Several years ago, Gabi Gleichmann’s wife received a letter from an 85-year-old uncle, summoning the couple from Oslo to his enormous castle. There, they were invited to pen their names on the official family tree, a document stretching back 3,500 years. The long illustrious Norwegian line includes captains of industry, bankers, a minister of foreign affairs and a prime minister. It was a remarkable sight.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” says Gleichmann, “but at the same time I had the thought of ‘there’s nothing to look at.’ Names, dates—it doesn’t say anything about human beings, lives full of dreams and misfortunes, good things and bad things, flesh and blood. ‘With my pen I can create life, which is not on this family tree.’ I thought I must do something to give my children more, something that is a gift from me to them.”
The Elixir of Immortality, Gleichmann’s first novel (English translation by Michael Meigs), is a father’s gift to his sons, his forefathers and the world. Through many generations of the Spinoza family, the novel traces the arc of the European Jewish diaspora through triumph and tragedy, from the beginning of the 12th to the end of the 20th century. Beginning with Baruch, the eldest sons of the storied Spinoza family’s many generations are entrusted by God, via Moses the prophet, with “the great secret that humanity has been seeking since the beginning of time,” the elixir of immortality. A failure to honor and protect this entrustment will result in the wiping of the family from the face of the earth.
A prolific journalist, essayist and critic (and former president of the Swedish PEN organization), Gleichmann trades the aggression of polemic for the tragicomedy of traditional storytelling. “The night before Baruch Halevy was born—in the year 1129—the October skies had been lit up by a comet with two tails,” Gleichmann writes. “It rolled like a blue flame across southern Europe. People fell to their knees and prayed to God. Dogs barked, women began to menstruate, ceilings collapsed, roosters laid eggs, and rats turned on one another.” Born in Hungary and educated early by a bibliophilic father, he was enchanted by 1,001 Arabian Nights. Elixir similarly weaves its many colorful threads into an impressive tapestry. “Digging deeply in the psychology of one character—I can’t do that because I have 250, 300 characters,” says Gleichmann. “The metaphor is that people are like on a chess board. You see the figures. The king thinks that he’s a king—I think I’m a human being of a certain kind, for example—but the moves the figures make are at the discretion of something else. That’s destiny.”
At least one major element seemed predestined as he began to write: the starring surname, Spinoza. Before leaving academia at age 23, Gleichmann studied literature and philosophy, and was particularly intrigued by the work of 17th-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was expelled from the Jewish religious community for humanistic beliefs deemed heretical. “They felt that his teaching was very dangerous. You couldn’t question god, because god was the foundation of everything,” says Gleichmann. The real-life Spinoza’s bravery and conviction are the founding characteristics of his fictional lineage. “When I started to write this book, I wanted to write about Jewish contributions to Western civilization during the last 1,000 years, and I couldn’t think of someone more perfect than Spinoza to write about.”
As Spinoza the philosopher appears in the book, so too do seminal villains from Torquemada to Hitler and Stalin. These historical personages act in service to the narrative; their actions and attributes are inventions. Shout-outs to Latin American magical realism, as in the multi-century lifespan of the wandering Jew, Salman de Espinosa, serve as additional reminders that the saga is fiction, not fact—though Gleichmann’s deft storytelling makes it easy to conflate the two. “Narratives like this one about the Spinoza family and millions of other family chronologies are the basis of history,” he writes. “They constitute the great story of mankind.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.