Correspondent: You’re balancing a 200,000 word manuscript, I’m guessing.
Orringer: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.
Correspondent: The thing I actually wanted to talk to you about in terms of revision. I noticed that you were very careful to use words like “panchromium” and “circlet” and “lemniscate.”
Orringer: That one’s stolen directly from Nabokov.
Correspondent: Oh really? Yeah.
Orringer: Yeah. From Lake Lemniscate in Lolita.*
Correspondent: That’s right. And then “laxard,” which I think is a neologism on your part.
Orringer: It is, I’m afraid.
Correspondent: Yeah. But the thing that interested me about the vocabulary in this book is that you were very careful to ensure that you didn’t use the same word multiple times, but also use a word that wasn’t the ultimate ten-center that sticks out like a sore thumb. I want to know how you agonized to get that balance. The lexical balance here.
Orringer: That’s a great question. I’m so glad you’re asking me about the language of this book. Because that’s not something I’ve had to think about aloud yet. When Andy Greer and I were at MacDowell [writing colony] together a couple of years ago — as he was working on his novel, The Story of a Marriage, and I was revising this book. We would sometimes go swimming in the afternoons and trade a list of neologisms. Coinages that we had created over the course of the day. It became a kind of game. I felt like, if there was a principle behind the language choices that went into this book — I felt like the guide that I followed had something to do with what was actually happening in the narrative. That there were times when a character was in a more reflective moment or when the action was a bit quieter or when we really needed to be able to see something slowly and clearly — those were the moments when I felt like I had a little bit more freedom to allow the language to open up, and to become more interesting and maybe even to call more attention to itself in places. And then there are moments in the book where the action is so painful or the series of events is complicated, or where the events themselves are so emotionally fraught that the language really has to back away and allow the events to speak for themselves. And sometimes it’s tough to do that. Because sometimes those are the moments where you really want to draw out some word that you feel is particularly expressive or particularly unusual. But those are also the times, I think, when it’s really not about the language. It’s really about what’s happening to the characters. And when the language wants to be a little bit quieter.
Correspondent: I observed that too. And I’m glad that you brought this up. Because to me, this almost seems like two books. The “invisible bridge” is between the first half and the second half in my mind. This first half with an elegant, romantic view of Paris, where many of these words that we’re talking about manage to flourish. Versus the darker, bleaker, straightforward part in Hungary. This leads me to wonder if you were bouncing around between these two halves. Whether you were, as you point out, very language happy. Or very happy to portray something romantic. And here you have to portray something that’s particularly bleak and Holocaust-related. Did you bounce around? Or was it pretty much beginning to end?
Orringer: Kind of beginning to end. And in fact, it was really important to me. This wasn’t something that I knew about — the structure of the book beforehand. But I did know that the life that I was creating for Andras Levy in Paris was going to fall apart in the second half of the book. And what surprised me was the fact that, in terms of the number of pages, the book is evenly balanced between the setup, the creation, the future-looking part of Andras’ life and the breakdown and the uncertainty and the horror and the tragedy of the second part. And I feel that this was so important to my understanding of the people who were going through these times. That, in fact, I wanted for the reader to feel with Andras all of his expectation and all of his hopes about the future of his architecture career. And the development of the friendships he made at school with other future architects, and the relationship with Klara, and its complications and all of these currents that really are drawing him forward. But throughout the whole first section, another movement has to do with the increase of his awareness of the political threat that’s building throughout Europe. And there’s also the intimation of the approach of a war. So right around the midpoint of the book, there’s this fulcrum where he loses his scholarship and he has to return to Budapest and is conscripted into the Labor Service. And in a way, I feel like this is the most important thing about the book. To feel all the expectation of the first part. And then to have that juxtaposed with all the disaster of the second part.
* — This little footnote is going to get geeky. But then geekiness is permitted when it comes to Nabokov. The word “lemniscate” first appeared in The Gift, Nabokov’s final Russian novel, and can also be found in Pale Fire: “the miracle of a lemniscate.” It doesn’t appear in Lolita. But I still think this was a nifty appropriation. In fact, if you’re truly a Nabokov junkie, there are discussions of “lemniscate” in Leona Toker’s Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures and Robert Alter’s “Nabokov’s Game of Worlds” in Partial Magic.