Reading “The Books of Jacob” with — and Against — the Riverhead Reader’s Guide: A Reader’s Guide
By Marek MakowskiMarch 1, 2022
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
EARLY IN OCTOBER, I received a package from New York: one of those mailers padded with bubble wrap. On the back, I found, adhered to the envelope mailer, an image of a comet set behind a quotation: “I have always been interested in the mechanisms of forgetting, and fascinated by how much of people’s lives and realities they fail to remember.” The attribution showed these words were Olga Tokarczuk’s, “winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.”
This, I understood, would not be the typical advance review copy. Publishers have sent me ARCs before, but those deliveries were unbranded, the books often folded or creased, battered from their journey from the epicenter of American publishing to the Midwest. Sometimes I received PDFs, as all the printed copies had been shipped to other reviewers.
I ripped open the envelope to unveil a stepstool of a novel, more than 950 pages long: The Books of Jacob, in paperback proofs, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Riverhead Books. It did not look different from other ARCs. But the publisher had also sent something else: a laminated booklet of thick, glossy pages, displaying the same cover as the ARC but with additional text printed along the left edge: “A Reader’s Companion to The Books of Jacob by Nobel Prize-Winning Author Olga Tokarczuk.”
The companion looks and feels like an official document. It is 13 pages long, with an additional a four-page excerpt from the novel at the end. The second page displays a photo of Tokarczuk standing in front of the Swedish Academy with her Nobel Prize, and the text above it, in bold caps, declares this work her magnum opus. The following page, however, bears a smaller heading, written in a more personal tone: “Dear Reader.” This missive, signed by two publicists at Penguin Random House, is theatrical, charged with the praise of newspaper blurbs, sounding a literary event: Tokarczuk’s first book translated into English since her Nobel Prize in 2019, a “massive bestseller” in Poland in 2014, “indisputably” her “masterwork to date,” a “monumental achievement,” “epic in scope,” “internationally groundbreaking,” “profoundly universal,” an “ecstatic odyssey.”
This language could be dismissed as marketing hyperbole — though I have read the novel in English and Polish and promise you the praise is deserved — but it also could be read as an earnest invitation. It is a letter written in the excitement that a novel inaccessible to so many English-language readers for so long can now be read and marveled at. It is a promise, from two readers who made it to the other side of this journey, that you will “find yourself transported and transformed.”
2. Did You Know?
The third page of the reader’s guide — which asks, “Did You Know?” — provides background information on the text. Tokarczuk labored on the novel for six years, during which she traced the travels of her protagonist, an 18th-century Polish Jew named Jacob Frank who claimed to be the messiah, around Europe. The book became a best seller in Poland, and the Nobel Committee called it her magnum opus. After the novel won the Nike Literary Award in 2015, Tokarczuk noted in a television interview that Poland was not entirely open or tolerant in the past; in response, nationalists sent her death threats, forcing her publisher to hire bodyguards. The guide does not go into detail about this, but according to The Daily Telegraph, “after being verbally attacked in a shop near her home,” Tokarczuk “learnt to shoot a bow and arrow.”
Tokarczuk’s 2014 essay “How I Wrote The Books of Jacob” (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), which comprises the next four pages of the reader’s companion, describes the novel as “the story of a large group of eighteenth-century Jews from Podolia […] who became followers of Jacob Frank, a merchant who at some point had professed Islam and then commanded the group’s conversion, with great pomp, to Catholicism.” The Catholic church imprisoned Frank for heresy at Jasna Góra for 13 years. When Russia invaded Poland, he fled to Offenbach am Main, “where he founded a huge court that served as a religious centre.” In these events, Tokarczuk saw a “sort of morose but unintentionally absurd comedy” driven by Frank, “a trickster” with “panache and imaginative power.” His followers were “risking their very identity and exposing themselves to spiritual as well as political danger” through what they believed to be necessary heresy, “an idea for changing the world.” Tokarczuk would write along both tracks of history: the official, ordered sequence of events, and the alternative, uncanny story characterized by associations, mystery, and absurdity.
The rest of the manual consists of a synopsis, divided by headers corresponding with the novel’s seven “books.” It describes Frank’s character, the diversity of the area’s languages and people, the historical experiences of women, and major events. Every reader’s guide, of course, follows the interests of the guide: they choose what to linger on and what to pass by. Reader’s guides are our pocketbooks — this one the Little Larousse to The Books of Jacob — including expert testimonials, assorted texts, introductions to customs and history, and interpretive commentaries. A reader’s guide is a tour book ordering our journey, which otherwise might be disordered, dangerous, exhausting, inefficient, or unfulfilling.
The presence of a synopsis also acknowledges this epic novel’s demands on contemporary reviewers, who have many other books in their inboxes and on their desks and often must reduce a complex text, on deadline, to brief paragraphs. Tokarczuk maintains her novel’s pace with section breaks, narrating her characters’ psychological development with the tension of discovery, the slow but progressive movement of their thoughts. But still this novel is long, complicated, and about a strange religious movement from a strange time and place. One could say it is written against our times, in defiance of our short attention spans, the spinning news cycle, the pithy tweet, and the rapid scroll. The novel poses a challenge to our literature, too: we do not explore Tokarczuk’s private life in this text, and she does not shy from exploring her characters’ spiritual and mystical beliefs. This reader’s guide, then, intercedes as a defense of The Books of Jacob, as well as an encouragement to trust this unusual, stimulating text.
A reader’s guide relieves us of our initial confusion and allows us to comfortably explore a new experience. But Tokarczuk’s novel is also an experiment in form, forcing us to learn how to read in new ways. And it is an experimental historical novel, offering its own kind of reader’s guide to history. By writing from an eccentric (ex-centric) perspective about the women excluded from the historical archives, Tokarczuk teaches us a new historiographic way to see: we learn to see what may not be apparent but is nonetheless present. In this way, The Books of Jacob becomes a reader’s guide for life.
3. The Drama of Detail
Anyone who picks up the book will know it is an epic novel. They will feel the weight of nearly 1,000 pages. They will have been initiated to the book’s mythology through essays and reviews; if not, they will have read about it on the dust jacket.
What does it mean to be epic? The epic typically crosses vast terrain, scans many lives, traverses years, and encompasses grand themes like love, hope, suffering, death, and the meaning of life. The Books of Jacob odysseys through empires over centuries (it begins in 1752 but drifts back in time and then shoots forward, all the way through the Holocaust and, briefly, even the early 2010s). “In the particular is contained the universal,” as Joyce once said, and the epic novel — especially Tokarczuk’s — cannot convey this catalog of places, times, and themes without scrutinizing the minutiae of its characters’ lives. The epic novel is epic because it holds the unfathomable quantities of life — teeming cartloads over-packed with details.
This is what a reader’s guide allows us to do: dwell in the details. The Books of Jacob is incredible because of its sheer mass of its details, so sensuous, so precise, that its readers cannot help but marvel at the novel’s construction. In the early pages, Tokarczuk lays out so much detail that the book simultaneously develops as a novel and a manifesto on writing historical fiction and retrieving, or revisioning, the past.
Before we even meet Jacob Frank, Tokarczuk paints his milieu with expressive strokes, and her felicity with detail makes other novels read like pixelated reproductions of life. Father Benedykt Chmielowski walks through the stalls on the outskirts of Rohatyn, where “[i]n every place there is the cloying smell of malt that gets into all that is up for sale and gluts a person just as bread can.” Yente travels in a carriage: “Through the canvas, dirty and torn, she watched the world they were leaving behind them folding itself up into winding lines of road, balks, trees, and horizon.” In Tokarczuk’s metaphors, we find the manifold things of the time: “Slowly, reluctantly, the mechanism of [Father Chmielowski’s] mind awakens, wheels and pinions starting up, the whole getting going just like the clock that stands in the vestibule of the presbytery.” Elżbieta Drużbacka thinks, “This autumn is like a piece of embroidery done by invisible needles.”
This great historical novel, this epic of the imagination, stages its own writing. Here narration is a dramatic act: salvaging, by conjuring, the details of the past. Tokarczuk describes how “[i]n the mornings the little panes of glass in the windows are covered in frost in patterns that innocently imitate the advancements of spring — leaves, buds, ferns.” She brings a workshop in Craiova to life, vivid with “Stamboul fabrics, which come in all different colors, interwoven with gold, in amaranth, red, green, in cerulean stripes or embossed with floral patterns,” “rolled up in bales and covered in canvas to protect them from dust and sun”; “soft Algerian carpets made of wool so delicate it feels like damask”; “camlet, also in bales and of various colors”; “little kilims, tassels, fringes, mother-of-pearl and lacquer buttons, small decorative weapons, lacquer snuffboxes”; “fans painted with scenes”; “pipes, expensive stones”; “halva and Turkish delight”; “leather goods, sponges, fluffy towels, brocade, delightful Khorasan and Kerman scarves with lions and peacocks embroidered on them.” When Jacob flees home as a child, Tokarczuk describes how “[t]he men have run down to the river, spooking the flocks of geese grazing on the pastures; the little white feathers float after them and come to rest in their hair.” Nabokov speaks of this as “caress[ing] the detail, the divine detail” when he praises novels we experience as more real than life itself. Importantly, Tokarczuk writes in the present tense, which makes the past — with all its unrecorded lives, sensations, mysteries, and dreams — come to life as we read.
In the novel’s final part, “The Book of Names,” Tokarczuk mostly abandons tactile detail for biographical facts. Her section headers list names as Tokarczuk finishes up each of the characters’ stories. The artist steps back from her miniatures, takes the long view: the prose becomes simpler, more direct; the pace quicker; the organization more logical. She cleans up her workspace, shuts her reference books, powers down her laptop, and goes home.
4. Yente; Or, the Perspectives We Adopt to Tell a Story about the Past
This novel is about Jacob Frank — in some ways. The title bears his name, and the plot traces the movement of his life and myth as he brings together his followers through visions and parables, the comet said to be following his path, the “strange glow” circling his head. It is Jacob and his messianic promise, the reader’s guide suggests, that constitute Tokarczuk’s epic.
But really, this novel is about Jacob’s grandmother. It is about Yente and the perspectives we adopt to tell a story about the past. It is about this mysterious figure, flitting in the space between life and death, and what she sees, and what her sight allows us to see. Tokarczuk presents Jacob as a mystery, glimpsed through others’ eyes. She does not permit us access to his final thoughts, but she does bring us into Yente’s body and soul, starting and ending the novel with her. When Yente is introduced, the great drama of this epic historical novel about the Frankists’ excursion through religions, borders, and languages becomes, instead, the drama of his grandmother’s flights through the real imagined past.
After swallowing an amulet that sustains her between life and death, Yente learns to move like an omniscient narrator. She rises out of her body: “Then suddenly, as though from some unexpected impact, Yente sees everything from above.” Almost every time Tokarczuk mentions Yente, she reminds us of her point of view. We read of “Yente, who is always present and sees all,” and “Yente, who is everywhere.” The narrator tells us that “Yente sees all of this from above”; “from where Yente is looking, there are no dates.” These descriptions function as Yente’s own mythological epithets, like those in the Iliad and the Odyssey that reintroduce heroes by referencing their swift feet, lion hearts, and glinting helmets. It is as if Tokarczuk were repeating Yente’s position like a mantra, like a spell of Jacob Frank’s, like an incantation of the power of art. It is a declaration, repeated over and over, that occupying an imaginative, ex-centric perspective can unveil the interconnectedness of all people, places, actions, times, and things.
From above, Yente can observe how the young Jacob brings together the children in a village, “from the eldest to the youngest, Christian and Jewish.” The crowd visits a cemetery and the cave where Jacob says he was born. A girl doesn’t believe him and calls him “Pimple face.” Suddenly the scene shifts: “Now Yente flies back into the past, where Yankiele is still little and has barely calmed down his crying.” Through Yente’s eyes, we peer on the scene in which Jacob murmurs good night to his entire family and neighbors and everyone he saw that day. She watches as he drifts asleep and continues to speak, “talking and talking, softer and softer,” and how “into his words now creep strange mistakes and slips, and there is no one left awake to correct him, so slowly this litany contorts bizarrely, becomes a magic spell, incomprehensible, spoken in an old, forgotten tongue.”
It is one thing to write a costume drama of a novel, stocked with heavy chests, ancient mannerisms, and market stalls. It is another to abandon chronology and soar through time and space, from character to character, from scandalous imprisonments to a little boy revealing, through his bedtime speech, how his words can twist reality like forgotten prophets’ tongues. In perhaps her greatest feat, Yente watches the Frankists get baptized in a cathedral:
Yente looks down on them from the top of the vault. She sees a sea of heads, big and small, in hats, caps, and turbans, and they remind her of a bumper crop of mushrooms — all sorts of honey fungus growing in clusters, each one similar to the next, chanterelles with fantastical headdress and the little stems of lone Boletus, embedded powerfully in the ground. Then, in a flash, her gaze travels to the nailed-up, half-naked Christ on the cross, and Yente gazes through the eyes of that wooden face.
Yente allows us a new point of view in which people can be perceived as a crop of fungi. The move to the eyes of Christ is reminiscent of her 1996 novel, Primeval and Other Times, in which the narrator takes the perspective of an icon of the Virgin Mary, watching people coming to pray in a church. But in The Books of Jacob, the narrator is one level removed. Late in the novel, Hayah senses this: she feels Yente’s presence but also feels “the presence of someone else entirely, of a completely different nature. This is someone tenderly observing them, her and the office, and all the brothers and sisters scattered across the earth, and the people on the streets. This someone is attentive to details.”
Who is this? In her Nobel lecture, Tokarczuk describes her vision of “the tender narrator” who “manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters” and demonstrate that everything is “mutually connected into a single whole.” The tender narrator also views events “ex-centrically,” distanced from conventional viewpoints. It becomes clear, reading The Books of Jacob, that these narrative theories arose from the challenge of writing the epic history of the Frankists as a novel. As Tokarczuk has said, Yente became the mechanism through which she could hold together this expansive universe of details and lives — “along with that someone else entirely,” “tenderly observing them.”
Yente is a tender narrator. At the end of the novel, “Yente feels something like tenderness toward” the dead (both mentions of tenderness are exact translations from the Polish: czule, czułości). Earlier, Yente sees the spies following Jacob and “the great cosmos of the state apparatus” behind the passports scrutinized at borders. Where she exists, “times intermingle, overlap.” She understands “that in fact the world is made of words that, once uttered, lay claim to every order, so that all things seem to occur at their behest.” She is like the camera obscura, that “product of the human imagination” that Moshe-Thomas wonders at, only more mobile. I am more in awe of this novel’s narrative stance than its characters or plot: its faith in storytelling, its creative leaps, its freedom with Yente, its alchemical art.
In “The Book of the Road,” the narrator explains how, if you look
from very close up, as Yente sees things now, you can see all those bridges, hinges, gears, and bolts, and all the minor instruments that link distinct, singular, and unique events. […] All this is clearly visible from where Yente is now; everything can be seen flickering and ceaselessly transforming — how beautifully it pulsates.
5. Secondary Characters
While the reader’s guide focuses on Jacob Frank, it takes care to follow a few of the major characters who circle around him. But by necessity, it cannot dwell on the minor: if it detailed the small movements of minds and hearts that make up most of this novel, it would be much too long, like this essay, or even the novel itself.
I have always wondered why certain passages of a literary work become more famous than others. Something in the writing itself draws us to these moments: the lyricism, the imagery, the pacing, the heightened emotions. We write and teach about the famous passages because they feel the most important. But there is a beauty in lingering with the seemingly insignificant. In Alejandro Zambra’s 2011 novel, Ways of Going Home (tr. Megan McDowell), the protagonist learns that “the less relevant the characters, the more likely we would be asked about them” on exams. “There was a certain beauty in the act, because back then we were exactly that: secondary characters, hundreds of children who crisscrossed the city lugging denim back-packs.”
Tokarczuk attends to the details and dreams that comprise a secondary life. When Jacob goes to visit his grandmother, who is lying in a woodshed, the narrator turns her eyes on Sobla, the woman taking care of Yente. We read how “this is Sobla’s big moment, and she is proud that Yente looks so lovely.” Not long after, the narrator introduces Gitla, a beautiful girl who “walks around in an unfaltering state of disarray, always wearing eccentric clothing,” reciting poems and visiting the cemetery alone after her mother’s death. She tells people that “she was the great-granddaughter of the king of Poland” and that “a swan had even nursed her with its milk.” After Eva, Frank’s daughter, rejects Franciszek Wołowski the younger’s offer of marriage, Franciszek journeys to Vienna, where he cries at the music of Haydn “discreetly,” his tears flowing “inwardly.” In the flood of applause, he realizes that “he would not be able to bear the lack of this music,” and “[t]he world became empty.”
There are minor characters, and there are minor moments for major characters unrecorded by guides. Bishop Dembowski thinks, “What are these other people like when they take off their robes? […] What changes in them when they are alone”? Nahman travels to Giurgiu to appeal to his beloved Jacob to return to Poland, and he recounts how, when he lies down to sleep,
[T]he image of my wife came back to me, and I was overcome by terrible grief, for my wife was now growing old alone, working hard, ruined, and eternally sad, felled by the hardships of this world. I was reminded of all the people suffering, and all the animals, until an internal sob tugged at my heart, and I began to pray feverishly for the end of this world, in which people merely lie in wait for one another to kill and steal and demean and do harm.
In another scene, “[t]he dewdrops on Yente’s body transform into ice crystals, tiny and gorgeous.” Pesel picks one up and holds it to the sunlight. “For a moment,” she glimpses “[w]hole palaces of crystals, whiter than the snow, glittering with glass, chandeliers, cut-glass chalices” — the major discovered by scrutinizing the minor.
6. Anemones in a Temperate Sea
In her essay “How Translators Are Saving the World,” Tokarczuk writes how a translator acts in the role of Hermes, transporting texts between languages and bringing the author to new audiences “across the borders of nation, language, and culture.” The letter at the start of the reader’s guide shares this conviction as it announces how The Books of Jacob will, at last, deliver Tokarczuk’s wondrous universe to English readers.
The guide praises Jennifer Croft’s translation, and rightfully so: bringing a novel from Polish into English is difficult enough because of the significant differences between the languages, even more so with a novel this long, this complex, this arduously researched and packed with this many voices and genres of writing. Croft has written about how she worked to fashion “an English text that is as heterogeneous (and well-researched) as it is nimble and lithe”: The Books of Jacob evidences her success.
Croft’s translation accurately represents Tokarczuk’s prose. Comparing my copies of Księgi Jakubowe and The Books of Jacob, I found the same passages marked and underlined in both, showing that Croft managed to ferry the beauty and wonder of Tokarczuk’s writing from language to language. And I was surprised to discover I had underlined passages in The Books of Jacob that I had passed over in the Polish version. Of course, books change with their readers: every time we read a book, we find something new, just as we do when we stare at our own faces in the mirror. But there is also something in Croft’s translation that opened the novel up for me — something in the rhythm and word choice that revealed aspects of Tokarczuk’s world I hadn’t seen before.
I underlined Croft’s description of how one woman’s “breathing sets the delicate lace around her throat in motion, like anemones in a temperate sea.” The simile is equally beautiful in Tokarczuk’s Polish: “ukwiały w ciepłym morzu.” Croft could have translated the phrase more typically as “anemones in a warm sea,” but by choosing “temperate” instead she maintained the tone of the Polish while bringing through the delicate beauty of Tokarczuk’s image in a more poetic expression. The syllables in Croft’s phrase rise and fall like the sea: the sounds of her vowels echo the sea’s sloughing, its sighs.
The novel stages the process of translation: the Frankists need to translate their convictions into the speech of each new locale. Events occur, then they are remembered and transcribed, “divided up into words and then reconstituted from these words,” a kind of translation between self and world, past and future. Jacob translates holy messages through rituals, lessons, stories, and bodies. In the tensest pages, Moliwda translates during the Catholic priests’ interrogation of the imprisoned Jacob. Moliwda slips words to Jacob in their private language and cautions Jacob to be careful with his heretical answers; Moliwda bends Jacob’s responses to the liking of the priests. This process shows how translation necessitates interpretation, as well as how the translator advocates for a speaker and must negotiate between different cultures and worlds. At the same time, the translation bears an almost magical power: one person speaks through another. We read how Jacob speaks “through Moliwda’s lips” and how “Jacob answers with Moliwda’s lips,” a metaphysics of translation, a sharing of the body and self.
7. A Reader’s Guide for Every Reader
Most of my students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison come into the classroom habituated to studying SparkNotes alongside the assigned text. Reading is a game they were taught, or even worse, a test, and they could win the game or ace the test with reader’s guides that explained a novel’s characters, plot, themes, symbols, and “deeper meanings.” Quickly we learn how little these guides contribute: they might gloss cultural references, but the text reconstitutes itself in between the page and the eye, and the meaning and significance of words change as every reader ponders them, imagines them, and relates them to their life.
In a recent interview, novelist Tom McCarthy asks, “When is a book actually read?” Not when your eyes stare at the words, he claims, but rather when the “effects play out over days, and weeks, and years. […] A book is being read as you (and countless other people) walk down the street or fall in love or follow world events, infecting and transforming all these things, and being transformed by them as well.” Reading happens between a reader and a book, but also between a reader and the world. Each reading, then, is a unique experience, and therefore, every reader reads a unique book, even though they all interpret the same words.
The ideal reader’s guide, then, would not be mass-produced for all readers but would be individualized for each reader. These guides would result from hours of interviews with every reader and intensive research into their lives, the many motivations and failed dreams that determined their character, and the countless unspoken influences they may not be aware of but that the researcher can perceive. The guide would be written in a personal hand, aware of each reader’s likes and dislikes, wants and needs. It would guide us not to the major events on each page but to ourselves. This would be impossible, of course, since we are libraries all; no single guide, even the most well-researched one, could suffice.
The correspondence between Father Chmielowski and Elżbieta Drużbacka, which Tokarczuk spreads throughout the novel, concerns this kind of individualized writing and reading. As Chmielowski works on his monument to knowledge, the first Polish encyclopedia (entitled New Athens), he writes to Drużbacka of his dream of universal access to knowledge. But, he explains, “[e]very one of us thinks differently,” and “sometimes it unsettles me greatly to think that what I write with mine own Hand may be understood in a completely different Way from how I had intended.” Drużbacka, a poet, disagrees: “I believe that to express in language the vastness of the world, it is impossible to use words that are too transparent, too unambiguous. […] Words and images must be flexible and contain multitudes, they must flicker, and they must have multiple meanings.” This novel accepts both perspectives, as Tokarczuk illuminates it with the headlights of historical record but also with the ambiguous flickers of poetic prose. Ultimately, she accepts the reality both writers discuss: every reader encounters a work of writing in an individual way.
If there were a guide for every reader, mine would include notes on being called the wrong name. The reader’s guide to my life would be a guide to being misread, a guide to growing up mispronounced: when they tried my name, strange sounds came from American mouths. They choked the beautiful open a of the first syllable — mar, the Spanish sea, echoes of my forebears — into a closed one, wrangling the sea into the body of a nag, mare, an abbreviation of nightmare that the British use to describe “a very unpleasant experience.”
All my life I fled to books, where sounds were contained. I could handle sounds carefully, on the page, in English, a language it took me years to read. We couldn’t afford all the books I wanted, so we went to the library. Those the library didn’t have, we purchased at Borders or Waldenbooks, for 30 days only. I trained myself to handle books like clouds or dreams, not creasing them or bending their corners or — how terrible the sound — breaking their spines like the other kids I knew. At the end of the month, I would return the books to the bookstores, and they would be read by someone else. Now I buy all the books I want, no longer waiting to borrow them from the library before deciding whether they’re worth the expense, and my bookshelves have bloomed across more and more of my living space, like some wild outgrowth after a volcanic eruption, as if I’ve been purchasing books to make up for all those I could never keep and never had a chance to read.
The Books of Jacob took its own mythic path to my hands. I remember watching, more than 10 years ago, a Polish television program during which Tokarczuk showed viewers the books in her workspace, gesturing to shelves filled with tomes about Judaism that she was reading for a new novel. In 2015, I took a break from studying literature in Missouri to watch a transmission of the Nike, Poland’s biggest literary prize. I witnessed Tokarczuk’s triumph with Księgi Jakubowe. That fall, I watched a Polish woman with bright red hair review the novel on YouTube. She claimed she couldn’t read it: it was too detailed and long. I emailed her, in Polish, writing that, if she couldn’t read it, she should send it to the States, where others might enjoy it. She did not respond. I then appealed to my mother, who called a relative in Poland to purchase the novel, and that relative handed it to another who flew back with it to Chicago, and I received the book when he arrived for Christmas.
I slipped into the text for weeks, and when I finally emerged, I felt wonder and longing. Reality seemed like a cheap copy of Tokarczuk’s world. Księgi Jakubowe unfolded in my thoughts like a piece of origami, like a water lily in a pond with its eccentric colors and scents, while all we were given in life was a two-dimensional world, drained of color, texture, and sound. Now, reading my second version of the novel, the advance review copy in Croft’s translation, I carried the book everywhere with me, underlined quotations, circled words, drew arrows from page to page, and scribbled theses in the margins amid little galaxies of penciled stars.
8. Transported and Transformed: The Power of Writing
The Books of Jacob is a novel in which, finally, words have been acknowledged as real things, like roses and ceramic bowls. In the opening pages, Tokarczuk brings our eyes right up to the outlines of the words soaking with saliva in Yente’s throat. We watch how “[t]he specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes.” Tokarczuk takes care to note how the essence of words “may be absorbed into the body’s tissues”: the Hebrew word meaning “waiting” allows Yente to rise out of her flesh and see all, to travel through space and time, and to endure, forever.
Mobs set fire to Talmuds, as if, by destroying books, they are destroying Jews. But words endure in memory and speech. On his deathbed, Bishop Dembowski experiences a vision of books burning: “But before the flames can lick the white off those pages, the letters, like ants or other speedy little creatures, escape in droves, in strings, and vanish into the darkness.” Once something is written, it exists forever — in our memories and actions, in the dense, unseen fabric of the universe. Words throb with power and life. This belief in the effects of language defines Tokarczuk’s historiography as well as her narrative. In his reflections, Nahman writes that “the world itself demands to be narrated, and only then does it truly exist, only then can it flourish fully. […] By telling the story of the world, we are changing the world.”
The reader’s guide was right: I found myself transported and transformed. Every time I have experienced this novel, I have become a different person. Don’t mistake this for hyperbole: journeying through an epic novel always transforms a reader. Epic novels condition us, teach our mind-bodies endurance and strength, convey us through spectacle and wonder, quicken us and slow us, calm and excite us, and tutor our gaze to see what in constant roving it fails to see. For a week after I finished Anna Karenina, I only heard Tolstoy’s voice — or the echoes of Tolstoy’s voice in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation — in my head. My thoughts sounded like the narration in the novel: I listened as their syntax and tone ordered the actions and descriptions of my life. My gaze seemed to penetrate the skin of others’ faces to access their secret thoughts. Once we traverse epic novels, some part of us, however small, becomes an epic novel, and we reemerge in our daily lives, our city streets and grocery stores, like wandering epics, living passports from elsewhere. It is as if, in slipping into those great word-landscapes, our bodies fall apart, and when we return from ink and paper to the world, we must reconstitute ourselves, in new bodies, made of new words.
In “The Book of Names,” Tokarczuk describes how the Frankists’ great-grandchildren hide during the Holocaust in the Korolówka cave, where their ancestors found solace and the promise of the eternal. The cave allows them to survive — an incredible resonance across time that Tokarczuk discovered late in writing the novel, after she had specified the significance of caves to her cast. The presence of the past will go on forever.
And Yente, one of the characters in this fiction, even surpasses the person who narrates her. She discovers that “she can also flow through human bodies, women, men, and children.” On the final page, in an act of magic and imaginative bravado, Yente soars through time and looks upon “a sitting figure, her face lit up by some white glow, hair peculiar, attire eccentric,” typing letters “on a bright flat rectangle of light.” In this reference to the laptop, the attire, and the hairstyle, we recognize the author herself, who wears her hair in the traditional Polish kołtun. On the final page, Yente gazes on Tokarczuk writing the novel. And this is not a literary conceit: Yente did this of her own volition. In her “Łódź Lectures,” Tokarczuk says, “I will never forget the gratitude I felt to this figure. […] and when I found even myself in her field of vision, I felt a shiver” (translation mine).
And so, this novel becomes another entry in the strange history not of art imitating life but of life imitating art. Like a sherpa, Tokarczuk guides us faithfully to the heights of imagination, where the seen and unseen commingle, where words suffuse the sky and ground like mist, and where we labor, tire, wonder, gain strength, shiver in frost and warm our hands by fire, glimpse apparitions, discover our species fossilized in ice, journey to the sky, and marvel at the beauty and mystery of life in that delicate, rarefied air.
Marek Makowski teaches courses on writing, Shakespeare, and social media at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His writing has appeared in venues such as World Literature Today, Hyperallergic, Ploughshares, and The Yale Review. He is working on a novel and a book-length exploration of Shakespeare. You can find more of his work on his website, marekwriting.com.
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