Family Misfortunes and the Past’s Patterns: An Interview With Gabi Gleichmann

Gabi-Gleichmann (c) Isolde Ohlbaum

“I think writers should kill someone and go to jail. Then they will have a real experience to write about,” jokes author Gabi Gleichmann over a glass of champagne. Gleichmann recently visited New York from Oslo, where he lives with his wife and sons. We shared a cheese plate, bottle of wine and Gleicmann chatted with me about his debut novel The Elixir of Immortality (Other Press).

Focusing on a historical Jewish family full of shame and silence, the Spinozas, Gleichmann reinvents history to regale readers with dark, sexy, dangerous, funny tales about Europe and the family’s place in history. From Grand Inquisitor Torquemada’s tyrannical Spain and Rembrandt’s light filled Amsterdam to the atrocities of WWI and II, the Spinoza’s story is one of emotional courage and the importance of remembering our heritage. The act of remembering becomes an act of courage and storytelling a weapon we can use to fight for truth, even if the stories we tell are embellished with a little magic along the way.

I spoke with Gleichmann about how his own family inspired him, why storytelling is more important than craft, cavemen, different types of lies and the importance of change.

Your book is both about family and was inspired by family. How was it inspired by your own family life?

I grew up in a family which was very assimilated, with little Jewish traditions. The family was under oppression and dictatorship. But their world view was much broader and more sophisticated than what was allowed under Communist oppression. So we read lots of books. In terms of Jewish heritage ewe had no traditional at all in terms of celebrating Pesach or Kosher or all this. What we had was a core of understanding that to be a Jew was about commitment to say no to things that seemed tempting, but that ended up on the side of power, to always fight for the oppressed not the oppressors. We talked a lot and our discussions were filled with the fact that silence is the friend of dictatorships. You have to always speak up. But I had no real Jewish tradition I could pass on to my children, for me it would be very strange to light candles. The only way I could give to my children born in the nation of Norway is to tell stories about engagement against tyranny and Jewish contributions to the world in science, literature, culture. In that way, the core of my novel has to do with my background though it is not about my family, it is about an invented family. Storytelling is always not about the facts, but the way we tell it.

What is it about telling stories that liberates us?

Telling stories is one of the most ancient ways of communicating. It is in our DNA. It is in the caves where we were protected from heat, from cold, from everything and we were sitting around the fire. Hunters went out to get food and when they came back they told the stories of their experience, where to go, where not to go, where lions were, where food was. It is the oldest way of communicating to tell stories. When people tell stories it is never the story itself, but the way it is told. I think stories can have tremendous impact because they always convey from one heart to another human experience and that is the way to get enriched. It’s the wider world where people give you ideas, experience, emotions. In modernism, we break up stories and focus more on the technical part of writing than the storytelling. It’s less and less an experience conveyed and more from middle aged writers very good at writing, but have no experiences to write about. Storytelling has to come back again to give experience and ideas back to people.

What do you think happens when writing becomes all about craft?

I think that is the end of writing. Look at sex, when sex is just about technicalities and there is no emotion or experience, I mean, nothing happens. When it’s about craft only it becomes dry and unimportant. Today in Europe some of the greatest writers are more focused on craft, than telling something. So what do people read?  They don’t read books which are important but dry, they read crime books. Many of the crime books writers are journalists who know how to write quickly and catch what are the issues of the day.

I agree. Conveying an emotional experience is always going to be more important to me than worrying about where I put a comma in a sentence.


You talk about two different types of lying. The storyteller figure in your book is spinning fantastic tales, but they are lies. The government is lying as well. What’s the difference? When can lying be good and when can it be dangerous?

Of course, if I told you the exact facts of what I am surrounded by it would be a very bland description. What I need is to add some salt to it and the dimensions of the room will be something else in what I give to you than in reality. I add a light to it. This is very innocent. The government would say that they have a wonderful country despite the fact they happen to have 2 million people under oppression and in jail. A certain type of storytelling is a way to add and give color, spice, magic. But then there are lies and mendacity with the purpose to exploit, oppress, create inequality and injustice in society.

I’d like to talk about the generational experience. What is important about connecting to our past, roots, heritage through open language, telling stories?

I think the past is very important in the sense that is has patterns. If we live in oblivion and forget about the past, we cannot change things. The easiest way to understand history is often through the closest people to us. Unfortunately there are very misfortunate families who are always unhappy in one way or another, but nevertheless these are the people closest to us. Our parents, grandparents and their experience and worldview will create our basic foundation. We can escape from it, but at the same time it is so ingrained in us. In the book, I say somewhere memory is very important because it teaches us about our mistakes.

Why is change so important?

Nothing is constant. You can take a snapshot, but that photo is a lie. The past always changes, the way we view it changes. Change is very important because nothing is everlasting. Every seventh year, all our cells are changed. The man you are talking to right now is not the same man I was seven years ago. I have a different hairstyle, I have different ideas about the world, even different taste in music. One of the great gifts we have is the ability to transform.

Image: Isolde Ohlbaum 

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