History / Nick Barlay

The Art of Family History

In Scattered Ghosts, Nick Barlay combines memoir, investigation and travel to resurrect 200 years of wars and revolutions through his family history. In this post, Nick talks about becoming a family historian…

Scattered Ghosts, Nick Barlay

At my father’s typewriter: me, the author, taken by my mother in 1966

The search for the owner of a string of pearls; an East End cat burglar’s final days; a wartime parachutist landing in the back garden; a former Belfast drug dealer’s lost relatives; the genealogy of mental illness; a Greek tragedy; a Tuscan intrigue; a Holocaust survivor’s trail of names: teaching family history yields no end of unlikely circumstances, unique detail and unforeseen developments. And of course they all happen at the same time in the same place: one room, hundreds of years; a cast of thousands.

It was only after the publication of Scattered Ghosts, the 200-year story of my Hungarian Jewish family, that I started to think of the universal currents of family history. As the Hungarian émigré anarchist poet John Rety often asked: ‘Aren’t we all just writing the same poem?’ While researching and writing, it’s easy to lose oneself in trying to make sense of the past. It’s easy to become obsessed with establishing truths, and to worry about being true to someone’s story.

As another poet, Czeslaw Milosz, ominously warned: When a writer is born into a family, the family dies. But in trying to pass on something useful about the process of writing a family history, the opposite truth emerges: a family comes alive through being written about. At least, in the case of family history, it lives on. Whether Tolstoy was right or not about happy and unhappy families, every family story is compelling, and each comes with identical archetypes. Every ancestral event or incident, left or right turning, fortune gained or lost or debt left unpaid, cascades consequentially through the family tree.

Effects occur each and every moment, so we all have to develop a feel for the territory, and to feel our way towards the most appropriate expression of it. The title of one of the Russian artist Arshile Gorky’s paintings captures this better than any book about narrative structure: ‘How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds In My Life’. Each of us is a repository of stories and memories. Each of us is an unfolding apron of traits. This aspect of family history cannot be understood directly through births, deaths and marriages, diligent archival research, investigative daring or dramatic flair. Like clairsentients, we pick up objects, and stories that are like objects, heirlooms to be handed on intact and unquestioned, and we try to evaluate them: is the truth of the story more important than the fact that someone ‘always told that story’? Is the historical accuracy of what someone actually did more revealing of character than the psychological truth of what they would have done or would have wanted to do?’

Writing about the dead and the living comes with a certain responsibility, since neither the dead nor the living has a right of reply. But perhaps there’s a broader responsibility. If it falls to you, at a certain moment, to become the family historian, then it’s not simply a question of proceeding one funeral at a time. The greater responsibility, that derives from the accumulation of fact and evidence, is to transmit something that fills in a missing piece of our collective jigsaw.

Scattered Ghosts, Book, Nick Barlay, I.B.TaurisScattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival Through War, Holocaust and Revolution is available now

Nick Barlay is the author of four acclaimed novels and was named as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003, until it was discovered he was too old to be young. Born in London to Hungarian Jewish refugee parents, he has also written award-winning radio plays, short stories and wide-ranging journalism.

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