm beginning to feel that last year's longlist marathon was a bit of a fluke and that a successful repeat is unlikely. Casting about for something to blame the inertia on, my eyes inevitably settle on Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge.
Oh, how I have struggled with this book! How its 600 pages of small print have taunted me. At times I have actively avoided it: by leaving it upstairs by the bed for days on end, by not taking it to Prague with me last weekend, by piling other books on top of it and 'losing it'. And oh, what a blessed relief to close its covers on the last page this evening and know that I don't have to pick it up again.
Please, don't throw stones at me. I know how well-beloved the book has been around the blogosphere (and amongst the print critics). And, honestly, I'm an admirer too, though it may not sound like it. Orringer has pulled off a feat of extraordinary creative stamina; the writing in The Invisible Bridge is simply gorgeous - balanced, textured, supple - and impressively sustained throughout. It has been impossible not to re-read some passages several times for the sheer joy of them; like this one about a tree being felled:
Next came a series of creaking groans, momentum travelling the length of the trunk, the upper branches shouldering past their neighbours. That was the true death of the tree, Andras thought, the instant it ceased to be an upward-reaching thing, the moment it became what they were making it: timber. The falling tree would push a great rush of wind before it: the branches cutting the air with a hundred-toned whistle as it arced to the ground. When the trunk hit, the forest floor thrummed with the incredible weight of it, a shock that travelled up through his bones to the top of his head, where it richocheted in his skull like a gunshot. A reverberant moment followed, the silent Kaddish of the tree.
Can you feel the 'but' coming?
But. The devil is in the detail, and what a lot of detail there is here. The book could have been 200 pages shorter, and about 30 pph (pages per hour) quicker, and yet none the worse for it.
The story is a simple one: Andras Levi is the second son of an Hungarian saw-mill owner. Brought up in the sticks but schooled for a brighter future, 1937 finds him aboard a train to Paris to take up a scholarship in architecture at the Ecole Speciale. In his luggage is a mysterious letter to a K. Morgenstern, pressed upon him by a passing acquaintance; one of his first tasks in gay Paris is to deliver it. The recipient, it turns out, is Klara, a Hungarian ballerina in hiding. They fall in love, against poor odds - he is barely 21, she is 32; he is a penniless student, she is a successful teacher and the mother of a teenage daughter - and everything is set for a happy life together. Then all of Europe is plunged into war, and the couple must return to Hungary and an uncertain future made all the more uncertain by one salient detail: they are Jewish.
There is a lot of room in the tale for anguish, despair and yearning, as well as for love and hope and the avowal of life. As the situation in Hungary worsens, Andras and his two brothers are called up to forced labour units, while their wives, parents and friends endure increasing hostility in Budapest. In subject, prose and range, it is the stuff that great literary fiction is made of. It should be Epic with a capital 'E'. So why does it just feel long? Primarily, I think, because of its languid pacing. Nearly one half of the book is taken up with the Andras/Klara love-match, with some gentle tangents involving Andras' Jewish student friends in Paris and his brother, Tibor, who is studying to be a doctor in Milan. You could argue that this is about narrative suspense, getting to know the characters before the war changes everything, giving you chance to invest in them before Hitler cuts them down. Personally, though, I felt it was antithetical to narrative momentum. After all, WWII and the fate of Europe's Jews is the mother of all plot-spoilers. Trying to build up tension around the future of a Jewish couple in Paris in 1938 is like building a scaffold onto Everest to climb a little bit higher. You're already as high up as you can go; fate is already bearing down. Foreshadowing is virtually pointless.
Better to argue instead, I think, that the glacial pacing is to destabilises our expectations of a Holocaust/WWII novel by putting as much energy into sweet Paris dawns and architecture competitions as into labour camps and forced marches. This fits with my overall impression of a book looking for new ways to approach the unapproachable. I was dreading a revisit of Holocaust narratives past, but The Invisible Bridge is never that: the story of Hungary's Jews, citizens of a country that was an ally of the Reich yet independent of it, was both unfamiliar and unexpected.
But, second but.
Orringer's characters don't feel like characters. They feel like people, real people that actually lived, because the things that happen to them have the flavour of biography and not of make-believe. This might sound like a Good Thing. Surely it makes them better than 'just' characters? But I disagree: characters in novels have to have their own reality, from their own world. Do you see what I mean? It's clear that Orringer has drawn upon the experiences of her own relatives for the shape and arc of the novel, and especially towards the end of the book there is a distinct flavour of non-fiction about what happens to her players. It is as though she has been recounting what she has been told about the models for her characters, and not what happens to the characters themselves, in their own right. I'm always suspicious of this muddying of the waters between fiction and biography when the subjects are intimately connected to the writer; it means they don't feel able to do what authors should do, which is throw away the script.
The intimacy of Orringer's connection to the events she describes also imbues her characters with an aura of...well...holiness, of family sanctity. It detracts from their roundedness: they are too perfect to be true. Andras is the Good Man, an honest, earnest figure with principles and family values. He entertains almost no internal conflicts - any doubt, anger, uncertainty in him is only a reflection of the big events going on in the world around him. His love for Klara is life changing, earth-shattering, pure and never tested. At the Ecole Speciale Andras' three best friends are also types: Eli Polaner is the gentle, thoughtful homosexual; Rosen is the flaming political radical and activist; Ben Yakov is the handsome, damaged rogue. Similarly, Andras' parents are cut-out figures - proud, clean-minded, good-hearted; his brothers are perfect contrasts to him: serious, productive Tibor and flighty joker Matyas. They all move about the plot, and play their parts, and never do anything unpredictable.
Fair is fair: I'm probably the wrong reader for The Invisible Bridge at the wrong time. It's a very old-fashioned book (in the best sense), with it's elegant prose, linear structure and resolute ending. I'm probably apt to be impatient with it, because I'm trying to read 20 books in two months, and because of my distrust for auto or family biographical novels. Right now I can't imagine revisiting it, but perhaps I should, when I'm running at a slower pace. If nothing else the quality of the prose and the clarity of the vision have convinced me to seek out Orringer's short fiction.
Onwards to the Goon Squad...