To celebrate the publication of Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, we are pleased to present an original essay on what drove him to dig up his familial past, and how the stories he found became fuel for his fiction.
For a number of years, I found myself inquiring, piecemeal, trying to fill in the gaps of maybe a dozen family stories I thought I might one day fictionalize. But what would it look like if we tried to track down and verify, in one fell swoop, every family myth, every family story? What if a single trip could pin most of them down, even, or at least the wiliest? The summer after my first year of graduate school I flew to Paris, and from there took TGV down to Grenoble, and then on to the small Alps town of Bourg d’Oisans. I like traveling alone. It provides time with my thoughts and a notebook, and probably I’d be very bad company on a long trip. I also like arriving, during these travels, at places where I know people, and have somewhere to stay. I’m old enough that I’d lost most of my hair—this doesn’t encourage young travelers at hostels across Europe to be exceedingly interested in, or nice to, me.
This particular trip was prompted by the fact that my cousin Honza’s daughter, Bibi, owns a house in Bourg d’Oisans, and she was having a huge party for his 90th birthday. I wanted to help celebrate, but more than that I wanted to be a part of the huge de facto family reunion it would become. More than fifty cousins from more than ten countries would be there. For the year prior I had taken an accelerated French class. It did me some good on the TGV headed east from Rotterdam, where I’d been for a month researching the novel I was at work on, The Last Flight of Poxl West, and in ordering food in a train station stopover in Belgium.
But at this house in Bourg, I quickly found the French I’d recently acquired would do me about as much good as a vestigial tail. Bibi’s son and daughter had been raised in Jerusalem and London. We spoke English. My father’s Austrian cousins had arrived from all over. They mainly spoke German. My grandmother’s Israeli cousins had come from Tel Aviv, where they’d all stayed after they made Aliyah—their immigration to Israel—around the same time Honza’s father, Freidrich, had made his, and while they spoke English quite well, when you were around them they mainly spoke to each other in Hebrew—which I’d studied for years when I was a kid, but which I’d studied so I could read my Torah portion at my Bar Mitzvah, not so I could celebrate my cousin Honza’s 90th in the south of France. There was a group of Spanish-speakers who had arrived from Argentina, maybe two dozen of them; I’d studied Spanish in high school, which wouldn’t help me now. I mostly holed up at a hotel reading Philip Roth’s The Counterlife and found refuge in both reading a familiar voice, and listening to my favorite writer consider a series of iterations his characters might have led.
Honza’s birthday was to be a weeklong affair. After a couple of days I had to venture out from my hotel room. In a small backyard behind Bibi’s house, I caught up with cousins from all over the world. Every one of those cousins, and relatives so distant they might not even officially be cousins, spoke to me in English. We talked to each other about how we were related. Every person there had an aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather, with a varying number of greats before it, who had originated in Prague or Vienna or Budapest, scion of Taussigs or Neuburgs. We ate and we drank and we tested champagnes, and I settled in. By the fourth day I was comfortable. I even knew some of the folks who were there like they were family—I remembered people who had been at my Bar Mitzvah, or whom I’d met at my grandparents’ house in Long Island at some holiday or another, the one place in my world where we tended to encounter our diaspora family.
On the second to last day there, genealogical talk grew thicker. Now I’d have my chance to exhume and verify the stories I’d been seeking. In an upstairs bedroom, Honza and my grandmother’s cousin Peter began to dig into boxes of photographs. This second-floor guestroom of my cousin Bibi’s house had apparently become Honza’s repository for family documents. There were boxes upon boxes upon boxes. As Peter and Honza began to dip their hands in, and pull out sepia-tinted photograph after sepia-tinted photograph, they began to talk to each other more. A couple of my older cousins dipped a toe in while they spoke, but when they heard these two older men crescendo and diminuendo about esoteric and long-standing family issues, they quickly moved back to dry land.
I stuck around. I tried to listen in, but they spoke almost exclusively in German. I could only stand with my back against the window and try to read the conversational shadows on the wall.
From what I knew from stories I’d heard, I knew that most disputes in my family related to the ownership of the leather factory in a small Czech city north of Prague, called Leitmeritz. That didn’t really seem to be what these two older men were speaking of. Their talk had settled upon two pieces of paper. Both had German handwriting on them. The two of them spoke as if something mortal was at stake, waving these papers about. Perhaps they contained some new information—a will, bequeathing some estate to my grandmother? To Honza? To a home for feral cats somewhere in Tel Aviv?
I sat and listened and watched as corners of mouths drew up. The oldest of a group of Argentinian cousins dropped in, and in Spanish that I could just understand, Honza asked him something about the letter in his hand.
The Argentinean simply shook his head and moved on.
A controversy so deep even the South Americans wouldn’t touch it!
I sat and listened as this continued for another couple of minutes. Finally I drew up the courage. In English, I asked Honza what they were talking about. He turned to me. His entropic gaze fell upon me, ninety-year-old eyes drawn back into his head. It was like he was looking through an open window.
“These are written in a now-defunct German script,” Honza said. His tone sounded somehow too light for what I assumed we were talking about. “They were written by Peter’s mother. Very difficult to decipher. But still we’re hoping to translate them. We cannot make out the letters enough.”
But could they understand some of it? I asked.
They could, Honza said.
So what of it? A land dispute? A will? What longstanding Apocrypha might be settled in this moment, me standing there watching as some empty space on an ancient ledger was filled, finally?
Honza looked at Peter. They both smiled.
“These are my mother’s papers from gymnasium,” Peter said.
“From school,” he said. “It is in German,” he said, and though I waited to hear the rest of what he was saying, I could already see what I needed to know from the smirk spreading across his face, “a spelling test.”
Daniel Torday is the Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. An author and former editor at Esquire magazine, Torday currently serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, The New York Times and The Kenyon Review. Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction.
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