I have read the novel in English and Polish and promise you the praise is deserved ... Tokarczuk maintains her novel’s pace with section breaks, narrating her characters’ psychological development with the tension of discovery, the slow but progressive movement of their thoughts ... One could say it is written against our times, in defiance of our short attention spans, the spinning news cycle, the pithy tweet, and the rapid scroll. The novel poses a challenge to our literature ... By writing from an eccentric (ex-centric) perspective about the women excluded from the historical archives, Tokarczuk teaches us a new historiographic way to see: we learn to see what may not be apparent but is nonetheless present. In this way, The Books of Jacob becomes a reader’s guide for life ... The Books of Jacob is incredible because of its sheer mass of its details, so sensuous, so precise, that its readers cannot help but marvel at the novel’s construction. In the early pages, Tokarczuk lays out so much detail that the book simultaneously develops as a novel and a manifesto on writing historical fiction and retrieving, or revisioning, the past ... Tokarczuk presents Jacob as a mystery, glimpsed through others’ eyes. She does not permit us access to his final thoughts, but she does bring us into Yente’s body and soul, starting and ending the novel with her ... The tender narrator also views events “'ex-centrically,' distanced from conventional viewpoints. It becomes clear, reading The Books of Jacob, that these narrative theories arose from the challenge of writing the epic history of the Frankists as a novel. As Tokarczuk has said, Yente became the mechanism through which she could hold together this expansive universe of details and lives ... Croft’s translation accurately represents Tokarczuk’s prose ... But there is also something in Croft’s translation that opened the novel up for me — something in the rhythm and word choice that revealed aspects of Tokarczuk’s world I hadn’t seen before ... The Books of Jacob is a novel in which, finally, words have been acknowledged as real things, like roses and ceramic bowls ... The reader’s guide was right: I found myself transported and transformed. Every time I have experienced this novel, I have become a different person.
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 ... The challenges here — for author and reader — are considerable. After all, Tokarczuk isn’t revising our understanding of Mozart or presenting a fresh take on Catherine the Great. She’s excavating a shadowy figure who’s almost entirely unknown today ... As 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 ... The quality that makes The Books of Jacob so striking is its remarkable form. Tokarczuk has constructed her narrative as a collage of legends, letters, diary entries, rumors, hagiographies, political attacks and historical records ... This is a story that grows simultaneously more detailed and more mysterious ... Haunting and irresistible.
Dense, monumental ... he novel recapitulates an astonishing amount of esoteric learning. Ms. Tokarczuk is as comfortable rendering the world of the Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court. And she has made matters even more challenging for herself—and certainly for her readers—by adopting an experimental narrative technique that draws back from the dramatization of historical events to explore the question of salvation, and of humankind’s perpetual longing for it ... 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 ... The pace of events never slackens—there is plague, betrayal, imprisonment, war, exile, death and succession—but their presentation is distant and uninvolved, conveyed in summaries rather than engaged re-enactments ... The treatment of messianic passions through an attitude of Zen detachment is so pointedly ironic that it colors every aspect of the novel, making this a curiously abstracted historical epic. 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 ... There are important exceptions to the governing dispassion, however, and they concern the medley of side characters...whom Ms. Tokarczuk allows herself to inhabit more intimately ... Difficult and rewarding ... Encyclopedic, impersonal, incalculably rich in learning and driven by a faith in the numinous properties of knowledge.
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 ... 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.
[A] product of immense research and brilliant imagination ... At nearly 1,000 pages, covering 50 years and as many characters, it’s a historical epic comparable to War and Peace, though not nearly as straightforward. With its disorienting reverse page order and dozens of maps, illustrations and documents, The Books of Jacob offers a reading experience that is literally incomparable ... It’s easy to forget how deeply the Ottoman Empire once extended into Europe, but at one time the Turks ruled some of present-day Poland. Tokarczuk beautifully captures its robust diversity in the novel ... Binding such disparate books together are Tokarczuk’s strong ethics and her celebration of intuition; with these tools she re-enchants the world. The Books of Jacob furthers this project by enabling readers to feel what it’s like to be fully in thrall to mysticism ... 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.
... [a] remarkable translation, the length of which, filled as it is with dense chapters that often veer from the central narrative to illuminate secondary characters, may test the patience of some readers. But, for those undaunted, the book offers an unusual level of engagement and perspectives on society and religion, which illuminate both past and present ... It may seem greedy to wish for more in a novel of such length, but one of the most interesting characters, and the book’s one element of magic realism, is a woman called Yente ... She is the spirit of the novel, but her potential to be a pivotal character is never fully realised. That many of the events Tokarczuk narrates are derived from historical sources is fascinating but essentially unimportant. What matters is the internal coherence of the world she creates through language and her ability to guide us through examinations of limitless faith and human failings, cultural identity and the ostracism of the other, the manipulation of the steadfast and the thoughtless cruelty of friends. Above all, she shows us our enduring search for meaning. This extraordinary novel is part of that search.
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 ... Tokarczuk comes not to demystify but to deepen the mysteries ... She is out to re-enchant a world depleted by the dissections and categorizations of reason ... A significant portion of the novel, perhaps too much, recounts the machinations of priests who edge Frank toward baptism. There’s also a more benevolent, literary priest whose relevance I don’t quite understand ... 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.
If you sense you are about to step into a sword-and-sandal epic with a mud room, you would not be altogether wrong. If you detect a saving, dill-scented note of satire, you would not be wrong either ... 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 ... At a key moment, a character might wander off and weed the oregano. It’s that kind of book ... Tokarczuk can be very funny ... The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy: torture, betrayal, imprisonment, death ... feels modern in its sense of an old order ending. End times feel closer than they once did ... 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. 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.
Tokarczuk never gets too close to the character of Jacob, instead presenting him through the eyes of his contemporaries, both ardent believers and staunch skeptics. She is particularly attentive to the perspectives of women and outsiders, who bore the brunt of the Enlightenment’s growing pains yet are conspicuously missing from official histories. This polyphonic approach is never deliberately obscure: each character has a deep, sincere, and (because it is in Tokarczuk’s nature) often humorous 'psychological portrait' ... Croft’s translation is energetic and inventive; she’s proven to be a brilliant collaborator with Tokarczuk ... Her work is attuned to Tokarczuk’s polysemy, the delicate ambiguity built into the Polish language—an ambiguity Tokarczuk has previously lauded not only for its use in poetic language but also in political critique ... 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—whether the reader plunges deep into its metaphysics or simply obtains 'some slight enjoyment' is up to them. Tokarczuk’s magnum opus shows us a world on the precipice of a great change, one hand clinging to certainty while the other reaches for transcendence.
... a masterpiece of storytelling ... As in any great novel, the true appeal lies with the people. Tokarczyk has brilliantly populated the story with literally dozens of fully realized, complex characters — all of them actual, historical figures — who inhabit an elaborately detailed world ... Tokarczyk understands her characters so well that she can imagine the furniture and decorations in their homes, the clothing that reveals their personalities ... As much as it grapples with ideas, The Books of Jacob is a true multigenerational epic, full of so much drama and personality and emotion that it would make a great series on Netflix. It’s a constant pleasure to read in its superbly idiomatic English version by Jennifer Croft, who is so scrupulous a translator that the poetry is even rendered in rhyme and meter. Its length may be intimidating, but it richly repays the investment of time. It is destined to be an enduring classic.
The novel’s commanding yet elusive center-of-gravity, Jacob Frank, becomes the essential node holding this loose network together ... By the sheer proportions of the novel, every character—with the exception of Jacob himself—might be considered a minor character. Which ones stick depends utterly on the reader’s predilections ... The Books of Jacob...proffers a maximalist fictional world encompassing so much—so many people, languages, cultures, religions, artifacts, and events, over a stretch of time that reaches all the way up to the Holocaust—that it is only natural for the writer to become preoccupied with how to best narrate it all. The narrator, in such a world, becomes a curator whose task is to extract objects from the cabinet of curiosities that is history and to display them sensibly next to one another in a way that can induce thought, feeling, or revelation ... But the cosmology of the novel, or put another way, its narrative logic, is muddled by the narrator’s insistence on infinite recursion ... Jacob himself is impenetrable: the book’s characters zealously testify to his prophetic sway, but from the perspective of a historical reader who experiences him only through testimony, his charisma is enigmatic. He is not an empathetic character ... These narrators, with their blind spots and biases, are the people who inhabit this world, and reading a story told from their vantage points does not constrain us so much as it imbues us with the sense of investment that is synonymous with human experience. In The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk is torn between her affection for the embroiled, partial, flawed kinfolk of the earth and her aspiration for a God-like omniscience, and the result is a narrator who refuses to admit that she’s narrating, situated in a position that is everywhere and nowhere.
Croft’s dazzling translation of this staggering, thousand-page metatextual novel, with its symphonic composition of linguistic registers, into the confines of English is a superhuman feat ... If nothing can truly be known in The Books of Jacob, the alternative Tokarczuk advances is that we can try to understand better—by ceaselessly crossing the border, being other in the world, never taking refuge in the comfort of still familiarity. Stasis is inimical to the kind of understanding that is necessary for life to flourish; in stasis breeds the terminal germs of fascism, which thrive in the lie that there is such a thing as an unchanging truth. There is melancholy in her uprootedness, of course; in feeling yourself foreign. There’s a keening songbird of a word for this feeling, tęsknota, which appears in the Polish version of the novel. You can’t suffer its bruise in English translation; words like longing or missing don’t contain the same ache of distance. It’s what happens to your heart when you feel your own language break in your mouth. For Tokarczuk, though, it’s a condition of being human—it’s the soul-pain of freedom.
Tokarczuk’s writing, translated from the Polish...is both earthy and ethereal. Colloquial about bodily functions and desires...it can be gorgeous in its detail ... Dense and rich, at times the book can be overwhelming. As the narrative zigzags between places and perspectives, especially as Jacob’s followers convert and assume gentile names, it is easy to get lost. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this doorstop is to follow one of the many themes that weave through its pages ... It is...women...who drive The Books of Jacob. Together, they imbue this sprawling work with 'the eternal mysteries of light'—that is, the profoundly moving, cumulative force of life.
The Books Of Jacob appearing now feels like a long-promised setting to rights, an occasion for English readers to experience a genuine global artistic event: the publication of a genre-broadening contribution to the historical novel ... The magic of the novel is that an encyclopedically researched account of a fringe schismatic denomination from nearly three centuries ago should feel so wildly contemporary ... In a certain sense, Tokarczuk is concerned with letting you see the sweat on her product. The book concludes with a note on sources, and every period detail reads as faultlessly placed. The Books Of Jacob projects verisimilitude ... Novelistic convention is subtle here, but ever-present ... the power of narrative, it’s clear, lies in the resonances and connections that artifice can reveal between known facts ... The suggestiveness of this choice in images for The Books Of Jacob is rich, as light and its manipulation come increasingly to be explained in the terms of the incipient Scientific Revolution. At the same time, it’s a virtue of mysticism to be contradictory and puzzling, and in Jacob Frank, Tokarczuk has a hugely confounding figure ... If there’s one thing that Joseph Frank, the messiah, is concerned with imparting, it’s the provisionality of all earthly things. In her clear-sighted rendering of enormous historical momentum, pitilessly displaying the dissolution of both national borders and whole systems of belief, Olga Tokarczuk achieves much the same objective.
The Books of Jacob is a virtuoso achievement in which ambitious stylistic experimentation never overshadows the piercing examination of humanity at its core ... Rather than treating Frank’s life in a straightforward, linear, biographical manner, Tokarczuk views the prophet askew: developments and events are recounted in a multitude of voices ... [A] tapestry of voices ... In a book which incorporates the fall of empires, the birth of a faith, sweeping anti-semitism, the Kabbalah, alchemy, courtly politics, floods, plagues, and religious doctrines, Tokarczuk seems to revel in the muck and blood of her subjects ... Croft’s translation seems particularly attuned to this boisterousness: the book slips from the sacred to the profane, from canonical debates to drunken hijinks, from poetry to secret, sexual rituals, without missing a beat. The language is dynamic and vibrant throughout, from Kabbalistic mysteries to the slow decline of age ... In addition to its humanity, this is a dense novel of ideas, and of questions, rooted in a history with which most of us are likely unfamiliar, an exploration of faith ... The reader becomes part of the community, attached to its narrators, and swept up in the events. We feel a kinship with Yente, looking on as history is made, as lives are lived. We become involved, invested, affected. This engagement is a big part of what makes The Books of Jacob a singular, marvellous achievement.
Spanning five decades, The Books of Jacob comprises hundreds of shortish present-tense scenes and tableaux told through the eyes of dozens of the characters drawn into Frank’s orbit, many of them historical figures ... Chmielowski’s intimate (and imagined) correspondence with Elżbieta Drużbacka, a baroque poet of 'spiritual, panegyric moral and worldly rhymes', is the most captivating aspect of the novel ... 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 ... part of the work of a writer is choosing what to omit, and The Books of Jacob suffers from her desire to leave nothing unsaid; to preserve everything.
... virtuosic translation by Jennifer Croft ... demonstrates Tokarczuk’s delicate artistry ... This millenarian religious atmosphere offers a high-stakes context for reading and interpretation: characters must be vigilant for signs of the impending Final Judgment. Bodily ailments like infected, peeling skin might mean you’re cursed. Or that you’re the messiah ... Creating literature from history is another of Tokarczuk’s strengths. Books of Jacob is built from years of research, but perhaps most importantly, Tokarczuk has a light touch with research, treating each turn in Jacob’s story as if it were fresh and unexpected rather than recorded ... Tokarczuk’s tenderness wraps her novel’s world in a cozy atmosphere; it also precludes judgment, which would have likely stifled a novel on an eighteenth-century cult ... Tokarczuk’s generous interest in the teapot, food, geography, religion, omens, death, relationships, writing and books, among other things, is the life-giving force that propels this novel forward. Croft’s swift, energetic English maintains momentum and enthusiasm through nearly one thousand pages. A buoyant, anarchic, consuming reading experience, Books of Jacob is a novel so all-encompassing and alive that it’s as if Tokarczuk has managed to break off a piece of the world and convert it into paper and ink.
[A] 900-page masterpiece ... [a] brilliant translation ... 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 complexity of gender relations, the materiality of corpses, and the crossing of borders – political, cultural, metaphysical – are key Tokarczuk themes that recur in striking ways ... The Books of Jacob is packed with minor characters and extraordinary details that have been plucked from the archives. Gaps in the historical record leave plenty of room for the author’s imagination ... Reaching the end of this dazzling book, I also felt like a devoted disciple, of Olga Tokarczuk, impatient for her to return and lead me to new imaginary realms.
... a virtuoso achievement in which ambitious stylistic experimentation never overshadows the piercing examination of humanity at its core ... The language is dynamic and vibrant throughout, from Kabbalistic mysteries to the slow decline of age ... In addition to its humanity, this is a dense novel of ideas, and of questions, rooted in a history with which most of us are likely unfamiliar, an exploration of faith from a somewhat unexpected source (Tokarczuk is an atheist). Once the reader tunes in to the story, however, it transforms; the reader becomes part of the community, attached to its narrators, and swept up in the events. We feel a kinship with Yente, looking on as history is made, as lives are lived. We become involved, invested, affected. This engagement is a big part of what makes The Books of Jacob a singular, marvellous achievement.
The Books of Jacob takes its place alongside the great postmodern meganovels ... This is the very quintessence of transgression, the promotion of a Bataille-type mysticism to the very centre of social life, the injunction to destroy order itself, absolutely ... Poststructuralists and adherents of Bataille will revel in Jacob’s ‘strange deeds’ and celebrate him as an early exemplar of transgression; some readers will be troubled by this ‘populism’, while others will conclude, with Moliwda, that Jacob is inscrutable ... What is important here is that Olga Tokarczuk has learned to do the impossible: to write the novel of the collective.
Tokarczuk’s novel follows Frank’s wanderings, filling in the spaces between historical names, dates and places with meticulous period detail, an ensemble of psychologically rich characters and passages of profound philosophical reflection. The result is a work of vast scale and complexity that represents one of the greatest achievements in historical fiction of our time. Yet this is also a book that challenges the very concept of the historical novel ... One of the most remarkable features of the novel is its combination of a panoramic geographical and historical perspective and rich, specific detail, ranging from the intricacies of theological disputes to a visiting noblewoman’s perception of a Podolian shtetl ... The novel’s stylistic diversity and fragmented structure lead to dynamic transitions between wide and close-up perspectives ... These generic and stylistic shifts present a stiff challenge for the translator, and Tokarczuk is fortunate to have Jennifer Croft. She maintains the original’s balance between historical stylisation and neutral contemporary narration. She also guides the reader nimbly through a potentially bewildering array of names, historical details and cultural specifics, as well as through the text’s multiple languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, Latin, Turkish and more). The reader is never lost but is always, as in the original, submerged in otherness. This is a remarkable achievement that is clearly the result of painstaking research by Croft ... an epic story to suit the age.
Tokarczuk revives the bygone, borderless world of the eighteenth century not to teach us something about the world of the present but to create a kind of instructive disorientation: This is the world before nationalism ... The novel is a kind of metaphysical dunk tank, a means to immerse the reader in the unusual and obscure—it tries to evoke a new awareness of how much in our contemporary world is historically contingent. It’s an ambitious premise, and the resulting narrative lacks the emotional handholds that help such lessons land ... The Books of Jacob is a weird book. It reads like something Hilary Mantel might produce if you trapped her in a Polish cave, or the book Helen DeWitt might write if she lost a bet. Tokarczuk is baggy, profuse, and unembarrassed about being either ... That undercurrent of pathos is not present in The Books of Jacob. Tokarczuk sketches the outlines of a few characters but doesn’t present them with any psychological depth ... The strange effect of this central absence is that the narrative seems to grow more vivid the further it strays from the story of Frank and the Frankists ... In other places, though, Tokarczuk falters right as she gets to the good stuff: The pivotal public debate between the Frankists and their rival Talmudists feels limp, as do the scenes of Jacob in the monastic prison ... In place of this narrative meat and potatoes, we get a prose that feels at once more unbuttoned and more effortful than that of Tokarczuk’s other translated novels ... None of this should be read as a jeremiad against difficult, encyclopedic texts—The Books of Jacob is a refreshing reprieve from a ketogenic diet of Iowa realism and Rooneyesque alienation ... The Books of Jacob discounts the importance of the loud connections, the visible connections of race and religion and nationhood, and it also discounts the sentimental connections that bridge the centuries, the basic love-and-fear emotions that help make Jacob’s contemporaries intelligible to ours. In place of these bonds, Tokarczuk challenges us to focus on the invisible similarities.
Croft beautifully captures the distinct quality of Tokarczuk’s prose: the lightness, the playful curiosity, the lyricism ... the novel moves among a sprawling cast of characters, each with their own wonderfully idiosyncratic set of concerns and interests ... Is this, then, the story of a prophet or a cult leader, a charlatan? The novel dances tantalizingly around this question, becoming an extended meditation on the nature of history that dazzlingly blends fact, fiction, and fantasy—and showing us how history itself always combines these elements, often at a terrible human cost. Although this novel is deeply rooted in the intricacies of Poland’s past, particularly the troubled relationship between Jews and Catholics, its thoughtful portrayal of the diverse and multicultural milieu of the eighteenth century is a forceful rejoinder to the sanitized visions of the past that are increasingly central to the struggles over historical politics happening across the globe ... This is an unflinching and nuanced examination of what 'civilization' really means.
At close to a thousand pages, Tokarczuk’s epic historical novel has the heft and magnitude of a holy book ... It makes a near-mythical landscape of 18th-century Europe...and narrates, via a swirling system of richly detailed stories, thousands of moments in the lives of its many characters ... It is hard to imagine a more perfect pairing of writer and subject: Frank is complex, contradictory, his presence at once all-consuming and impossible to pin down; Tokarczuk is brilliant, sensitive, encyclopaedic, like a writer dreamed of by Borges. Together with Croft they form a kind of trinity, three figures combining to form one indivisible body ... Tokarczuk reminds us that the ability to express oneself through language is not a fixed, automatic process, but rather one that must be constantly renegotiated, and laboured over with great care.
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. Uncertainty becomes a running gag ... A panorama of early Enlightenment Europe that doubles as an open-minded study in the mysteries of charisma, it is perhaps above all—and aptly—a gargantuan act of faith, a novel in which your reading has barely begun by the time you’ve turned the last of its 900 pages.
... once the story starts rolling, the character of Frank wields his power over readers, and the words flow uninhibited as one falls prisoner to the dramatic circumstances and questions of his identity ...The historical aspects feel particularly visceral, given the difficulties of the Eastern European countries right now ... As Frank crosses borders and finds melting pots of religious possibilities and cultural formalities in each place, he attempts to explore with his followers the fantastic and universal ways that the world can be depicted and developed. This tome is a masterful story, using Tokarczuk’s strong narrative imagination to resonate with contemporary audiences the same way that Frank would have done with his 18th-century counterparts.
The Books of Jacob is a commitment, dear readers. However, I do not think that anyone would fail to get swept up in this epic story, as dense as the product itself, as far-reaching as the most spiritually investigative books known to humankind. This is the type of book that wins a Nobel Prize, a masterpiece that so deftly tells its historical tales that you will be thinking about it for years to come. It is an experience that is worth your time and is truly unforgettable.
The novel teems with characters, short sub-chapters following myriad strands of stories woven together in a colorful, loose tapestry ... Tokarczuk's novel is more cautiously documentary, trying to avoid too blatantly reading into things—even as that is unavoidable, given what she presents ... The colorful supporting cast is given much room to shine on its own, and Tokarczuk does well with it ... 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 ... certainly a grand achievement, but Jacob Frank remains an elusive figure.
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 ... Over the decades, Yente waits and watches, proffering advice, asides and rich observations—much like Ms Tokarczuk herself.
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, The Books of Jacob...is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece—long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise Lost. The vividness with which it’s done is amazing ... 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.
... undoubtedly the author’s magnum opus: a near 1000-page, deeply researched novel that aims to destroy any notions of linearity ... Charts, book pages, and paintings from the time period crop up frequently as illustrations, and this fluidity in form is echoed in the book’s approach toward identity. Names change repeatedly, especially once Jacob and his followers convert to Catholicism and adopt Polish names. Languages twist and brush up against one another as characters learn and communicate in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, German, and more—translation being a common theme ... But Tokarczuk is also careful to show the dark side of this freedom, what is lost and what is gained. Anti- Semitism hounds the book’s Jewish characters, and it is sobering how vastly the Frankists’ economic situation improves upon their conversion to Catholicism ... Like the smoke from a cigarette, there is something more diffuse to history as it’s portrayed in Tokarczuk’s novels, compared to the rote linearity of a biography or textbook. And even when it’s done, it lingers.
As is so often the case with prophets (not to mention the books that typically get written about them), his most lasting desire as soon as he had cleared himself of his origins was to erase them completely. However, it is one of the more noticeable features of Tokarczuk’s tentative and capacious form that it does not let him do this — or at least it does not let us do this with him. On the contrary, it lingers over the world of Jacob and his followers like a group of old women gossiping over a dinner they are preparing ... Indeed, in many places, the battered world of Jewish shtetl life appears to be lending its shape to Tokarzcuk’s narrative itself, nudging what might have been a straightforward rise-and-fall story into something that twists unexpectedly, doubling back on itself with the insistence of a dog chasing a scent. Its swerves and sudden tugs can be bewildering at first, even disorienting, but after a while we start to sense a pattern in them, as if they were dictated by a hidden center. The feeling of immanence and expectation is one that the characters in the book feel too, although often in a way that moves them to reject the very world that has given rise to it ... as things fall apart in this book, they get very sad, not melodramatically but gently and irresistibly, like a reminder, as opposed to some new truth. It is a sadness that makes us nostalgic, at least partially, for the joy of a life that knows where it is going and what it is doing.
Marrying a vast array of historical sources with modern scholarship and daring literary invention, 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 ... While Tokarczuk’s recreation of a Europe grappling with the Enlightenment is perhaps the work’s most immediately dazzling achievement, what equals this, as one immersive page gives way to the next, is the verisimilitude and depth of her characters ... 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.
The Books of Jacob is a book about the internet. That is to say, it’s a response to the experience of encountering information online, and realising as a result that ‘many things remain quietly connected’, as Tokarczuk writes in her postscript. This realisation in turn gives rise to the notion of the system as a whole, a kind of totality ... I like the way Tokarczuk thinks about the internet, but I’m suspicious of what the ‘internet’ stands in for in her thought, and in her writing ... My ambivalence towards Yente as a literary device was dispelled by my encounter with Tokarczuk’s essay on ognosia, which cheerfully restored Yente’s interpretability in time for me to write this review ... Reading The Books of Jacob, it sometimes feels like the work of the reader – making connections, identifying patterns, engaging with the tension between individual details and the ‘world’ of the book as a whole – is being done ‘for us’ in a way that isn’t entirely satisfying.
... [a] dark star epic ... released in English with Jennifer Croft‘s stunning translation ... a singular, anomalous work, a massive novel overwhelmingly researched and intricately plotted. Rife with paradoxes, the book is a fictional rendering of factual events centered around a controversial and fascinating figure named Jacob Frank who instigated a largely forgotten religious movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Though it is an unabashed epic in scope—a book that luxuriates in detail—it is not a slog. In fact, it moves briskly, its tone often leaning toward satire but never sacrificing its humanity, tragic sensibilities, or deep sense of mystery ... Olga Tokarczuk has performed an incredible reversal: while the real-life Frank fabricated to conceal, Tokarczuk has invented to reveal. Through the use of fiction, Tokarczuk fleshes out what has been lost to history through a portrayal replete with beautiful period illustrations, the ghostly presence of a forgotten woman who cannot quite die, and a cacophonous ecosystem of characters. Especially moving are the closing portrayals of the characters that have been most used by Frank: Eva, his daughter and heir-apparent; Hayah, his cousin; and Nahman, his devoted apostle. To name just a few ... a sui generis work that presents a beautifully nuanced take upon belief ... provides narrative closure but few answers. Like Yente, we are left hovering in consideration over this beautiful and dizzying book that will almost certainly become a defining work of its generation.
There are books of similar length whose pace and flow make them feel much shorter. Tokarczuk’s seems double its length. Countless characters pass the reader by, underdeveloped and unrealised, their inner lives unexplored. Frank himself remains an enigma, which might be appropriate, but Tokarczuk is too dependent upon her considerable research to have the courage to explore him from within and realise a character that may or may not approximate to the historical figure, but might at least have engaged the reader ... Cults and their leaders are fictional subjects with potential, but Tokarczuk has left us with little more than undigested historical research and a suspicion that we might have been better off reading the primary source on the subject ... At a time when Poland’s right-wing government is keen to suppress recognition of the country’s involvement in the Holocaust, it is refreshing to see a major Polish author display such liberal, philosemitic tendencies.
... a monsterpiece and, perhaps, a masterpiece ... Although the pre-Enlightenment world of the novel will seem alien—partly because of Tokarczuk’s obsession with theological and quotidian detail—a bogged reader can push though by recognizing the novel as a distant mirror of seductive and destructive charisma ... Geographical and moral boundary crossings have their analogues in Tokarczuk’s quick shifting among genres and styles: anecdotes, journals, dreams, travelogues, songs, and more ... Challenge can be frustrating, and I believe Tokarczuk sometimes suffers from graduate student dissertation disease, including in her book information she discovered in her research that could have been left out. Not so much information about daily life as arcane theological theories and disputes ... worthy portable companion to that monument of memory.
Magnificent ... The novel contains dozens of beautifully drawn characters ... Tokarczuk addresses themes of racism...and the dangers of following a charismatic leader. The Swedish Academy singled out this work in Tokarczuk's Nobel citation and, thanks to this sterling translation, English-language readers will discover why ... Magisterial.
With language that’s engaging, erudite, and spiced with witty colloquialisms and wonderful turns of phrase via Jennifer Croft’s supple translation, Tokarczuk explores the state of being an outsider in places with fixed cultural boundaries and how Frank tries to work the system to his and his followers’ advantage. Among the intriguing, diverse cast are Nahman, Frank’s ardent supporter, and Yente, a dying woman whose spirit views events from above. A wealth of fine quotidian detail and brilliantly connected narrative threads draw the reader in. With its length, dozens of characters, and theological discussions, Tokarczuk’s panoramic tale requires commitment, but it is masterful.
Nobel laureate Tokarczuk’s subtle and sensuous masterpiece...weaves together the stories of characters searching for a meaningful life ... Readers are rewarded throughout with tender and ebullient moments ... In the hands of Tokarczuk and Croft, these concerns feel real and vital—the result of Tokarczuk’s deep investment in her material. This visionary work will undoubtedly be read and talked about by lovers of literature for years to come.
Gritty details about the realities of daily life at the time alternate with dense passages in which Jacob’s followers argue about theology ... The book (which has been beautifully translated into English by Croft) has been widely hailed as Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, and it will likely take years, if not decades, to begin to unravel its rich complexities. A massive achievement that will intrigue and baffle readers for years to come.