Radcliffe Fellow Julie Orringer Blends History, Ficton

The Harvard Crimson
December 4, 2013
By Michael V. Rothberg

Julie Orringer, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, spoke on the ability of novels to convey truths through fiction in a lecture delivered Tuesday at the Knafel Center. During the lecture, titled “Lies that Tell the Truth: Story and History in the Novel,” Orringer discussed the ways in which writers blend history with their own speculation and inventions into a cohesive story.

Orringer, author of the novel “The Invisible Bridge” and the short story collection “How to Breathe Underwater,” joined the Radcliffe Institute this year to research an upcoming historical fiction novel about Varian Fry ’30, a Harvard student and journalist who traveled to Marseilles in 1940 to save Jewish writers blacklisted by the Gestapo.

At the lecture, Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, introduced Orringer’s previous works and her current research.

“With such an accurate presentation of history, it grew impossible for me to detect the line between historical fact and the fiction created in Julie’s imagination,” Cohen said of Orringer’s historical fiction novel, “The Invisible Bridge.”

Orringer began her lecture by discussing the known history and sources on Fry, whose Harvard files were recently released by the University. In 1945, Fry published a memoir of his experiences assisting Jews in Marseilles. A number of biographies already have been written on Fry.

Given this abundance of source material, Orringer posed the question of why she wrote a novel as opposed to a history.

“I guess I’ve been interested for a long time in the ways writers interlace real and fictional stories,” Orringer said. “How we study and transform the past for the purpose of writing stories and novels, and how that tension between history, speculation, and pure invention can lend energy to a piece of work, not just for the writer, but for the reader.”

Orringer elaborated on this marriage of history and fiction by discussing the ways in which other authors took liberties in writing novels about characters and events that were rooted in reality. 

She discussed Jeffrey K. Eugenides’ novel “Middlesex,” which placed a hermaphroditic protagonist in the city and setting that the author grew up in, and Philip M. Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America,” which described an alternative history in which aviator Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election. Orringer posited that both novels arrived at “deeper truths” by blending history and reality with creative departure.

The lecture was part of the annual Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities lecture series to honor Julia S. Phelps, an instructor at Radcliffe who died in 2002.

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