The Elixir of Immortality

Gabi Gle­ich­mann; Michael Meigs, trans.

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

Part truth, part fic­tion, and all emo­tion­al real­i­ty, this nov­el puts a new gloss on the his­to­ry of Europe with a strong imag­i­na­tive flair that is by turns humor­ous, scan­dalous, and trag­i­cal­ly sad. It is a debut nov­el that reads like the work of a deeply expe­ri­enced writer, one who has had many years to rethink and reshape the chron­i­cle of Jew­ish life in Europe and imbue it with a rich­er human­i­ty and a broad­er spirituality.

Gabi Gle­ich­mann, a native of Budapest born in 1954, grew up in Swe­den and turned his stud­ies of lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy into a career in jour­nal­ism. His inter­est in both phi­los­o­phy and Judaism moti­vat­ed him to study the his­to­ry of the Spin­oza fam­i­ly, who are at the cen­ter of this mes­mer­iz­ing tale, a tale that begins in the eleventh cen­tu­ry. At that time, the fam­i­ly owned a secret man­u­script, which was passed down through the gen­er­a­tions from father to son. In the pre­cious man­u­script was noth­ing less than the close­ly guard­ed secret of immortality.

The sto­ry is recount­ed from the per­spec­tive of Ari Spin­oza, who tells the tale – from his deathbed – of the thir­ty-six gen­er­a­tions that have hand­ed down this secret over the cen­turies. Ari, how­ev­er, has no son to whom to entrust the man­u­script, and to pre­serve his her­itage, he cre­ates the nar­ra­tive we read in this book. It is a use­ful device, and an effec­tive one. The sto­ry takes us on a good long ride through the for­ma­tive his­tor­i­cal events of Euro­pean his­to­ry, from medieval Por­tu­gal to Spain, to Rembrandt’s Ams­ter­dam and then to the French Rev­o­lu­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in Freud’s Vien­na and the human tragedies of the two World Wars, all the while insert­ing mem­bers of the Spin­oza fam­i­ly into the action in a way that human­izes the events and makes the expe­ri­ences seem like our own.

Through­out the book, the first-per­son nar­ra­tion is achieved through rich, flow­ing lan­guage that con­sis­tent­ly and seem­ing­ly effort­less­ly con­jures up images to accom­pa­ny the read­er on the jour­ney through Jew­ish Europe. This is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion at its best. We learn as we are deeply and thor­ough­ly enter­tained, because the char­ac­ters draw us in and share them­selves with us open­ly and hon­est­ly. At the same time, we are trans­port­ed through Ari’s sto­ry into the ethe­re­al realm of mem­o­ry, the only place, Gle­ich­mann inti­mates, where immor­tal­i­ty tru­ly resides.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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