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The Elixir of Immortality Paperback – October 1, 2013
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*Starred Review* An inveterate snoop, Moricz Spinoza sneaks from his father’s desk a mysterious old manuscript declaring, “The first Spinoza mixed life-giving herbs, and the last Spinoza will let his father’s inheritance go up in smoke.” Beginning with a medieval court physician reputed to have raised the dead with dove-wing potions, Gleichmann here masterfully spins out the tangled fates of 17 generations of Spinozas, all remembered by one of the family’s least distinguished progeny: the dying hoist-driver Ari Spinoza. Ari ponders the fate of a would-be liberator of fellow Jews dying at the Inquisitor’s stake, a poetic astronomer perishing in the Black Plague, a sophisticated (and posthumously famous) philosopher excommunicated by his synagogue, a pioneering female physicist committing suicide after her famous lover abandons her, a confused kinswoman boarding a death train bound for Auschwitz, an unswerving communist sent to prison by Stalinist overlords, and, finally, a twin brother perishing in a railyard accident caused by Ari’s own mischievousness. Yet in recording his family’s travails, Ari finds a healing power by breaking through the suffocating silence of forgetfulness, a power exceeding that of the Cabalistic lore zealously preserved by Moricz’s father and his forebears. A supple translation of the Norwegian original conveys the cathartic force of this masterpiece. --Bryce Christensen
"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
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Top Customer Reviews
The touches of magical realism reminded me of 100 Years of Solitude and read like a Forest Gump/Big Fish mash-up. The fictitious history used real conflicts, events, and historical figures as the backdrop for each character's story and served to both ground and propel the narrative forward.
Ari and his great-uncle Fernando's stories are interjected throughout the narrative, breaking up the monotony of his ancestors' tales. Genes and the idea of certain desirable and undesirable traits being "in your blood" were repeated themes. This sanguine connection becomes even more apparent as we watch each generation suffer, fail, triumph and fall in love. As the story progresses, we can trace the interweaving threads that connect not just blood, but all people. This wasn't a Jewish epic, but a story of the importance of family, memory and storytelling.
While a long book, don't be intimidated. It was easy to put down and come back to without feeling lost. When events from earlier in the story are brought up again, a quick synopsis was usually included, and since this book ran to over 700 pages, these recaps never felt redundant.
From the Moors in Spain, to World Wars and Trotsky, this book covered a lot of ground and introduced a lot of characters, but without ever feeling overwhelming. It covered all the emotions you'd expect a family epic to cover, heartstrings were tugged and laugh lines were activated.
But, the Spanish inquisition? That, I wasn't expecting.