Wednesday, February 01, 2023

"The Books of Jacob"


Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize, and her novel, The Books of Jacob, was mentioned by the prize committee as one of her great accomplishments. The subject of this historical novel is the Jewish “Messiah” Jacob Frank, who lived from 1726 to 1791. It’s a wide-ranging novel, almost 1000 pages long, with an enormous number of vividly presented characters of many ethnicities, especially Jews. A large number of these characters change their names part way through the book, adding to the challenge of reading. 

Also challenging to read: the main characters constantly travel to a large number of places in Poland and the Ottoman Empire of that time, and meet many political leaders. Maybe I’m wrong, but I wonder if this is another politically motivated Nobel prize winner, as evidently some of the Polish authorities would prefer not to be reminded about Jewish history in Poland.

Most of the events in this novel are realistic, but there are also examples of supernatural occurrences, such as Jacob Frank's head emitting a mysterious light, or various characters who can predict the future. Throughout the novel we hear of a woman named Yente, a relative of the characters in Frank's life; Yente has swallowed an amulet that gives her eternal life and the ability to float over the landscape and see it from above. As she lives longer and longer, watching her descendants and their associates, her undead body somehow moves to a cave where she remains until she's joined there in 1942 by Jews fleeing the Holocaust. 

The historic Jacob Frank was acclaimed as a Messiah; he attracted many followers, and was seen as a successor to the earlier failed Jewish Messiah Sabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). Both Tzvi and Frank had outsize influence among the Jewish communities in Europe — this part of history is little known. Under Frank's influence many Jews repudiated traditional Jewish rituals and laws, and converted to the Catholic faith in a set of events that has remained rather obscure. Actually, both Polish and Jewish history are somewhat obscure areas of European history. Historians that dealt with Frank and his Messianic claims (to the best of my knowledge) have mainly been Jewish scholars specializing in Jewish history. This makes this fictional treatment quite unusual!

Here’s the subtitle, encompassing the multiplicity of plots and locales:

The style of writing in this long narrative is like a fable. It reminds me of Grimm's Fairy Tales or other 19th century folk stories, a bit simple. This simplicity is deceptive: it's a long tough read with many plot lines. The wide-ranging lives of the characters takes place in mostly unfamiliar towns and cities of Poland and the Ottomans, in an atmosphere that seems alien from modernity, but the author does occasionally remind us that despite the distant setting, it’s the age of Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Moses Mendelssohn, and in general the Enlightenment. The author also reminds us that the settings are very exotic, and includes many vivid descriptions of bazaars, rich fabrics, and colorful and unusual clothing.

Mainly, it’s a novel of the details of the lives of Jacob Frank, his followers, and some others — their love lives and marriages, how they earn money and how they lose it, the food they eat when rich and when poor -- there's lots of food described in mouth-watering detail! The book depicts experiences of hardships and the times of wealth reflected by where they live and revealed by choices of clothing that show their status as well as their religion. It documents the religious fervor that gripped these followers, and how they agreed to Jacob’s demand for their  mass conversion from their traditional Jewish religion to the Catholic religion. The converts tried to adjust to being mainstream Christians instead of marginal Jews, a conflicted and complex social effort that only succeeded with the next generation.

The reviewer in the Guardian offers this summary:

"The Books of Jacob by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from mud-bound Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It takes in esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish antisemitism and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the responses it arouses is just plain amazement at the patience and tenacity that have gone into its construction." (source)

A Comet Foretells the Future 

A comet was in the sky during one year of the novel’s timeframe: very frightening to people back then.
Right now, February 2023, a comet is in the sky: my brother took this photo of it.
A comet, I think, is longer seen as an omen.

About the comet that "appeared in the sky on March 13, 1759" in the town of Ivanie where Frank and his followers were living:

"The comet resembles a scythe aimed at humanity, a naked glistening blade that might slice off millions of heads at any moment, and not only the ones on the craned necks in Ivanie, but also city dwellers’ heads, Lwów heads, Kraków heads—even royal heads. There is no doubt it is a sign of the end of the world, a harbinger of angels rolling up the whole show like a rug." (p. 492 [counting backwards]). 

I'm Probably Wrong but...

One of my impressions of the novel is very uncomfortable. I think the subtext is that Judaism is somehow incorrect or misguided. Here's one example: the pages count down: the first page is numbered 965 and the last page number is 1. Purportedly this is because the author's view is that Hebrew books are written backwards. Of course, Hebrew is written from right to left and Hebrew books have the spine to the right: this is simply different from books written in the Roman alphabet. Making the pages of a Polish book (or English translation) go “backwards” seems to me meant to show that Hebrew is somehow wrong. 

In the afterward, the author's explanation is this: "The alternative numbering of the pages in this book 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 gotten used to." (p. 5 [counting backwards from 965]).

Throughout this long-winded and rambling book, I felt that the underlying attitude was that the Jews and their religion were aberrant. This is despite many comparisons of Jews and non-Jews as being similar in both wealth and poverty; for example: "On the street, women in tattered rags gather dung and wood shavings for fuel. It would be hard to say, based on their rags, whether this is a Jewish poverty, or Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic. Poverty is nondenominational and has no national identity. (p. 954 [counting backwards]). 

A particular area that worries me is that many passages in the novel dwell at length on the blood libel, the story that Jews require the blood of Christian children for their rituals. As you may know, throughout history, this story was repeated often as a way to ignite violence against Jews, or to make excuses for killing Jewish leaders or expelling Jewish communities from their homes. Repeatedly, the author introduces the "proof" that the Jews were guilty of this crime, though modern scholars of all persuasions see it as an excuse for persecution, without foundation, and without documented cases. Though the "proofs" are always stated by characters in the book, the net result is distasteful and harmful, as the author must have known. 

The official view of the church about a particular such event in the town of Żytomierz was ignored by the Polish priests and by the people. And it's less powerful in the context of the book than the descriptions of claimed Jewish crime. Officially, the church view, as given in the text, is that "the Holy Office, after a thorough examination of the question of the accusations of the use of Christian blood in Żytomierz and the alleged ritual murder, asserts that the same are utterly without foundation. And that all further accusations of this kind are to be dismissed, as the letting of Christian blood has no basis in the Jewish religion, nor in the Jewish tradition." (p. 270 [counting down]).

So difficult! What reviewers said:

The Guardian reviewer says: 

"The reader’s task is to deduce a higher order out of the patchwork of scenes and fragments. It does require patience – and I’m not sure that I would recommend newcomers to Tokarczuk’s work start here. But The Books of Jacob, which is so demanding and yet has so much to say about the issues that rack our times, will be a landmark in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it." (source)

The New York Times reviewer has many admiring paragraphs about the novel; but in conclusion says:

"Yet the characters remain at a distance. ‘The Books of Jacob’ rarely touches the emotions. No page, for me, turned itself. A word from 'Finnegans Wake' came to mind: thunderslog
"I don’t mean to dissuade. As with certain operas, I’m glad to have had the experience — and equally glad that it’s over." (source)

The Washington Post reviewer says:

"In terms of its scope and ambition, 'The Books of Jacob' is beyond anything else I’ve ever read. ...What can explain the willingness of people to dedicate their lives, their fortunes, their souls to leaders who lead them astray? Tokarczuk lets the branching narratives of this novel respond to that perennial conundrum. 'The truth is like a gnarled tree,' she writes, 'made up of many layers that are twisted all around each other.' In that sense, 'The Books of Jacob' is a whole forest of such trees — haunting and irresistible." (source)

And a bookish character in The Books of Jacob says:

“'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.'” (pp. 15-14 [counting backwards]). 

Review © 2023 mae sander.


anno said...

Whew -- that sounds like an ambitious effort: interesting but challenging. Congratulations on finishing it, and thank you for this detailed review/explication. I'm especially I'm glad to learn a new word: thunderslog. So useful for describing many efforts.

One of Tokarczuk's earlier works, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was likewise challenging, if only because her style is so unlike that of any American/British Writer. And I was glad that it was short.

You've set a high bar for your reading this year. I look forward to hearing more about your reading adventures in the year to come.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

I've never heard of any of this before, but it sounds fascinating. I might look into the book. Thanks

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

This sounds like a very well cloaked book anti-semitism! Very true of Poland even after WWII.

eileeninmd said...


You are well read, so many different genres and your reviews are detailed and interesting. Take care, have a happy day!

Iris Flavia said...

This sounds very, very interesting (and time-consuming - can you remind me of this when I´m retired?...kidding, or do I).
The Highlander-idea sure is one to ponder about! (hehe, pic to come tomorrow on that, a bit)
And certainly as German... a natural interest in the horrors that happened I do not understand why.
Or is that? Many do not want to learn about it at all here. I have not and likely will not visit a former concentration camp cause I think I would just cry. But I am glad some companies take their trainees to some.

thecuecard said...

Wow the novel seems so epic and complex. I'm impressed you took it on. It seems interesting about this messiah person .... but perhaps too challenging for me. 1,000 pages too. Still it boggles the mind what the author put into this. I fear I wouldn't have the patience to read & untangle it.