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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk

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To purchase The Books of Jacob

Title: The Books of Jacob
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 965 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The Books of Jacob - US
The Books of Jacob - UK
The Books of Jacob - Canada
Les Livres de Jakob - France
Die Jakobsbücher - Deutschland
I libri di Jakub - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Fitzcarraldo Editions - UK
  • 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.
  • Polish title: Księgi Jakubowe
  • Translated by Jennifer Croft
  • With several maps and numerous illustrations
  • Nike Award, 2015
  • Jan Michalski Prize, 2018

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Our Assessment:

B+ : monumental, though its central figure remains elusive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 26/2/2022 .
Financial Times A 2/12/2021 Bryan Karetnyk
Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung . 31/10/2019 Marta Kijowska
The Guardian . 10/11/2021 Marcel Theroux
London Rev. of Books . 24/3/2022 Fredric Jameson
The LA Times . 3/2/2022 Randy Rosenthal
Le Monde . 19/9/2018 Nicolas Weill
New Statesman B- 8/12/2021 J.Thomas-Corr
The NY Times . 25/1/2022 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/2/2022 Judith Shulevitz
The Observer . 21/11/2021 Anthony Cummins
The Times . 11/11/2021 Antonia Senior
TLS . 10/10/2019 Ania Ready
TLS A+ 21/1/2022 Adam Sutcliffe
Wall St. Journal . 28/1/2022 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A 1/2/2022 Ron Charles
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2022 Hannah Weber

  Review Consensus:

  Big, wide-ranging, detailed; not quite a consensus on how successful it all is

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) wild, unruly beast -- not just because it is more than 900 pages long. (...) The Books of Jacob conjures up a society flooded with the new thinking that emerged from the Enlightenment and the French revolution. Its central question -- the answer to which remains tantalisingly out of reach -- is why people believe in the likes of Frank. In the living, breathing, mysterious world he and his followers inhabit, Ms Tokarczuk shows how ideas, along with fables, myths and delusions, made the society in which he flourished, which in turn led to the world of today. Jennifer Croft's translation brilliantly captures the onward rush of Ms Tokarczuk's writing." - The Economist

  • "So outlandish and outrageously implausible is the story Tokarczuk tells that the novel strains at the limits of credibility. (...) The Books of Jacob is an amalgam of vignettes and voices, histories and fragments, maps and illustrations. (...) Charismatic and with more than a dash of psychopathy, Frank is an endlessly fascinating character study, and it is easy to see why he is deserving of such generous novelistic treatment. (...) For all its forbidding weight, the writing remains fluid and engaging, often poetic. None of this, it must be said, could have been possible without the Herculean efforts of Tokarczuk’s translator. A text as thorny and arcane as this could easily become overwrought and leaden in translation; anglophone readers ought to be especially grateful to Croft, who handles Tokarczuk’s writing with the deft touch of an expert, and pulls off the almost miraculous feat of recreating a text in which, amid the English, words of Polish, Hebrew, Latin and Turkish jostle against one another naturally." - Bryan Karetnyk, Financial Times

  • "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. (...) Dense, captivating and weird (.....) It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece -- long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. (...) The Books of Jacob is a patchwork of scenes and voices, tableaux and fragments, interpolations from Jacob’s followers, pictures and maps from contemporary documents." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "What is important here is that Olga Tokarczuk has learned to do the impossible: to write the novel of the collective." - Fredric Jameson, London Review of Books

  • "Ultimately, then, the story is not about the apocalypse but assimilation and the transition to modernity. (...) Yes, there’s a miracle in these pages. It’s not about the Virgin Mary or the false Messiah Jacob Frank, however, but the way Tokarczuk can make a period so distant from us in every way feel so completely alive. In an era of cynicism about both spirituality and the capabilities of written fiction, that might be miracle enough." - Randy Rosenthal, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Tokarczuk, who trained as a psychologist, suspends judgement. Indeed, parts of the novel read like case studies, written from different perspectives, of a patient with extreme mental health problems. (...) The novel contains some spellbinding scenes. (...) The Books of Jacob is a vast mosaic, exhaustive and a little exhausting. It is also dense and arcane, like a Holy Book. (...) The problem with The Books of Jacob is that its amassed information overshadows its creativity. (...) The prose often feels flat, too much like reportage. With seemingly hundreds of characters (and no dramatis personae) it’s as overpopulated as it is overloaded. The more the novel proliferates, the less it penetrates." - Johanna Thomas-Corr, New Statesman

  • "The Books of Jacob is an unruly, overwhelming, vastly eccentric novel. It’s sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit. It treats everything it bumps into at both face value and ad absurdum. It’s Chaucerian in its brio. (...) This enormous novel makes space for a landslide of incident and commentary. (...) This novel’s density is saturnalian; its satire nimble; academics will tug at its themes, as if they were pinworms, for decades. The author’s enthusiasm never flags, even when a reader’s does. She bulldozes the sprawl forward. Yet the characters remain at a distance. The Books of Jacob rarely touches the emotions. No page, for me, turned itself. (...) 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." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Tokarczuk sticks close to the historical record, but fills its gaps with made-up characters and charges the atmosphere with the daemonic energy of Jewish folk magic and a sense that God lurks nearby. (...) She passes the narrative baton from character to character in a thrilling relay of perspectives, and avails herself of diaries, letters, poetry, prophecies, and parables, as well as traditional narrative, as they suit her needs. (...) This is a novel that affirms life while exploring the nihilistic disregard for its unglamorous fundamentals. Indeed, the power and beauty of Tokarczuk’s writing, which shine through Jennifer Croft’s ebullient translation, lie, in part, in how tenderly she recreates the material as well as psychic reality of the actors in this strange, implausible drama, making them substantial, sympathetic, impossible to dismiss." - Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It reads like the wildest invention, yet isn’t, and while the novel’s absence of authorial hand-holding can be taxing, more challenging still is its vast sweep, as characters drift in and out of focus over the action’s 50-year span. Most destabilising of all is the passivity of the book’s voice, a kind of undeviating poker face that leaves judgment and intent radically open to interpretation. Tokarczuk tells the story with a sufficiently light touch that you’re left unsure whether Frank was a radical thinker, whose doctrinal provocations were of epochal significance, or simply a con artist whose tricks got wildly out of hand." - Anthony Cummins, The Observer

  • "(T)here is a multitude of characters in this voluminous book, an abundance of stories and parables, and the apocryphal tradition is prevalent. Olga Tokarczuk rewrites history to evoke what has been lost in Polish culture -- its Jewish aspect -- and to ask, as any founding text must, about the nature of human beings, the meaning of suffering, and the existence or non-existence of God" - Ania Ready, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is a tapestry of different perspectives, delivered mostly in the third person but also through letters, speeches and first-person chronicles and musings. (...) The swift intercutting of these voices and vantage points supplies the narrative with pace, variety and flashes of humour. It also sustains its richness and mystery. (...) Despite the book’s meandering storyline, which follows the many twists of Frankism’s history, The Books of Jacob is gripping and suspenseful. Its page numbering runs in reverse, counting us down with messianic expectancy. The novel also pulses with philosophical energy. (...) The novel’s central narrative is conveyed in unfussy, pellucid prose, which brims with detail while maintaining an energetic pace. Its varied voices are rendered distinctly." - Adam Sutcliffe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)t’s just the kind of dense, monumental work that could help the Swedish Academy restore its rather tattered reputation as an arbiter of serious literature. (...) It makes for an incredibly juicy tale of villainy and intrigue, yet the striking thing about The Books of Jacob is that Ms. Tokarczuk has taken advantage of almost none of the story’s inherent drama. (...) In Jennifer Croft’s translation -- a feat of tremendous diligence and care -- the prose remains urbane and unruffled whether it describes religious ecstasy or sickening violence. On the practical level, this makes reading the novel extremely slow going, as there is no momentum or catharsis and little emotional involvement with the characters" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "(I)t’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. (...) (A)s daunting as it sounds, The Books of Jacob is miraculously entertaining and consistently fascinating. Despite his best efforts, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly has. Her light irony, delightfully conveyed by Croft’s translation, infuses many of the sections. What’s more, it turns out that the story of an 18th-century grifter inflated by Messianic delusions is surprisingly relevant to our own era." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "Tokarczuk covers all the calamities of the era -- pogroms, war, abject poverty -- but pays mind-bogglingly detailed attention to everyday spectacles (.....) This colossal book is a truly bewitching account of untold fissures in history, minor religions, little lives, and splinterings-off. It is rich, strange, astonishing in scope, and delightfully enigmatic" - Hannah Weber, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century historical figure, born as Yankiele Leybowicz but adopting the name of 'Jacob Frank', author Olga Tokarczuk suggesting:

Frank, or Frenk, means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this -- being foreign is a quality of those who have frequently changed their place of residence. He's told Nahman that he feels best in new places, because it is as if the world begins afresh every time. To be foreign is to be free.
       Despite the title, Jacob isn't at the fore of the novel much of the time. Instead, Tokarczuk presents a sweeping panorama, with Jacob a dominant if often not actually center-stage figure. The novel teems with characters, short sub-chapters following myriad strands of stories woven together in a colorful, loose tapestry. The characters -- Jacob, above all -- travel widely, and The Books of Jacob is a story filled with constant re-connections along their many different and also overlapping ways. A central theme is a searching for place -- literally so, as one of Jacob's great ambitions is for his people (variously defined, over the course of his life) to be granted their own territory, land of their own. It is a novel of impermanence, from the shifting and indistinct borders of the times to the various identities, with border-crossing Jacob switching languages and expediently changing his name, religion, and allegiances as the situations warrant.
       One character who makes for some stability, binding the novel together, is Jacob's grandmother Yente, "the one soul capable of seeing from above, and of following the tracks of all these restless beings". Brought to a wedding as the novel opens, old Yente is soon too sick to actively participate; she lies there, on, essentially, her deathbed -- yet does not then fully die. Her family doesn't quite know how to deal with the strange situation -- as, for example, when one woman comes and takes her head in her hands:
     "Yente ? " she asks quietly. "You alive ?"
     But what is Yente supposed to say to that ? Is that even the right question ?
       But even as Yente hovers over the entire story, she too is often very much in the background. Tokarczuk reminds of her continued unusual presence, but does not push her to the fore either; she is not a dominant spectral über-witness (as many novelists might have been tempted to use such a figure). (The lingering practically-but-not-absolutely dead figure also makes for some comic relief along the way, as the family has difficulties figuring out how to handle this continuing situation.)
       Another figure accompanying Jacob's story much of the way is Nahman Samuel ben Levi, a determined writer -- "he can't stop himself. It's like an itch that goes away only when he begins to scratch out the chaos of his thoughts into sentences". Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from his writing, a collection of what he titles: 'Scraps', a "free-form manuscript", providing yet more perspective of Jacob, and the times and events in general.
       Significantly, Jacob isn't thrilled by Nahman's writing exercises: "Jacob had insisted that his words not be recorded", and while Tokarczuk does have him at the center of quite a few of the episodes, including quoting him directly, much more often we learn only of what he has done and said second-hand, often at a considerable distance. Even when close by, a more typical approach of Tokarczuk's is one such as where she has Jacob's daughter overhear him from another room:
     Eva, who is sitting in a deep armchair and playing with the tassels of the curtain, can just make out the voice of her father from the living room, who is telling the story in an animated way of how he was released by the Russians. She hears him embellishing the events, perhaps even lying about them. In his version, it all sounds very dramatic, and he comes off as a hero -- an attack, shots, the old soldiers dying, blood, monks covered in debris. In reality, it was all much less theatrical.
       Though a charismatic leader, a man whom people follow and are devoted to -- indeed, who is seen as a messiah -- Jacob is strikingly leery of words, and reliance on them. Coming from a Jewish tradition that places so much emphasis on the written word and its interpretation, Jacob has turned a very different way; he is a man of action. He's not wordy -- or scholarly. By the time he's thirty, he's already done very well for himself ("trading silk and precious stones"), but:
     Jacob never talks like the tzaddikim do, in long, complicated sentences brimming with rare and precious words, always harking back to quotes from the Scriptures. He speaks concisely and clearly, like someone who earns his living at the market or drives a cart.
       Beyond even that, as he tells Nahman:
Words come and go. A person's got to have an army. We, too, must act, and not just speak. Did our forefathers not chatter, nor pore over written words enough ? What did all that talking do for them ? What came of it ? It's better to see with your eyes than write down a bunch of words.
       The characters are a polyglot lot, moving more or less easily both geographically and linguistically, though at one point Jacob argues against going to then-Poland because: "I don't understand the Polish language". Jacob is an outsider, even (or especially) in his own nominal homeland, but that is an identity he also embraces: one of the best revealing observations about him is that: "in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent".
       He does pick Polish up as well, and later also tries to learn to read in the language -- apparently a quite arduous undertaking, with Tokarczuk amusingly slipping in, in this written-in-Polish novel:
     It's hard to grasp what's going on when you are reading in Polish. As a language, it's quite strange.
       There are other reminders in the novel that writing, generally, is suspect -- as, for example, even as the novel, and the picture of Jacob readers form, rely greatly on Nahman's 'Scraps', Tokarczuk warns:
     Nahman's stories are not always to be believed -- even less so when he writes them down. He has a propensity for exaggeration. He detects signs in everything; in everything he seeks and finds connections. What happens is never quite enough for Nahman -- he wants what happens also to have some heavenly, definitive meaning.
       Tokarczuk's novel is more cautiously documentary, trying to avoid too blatantly reading into things -- even as that is unavoidable, given what she presents. It's presumably one of the reasons she keeps something of a narrative distance from Jacob: clearly, many of the characters are in complete thrall to the magnetic, larger-than-life personality, and this is one way of trying to maintain at least some objectivity.
       Jacob is a fascinating historical figure, born a Jew but then shifting among the Abrahamic religions, and founding his own distinct schools thereof. Sometimes his conversions seem more matters of expediency -- turning to Islam when he seeks Turkish protection; getting baptized (twice) when he is in Catholic lands -- but he also seems to have a vision of his own, not least in: "uniting the three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity". There's a constant adaptation to the unsettled Central and Eastern European situation, tugged at in different directions by dominant powers Austria and Turkey, along with Russian and Polish interests. As is amusingly suggested at one point: "Not too Jewish, not too Christian, that would be the place for them" -- but it's a hard place to find.
       Jacob takes on a messianic role -- and is more successful in it than most, at least in attracting a following (and irritating the various authorities). At one point someone points out that: "They say you're some kind of heretic, not like Luther, but like a Jewish Luther, and that we ought to keep our distance", while an obituary describes him ruling his sect with: "tremendous panache. He was worshipped almost as another Dalai Lama". While even among those closer to him there are occasional rumblings -- "Jacob is a con man" --, on the whole his followers remain almost slavishly devoted (including in financing some of his follies).
       Jacob ranges far and wide across the Europe of the time. If not entirely a chameleon, he nevertheless proves very adaptable to changed circumstances. When it is convenient and safer, he becomes: "Ahmed Frenk, and he has a Turkish passport. He is untouchable"; while at another time he changes the names of his close followers to those of the Apostles (which later leads to some awkward questions -- though he twists himself out of them quite well). As he explains to his re-named followers:
But do not get too attached to your new names. Nor to the country, nor to the language, although you have to speak it. Names must come before nations do; the sound that creates them corresponds to a certain accord of the universe. That is your real name. The names we carry on the street, on the other hand, around the market, traveling in a carriage on a muddy road, or those others use to call us -- all that is just tacked on. Those names are useful like the clothing you put on to go to work. They come and go, like anything. Here one minute, gone the next.
       Jacob's life involves much such coming and going, and various ups and downs -- though he tends to be able to make the best of things, with considerable help from his devoted supporters. Stations in his life include a long imprisonment in a monastery -- though ultimately a rather comfortable one -- as well as establishing what amounts to a noble court in Brünn, and then an extended stay in Vienna, where he tries to make his case to royalty and Joseph II takes Jacob's daughter Eva as a lover (though he does not let himself get too attached).
       The colorful supporting cast is given much room to shine on its own, and Tokarczuk does well with it, whether in brief portraits of, for example, a man who accumulated stunning debts, leaving him: "bankrupt, maybe the most bankrupt person anywhere in Europe" to Father Chmielowski and his "thesaurus stultitiae -- a collection of foolish little things", the New Athens he is so proud of, gathering: "all of the knowledge of mankind" in his volumes, a sort of accompaniment-book that keeps coming up throughout the novel. (If not taken seriously by all, it does have its supporters, too -- one of whom observes: "Everyone is reading it. It is our silva rerum. Do not find fault in books. The books themselves are innocent".) There are many historical figures who appear; many are lesser-known nowadays, but there are also cameos by figures such as Casanova and Sophie von La Roche.
       Jacob is continually inventing and re-inventing himself. When he gets baptized, and shaves his beard, his wife, Hana, does not even recognize him. Later, Nahman reports of hearing that: "there had been rumors among the true believers that the real Jacob had died in Częstochowa, and that the one who was now sitting before me had replaced him". Jacob remains a slippery figure, even as Tokarczuk's portrait of him is closely based on the historical record that she clearly carefully researched.
       Nahman, keeping his own record of Jacob and his experiences, faced a similar conundrum in dealing with the curious figure:
Jacob always says: No traces, keep everything a perfect secret, no one can find out who we are and what we do. Even though he actually makes quite the ruckus, with his strange gestures and the odd things that come out of his mouth. He speaks so enigmatically that it's hard to figure out what he means. That's why people stay together for a long time after he leaves, trying to interpret for themselves and one another the words of this Frank, this foreigner. What did he say ? In some sense, each can only understand it all as best he can, in his own way.
       Writing in the present tense gives an immediacy to the lives that unfold in The Books of Jacob -- even as the central one, Jacob's, is so often only part of the story at some remove. The short and very varied episodes making for an engaging read, though the novel does wind and wend on at great length across these many characters, places, and events. Jacob remains something of a mystery-man, but many of the secondary characters are particularly well captured -- as is the general sense of the times, and its mixing of people, religion, commerce, and language. It is a fascinating picture of a world that is both very rule-bound -- permissions have to constantly be sought, the proper papers on hand -- and yet in which a great deal of personal freedom is clearly possible
       The Books of Jacob is certainly a grand achievement, but Jacob Frank remains an elusive figure, a character perhaps too rich to be adequately captured in this (or any other ?) way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2022

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The Books of Jacob: Reviews: Olga Tokarczuk: Other books by Olga Tokarczuk under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was born in 1962. She was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2022 the complete review

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