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The Books of Jacob
Cover of The Books of Jacob
The Books of Jacob
A Novel
Borrow Borrow
A NEW YORKER ESSENTIAL READ
“Just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed.” – The Washington Post

“Olga Tokarczuk is one of our greatest living fiction writers. . . This could well be a decade-defining book akin to Bolaño’s 2666.” –AV Club

“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit. . . The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.” –Dwight Garner, The New York Times
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, TIME, THE NEW YORKER, AND NPR
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.
In a nod to books written in Hebrew, The Books of Jacob is paginated in reverse, beginning on p. 955 and ending on p. 1 – but read traditionally, front cover to back.
A NEW YORKER ESSENTIAL READ
“Just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed.” – The Washington Post

“Olga Tokarczuk is one of our greatest living fiction writers. . . This could well be a decade-defining book akin to Bolaño’s 2666.” –AV Club

“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit. . . The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.” –Dwight Garner, The New York Times
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, TIME, THE NEW YORKER, AND NPR
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.
In a nod to books written in Hebrew, The Books of Jacob is paginated in reverse, beginning on p. 955 and ending on p. 1 – but read traditionally, front cover to back.
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover 1.

    1752, Rohatyn

    It's early morning, near the close of October. The vicar forane is standing on the porch of the presbytery, waiting for his carriage. He's used to getting up at dawn, but today he feels just half awake and has no idea how he even ended up here, alone in an ocean of fog. He can't remember rising, or getting dressed, or whether he's had breakfast. He stares perplexed at the sturdy boots sticking out from underneath his cassock, at the tattered front of his faded woolen overcoat, at the gloves he's holding in his hands. He slips on the left one; it's warm and fits him perfectly, as though hand and glove have known each other many years. He breathes a sigh of relief. He feels for the bag slung over his shoulder, mechanically runs his fingers over the hard edges of the rectangle it contains, thickened like scars under the skin, and he remembers, slowly, what's inside-that heavy, friendly form. A good thing, the thing that's brought him here-those words, those signs, each with a profound connection to his life. Indeed, now he knows what's there, and this awareness slowly starts to warm him up, and as his body comes back, he starts to be able to see through the fog. Behind him, the dark aperture of the doors, one side shut. The cold must have already set in, perhaps even a light frost already, spoiling the plums in the orchard. Above the doors, there is a rough inscription, which he sees without looking, already knowing what it says-he commissioned it, after all. Those two craftsmen from Podhajce took an entire week to carve the letters into the wood. He had, of course, requested they be done ornately:

    HERE TODAY AND GONE TOMORROW.

    NO USE TO MILK IS YOUR SORROW

    Somehow, in the second line, they wrote the very first letter backward, like a mirror image. Aggravated by this for the umpteenth time, the priest spins his head around, and the sight is enough to make him fully awake. That backward  . . . How could they be so negligent? You really have to watch them constantly, supervise their each and every step. And since these craftsmen are Jewish, they probably used some sort of Jewish style for the inscription, the letters looking ready to collapse under their frills. One of them had even tried to argue that this preposterous excuse for an N was acceptable-nay, even preferable!-since its bar went from bottom to top, and from left to right, in the Christian way, and that Jewish would have been the opposite. The petty irritation of it has brought him to his senses, and now Father Benedykt Chmielowski, dean of Rohatyn, understands why he felt as if he was still asleep-he's surrounded by fog the same grayish color as his bedsheets; an off-white already tainted by dirt, by those enormous stores of gray that are the lining of the world. The fog is motionless, covering the whole of the courtyard completely; through it loom the familiar shapes of the big pear tree, the solid stone fence, and, farther still, the wicker cart. He knows it's just an ordinary cloud, tumbled from the sky and landed with its belly on the ground. He was reading about this yesterday in Comenius.

    Now he hears the familiar clatter that on every journey whisks him into a state of creative meditation. Only after the sound does Roshko appear out of the fog, leading a horse by the bridle; after him comes the vicar's britchka. At the sight of the carriage, Father Chmielowski feels a surge of energy, slaps his glove against his hand, and leaps up into his seat. Roshko, silent as usual, adjusts the harness and glances at the priest. The fog turns Roshko's face gray, and suddenly he looks older to the priest, as though he's aged overnight, although in reality...
About the Author-
  • Olga Tokarczuk is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker International Prize, and many other honors, including her country's highest, the Nike. She is the author of nine novels and two short story collections, and has been translated into more than forty languages. She lives in Poland.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 20, 2021
    Nobel laureate Tokarczuk’s subtle and sensuous masterpiece (after Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) weaves together the stories of characters searching for a meaningful life and spiritual truth in Eastern and Southeastern Europe during the second half of the 18th century. The novel’s wide cast includes Nahman, a Jewish merchant who has abandoned his familial responsibilities to study religious philosophy; and Moliwda, a Polish Christian ashamed of his past and intrigued by Judaism. They are connected by their fascination with the novel’s central character, Jacob Frank, a charismatic Jewish merchant who proclaims himself the Messiah and gathers a following with his erotic and liberated vision of life. Jacob’s Jewish followers are encouraged to eat religiously banned food products and get baptized, and—importantly for the libidinous Jacob—adultery is no longer frowned upon among his following. Readers are rewarded throughout with tender and ebullient moments, such as the jubilant dancing of Jacob and his followers as they wait to cross into Polish territory on a mission to spread his message. Nahman and Moliwda spend a good deal of time holding conversations on conundrums that are difficult for them to square, such as life’s difficulty despite the purported goodness of God. 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.

  • AudioFile Magazine Narrated with clarity and poise by Gilli Messer and Allen Rickman, this audiobook takes more than 35 hours but is worth it. Messer masterfully portrays the characters, delivers Hebrew authentically, and uses accents--Yiddish, Polish, and German--elegantly. Written by Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, this sprawling historical novel set in the eighteenth century tells the extraordinary story of Jacob Frank, a messianic figure who led a rebellion called the anti-Talmudists and was variously considered a holy man, sensualist, and charlatan. He led a group that converted to Islam, then Christianity, all the while holding on to some of their Judaic practices. The novel teems with unique characters--including a spiritual presence named Yenta who omnisciently hovers over the proceedings. Long but outstanding and compelling. A.D.M. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award � AudioFile 2022, Portland, Maine
  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2022

    Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) elicits understanding, if not sympathy, for the 18th-century professed messiah and convicted heretic Jacob Frank as his story is told through the eyes of his Sabbatean Jew followers and skeptics and persecutors both Jewish and Christian, as well as the all-seeing gaze of his grandmother, Yente. Yente's perspective spans all eras of this epic novel, guiding listeners through a complex web of characters, many of whom have multiple names or adopt new ones when Frank preaches conversion. Unable to assign unique voices to all, Gilli Messer adjusts dialogue according to age and background, but her energetic pace thwarts casual listening. Supporting narrator Allen Lewis Rickman reads a single character's epistolary chapters with welcome distinction and authenticity, suggesting that a full-cast recording like the 2020 Polish-language audiobook would have helped keep listeners oriented. Nevertheless, Messer's bright voice captures much of the author's and translator's use of humor to ground major events in the mundanities of lives affected, especially women's. VERDICT Demand will be high for Croft's translation of Nobel Laureate Tokarczuk's masterpiece, which rewards a close reading in print or a distraction-free listen.--Lauren Kage

    Copyright 2022 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Olga Tokarczuk
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