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.

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.