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The Nobel Prize-winner's richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe. In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas -- and a new unrest -- begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Befor The Nobel Prize-winner's richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe. In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas -- and a new unrest -- begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect's secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank -- a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day -- is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries -- those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is -- The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.


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The Nobel Prize-winner's richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe. In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas -- and a new unrest -- begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Befor The Nobel Prize-winner's richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe. In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas -- and a new unrest -- begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect's secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank -- a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day -- is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries -- those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is -- The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

30 review for The Books of Jacob

  1. 4 out of 5

    David

    The Books of Jacob is a monumental work, featuring a superb English translation by Jennifer Croft. This is rightly regarded as Olga Tokarczuk’s masterwork, an immersive historical novel that breathes life into the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the brink of partition. The society Tokarczuk presents is fluid and permeable. Languages and customs proliferate. What we, 250 years later, regard as fixed - ethnic identity, religious dogma, borders, language - is shown to be in a constant state o The Books of Jacob is a monumental work, featuring a superb English translation by Jennifer Croft. This is rightly regarded as Olga Tokarczuk’s masterwork, an immersive historical novel that breathes life into the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the brink of partition. The society Tokarczuk presents is fluid and permeable. Languages and customs proliferate. What we, 250 years later, regard as fixed - ethnic identity, religious dogma, borders, language - is shown to be in a constant state of flux. It is only afterwards that history gives us a narrative, with labels and boundaries and a trajectory that didn’t exist for those living at the time. The Books of Jacob is a powerful rejoinder to a mode of thought that looks for fixed identities and tidy narratives. It isn’t a perfect book, and the story tends to sag a bit before picking up in the last half, but the world Tokarczuk brings to life stays with the reader long of the book is finished.

  2. 5 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    A Grudge Against Creation We tend to blame the rise of conspiracy theories on the internet and access to social technologies. Of course this is merely down to unawareness of history. Conspiracy has never needed a high-tech enabler to rush around a population. The primitive technology of the human voice can overcome any cultural or political barrier. And when conditions are right the conspiracy is suddenly visible and sucks its adherents from one world into another. Historically the most ambitious A Grudge Against Creation We tend to blame the rise of conspiracy theories on the internet and access to social technologies. Of course this is merely down to unawareness of history. Conspiracy has never needed a high-tech enabler to rush around a population. The primitive technology of the human voice can overcome any cultural or political barrier. And when conditions are right the conspiracy is suddenly visible and sucks its adherents from one world into another. Historically the most ambitious conspiracy theory ever advanced doesn’t involve child-trafficking, stolen elections or the evils of chemical-additive to the water supply. These are trivial claims compared with the rather cosmic conspiracies of the ancient Manicheans and Gnostics. In these theories the scam being run is not by people on each other but by God on all of humanity. According to the Gnostics, the world that we inhabit is the result of an evil plot carried out by a “power-system”, with either divine approval or acquiescence, in order to torture humanity. This can be demonstrated empirically by simply looking around. The substance of this world is human suffering, not accidental or intermittent suffering, but intentional and unrelenting. As Olga Tokarczuk puts it through one of her characters: “pain is the emperor of this world.” The Books of Jacob is about this all-encompassing, ancient tale of Gnostic conspiracy updated for use in the modern world. The factual proof, the theoretical explanation, and the available remedies are all here. So are the psychological and sociological reasons for the acceptance of such otherwise outrageous tales. Target audiences are identified and their motivations matched with appropriate media messages. In fact the book is a sort of how-to guide, a play-book, for starting and promoting conspiracy theories effectively. Gnostics hate the world they inhabit. As Nahman, a follower of Jacob Frank, the principle subject rather than the main character of Ms Tokarczuk’s story, nicely summarises the sentiment, “… from childhood on, I, too, absorbed this eternal grudge against creation.” Some Gnostics want to be elsewhere, usually in a realm of light whose existence is confirmed by the pinpricks of light we can see in the firmament of the night sky. This sort of hopeful emigrant to the stars is sullen but benign. He minds his own business, reads a great deal, and keeps on the lookout for escape. The rest of us hardly notice. But the other sort of Gnostic, the permanent residents as it were, would prefer a replacement for this world. They are activists. Despite their pessimism, they are also idealists who have a vision, not a vision of some desired end-state but of change, revolution, disruption of the status quo. they want to belong to a movement, religious hippies, perhaps. As Nahman says of himself, he “has the sense that he’s a part of something bigger, something unprecedented and unique.” These gnostics also want revenge and will not be deterred by factual evidence contrary to their views.. Gnostics differ from nihilists in that in that they believe that under new management (theirs) the world could be habitable. But they share with mere destroyers of society ignorance of any positive virtues which new social structures should have. They are aware of their ignorance. They know they’ve been deceived: “Certain facts have been concealed from us, no doubt, and this is why we cannot assemble the world as we know it into a single whole. There has to be a secret somewhere to explain it all.” The Messiah knows the inside story: “The world doesn’t come from a kind or caring God,… God created all of this by accident, and then he was gone. That is the great mystery. The Messiah will come quietly when the world is submerged in the greatest darkness and the greatest misery, in evil and in suffering. He will be treated like a criminal. So the prophets have foretold.” Resident Gnostics, consequently, tend toward a Messiah figure in whom they have confidence for working out all the details of social change. Jacob Frank was such a Chosen One in that strange region at the nexus of the Polish, Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires in the 18th century. As Joseph Roth described the populace so succinctly 200 years later: "...fatherland for them is whatever country decides to conscript them." The Messianic call represents a chance to belong, to be settled, to be recognised. Incredibly Frank got himself recognised by the Priests and hated by the Rabbis - quite a feat for a self-proclaimed Saviour. The concept of the Messiah is of course Jewish in origin. He is the spiritual and political leader of a new world order. Messiahs act; they preach; they attract crowds; they take control; they confront authority. This is the Judaic ideal. But the apotheosis of the messianic ideal in practice is certainly Christian, having been worked out both spiritually and politically over many generations. The Christian Messiah knows how to rule through his church. Consequently, Jewish Messiahs have proven rather less adept in their Gnostic ambitions than the more established Christian competition. Messianism always starts as a populist movement. It then moves to infiltrate the establishment. Its ultimate success however depends on its ability to overthrown the establishment in which it has become a junior partner. This is a tricky business. Christians got lucky with Constantine; the Mormons with Eisenhower. But Jacob Frank was rather less so with the Polish bishops. Tokarczuk does a pretty good job of explaining why. Gnostic movements tend to fragment and their Messiahs become increasingly radical as they believe their own press. Like Jesus they are then liquidated. Unlike Jesus, they leave no Gnostic St. Paul to organise the survivors. One can only hope that QAnon, the various neo-Nazi factions, Steve Bannon and the other Trumpist Republicans don’t read Books of Jacob for tips on subversion. Thinking about it, I consider this a fairly certain bet.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Marc

    If you like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the thing for you. Tokarczuk immerses us in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. Most of them are Jews, and the author examines that J If you like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the thing for you. Tokarczuk immerses us in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. Most of them are Jews, and the author examines that Jewish world in great detail. Her central story focuses on a Jewish heretic movement which actually existed in the middle of the 18th century. The movement was led by Jacob Frank, an Ottoman Jew. He was a very unlikely guru, but had an enormous charisma and managed to get tens of thousands of Jews behind his 'Trinity Faith'. He seduced them with an eclectic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which was particularly attractive because it offered the Jews, with their always precarious position in Catholic Poland, the prospect of civil rights through baptism. Olga Tokarczuk is the most acclaimed Polish writer of the moment (twice the Niké prize, once the Man Booker International prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize 2018), but with this book she has had a really difficult time in her own country. Her focus on the Catholic discrimination against Jews in Greater Poland was not appreciated by the right-wing, conservative government currently in power in Warsaw. Also the picture she paints of an extremely diversified Polish nation, with a jumble of ethnicities and religious movements that lived together, contradicts the homogenic Polish identity that has been cultivated since the 2nd world war. But that is precisely what makes this book extremely interesting. The way Tokarczuk brings all these different movements, cultures and ethnicities to life is a feast for the reader's eye. Her narrative style even has a certain Marquezian flair, with a dash of magical realism through the character of the old Yenta who remains in a state of coma for hundreds of pages, and - stepped out of herself - glides through space and time, guiding the story a step further. In the same way, a lot of characters move to and through different regions, making this a novel in which borders (not only physical ones) are lifted. But there is a downside to this verbal firework, and to this physical and spiritual mobility: the immersion in all those worlds, the dozens of characters, the constant changes in perspective and time, all this makes reading this very bulky book a real test. For instance, it takes a quarter of the book, almost 250 pages, before the real story about the heresy of Jacob Frank takes off; until then Tokarczuk builds up, with constantly new characters, and travels back and forth between Poland, the Balkans and Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey). Also the sometimes very intense theological discussions among the Jewish rabbis, diving into kabbala, demand a lot from the reader. Again: this historical novel is quite a tour de force , not only in terms of size and depth. For me, the charm of the reading was mainly in the Chagal-like character of the visual language of Tokarczuk: she regularly sketches dreamy scenes with the comatose Yenta that floats over time and space and oversees everything. But in the long run it’s all a bit too much: the story just lingers on, endlessly, and I missed a real existential story, with people of flesh and blood. Hence the slightly lesser rating. But I'm definitely going to dive into Tokarczuk's other work!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Adina

    DNF at 30% Translated from Polish by the wonderful Jennifer Croft I tried, I really did. It was my 2nd unsuccessful attempt with Olga Tokarczuk and I will stop here. She is not for me, that's certain. For the first 100 pages or so I thought there were some good chances that I will enjoy this doorstopper. It was a nice mix of historical documentation, beautiful writing, Jewish mysticism and magical realism. Then Jacob entered the scene and ruined everything. Not only was the character insufferable DNF at 30% Translated from Polish by the wonderful Jennifer Croft I tried, I really did. It was my 2nd unsuccessful attempt with Olga Tokarczuk and I will stop here. She is not for me, that's certain. For the first 100 pages or so I thought there were some good chances that I will enjoy this doorstopper. It was a nice mix of historical documentation, beautiful writing, Jewish mysticism and magical realism. Then Jacob entered the scene and ruined everything. Not only was the character insufferable but the structure seemed to me to disintegrate. Soon, I was sick of weddings, trips and chance encounters between characters. I understand and appreciate the work that went into writing and translating this novel but the effort to finish it surpasses the payoff. For me, obviously.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Hugh

    Deservedly shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022 Jennifer Croft has been working on this long-awaited translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s epic historical novel for several years, and the result is well worth the wait. To quote from the citation from the Nobel Committee who awarded her the 2019 Literature Prize: “Her magnum opus so far is the historical novel The Books of Jacob, portraying the eighteenth century mystic and sect leader Jacob Frank. The work also gives us a remarkably rich Deservedly shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022 Jennifer Croft has been working on this long-awaited translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s epic historical novel for several years, and the result is well worth the wait. To quote from the citation from the Nobel Committee who awarded her the 2019 Literature Prize: “Her magnum opus so far is the historical novel The Books of Jacob, portraying the eighteenth century mystic and sect leader Jacob Frank. The work also gives us a remarkably rich panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history.” The full title, a lovely 18th century pastiche, is: “The Books of Jacob Or A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects. Told by the dead, supplemented by the author, drawing from a range of books and aided by imagination, the which being the greatest natural gift of any person. That the wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots reflect, laypersons gain some understanding and melancholy souls obtain some slight enjoyment.”. The book runs to well over 900 pages, of which the core story occupies 865. This is split into seven Books, of which the middle five are the longest, plus a one page Prologue and a brief author’s end note which lists sources and explains why the pages are numbered backwards. Much of the story is factual, but there are also fanciful and magic realist elements, most notably the omniscient and not quite dead Yente, who observes everything and is introduced in the prologue page. The story often returns to Yente at key moments – its focus frequently switches between characters. The whole is surprisingly readable, for which Croft has to take great credit, and I enjoyed it greatly, which was one of the main reasons I managed to finish it in less than a week. Some of the detail, particularly the background to the religious beliefs of the Frankists, can be a little more difficult to follow, and I learned a lot of history and historical geography while reading it. The meticulous research and detail is reminiscent of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, but at times the story has the exotic flavour of Tyll, though that book felt much more episodic and incomplete. One link between the two is Athanasius Kircher, whose writings are mentioned early on in Book One. There are also pictures and maps from various historical sources - in most cases their relevance to the text is rather more obvious than was the case for the maps that appear in Flights. The two most useful historical maps are on pages 817-816 (of southern Poland-Lithuania and western Russia) and 729-728 (Eastern Europe and Anatolia under the Ottoman empire) - one intriguing aspect of that map is that Romania appears south of Bulgaria (modern Romania was then mostly Wallachia). What follows is a very sketchy attempt to summarise the structure, but the book is so full of detail that it barely scratches the surface: The first book The Book of Fog is largely there to establish some of the more incidental characters in the reader’s mind before the main story gets going, first of all Father Benedykt Chmielowski, vicar forane and dean of Rohatyn in Podolia, who is important to Tokarczuk as the author of New Athens, which was effectively the first Polish “encyclopaedia”. We also meet the poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, whose imagined correspondence with Chmielowski is quoted, the aristocrat and socialite Katarzyna Kossakowska and the Shorrs of Rohatyn, a Jewish family with Sabbatean links, and Bishop Katejan Soltyk, whose actions are largely driven by his gambling debts. In the second part The Book of Sand, the core story, which is mostly told chronologically, is introduced with the first mention of the main protagonist Jacob Frank. This story is largely told through the writings of one of Frank’s acolytes Nahman Samuel Ben Levi. We hear about Frank’s rebellious childhood and his early travels in the Ottoman empire and Greece. Here he attracts a loyal group of followers and starts to form the ideas that underpin the community. They then travel north, first to Nikopol on the Danube where he meets and marries Hana, a local merchant’s daughter then to Craiova in Wallachia, eventually attempting to return to Poland. The third part The Book of the Road starts with the community crossing the Dniester back into Poland, where they travel around Podolia attracting followers, coming into conflict with the local Jewish community. The bishop in Kaminiec arranges a disputation to settle the matter and decides in the Frankists favour, but when the bishop suddenly dies they are persecuted and the group is partially disbanded. Eventually they are allowed to form an idealistic community at Ivanie in which all possessions are shared. The fourth part The Book of the Comet starts with Frank and his acolytes settled in Ivanie, where some of the eccentric rites of the community are described in comic detail. Here Frank decides to convert to Catholicism and negotiates to get them baptised in Lvov. The book finishes with Frank leading an increasingly lavish lifestyle in Warsaw as he attempts to petition the king in search of land for the community to settle, where Frank is eventually arrested and convicted of heresy. The fifth part The Book of Metal and Sulphur starts with Frank in prison in the monastery at Częstochowa, where his acolytes eventually gather and concludes with his release when the Russians gain control of the city. The sixth part The Book of the Distant Country covers Frank’s later life after he left Poland, firstly in Brünn (now Brno), where he makes frequent trips to Vienna while his daughter becomes a mistress of the emperor) and later in Offenbach in Germany. During this period the colony lived a lavish aristocratic lifestyle and amassed large debts, largely funded by donations from followers who remained in Poland. The short final part The Book of Names describes what happened to Frank’s family and followers after his death. A few links to Wikipedia pages which may help with the background: People: Jacob Frank: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_F... Sabbatai Zevi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbata... Benedykt Chmielowski: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedyk... Elżbieta Drużbacka: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El%C5%B... Places/Historical geography: Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish%... Podolia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podolia Rohatyn: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rohatyn Kamieniec: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamiane... Smyrna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smyrna Salonika: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thessal... The Ottoman Empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman... Nikopol: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikopol... Craiova: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craiova Lwów: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lviv Lublin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lublin Częstochowa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cz%C4%9... Brünn: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brno Offenbach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offenba... Religious background: Sabbateans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbateans Kabbalah: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabbalah PS I should also say that it seemed a little unfair but rather lucky for me that I received my copy (a pre-order through Waterstones) nearly a week before it reached some of Fitzcarraldo's long term subscribers in the UK.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Paul Fulcher

    Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize They’re just trading supposed wisdoms. They read out whole pages from books, then translate them, and it takes a long time, and everybody gets bored. No one understands what’s going on. In 2018 I had the pleasure to meet the author and translator of the magnificent Flights, and award them our Man Booker International Shadow Jury Prize, the day before the official Jury concurred with our decision. But this was a 1,137 page (in the Kindle edition) o Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize They’re just trading supposed wisdoms. They read out whole pages from books, then translate them, and it takes a long time, and everybody gets bored. No one understands what’s going on. In 2018 I had the pleasure to meet the author and translator of the magnificent Flights, and award them our Man Booker International Shadow Jury Prize, the day before the official Jury concurred with our decision. But this was a 1,137 page (in the Kindle edition) ordeal. Books of Jacob - the title is semi-accurate as this is several books worth in page count terms, but less than a book in terms of worthwhile material, the ideas and creativity of Flights replaced with Mantelesque padding. That this was singled out by the Nobel Prize jury, ahead of the much superior Flights and Primeval and Other Times, speaks volumes (literally) to the fetishisation of long novels that blights much of literary culture. How often does one see a novella referred to as an author’s magnum opus? It almost always in literary fiction circles seems to be associated with a very long work. But the origin of the term isn’t about size. For example in the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (one of our sister Worshipful Companies in the City) it would be about exquisite skills and hence typically a small refined piece. Perhaps the term's use in alchemy offers some justification for its application to heavily research work, but the output of the process was what mattered, the Philosopher's stone and ultimately a nugget of gold. Whereas here, as with Jacob's own unsuccessful attempts unfortunately, they are unable to produce a single piece of gold or even silver by March. In the innumerable vessels and jars, all that appears from time to time are stinking liquids and every possible type of ash. Authors, editors and translators should instead be praised for cutting material. As Michelangelo almost said: The novella is already complete within the tome, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material. I am also a massive fan of publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, I subscribe to their books and have read every one of their 44 blue-covered novels.  However, I will call them out here for their tone deaf response to campaign for translator's names to be featured on the cover of novels, particularly as it was begun by the translator of this very tome. They've managed to print this book in a larger size, add a Nobel Prize logo on the front, add reference to an English PEN award, but not to add the words "translated by Jennifer Croft". Disappointing all round.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was not a household name in the United States when she won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature. It didn’t help that the Swedish Academy centered its praise on “The Books of Jacob,” an arduous-sounding novel that wasn’t available in English. It especially didn’t help that the academy announced Tokarczuk’s award along with the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peter Handke, an Austrian writer sympathetic to Yugoslavia’s late genocidal leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That controversy suc Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was not a household name in the United States when she won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature. It didn’t help that the Swedish Academy centered its praise on “The Books of Jacob,” an arduous-sounding novel that wasn’t available in English. It especially didn’t help that the academy announced Tokarczuk’s award along with the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peter Handke, an Austrian writer sympathetic to Yugoslavia’s late genocidal leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That controversy sucked up attention for days and risked rendering Tokarczuk merely “the other winner.” But nothing should overshadow Tokarczuk’s literary presence in the United States now. “The Books of Jacob” is finally available here in a wondrous English translation by Jennifer Croft, and it’s just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed when they praised Tokarczuk for showing “the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding.” In terms of its scope and ambition, “The Books of Jacob” is beyond anything else I’ve ever read. Even its voluminous subtitle is a witty expression of Tokarczuk’s irrepressible, omnivorous reach. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/...

  8. 5 out of 5

    Katia N

    Update: It was long-listed for the International Booker Prize 2022. Someone said: "History is what a certain time period notices in the other.”. This book has made me thinking once more what is a historical novel. There are two broad ways how to look at it. A historical novel might be a book when the author takes a certain time period, creates a bunch of fictional characters to show how this time period would affect the thoughts and actions of these imaginary people. The main idea might be to sho Update: It was long-listed for the International Booker Prize 2022. Someone said: "History is what a certain time period notices in the other.”. This book has made me thinking once more what is a historical novel. There are two broad ways how to look at it. A historical novel might be a book when the author takes a certain time period, creates a bunch of fictional characters to show how this time period would affect the thoughts and actions of these imaginary people. The main idea might be to show the historical forces in play and their affect on the individual lives. This is not such a novel. This is closer to something which Javier Cercas defines as a non-fiction novel. Olga T takes the lives of people that really existed, adheres to the facts of those lives as close as she could. But at the same time, she uses the techniques that are expected from a novel. She pays huge attention to the narrative voices. And the novel is totally poly-vocal. She also uses a complex structure when the narrative is developing in three separate layers complementing each other. The structure holds together by the voice or rather gaze of Yente, the women who cannot die and sees everything from above. Olga T. calls this “the 4th person narration”. I guess Yente is the only character Olga T. Has fully created as opposed to rediscovering from history. The novel is full of diaries, old books extracts, letters and even poems. I found also the included contemporary illustrations add to atmosphere. Her characters are the 18th century Eastern European Jews, catholic priests and some Polish aristocracy. The main subject is Frankism - the heresy founded around Jacob Frank who considered himself a Messiah and had built a movement with the help of his disciples. They believed among other things that the conversion into Christianity is the necessary step to achieve their religious goals. Sects and their power is a strange subject that might feel even alien for some readers. Olga T does not seem to be interested in creating the awareness of the broader context or attracting the readers through some cheap tricks like imaginary plot twists. She seems to be interested in investigate exactly this - strangeness. Her characters exits on the margins of their societies and cultures constantly transcending those margins geographical, religious and social. They are eternal strangers: “There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as sweets. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognisable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens – an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious.” This novel is very successful in demonstrating this and showing how something potentially new is painfully appearing through the cracks in the old. This novel focuses on the individuals. There are so many of them. Olga T. takes equal care in depicting an old catholic priest writing an encyclopaedia, a Jewish woman maintaining the accounts for Jacob and being the one of his many mistresses or an assimilated Jewish convert who becomes a lawyer and revolutionary to be subsequently executed by the French Commune. All these people have names. Many of them even have two sets of names as they’ve converted. Sometimes, it was hard to follow who is who. But at some stage I stopped caring that much. And the lasting impression it has created on me was of polyphony, being totally absorbed by the chorus of those voices. They have become the real people of me. Olga T. convinced me of their past existence. It is quiet a poignant feeling. It reminded me of In Memory of Memory where the author contemplates whether to quote the letters of her deceased relatives. To quote them would be to bring once more their existence into the spotlight before the eternal darkness. Not to quote would mean let them fade forever without a trace. I had a similar feeling here. Olga T. has successfully brought these ordinary people back from that darkness where they’ve been for centuries . What I struggled with is a relative obscurity of Jacob’s Frank’s character. He is represented in the novel only through the eyes of his followers. And, at the end I was not totally convinced what was that uniqueness that has attracted them to him or his teaching. From an interview I’ve read I understood Olga T just could not find a voice to deal with such type of a personality. And because of it, there is an empty space in the middle of the novel. There is also a symbol for it - a cave. There was a special cave into which Jacob went as a boy to hide in Korolevka. HIs wife was also buried in a cave. The cave is a good symbol of his ambivalence. More generally, it is a good metaphor for the the absence of dichotomy of good and evil. A cave could be a place to be lost forever. Buy equally it could be a place of refuge. Interestingly enough, this particular cave in Korolevka was just this. During the Nazi’s occupation, a few dozen Jews were hiding there for two years. It saved their lives. This story of a relatively obscure Jewish movement in pre-modern times has made me think how we all need the other to understand ourselves better. But also how easily the persecuted could turn the coats and become the persecutors themselves, and even more generally - the fluidity of any identity perceived as a cast in stone. Overall the impression I’ve got from this novel that is full of strangeness but also full of energy. And by the end, I was immersed in its atmosphere. She builds it with a lot of details. Sometimes it felt excessive. Sometimes I would miss the voice of the character I liked while reading the voices I cared less. But it adds up into the whole. Olga T. said: “Sometimes I think about this type of writing as panoptic. I like to create a scene, and characters, and let them live. I like to look down on relationships from above; I believe that reality is not a series of individual, isolated subjects and objects but the infinite quantity of relations between them. I see reality as the stage for these relationships—not only those between the subjects, but also their relationships with objects, and with nature. It would be hard to give an account of any kind of social process without incorporating this multiplicity of points of view, this interaction of so many energies.” I could see that this book could not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is probably not a page-turner. But it is a stylish novel that has a lot to say about the traces of the vanished world in our present and takes its time to do so. PS: I've found this wonderful article, the translation of Olga's essay "How I wrote The Book of Jacob". I think it would be helpful to anyone who plans to read or indeed has read this novel: https://www.calvertjournal.com/articl...

  9. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    Extraordinary how strong an achievement BOOKS OF JACOB ended up being - the more I think about the scope and ambition of the project, the better it seems to me. It’s the story of a cult - a real one, Jacob Frank - and the first 250 pages or so are about the collection of the figures of the cult. The boldness of the text (it counts backward instead of forward, is narrated by a woman who can’t die, has interpolated photos and pictures and many forms of prose), the transportive quality of the resea Extraordinary how strong an achievement BOOKS OF JACOB ended up being - the more I think about the scope and ambition of the project, the better it seems to me. It’s the story of a cult - a real one, Jacob Frank - and the first 250 pages or so are about the collection of the figures of the cult. The boldness of the text (it counts backward instead of forward, is narrated by a woman who can’t die, has interpolated photos and pictures and many forms of prose), the transportive quality of the research, and the plot, which really gets its hooks in as it goes, is all very notable. And what a translation by Croft! Very grateful to have read it

  10. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    The messianic machine, how it works This has taken me six weeks to read but I think this was the right approach for me as this is a book which is monotone in its pacing: much happens but there is no plot as such, no quickening up and slowing down, no fast and slow chapters - it feels sedate though, I should add, never tiresomely so. The story begins and ends in a somewhat arbitrary way and I'd guess that's part of OT's point: that history doesn't fall into neat named segments (e.g. th The messianic machine, how it works This has taken me six weeks to read but I think this was the right approach for me as this is a book which is monotone in its pacing: much happens but there is no plot as such, no quickening up and slowing down, no fast and slow chapters - it feels sedate though, I should add, never tiresomely so. The story begins and ends in a somewhat arbitrary way and I'd guess that's part of OT's point: that history doesn't fall into neat named segments (e.g. the Renaissance, the Enlightenment) and is only reconstructed in that way with hindsight and the urge to narrativise, with possibly a politicised agenda either consciously or unknowingly. And narrativisation, story-telling and even myth-making is one of the key themes that jumped out to me when reading this, though there are many others and different readers will attach to various other ideas. At the purported heart of the book is the 'messiah' Jacob Frank but, cleverly, OT never allows us access to Jacob's own thoughts or feelings: we see him only from the outside, via his actions and through what other people think and say about him. Narratives and points of view proliferate via letters to and from various characters, the book one of Jacob's adherents is writing, debates and discussions. There is no omniscient narrator and while Jacob's grandmother, Yente, floats magically over the story, seeing everything, she has no voice or viewpoint of her own: she's like the proverbial omniscient (i.e. godlike in being all knowing) narrator but with the power to speak withheld. For me, this was a comment on the human construct of stories, something which the book performs. So, in some sense, this is an unmoored story, free from narratorial (if not authorial) shaping which makes it both unrelentingly postmodern and also wide open to readerly interpretations. It is a book which thinks about what 'history' is, who has the power to write it and how that is done and, as such, is an ideal companion to Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy which also asks intelligent questions about how we construct the past, though Mantel's strong, witty, interventionist voice is not a route that OT pursues. What I loved alongside the intellectual questions that this book wrestles with is the immersive nature of the world and story-telling. There is real ambition in the breadth of the world that OT recreates: almost like a Breughel painting, the world bustles and individual lives play out quite apart from the way in which they intersect with the story of Jacob. Characters feel 'real' even when they walk into a scene and out again, and the majority of their lives is submerged from our view though we feel the presence of that roundedness. The other thing that struck me about the quality of the writing is the generous humanity of OT's vision: she is gently humorous at times but also immensely empathetic to, for want of a better phrase, 'the human condition' (yuck!). So, a book for everyone? Definitely not. But a book that feels like it comes from a Nobel winner? For sure.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    In the "Books of Jacob", Olga Tokarczuk reiterates the point made by the great Jewish Theologian Gershom Scholem that study of the Talmud is the very foundation of Judaism. Mystical practices such as Kabbalah have the potential to lead the practitioner into heresy. Unfortunately if one is not interested in becoming a better Jew, Tokarczuk's novel can be quite tedious. The great of success of the "Books of Jacob" is due to the fact that it also recounts the decline and fall of the Polish Commonwe In the "Books of Jacob", Olga Tokarczuk reiterates the point made by the great Jewish Theologian Gershom Scholem that study of the Talmud is the very foundation of Judaism. Mystical practices such as Kabbalah have the potential to lead the practitioner into heresy. Unfortunately if one is not interested in becoming a better Jew, Tokarczuk's novel can be quite tedious. The great of success of the "Books of Jacob" is due to the fact that it also recounts the decline and fall of the Polish Commonwealth (1569-1795). The "Books of Jacob" offers the reader two tracks, both will be difficult for the Anglo-Saxon reader. The primary focus of the novel is to tell the story Frankism a heretical Jewish schism that at the time of the French Revolution may have had as many as 500,000 followers in the Polish Commonwealth. Jacob Frank the leader of this movement was born in Podolia (a region found in today's Ukraine). Frank's family had been members of the millenarian Sabbatian movement which had called on its members to convert to Islam because Mosaic Law no longer applied at the "End of Days". Frankism was essentially a continuation of the previous heresy. Frank began his mission in the 1750's. Frank proposed that a Trinity of Messiahs existed. The first was Sabbataï Tsevi, the founder of Sabbatianism. Barukhia (the successor to Sabbataï Tsevi was the second while Frank himself was the third. The Frankists called themselves antitalmudists. They converted to Catholicism, took Christian names and generally enraged conventional Jews. Frank extracted large amounts of money from his followers that he used to maintain a large court which he hoped would impress a Christian monarch to ennoble him and grant him a territory where he could live with his group. Over 20 years, he approached in turn the Polish Monarch, the Austrian Emperor and the Russian Tsar. Frank died in 1791. At this point, the European dynasties were too distracted by the French revolution to pay any intention to Frank. Frank's daughter, Ewa, maintained a court in Offenbach am Main until her death in 1816 after which the Frankist movement dissolved rapidly. Tokarczuk tells us nothing good about Frank. He was an apostate Jew and a completely insincere Catholic. He liked to humiliate those in his entourage and financially exploited his flock. He was an unrestrained profligate who pushed his daughter into the bed of the Austrian emperor in search of a title and a land grant. The brilliance of Tokarczuk is how she situates Frankism in the Polish Commonwealth which after two centuries is about to crumble and disappear. Frank grows up in the Ukrainian part of the Polish Commonwealth speaking Yiddish, Ladino and Turkish. He will not start to learn Polish until he begins to lobby the Polish king for land. He will never learn Ukrainian. He has no understanding of the literature or culture of Catholic Europe. The ignorance of the Poles with respect to the Jews is as great. None speak Yiddish or have any knowledge of the Jewish religion. Although they have accorded the Jews a place in their Respublica, they have horrible prejudices and pogroms occur on an intermittent basis. The Poles have mismanaged their affairs. The Polish Commonwealth has become a political condominium controlled by Russia and Prussia. Over the time frame of the novel, the Poles will stage two revolts causing their country to be formally partitioned by Austria, Russia and Prussia. The Poles are quite confused as to what they are culturally. Latin is the language of the courts and the main markets. Their poets and other writers are unsure whether to use Latin or to infuse large number of Latin words into Polish so as to modernize it. The Poles do not know what to do with the Frankists. For the most part they do not wish to see them convert to Christianity and in practical terms have no way to accommodate them. The Jews have their own parliament (diet) and courts. Eighty-five percent (85%) of them are agricultural workers who live in Shtetls where they are assigned to a Rabbi who is responsible for paying a head tax to the Polish King for every adult male in his care. Once Christianized then the Jews in the Shtetls should become serfs. In fact some of the Polish nobles generously agree to accept them. Frank of course wants none of this. He wants to have a title and to make his followers his serfs. Ultimately, the Polish king will reject Frank's request and put him in prison for 13 years. (What Tokarczuk does not explain is that after the Napoleonic wars, those Jews who had been in Shtetls prior to converting to Christianity were simply sent back.) At times Tokarczuk paints a picture of Poles that is not very flattering. In particular, she devotes a lot time to the blood libel according to which Jews were in the practice of killing Christian children so as to add their blood to Passover matzos. Early in the novel Bishop Kajetan Ignacy Sołtyk (1715-1788) who has heavily indebted himself to a Jewish moneylender to cover his gambling losses has the moneylender and six other Jews executed on the charge of having killed a peasant child to use his blood for ritual purposes. The Vatican is outraged. The Pope writes to all the Polish bishops to remind them that the blood libel has no basis in fact and orders that they stop disseminating it. In fact the blood libel will continue to be propagated throughout the novel. The Pope will rebuke them on every occasion but will never be able to enforce his authority. Tokarczuk is presumably trying to get her readers to see the parallels with the present day as the Vatican is waging a constant battle to suppress anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments from certain organizations who proclaim themselves to be Catholic. The "Books of Jacob" is a masterpiece of literature of this century. However, for someone unfamiliar with the history of Poland and of Poland's Jews in the second half of the eighteenth century, it will be a very tough slog. I would advise reading Gershom Scholem's "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" and Norman Davies' "Gods Playground" before undertaking the daunting challenge of reading this book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Teresa

    This is a massive achievement. Imagine Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series, but in an all-in-one volume and with the emphasis not necessarily on its main character, but on many others. “Many others” is an understatement. There are a ton (a slight exaggeration) of characters, some with the same first names, and many who change names when they change religions, though Tokarczuk (and Croft too, I’m sure) does an amazing job helping the reader to keep it all together. I’m the kind of reader that This is a massive achievement. Imagine Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series, but in an all-in-one volume and with the emphasis not necessarily on its main character, but on many others. “Many others” is an understatement. There are a ton (a slight exaggeration) of characters, some with the same first names, and many who change names when they change religions, though Tokarczuk (and Croft too, I’m sure) does an amazing job helping the reader to keep it all together. I’m the kind of reader that needs to remind myself of a character’s exact role if I’ve forgotten, so I was paging back quite a bit, or rather using the Kindle’s search function, which came in handy when I thought I couldn’t remember a character only to discover the name was mentioned the once. Don’t let that put you off though, as the main characters do rise to the top. At times the details may seem overwhelming, but it’s a fascinating historical account. Some of my favorite sections are of Yente, an arguably superfluous element that even I wondered if she was necessary at one juncture. But I read Tokarczuk for her meaningful flights of whimsy, of so-called magical realism (See Primeval and Other Times); for her trademark metaphors like games and mushrooms (See House of Day, House of Night); her bringing together of fragments (See Flights). The fragments here are “scraps” written by one of Jacob’s earliest and most fervent followers. The impact of books, of libraries, of writing, of translation (certainly all relevant to the needed research into this opus) is another thing I loved. Though I never got a sense of why Jacob was able to attract such devoted followers—who can explain such a phenomenon?—this story from the mostly 18th century into the 19th with a brief jump to the 20th century for the beautiful tying-up of the Yente story has tremendous relevance for the 21st.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Neil

    Yente watches all of this - the similarity of the events draws her attention. Over time, moments occur that are very similar to one another. The threads of time have their knots and tangles, and every so often there is a symmetry, every once in a while something repeats, as if refrains and motifs were controlling them, a troubling thing to notice. Such order tends to overburden the mind, which cannot know how to respond. Chaos has always seemed more familiar and safe, like the disarray in your o Yente watches all of this - the similarity of the events draws her attention. Over time, moments occur that are very similar to one another. The threads of time have their knots and tangles, and every so often there is a symmetry, every once in a while something repeats, as if refrains and motifs were controlling them, a troubling thing to notice. Such order tends to overburden the mind, which cannot know how to respond. Chaos has always seemed more familiar and safe, like the disarray in your own drawer. I really don’t feel qualified to comment on this book. It is 900 large pages of smallish print with substantial chunks taking the form of correspondence which is in an even smaller font and italics. This is part of the reason why it is a hard book to read: I have to acknowledge that my 61 year old eyes needed frequent breaks because they got very tired whilst reading this. But this is also a complex book and I really do defy anyone to hold the plethora of perspectives together for the full duration of the book. The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank who, in 18th century Poland, declared himself to be the messiah and established a following whilst creating quite a stir. And in this book a picture of Jacob Frank emerges via the perceptions of a host of other people. For someone who is supposedly the central subject of the book, it is notable that we never spend time alone with him, never hear his thoughts, but always have things filtered through the viewpoint of others. One of the key characters, a narrative device that holds the whole book together, is Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, who spends most of the book hovering in a space between life and death and also hovering, in an “out of body experience” kind of way, above all the events that are recounted. Yente can move around in space and time and dips in and out of people’s stories. Overall, the book moves forward chronologically, but, within that, it makes frequent time jumps backwards to recount events from different perspectives. This combination of multiple story threads and jittering timeline make for a disorienting read, especially when it is maintained over almost 900 pages. For me, the reviewer at The Sunday Times does a good job of summarising, although I lost a bit of confidence in her (Antonia Senior) when she referred to the backwards counting pages as starting at 892 and ending at 1. In fact, the book finishes on page 27, so I wonder if this reviewer actually made it as far as the end. Or perhaps she felt it was just too long-winded in a review to try to explain about finishing at page 27. And I think I am proving her right. The backwards counting is a nod to books written in Hebrew, as well as a reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve got used to. The reason for finishing at page 27 is not explained. Here’s what Antonia Senior has to say which expresses it far better than I could: So, genius or hubris? Tokarczuk shows impressive skill in recreating an entire era and world, which ranges from Poland to Smyrna and Vienna. Yet her real genius lies in the cast of characters she has conjured up; dozens, each fully realised, from an emperor downwards. Old rabbis and young mothers, a gambling addicted bishop and a dying grandmother, aristocrats and jealous wives, a female poet and a melancholy doctor. She is also ambitious in her willingness to ask (and sometimes answer) extraordinarily large questions through these character studies. Why are people willing to believe in charlatans? Why do humans long for salvation? How can you reconcile God with the squalor of His creation? What is the relationship between the human and the divine? The only question she does not answer is: what does this self-proclaimed messiah believe? Holding it all together for 900 pages is incredible, but that is not what makes this book great. Tokarczuk, unafraid and ambitious, creates a very fallible messiah, yet makes it seem reasonable and human to believe in his divinity. That is a kind of literary miracle. I can understand those who take the opposite view and see this as hubris rather than genius. But for me, a 900 page book that I feel I would like to read again can only mean one thing: 5 stars. Oh, and literature is an important theme in this book. The first section discusses reading books, for example, and the second writing them. There's discussion of translation and interpretation. For what are we to do with such a brittle stuff as paper? What can come of writing books?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jenna ❤ ❀ ❤

    No rating, it's a DNF I made it to page 99 (of 992 pages) and am throwing in the towel. I love Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead but this?  1. It's boring. 2. There are many characters and I'm struggling to keep track of who is whom. This is partly because the names are unfamiliar to me and I have no clue how to pronounce them (not the author's fault), making them hard to remember.  3. There are letters and books written by the characters and these are in teeny-tiny print t No rating, it's a DNF I made it to page 99 (of 992 pages) and am throwing in the towel. I love Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead but this?  1. It's boring. 2. There are many characters and I'm struggling to keep track of who is whom. This is partly because the names are unfamiliar to me and I have no clue how to pronounce them (not the author's fault), making them hard to remember.  3. There are letters and books written by the characters and these are in teeny-tiny print that even my twenty year old eyes would have struggled to read, let alone my middle aged eyes. Why? Why do authors do this? It's just as bad as putting entire paragraphs or pages in italics.  Do authors who subject us to this hate their readers, wanting to strain our eyes and induce migraines? As for #2, yes, I know. I could probably find pronunciations on google or youtube. I can't get interested enough in these characters to do that though, which is unlike me. When I don't care how to pronounce a character's name, it's a pretty good sign that... it's boring.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bjorn

    4.5. Possibly longer review to come. Tokarczuk goes into more detail than you knew you wanted to know about 18th century Poland, lecturing with the light touch of Eco while occasionally going full Pynchon on us with all the interweaving characters, ideas and (of course) songs. There's a lot of weight in this, and not just physically, but she never makes any parallels or metaphors too overbearing, letting the reader choose how deeply they want to delve into what it all means. He's not the messiah 4.5. Possibly longer review to come. Tokarczuk goes into more detail than you knew you wanted to know about 18th century Poland, lecturing with the light touch of Eco while occasionally going full Pynchon on us with all the interweaving characters, ideas and (of course) songs. There's a lot of weight in this, and not just physically, but she never makes any parallels or metaphors too overbearing, letting the reader choose how deeply they want to delve into what it all means. He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy. Then again, what is the messiah but a naughty boy? Good interview with Tokarczuk here.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Ted

    127th book of 2021. All pictures in the review are from Vol.co. Firstly, I gotta say I'm a big Tokarczuk fan and respect her as much (or more) after reading this beast. This beast is too long and I've got my problems with it, but what a novel to have written. Spanning the 18th century, and beyond, and the historical figure Jacob Frank, a man believed to be the Messiah. Though the novel is certainly centred around him, Jacob floats in and out of the narrative (in fact, he doesn't actually appear 127th book of 2021. All pictures in the review are from Vol.co. Firstly, I gotta say I'm a big Tokarczuk fan and respect her as much (or more) after reading this beast. This beast is too long and I've got my problems with it, but what a novel to have written. Spanning the 18th century, and beyond, and the historical figure Jacob Frank, a man believed to be the Messiah. Though the novel is certainly centred around him, Jacob floats in and out of the narrative (in fact, he doesn't actually appear in the narrative for the first 200 or so pages) and instead we get a sweeping 'panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history', as said by the Nobel Committee. The novel crosses several borderlines and characters, including the most interesting character, Yente, Tokarczuk's 'fourth-person narrator', the woman who cannot die and instead flies about the novel's events as an omnipresent 'eye'. There are pictures interspersed through the novel as her Flights was, there are letters, and diaries too. It is a sometimes overwhelming experience reading the novel, being physically larger than paperback size and big-enough-to-wrestle in length. Its most overwhelming feature is down to its first flaw. The Books of Jacob is readable enough, Tokarczuk doesn't bog it down with historical exposition or long religious ideas, but she does tell the novel in a very detached and unemotional way. For mostly 900-odd pages the tone of the novel stays the same, there's no rise or fall, nothing: it is like one very long road which is oftentimes interesting and oftentimes simply exhausting. Did it need to be so long? I'd say No. If it were shorter it would probably be a better novel. There are so many characters, so many plots, we hear about what they are doing, thinking, moving around, marrying, it is a constant barrage of stuff, fictional or not. And when it comes to wondering what is historical truth in the novel and what isn't, Tokarczuk answers that herself in a way. When a character asks another character to write a novel about the Frankists and how it was, he asks, ''But how were things? Is there anybody still around who could tell me?'' and the friend answers, ''You're a writer, just make up whatever's missing.'' Tokarczuk certainly does that with the depth of the novel and the characters like Yente. For those daunted by the size, it is wonderfully readable, almost simple in prose. There are moments of beauty but I would say it is almost entirely character-driven. This is ironic as Jacob Frank is unlikeable at almost every point. Fans of Tokarczuk should read it simply because it is hailed as her magnum opus and maybe it is. It's ambitious and ambitious writing always gains my respect whether I like it or not. It is a portrait into an interesting part of the world for me, an interesting time period, and focused on men accused of being Jews, but then becoming Muslims, but then being taken into the Catholic faith. If you like big books on history and religion then really look no further. Otherwise, it depends how much time you have and how much you like Olga. I'll add more thoughts when they are better organised but for now I can say it was a good experience but I'm glad it's over and back on the bookcase smiling the 'I've been read'-smile.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Tokarczuk’s magnum opus delves into the swirling vortex of religion and politics present in 18th century Eastern Europe through the life of the self-proclaimed messiah, Jacob Frank. Tokarczuk stays close to the historical record, but includes fictionalized gospels and even a bit of magical realism through the spirit of Yente (Frank’s grandmother) who watches events from on high. o The Book of Fog—Tokarczuk introduces her main characters, including Father Benedykt Chmielowski, the dean of Rohatyn Tokarczuk’s magnum opus delves into the swirling vortex of religion and politics present in 18th century Eastern Europe through the life of the self-proclaimed messiah, Jacob Frank. Tokarczuk stays close to the historical record, but includes fictionalized gospels and even a bit of magical realism through the spirit of Yente (Frank’s grandmother) who watches events from on high. o The Book of Fog—Tokarczuk introduces her main characters, including Father Benedykt Chmielowski, the dean of Rohatyn and author of New Athens, the first Polish encyclopedia; and the Shorrs of Rohatyn, a Jewish family with Sabbatean links. [Sabbatai Zvi, was a self-proclaimed messiah in Jewish history that was tried for sedition by the Ottoman sultan in 1666.] o The Book of Sand recounts the young life of Jacob Frank as told by Nahman Samuel Ben Levi. o The Book of the Road records Frank’s conflict with the local Jewish community that is litigated in front of the local bishop, who decides in favor of the Frankists. The charismatic Jacob Frank creates an utopian community that reminded me of a ‘Hippie Commune’. o The Book of the Comet follows the conversion of Frank to Catholicism. He is eventually arrested and convicted of heresy. o The Book of Metal & Sulphur—Jacob is released from prison when the Russians take over the city. o The Book of the Distant Country records the frequent travels of Jacob Frank, including visits to Vienna where his daughter becomes the mistress of the emperor. o The Book of Names relates what happens to his key followers and members of his family. This narrative nonfiction account was a tremendous undertaking by Tokarczuk and was key to her receiving the Nobel Award for Literature in 2019. It is both brilliant and overwhelming.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elle

    I was so desperate to read this right up til all 1000 pages of it showed up at my house ☠️ *Thanks to Riverhead Books for a finished copy!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chris Via

    Video review: https://youtu.be/j1QeLiETWrI Video review: https://youtu.be/j1QeLiETWrI

  20. 4 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    Never has the term magnum opus seemed more appropriate. The first book on the voyages across time, place, languages and borders of Jacob Frank and his followers was written by one Aleksander Bronikowski, under the pen name of Julian Brinken, completed in 1825. 'Is all this true?' the lovely and talented Maria Szymanowska, née Wolowska, the pianist, asked him many years later, when they met in Germany. Julian Brinken, now aged, a writer and an officer, initially Prussian, then Napoleonic, finally o Never has the term magnum opus seemed more appropriate. The first book on the voyages across time, place, languages and borders of Jacob Frank and his followers was written by one Aleksander Bronikowski, under the pen name of Julian Brinken, completed in 1825. 'Is all this true?' the lovely and talented Maria Szymanowska, née Wolowska, the pianist, asked him many years later, when they met in Germany. Julian Brinken, now aged, a writer and an officer, initially Prussian, then Napoleonic, finally of the Kingdom of Poland, shrugged: 'Madam, it is a novel. It is literature.' 'What does that mean?' the pianist insisted. 'Is it true or not?' 'I would expect you, being an artist yourself, not to think in a manner more suited to simple people. Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is...' he sought the right words, and suddenly a phrase came ready to his lips:'...the perfection of imprecise forms.' The perfection of imprecise forms. Oh but the names!!!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Darryl Suite

    I…I…I finished this. *incoherent noises*

  22. 4 out of 5

    Barnaby Thieme

    I tried this on the basis of an enthusiastic New York Times review that implausibly compared it to both Cervantes and Chaucer. Yeah, nope. It's not my kind of thing at all, and has a kind of storybook quality that I find really superficial. 200+ pages in and still waiting for the book to begin. Reminded me in many ways of Richard Powers's Overstory, which also made gestures at complexity, but struck me as rather shallow. A similar artificial quality hangs over both, like they're imitating what t I tried this on the basis of an enthusiastic New York Times review that implausibly compared it to both Cervantes and Chaucer. Yeah, nope. It's not my kind of thing at all, and has a kind of storybook quality that I find really superficial. 200+ pages in and still waiting for the book to begin. Reminded me in many ways of Richard Powers's Overstory, which also made gestures at complexity, but struck me as rather shallow. A similar artificial quality hangs over both, like they're imitating what they take to be the structures of deep human experience, rather than writing out of their own. One aside - generally, psychologists do not make good novelists, because they do not write about people based on observation; they have theories about human behavior that guide the character's action. The difference is palpable.

  23. 4 out of 5

    ElaKa

    It requires time and many afternoons put aside but it is an amazing 900 pages long adventure into a life of Jakub Frank and group of his followers. Before reading this piece I had honestly no idea about this man and what he has done. I also had no idea that story like that could have happened in Poland! I'm truly fascinated about it! Especially now, when you can hear many voices in Poland screaming "Poland for Poles". They forget or simply don't know that not so long ago we were culturally much It requires time and many afternoons put aside but it is an amazing 900 pages long adventure into a life of Jakub Frank and group of his followers. Before reading this piece I had honestly no idea about this man and what he has done. I also had no idea that story like that could have happened in Poland! I'm truly fascinated about it! Especially now, when you can hear many voices in Poland screaming "Poland for Poles". They forget or simply don't know that not so long ago we were culturally much more diverse and open! It's good to take a step back into the past an learn from and about it.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nathan "N.R." Gaddis

    Winner of the 2015 Nike prize. Complete Review's announcement (with links) :: http://www.complete-review.com/saloon... 912 pages. TRAN=slate pleaZe!!! [although there does a exist a few of hers trans'd into English] Winner of the 2015 Nike prize. Complete Review's announcement (with links) :: http://www.complete-review.com/saloon... 912 pages. TRAN=slate pleaZe!!! [although there does a exist a few of hers trans'd into English]

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kinga

    I’m not sure I can do justice to this book with any review as it would become very dull with the constant praise. Let me just say that’s this is a joy of a book! Set in a multicultural and multilingual Poland just before the first partition, it tells the true story of Jacob Frank and his anti-Talmudist followers. It weaves in nearly a dozen voices and points of view and takes the reader across many borders. The reading took a long time and I needed to look up this period of Poland’s history for I’m not sure I can do justice to this book with any review as it would become very dull with the constant praise. Let me just say that’s this is a joy of a book! Set in a multicultural and multilingual Poland just before the first partition, it tells the true story of Jacob Frank and his anti-Talmudist followers. It weaves in nearly a dozen voices and points of view and takes the reader across many borders. The reading took a long time and I needed to look up this period of Poland’s history for perspective but it is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kim Lockhart

    The Books of Jacob is most obviously Tokarczuk's Opus. Not only is the tome dense and heavy literally, but also figuratively. There is a bombardment of characters, history, locations, and events. The story centers on Jacob Frank, a Polish charismatic mystic leader of a Jewish cult, and quite frankly, a bit of a conman, but incredibly intriguing, confident and outrageous. The spiritual appeal of the cult is supported equally by its intellectual underpinnings. It required significant minds with co The Books of Jacob is most obviously Tokarczuk's Opus. Not only is the tome dense and heavy literally, but also figuratively. There is a bombardment of characters, history, locations, and events. The story centers on Jacob Frank, a Polish charismatic mystic leader of a Jewish cult, and quite frankly, a bit of a conman, but incredibly intriguing, confident and outrageous. The spiritual appeal of the cult is supported equally by its intellectual underpinnings. It required significant minds with contacts and connections to hold the group together as long as it did. The mind games are extraordinary. For example: an exceedingly clever enticement are the words "beware your own mistrustfulness." It's a great way to get people to ignore their own instincts and embark on a new kind of freedom. Nowhere are the boastful breaks with tradition more evident than when Jacob refers to himself: "Being a poet means living to be transported, never sedentary." Jacob never fails to remind the group that he himself is transcendent. "A true writer has no biography." [Just the books they read and wrote.] "People who write books don't want to have their own stories." and "Writing saves you from yourself." In the first section, The Book of Fog, the characters share the common inability to see clearly: others, themselves, circumstances and their causes. They are especially blind to their participation in their own plight. These are the perfect recruits. He identifies with them in a way no one has before: "Pain, the emperor of this world." It is easy to see how people want to be among the chosen few, the ones who possess the secret knowledge about the divine mysteries of faith. The secrets of a cult are self-sustaining by asserting how outsiders could never understand. What attracts people to a cult following (of any type)? There are obviously the disaffected, clinging to anything new, but one very strong draw is the charisma of the leader, who is absolutely certain of what he believes, a certainty and confidence the followers crave. Critics of the way the Frankites take on the cloak of whichever religion best suits their survival: "The truth should be in your heart, not on your lips," according to one disenchanted Jewish observer. Of course, a group like this could not escape notice. The trouble with having pride about a scheme, even if you really are smarter than everyone else, is that you can't keep everyone on the same page, and with individual agendas, your carefully laid façade can quickly get out of control. "An ocean of questions that will sink even the strongest battleship." The Inquisitors of the Church were well-trained in recognizing false conversion. Jacob misjudged how easily the group could simply change their outward appearances to match whichever religion might be most useful to them. Yet, even after the seeming breakup of the group, the bond remained, and for years. There was something indefinable holding them all together. That section was surprising. The history is incredibly well-researched and the unfolding story is heavily detailed and rich. There's nothing ordinary about the writing. Yes, it's incredibly daunting, and perhaps should be consumed in smaller segments than other lighter fare. Fortunately, the tome is divided into sections, each named as one of Jacob's "books" and provides natural starting and stopping points.

  27. 5 out of 5

    James

    Biblical. In both lethal heft and depth, “The Books of Jacob” marks an astounding achievement of historical research and sublime imagination, bathing in blinding light as of a comet’s tail those hitherto-shadowy parts of 18th-century Poland, spanning across baffled Europe from Turkey to Austria to Germany and converging on our titular false messiah. Through Jacob Frank’s cult of quasi-divine personality, Olga Tokarczuk—detail by devilish detail in Jennifer Croft’s robust translation, preserving Biblical. In both lethal heft and depth, “The Books of Jacob” marks an astounding achievement of historical research and sublime imagination, bathing in blinding light as of a comet’s tail those hitherto-shadowy parts of 18th-century Poland, spanning across baffled Europe from Turkey to Austria to Germany and converging on our titular false messiah. Through Jacob Frank’s cult of quasi-divine personality, Olga Tokarczuk—detail by devilish detail in Jennifer Croft’s robust translation, preserving somehow the beauty of national despair like the “mournful Polish light that leads to melancholy,” or even the hilarious wordplay of “Shorr-changed” (me being too easily amused)—amply deconstructs as being in a state of ever-eternal flux those notions of religion and politics, identity and belonging, language (here “characterized by polyglot commotion”) and narrative, all under the thematic umbrella of order and chaos “ever o’erhanging Busk” and beyond. This eye-watering ginormity, a study in mighty ambition and sheer kaleidoscopic reach, is almost exhaustive to the point of readerly exhaustion, being at times for me somewhat boring, though at other times just bewitching, as we flit dizzyingly from form to form, from the epistolary and poetry to hagiography and travelogue, from excoriating condemnation—of these Frankists, Shabbitarians (or “Shabbycharlatans!”), anti-Talmundists, what-have-you’s—to ebullient praise of their infallibly (vain)glorious leader, a hoot of a character given over to adult breastfeeding and very young wives. Just messianic things. Plethoric are the moving parts, with rabbis and priests, bishops and barons, scribes and spirits; with book-burning, bloodletting, betrayals; taking place at weddings, funerals, royal court, literal court, etc. Again, even if the execution might leave something to be desired—i.e., for a tighter story, though that may be impossible, if not rejected out of hand, with Tokarczuk’s conceptualisation of her epic project as a story of stories that justifies its narrative sprawl, alongside Croft’s translation rewarding my four months’ worth of commitment with the occasional weird delight like one description of God as “an enormous omnisensitive oyster”—well, you have to nevertheless admire that ambition; sit in it; bask in the shine of this pearl of quintessential historical fiction.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    The Books of Jacob is considered to be Nobel prize winning author, Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece. Considering that the I loved the stellar Flights and her ‘light’ novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead , I was eager to see why this hefty 912 page tome has gathered so many accolades. The titular Jacob is actual historical character Jacob Frank, a religious leader who preached against Jewish beliefs of the time and gathered followers as he travelled from Poland to Turkey and vice versa. Ev The Books of Jacob is considered to be Nobel prize winning author, Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece. Considering that the I loved the stellar Flights and her ‘light’ novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead , I was eager to see why this hefty 912 page tome has gathered so many accolades. The titular Jacob is actual historical character Jacob Frank, a religious leader who preached against Jewish beliefs of the time and gathered followers as he travelled from Poland to Turkey and vice versa. Eventually he was proclaimed as the Messiah, only to convert to Christianity. Despite being imprisoned his popularity increased, in his last days he was based in Vienna and his daughter took over the cult. Since The Books of Jacob is a Tokarczuk novel, things are not as simple. There is a huge cast of characters, whose backstory and connection to Jacob are given at various points in the novel. One such example is the first messiah, Sabbatai Zevi who gets a tiny mention but much later in the book he has a chapter devoted to him. Essentially this is a book to read in big chunks as more connections and backstories are revealed. Think of the book as a flower blooming in slow motion: the more you pay attention, the more it unfolds. The books of Jacob has a plethora of themes but here are some that stood out: The idea of Babel and reverse Babel : right from the beginning one of the many characters, a priest called Father Chmielowski approaches a major protagonist Rabbi Elisha Shorr and tries to prove to him that Babel is scientifically incorrect and yet Rabbi Shorr is not understanding him due to the fact that both people speak different languages. The ‘Babel effect’ occurs throughout the novel. Characters have difficulty in communicating, new dialects spread out. To add to this division, the book takes place during the years 1748 – 1816, a time when Europe was going through many changes: new territories were annexed, some stopped existing, Poland had it’s borders changed, Vienna grew to be the capital. Elsewhere the French revolution took place. All these changes just created more schisms in society and at the same time a more modern era was approaching. The reverse Babel comes in the form of Jacob Frank; by learning languages and understanding dialects and relating to people’s discontent with the religion they practise, he is uniting. By the mid section of the book Jacob Frank has amassed a substantial cult which continues after his death in 1791. Treatment of Jews: In The Books of Jacob, we readers see the attitudes towards Jews, they are persecuted, seen as odd, at times they are evicted. Diasporas feature. As far I know this has always been a problem whether it is the crusades or the holocaust. Yet they are the chosen nation and are resilient, waiting for the messiah. The character of Jacob Frank: This is an interesting one. Is Jacob Frank a tyrant? saviour? or pervert? Are his intentions to change the world? or does he just want to sleep with men and women? Is he a good father and husband? The novel presents all aspects of Frank. it neither glorifies him or makes him out to be a scoundrel. The one thing that we are certain of is that his words manage to attract people and he was looked up to by many of his followers. There is also a semi mystical element to the book by mentions of Kabbalistic philosophy, debates over the validity of the Holy Trinity and a character whose soul watches over Jacob’s exploits, in fact we readers never see Jacob Frank’s POV, it is always through secondary sources. The Books of Jacob is not an easy read, due to all the detail . Yet it was a book I found difficult to put down. I had to see the story develop and the more I researched about Jacob Frank, the more I wanted to see how Olga Tokarczuk would develop his character. Plus I just loved how Olga Tokarczuk managed to link all the protagonists destinies cleverly. Definitely kudos to Jennifer Croft for managing translate this awesome tome. This novel has so much breadth and scope that one cannot help but marvel at it. Ambitious, daring and challenging (in the sense that questions one’s views of history) The Books of Jacob is a piece of work like no other. If one thought that Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy was the definitive historical novel, think again. This is the Burj Khalifa of historical fiction. At this point the only person who I think will be able to overcome this is Olga Tokarczuk herself.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bob Hughes

    It’s not you, Jacob, it’s me.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Simona

    This complex, stylistic and content-rich historical novel takes place in the second half of the 18th century, when a group of Jews led by Jacob Frank, decided for religious conversion into Catholicism. A story, based on real events and persons, is a picturesque display of social, especially religious flows that shaped the European continent, incredibly subtle and thoughtful look at the dark side of the history - antisemitism.

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