The Invisble Bridge

By Julie Orringer

École Spéciale

To get to school he had to cross the Jardin du Luxembourg, past the elaborate Palais, past the fountain and the flowerbeds teeming with late poppies and marigolds.  Children sailed elegant miniature boats in the fountain, and Andras thought with a kind of indignant pride of the scrapwood boats he and his brothers had sailed on the millpond in Konyár.  There were green benches and close-clipped limes, a carousel with painted horses.  On the far side of the park was a cluster of what looked to Andras like neat brown dollhouses; when he got closer he could hear the hum of bees.  A veiled beekeeper bent toward one of the hives, waving his canister of smoke.

Andras walked down the Rue de Vaugirard, with its art-supply shops and narrow cafés and secondhand bookstores, then down the wide boulevard Raspail with its stately apartment buildings.  Already he felt a little more Parisian than he had when he’d first arrived.  He had his apartment key on a cord around his neck, a copy of Maintenant Paris under his arm.  He had knotted his scarf the way József Hász had knotted his, and he wore the strap of his leather bag slung diagonally across his chest, in the manner of the students of the Latin Quarter.  His life in Budapest — the job at Past and Future, the apartment on Hársfa utca, the familiar sound of the streetcar bell — seemed to belong to another universe.  With an unexpected pang of homesickness he imagined Tibor sitting at their usual sidewalk table at their favorite café, within sight of the statue of Jókai Mór, the famous novelist who had escaped the Austrians during the 1848 revolution by disguising himself in his wife’s clothing.  Farther east, in Debrecen, Mátyás would be drawing in his notebook as his classmates studied Latin declensions.  And what about Andras’ parents?  He must write to them tonight.  He touched the silver watch in his pocket.  His father had had it restored just before Andras had left; it was a fine old thing, its numbers painted in a spidery copperplate script, its hands a deep blue iridescent metal.  The workings still functioned as well as they had in Andras’ grandfather’s time.  Andras remembered sitting on his father’s knee and winding the watch, taking care not to tighten the spring too far; his father had done the same thing when he was a boy.  And here was that same watch in Paris in 1937, a time when a person might be transported a distance of two thousand kilometers in a flash of days, or a telegram sent across a wire network in a matter of minutes, or a radio signal transmitted instantaneously through thin air. What a time to study architecture!  The buildings he designed would be the ships in which human beings would sail toward the horizon of the twentieth century, then off the map and into the new millennium.

He found he had walked past the gates of the École Spéciale and now had to retrace his steps.  Young men streamed in through a pair of tall blue doors at the center of a gray neoclassical building, the name of the school cut into the stone of its cornice.  The École Spéciale d’Architecture!  They had wanted him, had seen his work and chosen him, and he had come.  He ran up the front steps and in through those blue doors.  On the wall of the entryway was a plaque with gold bas-relief busts of two men: Emile Trélat, who had founded the school, and Gaston Trélat, who had succeeded his father as director.  Emile and Gaston Trélat.  Names he would always remember. He swallowed twice, smoothed his hair, and entered the registrar’s office.

The young woman behind the desk seemed a figure from a dream.  Her skin was the color of dark-stained walnut, her close-cropped hair as glossy as satin.  Her gaze was friendly, her dark-fringed eyes steady on his own.  It didn’t occur to him to try to speak.  Never before had he seen a woman so beautiful, nor had he ever encountered in real life a person of African descent.  Now this gorgeous young black French woman asked him a question he couldn’t understand, and he mumbled one of his few French words — désolé — and wrote his name on a slip of paper, which he pushed across the desk.  The young woman thumbed through a stack of thick envelopes in a wooden box and extracted one with his name, LÉVI, printed across the top in precise block capitals.

He thanked her in his awkward French.  She told him he was welcome.  He might have continued to stand there and stare if a group of students hadn’t come in at that moment, calling greetings to her and leaning over the desk to kiss her cheeks.  Eh, Lucia!  Ça va, bellissima? Andras slipped past the others, holding his envelope against his chest, and went out into the hall.  Everyone had gathered under the glass roof of a central atrium where studio assignments had just been posted.  He sat down on a low bench there and opened his envelope to find a list of classes:

COURS PROFESSEUR

Histoire d’Architecture      A. Perret

Les Statiques                        V. Le Bourgeois

Atelier                                   P. Vago

Dessinage                               M. Labelle

All matter-of-fact, as though it were perfectly natural for Andras to study those subjects under the tutelage of famous architects.  There was a long list of required texts and materials, and a small white card handwritten in Hungarian (by whom?) indicating that Andras, due to his scholarship status, would be permitted to purchase his books and supplies on the school’s credit at a bookstore on the boulevard Saint Michel.

He read and reread that Hungarian message, then looked around the atrium, wondering who could have been responsible for that piece of communication.  The crowd of students provided no clue.  None of them looked even vaguely Hungarian; they were all hopelessly, perfectly Parisian.  But in one corner a trio of uncertain-looking young men stood close together and scanned the room.  He could tell at a glance that they were first-year students, and the names on their folders suggested they were Jewish:  ROSEN, POLANER, BEN YAKOV.  He raised a hand in greeting, and they nodded, a kind of tacit recognition passing between them.  The tallest of them waved him over.

Rosen was lanky, freckled, with unruly red hair and the vague beginnings of a goatee.  He took Andras by the shoulder and introduced Ben Yakov, who resembled the handsome French film star Pierre Fresnay; and Polaner, small and light-boned, with his neat close-shorn head and tapering hands.  Andras greeted everyone and repeated his own name, and the young men’s conversation continued in quick French as Andras tried to pick up a thread of meaning.  Rosen seemed to be the leader of the group; he led the conversation, and the others listened and responded.  Polaner seemed nervous, buttoning and unbuttoning the top button of his antique-looking velvet jacket.  The handsome Ben Yakov eyed a group of young women; one of them waved, and he waved in return.  Then he leaned in toward Polaner and Rosen to make what could only have been a suggestive joke, and the three of them laughed.  Though Andras found himself struggling to follow the men’s talk, and though they had hardly addressed him at all, he felt an acute desire to know them.  When they went to look at the studio lists, he was glad to find they were all in the same group.

After a short time the students began to move out into the stone-walled courtyard, where tall trees overshadowed rows of wooden benches.  One student carried a lectern to a small paved area at the front, and the others sat down on the benches.  From beyond the stone courtyard walls came the rush and hum of traffic.  But Andras was here inside, sitting beside three men whose names he knew; he was one of these students, and he belonged on this side of the wall.  He tried to take note of the feeling, tried to imagine how he might write about it to Tibor, to Mátyás.  But before he could put the words together in his mind, a door opened in the side of the building and a man strode out.  He looked as though he could have been a military captain; he wore a long gray cloak lined in red, and sported a short triangular beard with wax-curled moustaches.  His eyes were narrow and fierce behind rimless pince-nez.  In one hand he carried a walking stick, and in the other what looked like a jagged gray rock.  Any other man, it seemed to Andras, would have had to bow under the weight of the thing, but this man crossed the courtyard with his back straight and his chin set at a martial angle.  He stepped up to the lectern and set the rock down upon it with a hollow thud.

“Attention,” he bellowed.

The students fell silent and came to attention, their backs straightening as if they had been pulled by invisible strings.  Quietly, a tall young man in a frayed work shirt slid onto the bench beside Andras and bent his head toward Andras’ ear.

“That’s Auguste Perret,” the young man said in Hungarian.  “He was my teacher, and now he’ll be yours.”

Andras looked at the young man in surprise and relief.  “You’re the one who wrote the note in my packet,” he said.

“Listen,” the man said, “and I’ll translate.”

Andras listened.  At the lectern, Auguste Perret lifted the jagged rock in both hands and asked a question.  The question, according to Andras’ translator, was whether anyone knew what this building material was.  You there, in front?  Concrete, that was correct.  Reinforced concrete.  By the time they finished their five years at the school, all of them would know everything there was to know about reinforced concrete.  Why?  Because it was the future of the modern city.  It would make buildings that surpassed in height and strength anything that had been built before.  Height and strength, yes; and beauty.  Here at the École Spéciale we were not seduced by beauty, however; leave that to the sons of privilege at that other school. That school was a gentlemen’s institution, a place where boys went to play at the art of dessinage; we at the École Spéciale were interested in real architecture, buildings that people could inhabit.  If our designs were beautiful, so much the better; but let them be beautiful in a manner that belonged to the common man.  We were here because we believed in architecture as a democratic art; because we believed that form and function were of equal importance; because we, the avant garde, had shrugged off the bonds of aristocratic tradition and had begun to think for ourselves.  Let anyone who wanted to build Versailles stand now and go through that gate.  That other school was only three Métro stops away.

The professor paused, his arm flung toward the gate, his eyes fixed on the rows of students.  “Non?” he shouted.  “Pas un?”

No one moved.  The professor stood statue-like before them.  Andras had the sense of being a figure in a painting, paralyzed for all eternity by Perret’s challenge.  People would admire the painting in museums centuries from now.  Still he would be sitting on the bench, inclined slightly toward this man with the cape and the white beard, this general among architects.

“He gives this speech every year,” the Hungarian man next to Andras whispered.  “Next he’ll talk about your responsibility to the students who will come after you.”

Les étudiants qui vienent depuis que vous,” the professor went on, and the Hungarian translated.  Those students were relying upon you to study assiduously.  If you did not, they, too, would fail.  You would be taught by those who came before you; at the École Spéciale you would learn collaboration, because your life as an architect would involve close work with others.  You might have your own vision, but without the help of your colleagues that vision wasn’t worth the paper it was drawn upon. In this school, Emile Trélat had instructed Mallet Stevens, Mallet Stevens had instructed Fernand Fenzy, Fernand Fenzy had instructed Pierre Vago, and Pierre Vago would instruct you.

At that, the professor pointed into the audience, and the young man beside Andras stood up and made a polite bow.  He strode to the front of the assembly, took his place beside Professor Perret at the lectern, and began addressing the students in French.  Pierre Vago.  This man who had been translating for Andras — this rumpled-looking young man in an inkstained work shirt — was the P. VAGO of Andras’ class schedule.  His studio leader.  His professor.  A Hungarian.  Andras felt suddenly faint.  For the first time it seemed to him he might have a chance of surviving at the École Spéciale.  He could hardly concentrate on what Pierre Vago was saying now, in his elegant, slightly accented French.  Pierre Vago had indeed been the one who’d written the Hungarian note in Andras’ manila envelope.  Pierre Vago, it occurred to Andras, was probably the one man responsible for his being there at all.

“Hey,” Rosen said, pulling Andras’ sleeve.  “Regardez-toi.”

In the excitement, Andras’ nose had begun to bleed.  Red spots glistened on his white shirt.  Polaner looked at him with concern and offered a handkerchief; Ben Yakov went pale and turned away.  Andras took the handkerchief and pressed it against his nose.  Rosen made him tip his head back.  A few people turned to see what was going on.  Andras sat bleeding into the handkerchief, not caring who was looking, happier than he’d ever been in his life.

Part Two

Later that day, after the assembly, after Andras’ nosebleed had stopped and he’d traded his own clean handkerchief for the one he’d bled upon, after the first meeting of the studio groups, and after he’d exchanged addresses with Rosen, Polaner, and Ben Yakov, Andras found himself in Vago’s cluttered office, sitting on a wooden stool beside the drafting table.  On the walls were sketched and printed plans, black-and-white watercolors of beautiful and impossible buildings, a scale drawing of a city from high above.  In one corner was a heap of paint-stained clothes; a rusted, twisted bicycle frame leaned against the wall.  Vago’s bookshelves held ancient books and glossy magazines and a teakettle and a small wooden airplane and a skinny-legged junk sculpture of a girl.  Vago himself leaned back in his swivel chair, his fingers laced behind his head.

“So,” he said to Andras.  “Here you are, fresh from Budapest.  I’m glad you came.  I didn’t know if you’d be able to make it on such short notice.  But I had to try.  It’s barbarous, those prejudices about who can study what, and when, and how.  It’s not a country for men like us.”

“But — forgive me — are you Jewish, Professor?”

“No.  I’m a Catholic.  Educated in Rome.”  He gave his R a deep Italianate roll.

“Then why do you care, sir?”

“Shouldn’t I care?”

“Many don’t,” Andras said.

Vago shrugged.  “Some do.”  He opened a folder on his desk.  There, in full color, were reproductions of Andras’ covers for Past and Future: linoleum prints of a scribe inking a scroll, a father and his boys at synagogue, a woman lighting two slender candles.  Andras saw the work now as if for the first time.  The subjects seemed sentimental, the compositions obvious and childish.  He couldn’t believe this was what had earned his admission to the school.  He hadn’t had a chance to submit the portfolio he’d used for his applications to Hungarian architectural colleges — detailed drawings of the Parliament and the Palace, measured renderings of the interiors of churches and libraries, work he’d slaved over for hours at his desk at Past and Future. But he suspected that even those pieces would have seemed clumsy and amateurish in comparison to Vago’s work, the crisp plans and gorgeous elevations pinned to the walls.

“I’m here to learn, sir,” Andras said.  “I made those prints a long time ago.”

“This is excellent work,” Vago said.  “There’s a precision, an accuracy of perspective, rare in an untrained artist.  You’ve got great natural skill, that’s apparent.  The compositions are asymmetrical but well balanced.  The themes are ancient but the lines are modern.  Good qualities to bring to your work in architecture.”

Andras reached for one of the covers, the one that showed a man and boys at prayer.  He’d carved the linoleum original by candlelight in the apartment on Hársfa utca.  Though he hadn’t considered it at the time — and why not, when it was so clear now? — this man in the tallis was his father, the boys his brothers.

“It’s fine work,” Vago said.  “I wasn’t the only one who thought so.”

“It’s not architecture,” Andras said, and handed the cover back to Vago.

“You’ll learn architecture.  And in the meantime you’ll study French.  There’s no other way to survive here.  I can help you, but I can’t translate for you in every class.  So you will come here every morning, an hour before studio, and practice your French with me.”

“Here with you, sir?”

“Yes.  From now on we will speak only French.  I’ll teach you all I know.  And for God’s sake, you will cease to call me ‘sir,” as if I were an army officer.”  His eyes assumed a serious expression, but he twisted his mouth to the left in a French-looking moue.  “L’architecture n’est pas un jeu d’enfants,” he said in a deep, resonant voice that matched exactly, both in pitch and tone, the voice of Professor Perret.  “L’architecture, c’est l’art plus seriuex de tout.”

“L’art plus serieux de tout,” Andras repeated in the same deep tone.

“Non, non!” Vago cried.  “Only I am permitted the voice of Monsieur le Directeur.  You will please speak in the manner of Andras the lowly student.  My name is Andras the Lowly Student,” Vago said in French.  “If you please: repeat.”

“My name is Andras the Lowly Student.”

“I shall learn to speak perfect French from Monsieur Vago.”

“I shall learn to speak perfect French from Monsieur Vago.”

“I will repeat everything he says.”

“I will repeat everything he says.”

“Though not in the voice of Monsieur le Directeur.”

“Though not in the voice of Monsieur le Directeur.”

“Let me ask you a question,” Vago said in Hungarian now, his expression earnest.  “Have I done the right thing by bringing you here?  Are you terribly lonely?  Is this all overwhelming?”

“It is overwhelming,” Andras said.  “But I find I’m strangely happy.”

“I was miserable when I first got here,” Vago said, settling back in his chair.  “I came three weeks after I finished school in Rome, and started at the Beaux Arts.  That school was no place for a person of my temperament.  Those first few months were awful!  I hated Paris with a passion.”  He looked out the office window at the chill gray afternoon.  “I walked around every day, taking it all in — the Bastille and the Tuileries, the Luxembourg, Notre-Dame, the Ópera — and cursing every stick and stone of it.  It’s nothing like Budapest, in case you haven’t noticed.  After a while I transferred to the École Spéciale.  That was when I began to fall in love with Paris.  Now I can’t imagine living anyplace else.  After a time, you’ll feel that way too.”

“I’m beginning to feel that way already.”

“Just wait,” Vago said, and grinned.  “It only gets worse.”

*   *   *

In the mornings he bought his bread at the small boulangerie near his building, and his newspaper from a stand on the corner; when he dropped his coins into the proprietor’s hand, the man would sing a throaty merci. Back at his apartment he would eat his croissant and drink sweet tea from the empty jam jar.  He would look at the photographs in the paper and try to follow the news of the Spanish Civil War, in which the Front Populaire was losing ground now against the Nationalistes. He wouldn’t allow himself to buy a Hungarian expatriate paper to fill in the blanks; the urgency of the news itself eased the effort of translation.  Every day came stories of new atrocities: teenaged boys shot in ditches, elderly gentlemen bayoneted in olive orchards, villages firebombed from the air.  Italy accused France of violating its own arms embargo; large shipments of Soviet munitions were reaching the Republican army.  On the other side, Germany had increased the numbers of its Condor Legion to ten thousand men.  Andras read the news with increasing despair, jealous at times of the young men who had run away to fight for the Republican army.  Everyone was involved now, he knew; any other view was denial.

With his mind full of horrific images of the Spanish front, he would walk the leaf-littered sidewalks toward the École Spéciale, distracting himself by repeating French architectural terms: toit, fenêtre, porte, mur, corniche, balcon, balustrade, souche de cheminée. At school he learned the difference between stereobate and stylobate, base and entablature; he learned which of his professors secretly preferred the decorative to the practical, and which were adherents to Perret’s cult of reinforced concrete.  With his statics class he visited the Sainte Chapelle, where he learned how thirteenth-century engineers had discovered a way to strengthen the building using iron struts and metal supports; the supports were hidden within the framework of the stained glass windows that spanned the height of the chapel.  As morning light fell in red and blue strands through the glass, he stood at the center of the nave and experienced a kind of holy exaltation.  No matter that this was a Catholic church, that its windows depicted Christ and a host of saints.  What he felt had less to do with religion than with a sense of harmonious design, the perfect meeting of form and function in that structure.  One long vertical space meant to suggest a path to God, or toward a deeper knowledge of the mysteries.  Architects had done this, hundreds of years ago.

Pierre Vago, true to his word, tutored Andras every morning for an hour.  The French he’d learned at school returned with speed, and within a month he had absorbed far more than he’d ever learned from his master at gimnázium.  By mid-October the lessons were nothing more than long conversations; Vago had a talent for finding the subjects that would make Andras talk.  He asked Andras about his years in Konyár and Debrecen—what he had studied, what his friends had been like, where he had lived, whom he’d loved.  Andras told Vago about Éva Kereny, the girl who had kissed him in the garden of the Déri Museum in Debrecen and then spurned him cold-heartedly; he told the story of his mother’s only pair of silk stockings, a Chanukah gift bought with money Andras had earned by taking on his fellow students’ drawing assignments.  (The brothers had all been competing to get her the best gift; she’d reacted with such childlike joy when she’d seen the stockings that no one could dispute Andras’ victory.  Later that night, Tibor sat on Andras in the yard and mashed his face into the frozen ground, exacting an older brother’s revenge.)  Vago, who had no siblings of his own, seemed to like hearing about Mátyás and Tibor; he made Andras recite their histories and translate their letters into French.  In particular he took an interest in Tibor’s desire to study medicine in Italy.  He had known a young man in Rome whose father had been a professor of medicine at the school in Modena; he would write a few letters, he said, and would see what could be done.

Andras didn’t think much about it when he said it; he knew Vago was busy, and that the international post traveled slowly, and that the gentleman in Rome might not share Vago’s ideas about educating young Hungarian-Jewish men.  But one morning Vago met Andras with a letter in hand:  he had received word that Professor Turano might be able to arrange for Tibor to matriculate in January.

“My God!” Andras said.  “That’s miraculous!  How did you do it?”

“I correctly estimated the value of my connections,” Vago said, and smiled.

“I’ve got to wire Tibor right away.  Where do I go to send a telegram?”

Vago put up a hand in caution.  “I wouldn’t send word just yet,” he said.  “It’s still just a possibility.  We wouldn’t want to raise his hopes in vain.”

“What are the chances, do you think?  What does the professor say?”

“He says he’ll have to petition the admissions board.  It’s a special case.”

“You’ll tell me as soon as you hear from him?”

“Of course,” Vago said.

But he had to share the preliminary good news with someone, so he told Polaner and Rosen and Ben Yakov that night at their student dining club on the Rue des Écoles.  It was the same club József had recommended when Andras had arrived.  For 130 francs a week they received daily dinners that relied heavily upon potatoes and beans and cabbage; they ate in an echoing underground cavern at long tables inscribed with thousands of students’ names.  Andras delivered the news about Tibor in his Hungarian-accented French, struggling to be heard above the din.  The others raised their glasses and wished Tibor luck.

“What a delicious irony,” Rosen said, once they’d drained their glasses.  “Because he’s a Jew, he has to leave a constitutional monarchy to study medicine in a fascist dictatorship.  At least he doesn’t have to join us in this fine democracy, where intelligent young men practice the right of free speech with such abandon.”  He cut his eyes at Polaner, who looked down at his neat white hands.

“What’s that about?” Ben Yakov said.

“Nothing,” Polaner said.

“What happened?” asked Ben Yakov, who could not stand to be left out of gossip.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Rosen said.  “On the way to school yesterday, Polaner’s portfolio handle broke.  We had to stop and fix it with a bit of twine.  We were late to morning lecture, as you’ll recall — that was us, coming in at half past ten.  We had to sit in the back, next to that second-year, Lemarque — that blond bastard, the snide one from studio.  Tell them, Polaner, what he said when we slid into the row.”

Polaner laid his spoon beside the soup bowl.  “What you thought he said.”

“He said filthy Jews. I heard it, plain as day.”

Ben Yakov looked at Polaner.  “Is that true?”

“I don’t know,” Polaner said.  “He said something, but I didn’t hear what.”

“We both heard it.  Everyone around us did.”

“You’re paranoid,” Polaner said, the delicate skin around his eyes flushing red.  “People turned around because we were late, not because he’d called us filthy Jews.”

“Maybe it’s all right where you come from, but it’s not all right here,” Rosen said.

“I’m not going to talk about it.”

“Anyway, what can you do?” said Ben Yakov.  “Certain people will always be idiots.”

“Teach him a lesson,” Rosen said.  “That’s what.”

“No,” Polaner said.  “I don’t want trouble over something that may or may not have happened.  I just want to keep my head down.  I want to study and get my degree.  Do you understand?”

Andras did.  He remembered that feeling from primary school in Konyár, the desire to become invisible.  But he hadn’t anticipated that he or any of his Jewish classmates would feel it in Paris.  “I understand,” he said.  “Still, Lemarque shouldn’t feel” — he struggled to find the French words — “like he can get away with saying a thing like that.  If he did say it, that is.”

“Lévi knows what I mean,” Rosen said.  But then he lowered his chin onto his hand and stared into his soup bowl.  “On the other hand, I’m not at all sure what we’re supposed to do about it.  If we told someone, it would be our word against Lemarque’s.  And he’s got a lot of friends among the fourth- and fifth-years.”

Polaner pushed his bowl away.  “I have to get back to the studio.  I’ve got a whole night’s worth of work to do.”

“Come on, Eli,” Rosen said.  “Don’t be angry.”

“I’m not angry.  I just don’t want trouble, that’s all.”  Polaner put his hat on and slung his scarf around his neck, and they watched him make his way through the maze of tables, his shoulders curled beneath the worn velvet of his jacket.

“You believe me, don’t you?” Rosen said to Andras.  “I know what I heard.”

“I believe you.  But I agree there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Weren’t we talking about your brother a moment ago?” Ben Yakov said.  “I liked that line of conversation better.”

“That’s right,” Rosen said.  “I changed the subject, and look what happened.”

Andras shrugged.  “According to Vago, it’s too early to celebrate anyway.  It may not happen after all.”

“But it may,” Rosen said.

“Yes.  And then, as you pointed out, he’ll go live in a fascist dictatorship.  And so it’s hard to know what to hope for.  Every scenario is complicated.”

“Palestine,” Rosen said.  “A Jewish state.  That’s what we can hope for.  I hope your brother does get to study in Italy under Mussolini.  Let him take his medical degree under Il Duce’s nose.  Meanwhile you and Polaner and Ben Yakov and I will get ours in architecture here in Paris.  And then we’ll all emigrate.  Agreed?”

“I’m not a Zionist,” Andras said.  “Hungary’s my home.”

“Not at the moment, though, is it?” Rosen said.  And Andras found it impossible to argue with that.

Part Three

For the next two weeks he waited for news from Modena.  In statics he calculated the distribution of weight along the curved underside of the Pont au Double, hoping to find some distraction in the symmetry of equations; in dessinage he made a scaled drawing of the façade of the Gare d’Orsay, gratefully losing himself in measurements of its intricate clock-faces and its line of arched doorways.  In studio he kept an eye on Lemarque, who could often be seen casting inscrutable looks at Polaner, but who said nothing that could have been construed as a slur.  Every morning in Vago’s office he eyed the letters on the desk, looking for one that bore an Italian postmark; day after day the letter failed to arrive.

Then one afternoon as Andras was sitting in studio, erasing feathery pencil-marks from his drawing of the d’Orsay, beautiful Lucia from the front office came to the classroom with a folded note in her hand.  She gave the note to the fifth-year monitor who was overseeing that session, and left without a look at any of the other students.

“Lévi,” said the monitor, a stern-eyed man with hair like an explosion of blond chaff.  “You’re wanted at the private office of Le Colonel.”

All talk in the room ceased.  Pencils hung midair in students’ hands.  Le Colonel was the school’s nickname for Auguste Perret.  All eyes turned toward Andras; Lemarque shot him a thin half-smile.  Andras swept his pencils into his bag, wondering what Perret could want with him.  It occurred to him that Perret might be involved with Tibor’s chances in Italy; perhaps Vago had enlisted his help.  Maybe he’d exerted some kind of influence with friends abroad, and now he was going to be the one to deliver the news.

Andras ran up the two flights of stairs to the corridor that housed the professors’ private offices, and paused outside Perret’s closed door.  From inside he could hear Perret and Vago speaking in lowered voices.  He knocked.  Vago called for him to enter, and he opened the door.  Inside, standing in a shaft of light near one of the long windows that overlooked the boulevard Raspail, was Professor Perret in his red-lined cloak.  Vago leaned against Perret’s desk, a telegram in his hand.

“Good afternoon, Andras,” Perret said, turning from the window.  He motioned for Andras to sit in a low leather chair beside the desk.  Andras sat, letting his schoolbag slide to the floor.  The air in Perret’s office was close and still.  Unlike Vago’s office, with its profusion of drawings on the walls and its junk sculptures and its worktable overflowing with projects, Perret’s was all order and austerity.  Three pencils lay parallel on the Morocco-topped desk; wooden shelves held neatly rolled plans; a crisp white model of the Thèatre des Champs-Elysées stood in a glass box on a console table.

Perret cleared his throat and began.  “We’ve had some disturbing news from Hungary.  Rather disturbing indeed.  It may be easier if Professor Vago explains it to you in Hungarian.  Though I hear your French has advanced considerably.”  The martial tone had dropped from his voice, and he gave Andras such a kind and regretful look that Andras’ hands went cold.

“It’s rather complicated,” Vago said, speaking in Hungarian.  “Let me try to explain.  I received word from my friend’s father, the professor.  A place came through for your brother at the medical college in Modena.”

Vago paused.  Andras held his breath and waited for him to go on.

“Professor Turano sent a letter to the Jewish organization that provides your scholarship.  He wanted to see if money could be found for Tibor, too.  But his request was denied, with regrets.  New restrictions have been imposed this week in Hungary: as of today, no organization can send money to Jewish students abroad.  Your Hitközség’s student-aid funds have been frozen by the government.”

Andras blinked at him, trying to understand what he meant.

“It’s not just a problem for Tibor,” Vago continued, looking into Andras’ eyes.  “It’s also a problem for you.  In short, your scholarship can no longer be paid.  To be honest, my young friend, your scholarship has never been paid.  Your first month’s check never arrived, so I paid your fees out of my own pocket, thinking there must have been some temporary delay.”  He paused, glancing at Professor Perret, who was watching as Vago delivered the news in Hungarian.  “Monsieur Perret doesn’t know where the money came from, and need not know, so please don’t betray surprise.  I told him everything was fine.  However, I’m not a rich man, and, though I wish I could, I can’t pay your tuition and fees another month.”

An ice floe ascended through Andras’s chest, slow and cold.  His tuition could no longer be paid.  His tuition had never been paid.  All at once he understood Perret’s kindness and regret.

“We think you’re a bright student,” Perret said in French.  “We don’t want to lose you.  Can your family help?”

“My family?”  Andras’ voice sounded thready and vague in the high-ceilinged room.  He saw his father stacking oak planks in the lumberyard, his mother cooking potato paprikás at the stove in the outdoor kitchen.  He thought of the pair of gray silk stockings, the ones he’d given her ten years earlier for Chanukah — how she’d folded them into a chaste square and stored them in their paper wrapping, and had worn them only to synagogue.  “My family doesn’t have that kind of money,” he said.

“It’s a terrible thing,” Perret said.  “I wish there were something we could do. Before the depression we gave out a great many scholarships, but now…” he looked out the window at the low clouds and stroked his military beard.  “Your expenses are paid until the end of the month.  We’ll see what we can do before then, but I’m afraid I can’t offer much hope.”

Andras translated the words in his mind:  not much hope.

“As for your brother,” Vago said, “It’s a damned shame.  Turano wanted very much to help him.”

He tried to shake himself from the shock that had come over him.  It was important that they understand about Tibor, about the money.  “It doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady.  “The scholarship doesn’t matter — for Tibor, I mean.  He’s been putting money away for six years.  He’s got to have enough for the train ticket and his first year’s tuition.  I’ll cable him tonight.  Can your friend’s father hold the place for him?”

“I’d imagine so,” Vago said.  “I’ll write to him at once, if you think it’s possible. But perhaps your brother can help you, too, if he’s got some money put away.”

Andras shook his head.  “I can’t tell him.  He hasn’t saved enough for both of us.”

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Perret said again, coming forward to shake Andras’ hand.  “Professor Vago tells me you’re a resourceful young man.  Perhaps you’ll find a way through this.  I’ll see what I can do on our side.”

This was the first time Perret had touched him.  It was as though Andras had just been told he had a terminal disease, as though the shadow of impending death had allowed Perret to dispense with formalities.  He clapped Andras on the back as he led him to the door of the office.  “Courage,” he said, giving Andras a salute, and turned him out into the hall.

Andras went down through the dusty yellow light of the staircase, past the classroom where his Gare d’Orsay drawing lay abandoned on the table, past the beautiful Lucia in the front office, and through the blue doors of the school he had come to think of as his own.  He walked down the boulevard Raspail until he reached a post office, where he asked for a telegraph blank.  On the narrow blue lines he wrote the message he’d composed on the way:  Position secured for you at medical college Modena, gratias friend of Vago.  Obtain passport and visas at once.  Hurrah!  For a moment, in a fog of self-pity, he considered omitting the Hurrah.  But at the last moment he included it, paying the extra ten centimes, and then walked out onto the boulevard again.  The cars continued to speed by, the afternoon light fell just as it always fell, the pedestrians on the street rushed by with their groceries and drawings and books, all the city insensible to what had just taken place in an office at the École Spéciale.

Unseeing, unthinking, he walked the narrow curve of the rue de Fleurus toward the Jardin de Luxembourg, where he found a green bench in the shade of a plane tree.  The bench was within sight of the bee farm, and Andras could see the hooded beekeeper checking the layers of a hive.  The beekeeper’s head and arms and legs were speckled with black bees.  Slow-moving, torpid with smoke, they roamed the beekeeper’s body like cows grazing a pasture.  In school, Andras had learned that there were bees who could change their nature when conditions demanded it.  When a queen bee died, another bee would become the queen; that bee would shed its former life, take on a new body, a different role.  Now she would lay eggs, eat royal jelly, converse about the health of the hive with her attendants.  He, Andras, had been born a Jew, and had carried the mantle of that identity for twenty-two years.  At eight days old he’d been circumcised.  In the schoolyard he’d withstood the taunts of Christian children, and in the classroom his teachers’ disapproval when he’d had to miss school on Shabbos.  On Yom Kippur he’d fasted; on Shabbos he’d gone to synagogue; at thirteen he’d read from the Torah and become a man, according to Jewish law.  In Debrecen he went to the Jewish Gimnázium, and after he graduated he’d taken a job at a Jewish magazine.  He’d lived with Tibor in the Jewish quarter of Budapest and had gone with him to the Dohány Street Synagogue.  He’d met the ghost of Numerus Clausus, had left his home and his family to come to Paris.  Even here there were men like Lemarque, and student groups that demonstrated against Jews, and more than a few antisemitic newspapers.  And now he had this new weight to bear, this new tsuris. For a moment, as he sat on his bench at the Jardin de Luxembourg, he wondered what it might be like to leave his Jewish self behind, to shrug off the garment of his religion like a coat that had become too heavy in hot weather.  He remembered standing in the Sainte-Chapelle in September, the holiness and the stillness of the place, the few lines he knew from the Latin mass drifting through his mind:  Kyrie eleison, Cristei eleison. Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy.

For a moment it seemed simple, clear: become a Christian, and not just a Christian — a Roman Catholic, like the Christians who’d imagined Notre Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle, the Mátyás Templom and the Basilica of Szent István in Budapest.  Shed his former life, take on a new history.  Receive what had been withheld from him.  Receive mercy.

But when he thought of the word mercy, it was the Yiddish word that came to his mind:  rachmones, whose root was rechem, the Hebrew word for womb.  Rachmones: a compassion as deep and as undeniable as what a mother felt for her child.  He’d prayed for it every year at synagogue in Konyár on the eve of Yom Kippur.  He had asked to be forgiven, had fasted, had come away at the end of Yom Kippur with a sense of having been scraped clean.  Every year he’d felt the need to hold his soul to account, to forgive and be forgiven.  Every year his brothers had flanked him in synagogue — Mátyás small and fierce on his left, Tibor lean and deep-voiced on his right.  Beside them was their father in his familiar tallis, and behind the women’s partition, their mother — patient, forbearing, firm, her presence certain even when they could not see her.  He could no sooner cease being Jewish than he could cease being a brother to his brothers, a son to his father and mother.

He stood, giving a last look to the beekeeper and his bees, and set off across the park toward home.  He was thinking now not of what had happened but of what he was going to have to do next:  find a job, a way of making the money it would take to stay in school.  He wasn’t French, of course, but that didn’t matter; in Budapest, thousands of workers were paid under the table and no one was the wiser.  Tomorrow was Saturday.  Offices would be closed, but shops and restaurants would be open — bakeries, groceries, bookshops, art-supply stores, brasseries, men’s clothiers.  If Tibor could work full time in a shoe store and study his anatomy books at night, then Andras could work and go to school.  By the time he had reached the Rue des Écoles, he was already framing the necessary phrase in his head: I’m looking for a job.  In Hungarian, állást keresek. In French,  Je cherche…je cherche… a job.  He knew the word: un boulot.

Thèâtre Sarah-Bernhardt

That fall the Sarah-Bernhardt was presenting The Mother, a new play by Bertolt Brecht, at nine o’clock every night but Monday.  The theater was located at the direct center of the city, in the Place du Châtelet.  It offered five tiers of luxurious seating and the thrilling awareness that Miss Bernhardt’s voice had filled this space, had caused that chandelier to shiver on its chain.  Somewhere inside the theater was the cream-and-gilt-paneled dressing room with the gold bathtub in which the actress had reputedly bathed in champagne.  On the first Saturday in November the cast had been called for an unscheduled rehearsal; Claudine Villareal-Bloch, the mère of the title, had suffered an acute attack of vocal strain that everyone tacitly attributed to her new affair with a young Brazilian press attaché.  Into these vaguely embarrassing circumstances, Madame Villareal-Bloch’s understudy had been called at the last moment to take over the part.  Marcelle Gérard paced her dressing room in a fury, wondering how Claudine Villareal-Bloch could have dared to spring this trick upon her; it seemed an intentional humiliation.  Madame Villareal-Bloch knew that Madame Gérard, chafed by her position as understudy, had failed to prepare.  That very morning in rehearsal she’d forgotten her lines and had stammered in the most unprofessional manner.  In his office down the hall, Zoltán Novak drank Scotch neat and wondered what would happen to him if the play could not go forward, if Marcelle Gérard froze onstage as she had at that morning’s rehearsal.  The Minister of Culture himself was scheduled to attend the following night’s performance; that was how popular the new Brecht play had become, and how dire the current situation was.  If public embarrassment resulted tomorrow night, the blame would fall to Novak, the Hungarian.  Failure was not French.

Desperately, desperately, Zoltán Novak wanted to smoke.  But he couldn’t smoke.  The previous night, when he’d learned of Madame Villareal-Bloch’s illness, his wife had hidden his cigarettes, knowing he might tend toward excess; she had made him swear not to buy more, and vowed that she would sniff his clothes for smoke.  As he paced his office in a state of nicotine-deprived anxiety, the production assistant came in with a list of urgent messages.  The properties manager was missing a set of workers’ shovels from the third scene; should they do the scene without them, or buy new shovels?  Madame Gérard’s name had been misspelled in the program for tomorrow night (Guérard, an honest mistake), and did he want the whole lot reprinted?  Finally, there was a boy downstairs looking for a job.  He claimed to know Monsieur, or at least that was what he seemed to be saying — his French was imperfect.  What was his name?  Something foreign.  Lévi.  Undrash.

Buy new shovels for the workers.  Leave the programs as they were — too expensive to reprint.  And no, he didn’t know a Lévi Undrash.  Even if he did, God help him, the last thing he had for anyone right now was a job.

*   *   *

Andras had planned to arrive at school on Monday morning with triumphant news for Professor Vago: he had found a job, had arranged to pay his tuition, and would therefore remain at school.  Instead he found himself trudging down the boulevard Raspail in twig-kicking frustration.  All weekend he had scoured the Latin Quarter in search of work; he had inquired at front doors and back doors, in bakeshops and garages; he had even dared to knock on the door of a graphic design shop where a young man sat working in his shirtsleeves at a drafting table.  The man had stared at Andras with a kind of bemused contempt and told him to stop in again once he’d earned his degree.  Andras had walked on, hungry and chilled by rain, refusing to capitulate.  He had crossed the Seine in a fog, trying to imagine who he might call upon for help; when he looked up he saw that he’d walked all the way to the Place du Châtelet.  It occurred to him then that he might present himself at the Thèâtre Sarah-Bernhardt and ask to see Zoltán Novak, who had, after all, invited Andras to stop by.  He could go that very moment; it was half past seven, and Novak might be at the theater before the show.  But at the Sarah-Bernhardt he’d been turned away — politely, regretfully, and with a great deal of rapid, sympathetic French — by a young man who claimed to have spoken directly to Novak, who hadn’t recognized Andras’ name.  Andras had spent the rest of that evening and all the next day searching for work, but his luck hadn’t improved.  In the end he’d found himself back at home, sitting at the table by the window, holding a telegram from his brother.

Unbelievable news!   Thanks forever to you & Vago.  Will apply student visa tomorrow.  Modena.  Hurrah!  Tibor

He would have given anything to see Tibor, to tell him what had happened and hear what he thought Andras should do.  But Tibor was two thousand kilometers away in Budapest.  There was no way to ask or receive advice of that kind by telegram, and a letter would take far too long.  He had, of course, told Rosen and Polaner and Ben Yakov at the student dining club that weekend; their anger on his behalf had been gratifying, their sympathy fortifying, but there was little they could do to help.  In any case they weren’t his brother; they couldn’t have Tibor’s understanding of what the scholarship meant to him, nor what its loss would mean.

At seven o’clock in the morning the École Spéciale was deserted.  The studios were silent, the courtyard empty, the amphitheater an echoing void.  He knew he could find a few students asleep at their desks if he looked, students who had stayed up all night drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and working on drawings or models.  Sleepless nights were commonplace at the École Spéciale.  There were rumors of pills that sharpened your mind and allowed you to stay up for days, for weeks.  There were legends of artistic breakthroughs occurring after seventy-two waking hours.  And there were tales of disastrous collapse.  One studio was called l’atelier de la suicide. The older students told the younger about a man who’d shot himself after his rival won the annual Prix du Amphithéâtre.  In that particular studio, on the wall beside the chalkboard, you could see a blasted-out hollow in the brick.  When Andras had asked Vago about the suicide, Vago said that the story had been told when he was a student too, and that no one could confirm it.  But it served its purpose as a cautionary tale.

A light was on in Vago’s office; Andras could see the yellow square of it from the courtyard.  He ran up the three flights and knocked.  There was a long silence before Vago opened the door; he stood before Andras in his stocking feet, rubbing his eyes with an inky thumb and forefinger.  His collar was open, his hair a wild tangle.  “You,” he said, in Hungarian.  A small word, salted with a grain of affection.  Te.

“Me,” Andras said.  “Still here, for now.”

Vago ushered him into the office and motioned him to sit down on the usual stool.  Then he left Andras alone for a few minutes, after which he returned looking as if he’d washed his face in hot water and scrubbed it with a rough towel.  He smelled of the pumice soap that was good for getting ink off one’s hands.

“Well?” Vago said, and seated himself behind the desk.

“Tibor sends his deepest thanks.  He’s applying for his visa now.”

“I’ve already written to Professor Turano.“

“Thank you,” Andras said.  “Truly.”

“And how are you?”

“Not very well, as you can imagine.”

“Worried about how you’re going to pay your tuition.”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

Vago pushed back his chair and went to look out the window.  After a moment he turned back and put his hands through his hair.  “Listen,” he said.  “I don’t feel much like teaching you French this morning.  Why don’t we take a field trip instead?  We’ve got a good hour and a half before studio.”

“You’re the professor,” Andras said.

Vago took his coat from its wooden peg and put it on.  He pushed Andras through the door ahead of him, followed him down the stairs, and steered him through the blue front doors of the school.  Out on the boulevard he fished in his pocket for change; he led Andras down the stairs of the Raspail Métro just as a train flew into the station.  They rode to Motte-Picquét and transferred to the 8, then changed again at Michel-Ange Molitor.  Finally, at an obscure stop called Billancourt, Vago led Andras off the train and up onto a suburban boulevard.  The air was fresher here outside the city center; shopkeepers sprayed the sidewalks in preparation for the morning’s business, and window-washers polished the avenue’s glass fronts.  A line of girls in short black woolen coats stepped briskly along the sidewalk, led by a matron with a feather in her hat.

“Not far now,” Vago said.  He led Andras down the boulevard and turned onto a smaller commercial street, then onto a long residential street, then onto a smaller residential street lined with gray duplexes and sturdy red-roofed houses, which yielded suddenly to a soaring white ship of an apartment building, triangular, built on a shard of land where two streets met at an acute angle.  The apartments had porthole windows and deep-set balconies with sliding-glass doors, as if the building really were an ocean liner; it lanced forward through the morning behind a prow of curving windows and milk-white arcs of reinforced concrete.

“Architect?” Vago said.

“Pingusson.”  A few weeks earlier they had gone to see his work in the design pavilion at the International Exposition; the fifth-year student who had been their guide had declaimed about the simplicity of Pingusson’s lines and his unconventional sense of proportion.

“That’s right,” Vago said.  “One of ours — an École Spéciale man.  I met him at an architecture convention in Russia five years ago, and he’s been a good friend ever since.  He’s written some sharp pieces for L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. Pieces that got people to read the magazine when it was just getting off the ground.  He’s also a hell of a poker player.  We’ve got a regular Saturday night game.  Sometimes Professor Perret pays us a visit — he can’t play worth a damn, but he likes to talk.”

“I can imagine that,” Andras said.

“Well, now, this Saturday night, guess what the talk was about?”

Andras shrugged.

“Not a guess?”

“The Spanish civil war.”

“No, my young friend.  We talked about you.  Your problem.  The scholarship.  Your lack of funds.  Meanwhile, Perret kept pouring champagne.  A first-rate ’26 Canard-Duchêne he received as a gift from a client.  Now, Georges-Henri — that’s Pingusson — he’s an uncommonly intelligent man.  He’s responsible for a lot of very fine buildings here in Paris and has a houseful of awards to show for them.  He’s an engineer too, you know, not just an architect.  He plays poker like a man who knows numbers.  But when he drinks champagne, he’s all bravado and romance.  Around midnight he threw his bank-book on the table and told Perret that if he, Perret, won the next hand, then he — Pingusson, I mean — would pitch in for your tuition and fees.

Andras stared at Vago.  “What happened?”

“Perret lost, of course.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him beat Pingusson.  But the champagne had already done its work.  He’s a smart one, our Perret.  In the end, smarter than Pingusson.”

“What do you mean?”

“Afterward, we’re all standing on the street trying to get a cab.  Perret’s sober as an owl, shaking his head.  ‘Terrible shame about the Lévi boy,’ he says.  ‘Tragic thing.’  And Georges-Henri, drunk on champagne — he practically goes to his knees on the sidewalk and begs Perret to let him stand you a loan.  Fifty percent, he says, and not a centime less.  ‘If the boy can come up with the other half,’ he says, ‘let him stay in school.’”

“You can’t be serious,” Andras said.

“I’m afraid so.”

“But he came to his senses the next morning.”

“No.  Perret made him put it in writing that night.  He owes Perret, in any case.  The man’s done him more than a few favors.”

“And what kind of security does he want for the loan?”

“None,” Vago said.  “Perret told him you were a gentleman.  And that you’d earn plenty once you graduated.”

“Fifty percent,” Andras said.  “Good God.  From Pingusson.”  He looked up again at the curving profile of the building, its soaring white prow.  “Tell me you’re not joking.”

“I’m not joking.  I’ve got the signed letter on my desk.”

“But that’s thousands of francs.”

“Perret convinced him you were worth helping.”

He felt his throat closing.  He was not going to cry, not here on a street corner at Boulogne-Billancourt.  He scuffed the sole of his shoe against the sidewalk.  There had to be a way to come up with the other half.  If Perret had worked magic for him, if he had made something for him out of nothing, if he considered him a gentleman, the least Andras could do was to meet the challenge of Pingusson’s loan.  He would do whatever he had to do.  How long had he spent looking for a job?  A few days?  Fourteen hours?  The city of Paris was a vast place.  He would find work.  He had to.

Part Five

There were times when a good-natured ghost seemed to inhabit the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, times when a play should have fallen apart but didn’t.  On the evening of Marcelle Gérard’s debut as the Mother, all had seemed poised for disaster; an hour before curtain Marcelle appeared in Novak’s office and threatened to quit.  She wasn’t ready to go on, she told him.  She would embarrass herself in front of her public, the critics, the Minister of Culture.  Novak took her hands and implored her to be reasonable.  He knew she could perform the role.  She had been flawless in the audition.  The part had gone to Claudine Villareal-Bloch only because Novak hadn’t wanted to show favoritism toward Madame Gérard.  Their affair may have been long past now, but people still talked; he’d been afraid that word would get back to his wife at a time when things were already delicate between them.  Marcelle understood that, of course; hadn’t they discussed it when the decision had been made?  He would never have considered allowing her to go on tonight if he didn’t think she would be perfect.  Her fears were normal, after all.  Hadn’t Sarah Bernhardt herself overcome a paralyzing bout of stage fright in her 1879 portrayal of Phèdre?  He knew without a doubt that as soon as Marcelle set foot onstage she would become Brecht’s vision of the role.  She must know it too.  Didn’t she?  But when he’d finished, Madame Gérard had pulled her hands away and retired to her dressing room without a word, leaving Novak alone.

Perhaps it was the earnest force of his worry that called Sarah Bernhardt’s ghost out of the walls of the theater that night; perhaps it was the collective worry of the cast and crew, the lighting men, the ushers, the costumers, the janitors, the coat-check girl.  Whatever the reason, by the time the nine-o-clock hour struck, Marcelle Gérard’s hesitation had vanished.  The Minister of Culture sat in his box, tippling discreetly from a silver flask; Lady Mendl and the honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes were with him, Lady Mendl with peacock feathers in her hair, Daisy Fellowes resplendent in a Schiaparelli suit of jade-green silk.  The war in Spain had made Communist theater fashionable in France.  The house was packed.  The lights dimmed.  And then Marcelle Gérard stepped onto the stage and spoke as if in the plum-toned voice of Sarah Bernhardt herself.  From his place in the wings, Zoltán Novak watched as Madame Gérard called forth a rendition of The Mother that put Claudine Villareal-Bloch’s love-addled performances to shame.  He breathed a sigh of relief so pleasurable, so deep, he was glad his wife had denied himself the chest-constricting comfort of his cigarettes.  With any luck, he had left his consumption behind for good.  The time he’d spent back home in Budapest at the medicinal baths had flushed the blood and pain from his lungs.  The play had not failed.  And his theater might survive after all, who knew, despite the long red columns in its ledger-books and the debts that increased persistently each week.

He found himself in such an expansive mood, once he’d received the praise of the Minister of Culture after the show and had passed his compliments along to the blushing, breathless Marcelle Gérard, that he accepted and drank two glasses of champagne, one after the other, there in the dressing-room hallway.  Before he left, Marcelle called him into her inner sanctum and kissed him on the mouth, just once, almost chastely, as if everything were forgiven.  At midnight he pushed through the stage door into a fine sharp mist.  His wife would be waiting for him in the bedroom at home, her hair undone, her skin scented with lavender.  But he hadn’t moved three steps in her direction before someone rushed him from behind and grabbed his arm, making him drop his briefcase.  There had been a spate of muggings outside the theater of late; he was generally cautious, but tonight the champagne had made him careless.  Acting upon instincts he’d developed in the war, he swung around and struck his assailant in the stomach.  A dark-haired young man fell gasping to the curb.  Zoltán Novak stooped to pick up the briefcase, and it was only then that he heard what the boy was gasping.  Novak-úr. Novak-úr. His own name, with its Hungarian honorific.  The young man’s face seemed vaguely familiar.  Novak helped him to his feet and brushed some wet leaves off his sleeve.  The young man touched his lower ribs gingerly.

“What were you thinking, coming up behind someone like that?” Novak said in Hungarian, trying to get a better look at the boy’s face.

“You wouldn’t see me in your office,” the young man managed to say.

“Should I have seen you?” Novak said.  “Do I know you?”

“Andras Lévi,” the young man gasped.

Undrash Lévi. The boy from the train.  He remembered Andras’ bewilderment in Vienna, his gratitude when Novak had bought him a pretzel.  And now he’d punched the poor boy in the stomach.  Novak shook his head and gave a low, rueful laugh.  “Mr. Lévi,” he said.  “My deepest apologies.”

“Thanks ever so much,” the young man said bitterly, still nursing his rib.

“I knocked you clear into the gutter,” Novak said in dismay.

“I’ll be all right.”

“Why don’t you walk with me awhile?  I don’t live far from here.”

So they walked together and Andras told him the whole story, beginning with how he’d gotten the scholarship and lost it, and finishing with the offer from Pingusson.  That was what had brought him back here.  He had to try to see Novak again.  He was willing to perform the meanest of jobs.  He would do anything. He would black the actors’ shoes or sweep the floors or empty the ash-cans.  He had to start earning his fifty percent.  The first payment was due in three weeks.

By that time, they’d reached Novak’s building in the Rue de Sèvres.  Upstairs, light radiated from behind the scrim of the bedroom curtains.  The falling mist had dampened Novak’s hair and beaded on the sleeves of his overcoat; beside him, Lévi shivered in a thin jacket.  Novak found himself thinking of the ledger he’d closed just before he’d gone up to see the show.  There, in the accountant’s neat red lettering, were the figures that attested to the Sarah Bernhardt’s dire state; another few losing weeks and they would have to close.  On the other hand, with Marcelle Gérard in the role of the Mother, who knew what might happen?  He knew what was going on in Eastern Europe, that the drying up of Andras’ funds was only a symptom of a more serious disease.  In Hungary, in his youth, he’d seen brilliant Jewish boys defeated by the numerus clausus; it seemed a crime that this young man should have to bend too, after having come all this way.  The Bernhardt was not a philanthropic organization, but the boy wasn’t asking for a handout.  He was looking for work.  He was willing to do anything.  Surely it would be in the spirit of Brecht’s play to give work to someone who wanted it.  And hadn’t Sarah Bernhardt been Jewish, after all?  Her mother had been a Dutch-Jewish courtesan, and of course Judaism was matrilineal.  He knew.  Though he had been baptized in the Catholic church and sent to Catholic schools, his own mother had been Jewish too.

“All right, young Lévi,” he said, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Why don’t you come by the theatre tomorrow afternoon?”

And Andras turned such a brilliant and grateful smile upon him that Novak felt a fleeting shock of fear.  Such trust.  Such hope.  What the world would do to a boy like Andras Lévi, Novak didn’t want to know.

*   *   *

Excerpted from ”The Invisble Bridge” by Julie Orringer. Copyright © 2010 by Julie Orringer. To be published by Knopf on May 4.