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.
Gabi Gle­ich­mann, born in Budapest in 1954, was raised in Swe­den. After stud­ies in lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, he worked as a jour­nal­ist and served as pres­i­dent of the Swedish PEN orga­ni­za­tion. Gle­ich­mann lives in Oslo and works as a writer, and pub­lish­er. His first nov­el, The Elixir of Immor­tal­i­ty, was sold to twelve coun­tries pri­or to its pub­li­ca­tion in Norway.