The Elixir of Immortality


A mesmerizing debut novel that spans a thousand years of European and Jewish history seen through the beguiling members of the Spinoza family
Since the eleventh century, the Spinoza family has passed down, from father to son, a secret manuscript containing the recipe for immortality. Now, after thirty-six generations, the last descendant of this long and illustrious ...

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The Elixir of Immortality

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A mesmerizing debut novel that spans a thousand years of European and Jewish history seen through the beguiling members of the Spinoza family
Since the eleventh century, the Spinoza family has passed down, from father to son, a secret manuscript containing the recipe for immortality. Now, after thirty-six generations, the last descendant of this long and illustrious chain, Ari Spinoza, doesn’t have a son to whom to entrust the manuscript. From his deathbed, he begins his narrative, hoping to save his lineage from oblivion.
Ari’s two main sources of his family’s history are a trunk of yellowing documents inherited from his grandfather, and his great-uncle Fernando’s tales that captivated him when he was a child. He chronicles the Spinozas’ involvement in some of Europe’s most formative cultural events with intertwining narratives that move through ages of tyranny, creativity, and social upheaval: into medieval Portugal, Grand inquisitor Torquemada’s
Spain, Rembrandt’s Amsterdam, the French Revolution, Freud’s Vienna, and the horrors of both world wars.
The Elixir of Immortality blends truth and fiction as it rewrites European history through comic, imaginative, scandalous, and tragic tales that prove “the only thing that can possibly give human beings immortality on this earth: our ability to remember.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This lengthy novel is crammed with history and ideas, yet readers may find the weightiest thing about it is the poundage of the actual volume. The narrator, Ari Spinoza, is a direct descendant of the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His great-uncle Franz “Fernando” Scharf (related by marriage) is a prolific storyteller with a vast repertoire of tales about past Spinozas. There is Israel, personal physician to the king of Portugal; his son, Chaim; Moishe the cabalist; and French writer Hector, among others. Many, many famous people from history who are not Spinozas make fleeting appearances as well: Freud, Voltaire, and Goya are but a few. On top of this, the more recent histories of Ari; his twin brother, Sasha; and Franz are recounted, such as Franz’s testy relationship with Ari’s grandmother. Little is ever fully developed, though, leaving this book feeling less like a single, satisfying novel than a summary of many other potentially interesting ones. There are plenty of rich ingredients, but somehow they make for a bland broth rather than a rich stew. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"An ample and fascinating, semi-fictional European chronicle of the old-new Jewish story in a broad historical context. Collaboration, complicities and conflicts came to light in this highly appealing narrative of exile and estrangement, of essential humanness and its spiritual potential for creativity and resilience through time and space."—Norman Manea, author of The Hooligan’s Return
“This book could be called many things: The book of memory, the book of fictive facts, the book of family, the book of continuum, of fragments, the book of the Jews, that is, of Time. It’s a very European book, not Hungarian, not Swedish, not Norwegian, not Spanish, but Central European, Eastern European, Western European. And the sun is also shining in it, thus it is also Southern European. It’s the book of belonging and homelessness. It’s a rich book: there is joy, drama, passion, defeat, victory in it; above all, words. Words, in great order.” —Péter Esterházy

"Rarely — very rarely — a work is born into the world as if already old, as if inevitable, as if immemorially there. We name it Myth, or Folklore, and sometimes History; but always and always it is Story. In this realm of Eternal Tale dwells Sheherazade, and Don Quixote, and Chaucer and Bocaccio, masters of chronicles that seem to have no origin, so integral are they to the air we breathe. The Elixir of Immortality is of this everlasting company, and given the dizzying two-thousand-year-old story of the Jews of Europe, how could it be otherwise? The remarkable Spinoza family line threads through a teeming procession of rabbis, sultans, siblings, philosophers, Inquisitors; chronologies and geographies; God and Torah and torments and pogroms; history’s famous (Rembrandt, Voltaire, Freud) and infamous (Torquemada, Hitler, Stalin); geniuses and rascals. And all of it in the naïve voice of the storyteller, with its sly undercurrent of ironic wit, through which one can follow the generational recurrence of the enormous Spinozan nose. Not Gogol’s nose, not Cyrano’s, but the Shylockian nose of endemic Jew-hatred, here laughingly magicked into mockery of the mockers.
In its mammoth scope and aspiration, The Elixir of Immortality is like no other contemporary novel. Call it, then, the humanity-besotted outpouring of a sublime and tragic jester.” Cynthia Ozick

"A Dan Brown novel done right, full of wit and mystery. Memorable and sure to be one of the big novels of the season." Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Gleichmann here masterfully spins out the tangled fates of 17 generations of Spinozas...A supple translation of the Norwegian original conveys the cathartic force of this masterpiece." Booklist (Starred Review)

"If Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude took place in cosmopolitan Europe, or if the cast of the Arabian Nights rubbed shoulders with the greatest minds of Western civilization, then those works might resemble this magical and tragic novel." —Jewish Book Council

"[An] imaginative and intriguing story..." —FlavorWire

"The Elixir of Immortality is an entertaining pan-European epic, an extended family saga that will have you flipping back to the family tree diagram at the front of the book while searching Wikipedia to brush up on your European history...[A]n amusing panorama of European history through the many eyes of one prodigious Jewish family." —The Rumpus

"A few novels are so thoroughly engrossing that one feels compelled to reread them immediately...[C]ompellingly readable and lively for some 800 pages. It’s the kind of book that, wherever you open it, you get hooked. Quite amazing for a first novel... [T]he simple truth is that this beautiful narrative and its myriad tales celebrates the age-old Jewish injunction: Zachor (remember). Few of us know our family histories back more than a few generations: Gleichmann offers us a world both real and imagined where we can sense our selves as we might have been hundreds of years back. A fabulous novel." –Fuse

Kirkus Reviews
A charged philosophical novel that ranges across centuries to examine where things went wrong (and sometimes right) in history for the Jews, from the heyday of Moorish Iberia to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "Our family originated in a mystery and a miracle before almost any of the European nations were created, and we've played a significant role in history without feeling arrogant about the secret knowledge...that we bore with us through various ages and lands." Our narrator relates a millennium's worth of tales surrounding that "secret knowledge," namely the means to stay alive forever. Other alchemical talents include potions of various sorts, including one to fend off treason, another concoction that would find favor in the courts of Europe, where some member of the Spinoza family or another, Zelig-like, is always present. (The omnipresence of figures such as "the Cabalist" has a sharp point.) A best-seller in its birthplace of Norway, publisher and literary critic Gleichmann's novel opens with a dying mother's plaintive remembrance of a blameless young boy's death at the hands of the Nazi occupiers of Oslo; it closes with an evocation of that sad young man, raised in the voice of our narrator, who is threatened with the very loss of that voice. He, like all in his lineage, has a gift of "embellishing the ugly and making the fleeting moment eternal." But can that gift save them? Can they spin the gold of immortality for themselves as well? In a sprawling saga that embraces the likes of the storied kings of Castile and the philosopher Voltaire, Gleichmann has obvious good fun in exploring the implications, as well as the Big Questions, chief among them, "how God could allow such a thing." Full of wit and mystery. Memorable and sure to be one of the big novels of the season.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590515891
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 180,693
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Gabi Gleichmann was born in Budapest in 1954 and raised in Sweden. After studies in literature and philosophy, he worked as a journalist and served as president of the Swedish PEN organization. Gleichmann now lives in Oslo and works as a writer, publisher, and literary critic. His first novel, The Elixir of Immortality, was sold to eleven countries prior to its first publication.
Michael Meigs is an arts journalist and theatre reviewer in Austin, Texas, who served more than thirty years as an economist and diplomat with the U.S. Department of State. In 2011 the American Scandinavian Foundation awarded him the annual ASF Translation Prize for his English version of The Dean by Lars Gustafsson.

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Read an Excerpt

   I was born in a world where the past had more meaning than the future. The shining promise offered to others by the new day meant nothing to us. Our golden age lay behind us and was wrapped in deep silence. Oddly enough, no one in the family talked about the fates of our many family members, either because no one could bear to relive the past or simply because everyone wanted to shield us children from the suffering of the Spinozas throughout the ages. We’d been struck by so many misfortunes. 
   We’d been dogged by disaster as far back as anyone could remember. Almost everything that happened in the world turned out to be disastrous for us. The Middle Ages. The Enlightenment. The French Revolution. Emancipation. World wars. Catholicism. Nazism. Communism. Liberalism. 
   Life in our family was based on principles that had never offered us security in the past and might always be subject to attack in the future. We were secular Jews who’d lost contact with traditional concepts of our faith and customs, Jews who never put down roots wherever we were living. That’s why we were forever excluded from the benefits of joining any other community.
   If it hadn’t been for my great-uncle, a man who actually had no blood ties to us, Sasha and I would have grown up in that tyranny of silence. But Fernando knew how to conjure up our hidden legends and all the events and history that lay concealed deep within our genes, and he brought our heritage to life for us with his epic talent for storytelling. I’m convinced he understood what our family’s willful suppression of our story was doing to us children, and he wanted to infuse us with vital force and courage by giving my twin brother and me something to be proud of: strong roots. That was why he taught us that the events themselves were to blame. None of it was our fault.

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