Daniel Tor­days novel­la The Sen­su­al­ist won the 2012 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Out­stand­ing Debut Fic­tion. His debut nov­el, The Last Flight of Poxl West, was pub­lished by St. Martin’s Press in 2015. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

My years as an under­grad­u­ate were neat­ly book­end­ed by read­ing the two most high­ly allu­sive books of mod­ernism: week one at Keny­on Col­lege I read TS Eliot’s The Waste­land, and it was as if the top of my head was prop­er­ly blown off. End of my final year there I wrote a senior the­sis on the role of Shy­lock in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a sys­tem of lit­er­ary allu­sion to Mer­chant of Venice that ran through every page of that book. Small sur­prise I found myself seek­ing out the Jews in Joyce. 

When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my sys­tem of allu­sion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at get­ting down just a bit of San­skrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 lan­guages used to some degree of com­pe­tence in that nov­el, though I’ll nev­er try to find out myself — not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did. 

What I had was the Torah. 

And it’s not a bad resource, as five thou­sand years of its being read might already have sug­gest­ed. In the moments when Abraham’s near-sac­ri­fice of Isaac arose in mind, or Noah at sea search­ing for a moun­tain­top, no mat­ter how dis­tant, there was a sense that rather than reach­ing for Joyce or Eliot’s resources — or Joyce or Eliot, for that mat­ter! — there was a deep and weighty mod­el at hand. Some of that near­ness-to-hand came to make me real­ize that the years of Hebrew school drudgery weren’t for naught. I’d inter­nal­ized a lot of sto­ries there. Some came from hav­ing recent­ly been through a project of re-read­ing Gen­e­sis and Exodus. 

Some, though, came from a marked­ly non-Jew­ish source: Mar­i­lynne Robinson’s won­der­ful nov­el, House­keep­ing. I’ve long been a huge fan of the book, but in teach­ing it every year for the past four or five years in a nov­el-writ­ing work­shop I run, some­thing deep and mys­te­ri­ous has arisen about nov­el-writ­ing — and about the Pen­ta­teuch — for me. There’s a kind of near-mys­ti­cism in the Calvin­ist under­pin­nings of that nov­el that feel some­how non-denom­i­na­tion­al, and yet famil­iar from my own dab­bling in read­ing about Kab­bal­ah as a kid. Some­where ear­ly in that nov­el its nar­ra­tor, Ruth, says, Every­thing that falls upon the eye is appari­tion, a sheet dropped over the world’s true work­ings.” I don’t know exact­ly how I square that sen­tence with my own sense of faith, but I do know it com­ports with my worldview. 

But late in House­keep­ing, Ruth moves into some­thing that sounds more to my ear like Midrash. Chap­ter 10 starts this way: 

Cain mur­dered Abel, and the blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s chil­dren, and a voice was induced or pro­voked into speak­ing from a whirl­wind; and Rachel mourned for her chil­dren; and King David for Absa­lom. The force behind the move­ment of time is a mourn­ing that will not be com­fort­ed… Cain killed Abel, and the blood cried out from the ground — a sto­ry so sad that even God took notice of it. 

Every time I read that page my sec­u­lar and Jew­ish edu­ca­tions seem to yoga their way right over each oth­er — Wednes­day nights at Hebrew school, Sat­ur­day morn­ings as a 19-year-old holed up hung-over in the library read­ing Faulkn­er, year after year of look­ing for the touch­stones of my first nov­el all seem to bend until they touch top of head to heel of foot. 

There are sys­tems of allu­sion and there are sys­tems of allu­sion; there are sto­ries we’ve heard so long they are no longer sto­ries, but instead some part of our DNA. I’m hum­bled to feel that in some way I’m able to share mine with those sit­ting in shul on Sat­ur­day morn­ing, those sit­ting read­ing the Torah in the com­fort of their own home, and those read­ing House­keep­ing every time the head­space opens up to do so. 

Read more about Daniel Tor­day here.

Relat­ed Content:

Daniel Tor­day is the author of The 12th Com­mand­mentThe Last Flight of Poxl West, and Boomer1. A two-time win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for fic­tion and the Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday’s sto­ries and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, The Keny­on Review, and n+1, and have been hon­ored by the Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries and Best Amer­i­can Essays series. Tor­day is a Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Bryn Mawr College.