Noah Gordon, an American author who was virtually unknown at home but whose novels about history, medicine and Jewish identity transformed him into a literary luminary abroad, died, Monday, at his home in Dedham, Massachusetts. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lorraine Gordon.
Noah Gordon’s debut novel, “The Rabbi” (1965), which dealt with the title character’s marriage to a minister’s daughter, was lodged for 26 weeks on The New York Times’ bestseller list. But most of his subsequent eight books fared less successfully when they were published domestically, although they have proliferated since as e-books.
“When I began, my market was America: You either made it in America or didn’t make it,” he told the Times in 1996. “Well, now your market is the world.”
Michael Gordon, his son and literary agent, said in an email that his father’s books have sold some 25 million copies in 34 languages.
Noah Gordon’s “The Physician” (1986) — the first book in a dynastic trilogy that began in 11th century Persia, continued during the US Civil War with “Shaman” (1992) and ended with a modern female doctor dealing with the morality of abortion in “Matters of Choice” (1996) — had an initial print run of only 10,000 copies in the United States.
But it eventually sold some 10 million copies, including more than 6 million in Germany, where, in the 1990s, six of Gordon’s novels were on bestseller lists simultaneously.
In 2013, “The Physician” was adapted into a German film, in English, starring Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard and Ben Kingsley. An award-winning musical based on the book is about to tour Spain.
The novel, based on meticulous research, follows the odyssey of an 11th century Scottish protagonist, Robert Jeremy Cole, who wants to study medicine in the Middle East, where medical schools were reputed to be more advanced than those in Western Europe. Since Christians were barred from Islamic schools, Cole disguises himself as a Jew.
The book’s success, even abroad, was a fluke. Just before the publication date, Gordon’s editor at Simon & Schuster left and his agent retired. But Karl H. Blessing, who worked for Droemer Knaur, a German publisher, was captivated by the book and invested heavily in promoting it.
“While Gordon has been published in 38 countries, Spain and Germany, where he is most popular, are two countries that grapple with a history of antisemitism,” Andrew Silverstein wrote in the Forward this year. “While not all of Gordon’s eight books have Jewish themes, most do, and his Jewishness is well known, which may play a role in his popularity in these two countries.”
Gordon won Spain’s Silver Basque Prize twice for bestselling book, in 1992 and 1995. His novels were also popular in Italy and Brazil.
His last novel, “The Winemaker,” a story of factions dueling for the Spanish throne at the end of the 19th century, was published in 2012.
Gordon’s “Shaman” won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians as the best historical novel of 1991 and 1992. Peter Blauner praised it in The New York Times Book Review, writing that Gordon “throws in all the twists and turns readers expect in a historical drama, but he takes the corners with a measured sense of pace and irony.” It was a bestseller only in Europe, however.