The ProsenPeople

On Writing a Fictionalized Account of Baruch Spinoza's Family

Friday, October 04, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Gabi Gleichmann wrote about the genesis of his debut novel and his fascination with reading and writing. His debut novel, The Elixir of Immortality, is now available from Other Press. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve often been asked both by journalists and by my readers why my novel The Elixir of Immortality tells the story of the family of Baruch Spinoza. My usual reply is that it’s simply because of my lifelong interest in that Jewish philosopher who lived in seventeenth-century Holland.

I don’t really remember how I first became aware of Spinoza. I do know that I ran across him at a fairly early age, probably because of my curiosity about philosophy in general and my teenage tendency to ponder existential issues.

No one who has read Bertrand Russell’s great work A History of Western Philosophy (1946) could fail to be impressed by the opening words of the Englishman’s chapter about him: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him but ethically he is supreme.”

Russell’s work showed me that important philosophers tended to come into conflict with the theological or ecclesiastical establishments and, more often than not, with the political authorities as well. Spinoza was no exception. One might suppose that the very word ‘philosophy’ was tantamount to the struggle for independent thought as opposed to the passive acceptance of dogma. A true philosopher always takes risks that endanger his own life and security. Spinoza learned that lesson the hard way. The Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him, and even today Orthodox Jews regard him with suspicion.

Spinoza’s character and fate fascinated me, perhaps even more than his ideas did, since I was having trouble understanding much of what he wrote. I was fascinated by the community he lived in and its influence upon his life and ideas in that historical context. Studying these things became my point of entry to the Jewish world in that time of my life when I began seeking to understand Jewish heritage. That was how Spinoza helped me to understand myself and the background of my childhood in a family of non-observant Jews living under a totalitarian dictatorship.

At the age of twenty-two I dreamed of writing the definitive treatise about Spinoza. I soon realized that there already existed a virtual mountain of brilliant analyses of the great thinker. Eventually I left Spinoza to his own destiny and began to devote myself to reading Marcel Proust, although without ever losing my deep sympathy for the philosopher.

More than thirty-five years later I decided to give a present to my sons: the history of a Jewish family, traced all the way back to the twelfth century and carried forward to the end of the twentieth. My idea was to write a fictional family history modeled on many real events, a blending of fantasy and recorded history, so that actual events and fictitious ones always reflected one another. With this broad-brushed fantasy fresco, ironic versions of real historical events offered with a knowing wink, and an assortment of entirely fictitious quotations, I aimed to provide a glimpse of the contributions of the Jews to Europe and their fate there over the past millennium.

The choice of the family name for this imaginary family saga was never in doubt. Who but Baruch Spinoza, monumental philosopher and scholar both in the Jewish and secular Western traditions, could best represent the importance of the Jewish minority for the world around it? Add to that the fact that his background and life of hardships offered wonderful opportunities to weave the panorama of Jewish Europe and the typical conditions of persecution, banishment and dramatic twists of fate that confronted a people who were richly endowed both spiritually and intellectually. Thus was determined the novel’s prevailing tone as a harsh, arbitrary, ironic and exuberant tale in which anything could happen. After all, humankind is a mystery.

Everything in the novel materialized for me in a blinding flash, presenting itself whole and complete as soon as I decided to give the family the name of Spinoza. After that, all I had to do was sit down at my desk. In less than six months I wrote out every bit of that complicated family history – a tale that existed within me already, a compendium of material I’d storing in my subconscious for almost thirty years.

For me Spinoza, the name, was like Marcel Proust’s famous story about tasting his petite Madeleine dipped in lime tea and suddenly, without seeking to do so, reliving an intense experience from the past. No sooner had I uttered the name ‘Spinoza’ than I suddenly saw the image of the room where he had worked polishing lenses. Along with it came the city of Leyden where he lived in exile, then Amsterdam, and then Spain, the country his ancestors had fled because of the Catholic Inquisition, and after that Granada, a place where Jews and Moors co-existed in peace. All of that took shape and emerged, complete with the characters and their eras, from my inner depths. After all, the past can be saved from oblivion only with the help of our memories and our imaginations. They are our only means of creating any sort of immortality.

Gabi Gleichmann was born in Budapest in 1954 and moved to Sweden at the age of 10. After studies in literature and philosophy, he worked as a journalist and served as president of the Swedish PEN club. Gleichmann now lives in Oslo and works as a publisher, writer and literary critic. His debut novel, The Elixir of Immortality, was published on October 1st by Other Press.

A Jewish Family Tree: The Genesis of The Elixir of Immortality

Wednesday, October 02, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gabi Gleichmann wrote about his fascination with reading and writing. His debut novel, The Elixir of Immortality, is now available from Other Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I left Stockholm in the fall of 1998 and moved to Oslo, for I had discovered the neighboring land’s greatest natural resource. No, not oil. Better than that: a woman from Norway.

Falling in love is the most intense encounter in life. One perceives one’s true profile and gains authentication through other human beings. Someone else understands who you are, and this fact opens to you the possibility of understanding your own potential and your limitations. The face of that other person approaches yours, intimate and familiar. One’s world is always represented by another person.

We married. And we had children: three boys. The decade that followed, a time of genuine happiness, flew by all too quickly; we were hardly aware that beyond the circle of our little family a complex and constantly changing world still existed. I was overjoyed no longer to be engaged in public debate and publishing commentaries. The existence I shared with our children gave me wings; I soared high above the earth where I was freer and more open than ever before. I learned that everything is possible and that only our self-imposed constraints hold us prisoner.

Then one day a letter appeared in the mailbox. It came from my wife’s uncle, an elderly aristocrat living in a fortified ancestral manor and dedicating himself to the study of family genealogy. He had sent us a family tree outlining 350 years of Cappelen family history in Norway in the tiny county of Telemark. He was asking my wife to add our names and birthdates to it. I was astonished. I knew that the lineages of purebred dogs and racehorses were carefully recorded. But I’d never seen anything of the kind for human beings.

My wife said it was like a treasure map: It offered the children the chance to trace the lives of their Norwegian ancestors. I responded that a family tree was hardly an adequate opening into ages past, considering that it consisted of only names and dates. It held nothing of what really constitutes a human life: no achievements, no reflections, no dreams; no desires or longings. None of the ambitions, disappointments or successes; no family stories or anything else. No flesh and blood. No keys to open the way to the realities of the lives of earlier generations.

My spouse thought I was simply jealous. I couldn’t offer any family tree of my own. For centuries fate and history had pushed my Jewish ancestors back and forth across the different lands of Europe. They’d never had the possibility of putting roots down anywhere. And besides, the brutal rise of Nazism had liquidated almost all of my family. I had no paternal grandparents or elderly family members to initiate me into our past.

I suddenly realized that my own children needed to know more about their Jewish roots, to learn about their DNA, that physical inheritance that had given shape to their bodies and the blood circulating within them. Being a Jew in a country such as Norway, a land of only a thousand Jewish souls, is no easy thing. Especially considering that our family observes none of the traditions. What would be the best way for our children to learn about their Jewish heritage and the complex identity it entails?

Then I had an inspiration. I told my wife I was determined to give our boys a present: a Jewish family tree, one that was even more extensive that the 350-year history of the Cappelen family. It would go back a thousand years. I would create it with my pen and my imagination. After all, the lives and undertakings of all those others were still alive within me. All of us are itinerant time machines; our recollections enable us constantly to travel back and forth in time, through our own lifetimes and throughout history as we summon bygone eras into our own present. The memories of the departed and the disappeared remain alive and well, pulsing beneath the surface of our own days.

I also reminded myself that only the art of the novel is capable of bringing back to life the dead and the forgotten, history’s myriads of anonymous individuals, by giving them faces once again and erecting a memorial over them.

Everything went with blinding speed after that. The years spent at home with my boys had allowed me to develop and mature into a child once again: I had regained the openness of childhood, the ability to concentrate upon pure play and the belief that nothing could stand in my way once I had set a goal for myself. My novel The Elixir of Immortality was on its way to the light of day.

In the course of writing it I also became aware of one of my most powerful intellectual motivations: the desire to bring back to life the culture of the secular European Jewish Diaspora. The murderous barbarism of the Nazis had not only exterminated six million Jewish lives; it had additionally dealt a nearly fatal blow to Jewish culture in Europe, for after the war countless Jewish survivors had turned their backs on the desolation and started new lives in Israel and in the Americas. For all of my grown life I’d been striving to revive secular European Jewish culture, with the thought that like the Phoenix it could be born anew from its ashes.

In The Elixir of Immortality I wanted to speak factually but with passion of the significance of the tiny Jewish minority and its contributions to Europe and the world over the past thousand years. Obviously, no one can evoke any more than a tiny fraction of that uniquely rich history. My own task was simply to decipher and bring to light just a few stories hidden beneath the grime and the deliberately obscured layers of European history, stories completely neglected in books written by the victors.

It’s impossible to cram all the lives of thirty-six generations into a novel of just over 700 pages. That’s why my story makes no pretense of presenting a coherent, exhaustive account of a Jewish family. What I wanted to achieve with my almost entirely invented characters was to call attention to the fact that we humans have forgotten how to remember the way things once were in our part of the world. And, with my tall tales, I wanted to move my readers to laughter and to tears.

Check back here all week for more from Gabi Gleichmann.

Never Alone, Never Lonely

Monday, September 30, 2013 | Permalink
Gabi Gleichmann was born in Budapest in 1954 and moved to Sweden at the age of 10. After studies in literature and philosophy, he worked as a journalist and served as president of the Swedish PEN club. Gleichmann now lives in Oslo and works as a publisher, writer and literary critic. His debut novel, The Elixir of Immortality, will be published on October 1st by Other Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Books have always fascinated me, even from the very earliest days of my childhood. As the child of Jewish intellectuals I imbibed with my mother’s milk the concept that literature is nourishment for the soul; no other activity merits greater respect or in fact deserves more affectionate devotion from us.

I lived in Hungary for the first decade of my life, back when the country was held in the steely grip of the Communist Party and the truths of the authorities could never be brought into question. The media were controlled by the state, and journalists were accomplished liars about everything except the scores of soccer matches, which were impossible to falsify. Seekers after truth had to resort to works of literature, even though the official censors kept a close watch on such publications.

In search of the few available crumbs of truth, my parents bought copies of all new novels and poetry collections published in the country. Our home was like a library, piled high with books. Perhaps that’s why I’m always astounded when I encounter people who haven’t the slightest interest in literature.

My first vivid experiences of the world of books were purely sensual delights: the smell of paper and printer’s ink, the nuanced colors of the book jackets. Later, once I’d learned to read, I traveled, powered by the fuel of the alphabet, to inner and outer worlds, down into the depths of history, sometimes into the future, toward the vast riches of life that extended farther than any eye could see. I spent time with people who had lived long before me in places I would never be able to visit; perhaps those places had never existed at all. I often curled up under the covers to read, living in a boundless world of dreams, full of adventures.

For a long time my favorite book was A Thousand and One Nights, that perpetually enchanting cocktail filled to the brim with the most delicious ingredients of the Middle Eastern storyteller’s art, spiced with liberal doses of invention and humor, sensuality and cruelty. Sometimes I would skip school, preferring the company of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the sailor. One time I was caught and as my mother seized me by the ear, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I wish I was grown up already and could spend all my time just reading, reading and reading!” Perhaps that episode was influential in my decision ten years later to dedicate myself fulltime to a life in the world of books.

My next tumultuous literary experience came in my late teens when I read The Trial. It was earth-shaking for me. With just the first few pages I realized that I adored Kafka, especially the tension between dazzling light and absolute depths of darkness that characterized his prose. More than anything else I was impressed by his conversational style, recognizable for its simplicity and crystal clear transparency. And I took his motto for my own: “Correctly comprehending a thing is no guarantee that one hasn’t failed to understand it at the same time.”

Kafka the strict moralist became my guide, one who pointed out the right path but never disclosed the goal. That great prophet of ambiguities taught me to look at the world with fresh eyes and without illusions. Reading Kafka gave me insight into myself; I discovered that I’m a complicated, eclectic and urban Jew, one who believes in no God but still has spiritual needs, and, I hope, has a moral dimension: a man who accepts uncertainty as the only constant and change as the only certainty.

Others who have enriched my world are the great writers of Latin America. Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have taught me that within a work of the imagination everything can exist simultaneously and on the same level, outside our familiar sense of chronology, with no distinctions drawn between the realistic and the fantastic or between reality and myth. Their approach allows one to create a world complete in itself, a landscape in which everything leaps into view as if lit by a flash of lightning.

I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by novels, works of the imagination and invented stories. The question therefore presents itself: Why, exactly, do I read and I write?

As far as I’m concerned, reading and writing serve the same purpose. They help me to come to grips with myself and with the world around me. I read and write so as to see more clearly, so as to fully develop and exactly express my feelings and thoughts. I do this above all in order to explore and to encounter—not things that I already know, but instead those that still remain obscure to me, half intuited and virtually unknown. For I aim to push my way into that hidden reality and perceive things in new ways. In such an endeavor, not even cutting-edge psychological research can come close to what poetry can achieve.

I am never alone when I read or write, even though a casual observer would see these activities as a profession practiced entirely solo. In a different sense, however, they provide one with an ample and rewarding circle of acquaintances. When I read, I enter a world conceived by another person, and when I write, I am reaching out to my fellow human beings. These tasks sustain and uplift my spirit by extending its worlds of fantasy, feeling and play. In literature nothing is sacred. Its works are the products of dreams, thoughts, feelings and fantasies that never petrify into dogma. Literature is the eternal conversation of the human race.

Check back here all week for more from Gabi Gleichmann.