by Steve Ahern
A few Saturday evenings ago, Daniel Torday drove from his Mt. Airy home where he resides with his wife Erin, and their four-month-old daughter Abigail, to Musehouse, the Chestnut Hill center for the literary arts, to read from his novella, “The Sensualist,” published last year by Nouvella Books and available on Amazon.com. That reading coincided with the recent completion of his administrative duties as creative writing director at Bryn Mawr College, preparation for the submission of his second novel, tweaks to a short-story collection entitled “Dispatches from Mt. Mariah” and ongoing writing, whose output hinges in part on the duration of his four-month old daughter’s naps. It’s been a busy few months for the 35-year-old author.
His vigor, nonetheless, was unchecked as he interacted with the audience of writers, editors, teachers, etc., about writing craft rigors, with which fellow writer Curtis Smith, who read from his new book of “flash fiction” that night, concurred.
“A reader always holds you to your worst sentence,” said Torday, who endured agony arriving with the help of his editors at a title, rooted in 19th century Russian existentialism, for that “little, tiny book,” as Torday refers to “The Sensualist.” (It is actually 7” x 4” and 177 pages but compact enough to fit perfectly into a back-jeans pocket.)
The idea for “The Sensualist,” which Torday began writing in 2005 while earning his MFA at Syracuse University, arose from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” In a chapter titled “The Sensualists,” Dmitri Karamazov, the bellicose oldest brother, breaks into his father’s home, assaults him and threatens to kill him. He is ultimately sentenced to Siberia for the murder of his father.
Dmitri’s namesake, Dmitri Zilber, is the protagonist in “The Sensualist,” whose participation in the beating of a school peer named Goldstein leads to his sentencing and nearly two years in a juvenile correctional facility, most of which the reader learns in the first sentence of the book. The telling of the “events leading to” that incident unfurls in a well-constructed tale. Baltimore, “the theater” for much of Torday’s own adolescence, serves as the setting for the story.
The book is evocative and moving for its apt portrayal of the long period of vulnerability and change that accompany adolescence; its reminder of the toll war takes on the human psyche and the lasting effects of prejudice; its depiction of class division and the way it evokes place, vividly depicted through the use of sensory language.
“A familiar smell arose from the pot, tones of paprika and meat wafted from the kitchen and a flash of standing outside my grandparents’ house on Long Island lit in my mind: sharp paprika, cool winter air, diffuse yellow light of evening, the blurring incantation of grandpa’s Magyar tongue.”
The narrator of “The Sensualist” is 17-year-old Samuel Gerson, a straight-A student and above-average baseball pitcher who admires Dmitri Zilber for his humor and defiance of authority and is staggered by the beauty of his sister, Yelizaveta. In several scenes, the brooding, enigmatic Dmitri summarizes his identity in a few sentences for Samuel by citing some of Dostoyevsky’s most memorable characters, each of whom “does as they feel, when they feel, and they all feel very much. They are sensualists.”
“I want to feel everything,” Dmitri says in another scene prior to getting a tattoo “of a simple star” across his chest, declining the whiskey offered to allay the pain.
Samuel’s Ashkenazi Jewish family, including his Jewish-Hungarian grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, comprises the second story line of the novella. The two story lines intersect when Samuel invites Dmitri and Yelizaveta to celebrate Passover.
In an interview with the Kenyon Review in April 2012, Torday shared that his grandfather was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor whose story was memorialized in a Shoah Foundation video funded by Stephen Spielberg. Torday studied the video to capture the nuances of his grandfather’s broken English for the book.
To record the rhythm and syntax of English spoken with a Russian accent, he listened to audiotapes typically used by actors.
Torday was raised around Boston until the family moved to Baltimore when he was 14. His childhood homes were filled with books his father, a first-generation American from Hungary and a research biologist, would read. Torday’s own reading began with Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut but soon widened to include Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dostoyevsky.
Torday attended public schools in Boston and Baltimore, followed by Kenyon College as an undergraduate, where he majored in English and minored in philosophy. His mentor there was Lewis Hyde, whom author David Foster Wallace called the “reigning superstar of nonfiction.” “He taught me all about Henry David Thoreau, whom I return to constantly,” said Torday.
One of Daniel’s first jobs out of college was as an editor at Esquire, where he waded through the slush of story submissions the magazine received. “We would work for three months on a 3,000-word story. Every caption was gone over, copy edited and fact checked. I find writing reported pieces impossibly hard and the same for fiction.”
Torday published his first feature, a crime piece about the murder of a college friend, when he was 25 and his first short story in the Kenyon Review, where he now serves as an editor, when he was 27. He is currently searching for a title for his second novel, about a Czech Jewish teenager who leaves his home before WWII and ends up serving in the war in England, which Torday said is “feeling close to done … I tried my hand at a lot of things — editing, reporting, even trying to make it as a bluegrass mandolin player — but what I’ve always wanted to do primarily is write fiction.”