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The Art of Family History

In “Scattered Ghosts,” Nick Barlay intertwines memoir, investigative work, and travel to revive 200 years of wars and revolutions within his family’s history. Here, Nick discusses his journey into embracing the role of a family historian.

Teaching family history uncovers a multitude of improbable scenarios, distinct details, and unexpected twists. From the quest to trace the owner of a strand of pearls to the final days of an East End cat burglar, from a wartime parachutist landing in a backyard to the search for lost relatives of a former Belfast drug dealer, each narrative is filled with its own unique intricacies.

The genealogy of mental illness, a Greek tragedy, a Tuscan intrigue, and the trail of names left by a Holocaust survivor further enrich the tapestry of stories. All unfolding simultaneously within the confines of a single room and spanning hundreds of years, this diverse array of tales involves a cast of thousands.

It wasn’t until after the release of “Scattered Ghosts,” my family’s 200-year saga of Hungarian Jewish heritage that I began pondering the universal threads of family history.

As the Hungarian émigré anarchist poet John Rety often queried: “Aren’t we all just penning the same poem?” Amidst the research and writing process, it’s all too simple to immerse oneself in unraveling the complexities of the past. It’s natural to become consumed by the quest for truth and fret over staying faithful to someone’s narrative.

As poet Czeslaw Milosz cautioned, “When a writer is born into a family, the family dies.” However, in attempting to convey something meaningful about the process of writing a family history, the opposite truth emerges: a family is revitalized through the act of being written about.

In the realm of family history, it persists. Regardless of whether Tolstoy was correct regarding happy and unhappy families, every family narrative is captivating, featuring familiar archetypes. Each ancestral event or incident, whether a turning point or a consequence, a fortune gained or lost, or a debt left unpaid, ripples through the family tree with profound significance.

Effects unfold continuously, requiring us to navigate the terrain intuitively and discover its most fitting expression. The title of one of Russian artist Arshile Gorky’s paintings encapsulates this concept better than any treatise on narrative structure: “How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds In My Life.” Each of us serves as a reservoir of stories and memories, embodying an unfolding tapestry of characteristics.

This facet of family history cannot be grasped solely through records of births, deaths, and marriages, nor through diligent archival research, audacious investigation, or dramatic storytelling.

Like clairsentients, we pick up objects and stories akin to objects—family heirlooms to be passed down intact and unquestioned—and endeavor to assess them: Is the truth of a story more significant than the fact that it was “always told”? Does the historical accuracy of an action reveal more about character than the psychological truth of what one would have done or desired to do?

Writing about both the deceased and the living entails a particular responsibility, as neither group has the opportunity to respond.

Yet, there may be a broader obligation at play. If you find yourself assuming the role of family historian, it’s not merely about progressing through funerals one by one. The greater responsibility, stemming from the accumulation of facts and evidence, lies in conveying something that contributes to completing our collective puzzle.


Scattered 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 one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 until he was discovered 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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