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How Olga Tokarczuk wrote The Books of Jacob

How coincidences lead to unexpected consequences in the form of a book

By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

First there was Nowe Ateny (“New Athens”), by Father Benedykt Chmielowski, in a wonderful edition produced by Maria and Jan Lipski, which I read in pieces throughout my childhood and youth. Years later, in the autumn of 1997, I was in a bookshop somewhere, and I dug out a strange publication consisting of two notebooks, in a large, unwieldy format with a shiny blue cover. This was the Księga Słów Pańskich (published in English as The Collection of the Words of the Lord), lectures by Jacob Frank (though he preferred the word “chats”) edited by Jan Doktór.

I spent the entire winter slowly reading it, paragraph by paragraph, with rising amazement. By Christmas I had amassed a whole stack of books. Come spring, a separate bookshelf appeared that would keep expanding for the next few years. I had no plans to write a book about Frank; this was part of my “private” studies, a long and unflagging fascination with every kind of heterodoxy, anything that doesn’t fit the canon or sticks out beyond the usual boundaries, any rebellion or mutiny in the face of accepted norms.

The history of Jacob Frank is so astonishing that it’s hard to believe it really happened. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a large group of eighteenth-century Jews from Podolia [in what is now south-western Ukraine] ­– adherents of the teachings of the seventeenth-century Kabbalist, rabbi, and self-proclaimed Messiah Sabbatai Tzvi ­– who became followers of Jacob Frank, a merchant who at some point had professed Islam and then commanded the group’s conversion, with great pomp, to Catholicism.

Suspected of heresy, Frank was imprisoned for thirteen years in Jasna Góra fortress, until at the time of the Bar Confederation [an association of Polish noblemen who defended the country against growing Russian influence] he was released by Russian troops and took advantage of the chaos in the country to make his way to Brno in Moravia. Cloaked in the aura of a Jewish mystic, for several years he was a good friend of Emperor Joseph II and a confidant of his mother, Maria Theresa. When he lost the emperor’s favor, Frank and his entire company moved to Offenbach am Main, where he founded a huge court that served as a religious center. Several years later, he died as a Polish baron. His followers returned to Poland, where they blended into the ever-stronger Polish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia.

***

This is just the surface of the stormy history of Jacob Frank, which has several deeper dimensions. Above all, it documents the growth and dissemination of the greatest and most “ominous and misleading” heresy in the bosom of Judaism, as Gershom Scholem wrote. This eminent scholar made no attempt to mask his emotions in characterizing Frank as a sinister, malevolent figure pushing a nihilistic doctrine. At the same time, he could not deny that The Collection of the Words of the Lord, that “most singular of all ‘holy gospels,’” has considerable panache and imaginative power. The history of a group of people whose incredible determination inspired them to set out on a dramatic journey, risking their very identity and exposing themselves to spiritual as well as political danger, is an absolute sensation. If we also consider Frank’s dogged, though ultimately unsuccessful endeavor to establish his own moderately independent territory within the borders of the Polish Kingdom, we could now say that this was a sort of proto-Zionism.

I find it hard to believe that this incredible, unique story was so quickly forgotten, but efforts by the Frankists’ own descendants to keep their origins quiet in a hostile, suspicious and often anti-Semitic environment were evidently effective. Apart from Aleksander Kraushar’s monograph Frank and the Polish Frankists, published in 1895, no serious, comprehensive historical works appeared for a couple of centuries, until Jan Doktór took up the topic in a scholarly way while Andrzej Żuławski and Krzysztof Rutkowski treated Frank in a literary way, in, respectively, Moliwda (“Molivda”, 1994) and Kościół Świętego Rocha. Przepowieściach (“The Church of St. Roch: Prophecies,” 2001).

Later on, when I was already writing The Books of Jacob, a superb, essential work appeared by Paweł Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude. Jacob Frank and the Movement, 1755-1816 (2011), of which I eagerly made use. But all in all, not much exists on the topic, considering its import; the impact of Frankism on Polish culture is vast, and it has yet to be fully researched. It seems beyond question at this point that in its fairly esoteric form, Frank’s doctrine influenced the ideas of Polish Romanticism (notably including the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz), and in this manner made a significant contribution to the foundations of the Polish sense of a national identity.

***

I soon noticed that occasionally this history takes on a sort of morose but unintentionally absurd comedy, with some surprising turns of action straight out of an operetta. The endless quid pro quo, the role-playing, the posing, the multilingual context that easily leads to misunderstandings, the colorful characters – it all seemed to demand a literary frame, the epic medium of storytelling. When I got around to writing out half a century’s adventures of Frank and his companions on a long roll of gray paper, I realized how full of bravado their story was. I also stopped seeing them as sinister or ominous sectarians. Instead I saw a universal story about people at the very heart of a feudal society full of divisions, stratifications and prejudices – a world closed shut - instinctively striving for emancipation. Frank and his followers carried out a multilateral, multifaceted rebellion and fell afoul of everyone.

Frank was certainly charismatic, and as such he was also a bit of a psychopath. He had a strong personality, intelligence and charm, with which he won over high and low alike. It’s hard to understand a personality of this kind from reading only his sometimes awkwardly written parables and fairy tales, but that was the form in which he usually addressed his followers.

From these texts an ambivalent figure emerges: ruthless but also sensitive, unpredictable but at the same time attentive. Mad, but also businesslike and pragmatic. He’s a trickster – a charmer and a fraud. For a long time I had trouble understanding how such a person functions, and unfortunately I didn’t gain much from reading about sect leaders. Finally – may I be forgiven – I started furtively examining my own psychopathic/charismatic friends, a handful of my personal acquaintances of both sexes, trying to understand what lay behind their strength of conviction and their ability to create a court around themselves, a loyal company. But this was of no help either. I didn’t know how to cope with this figure empathetically, I couldn’t understand him. So I decided to present Jacob Frank through the eyes of others, without daring to go too close, though the longer I was involved with him, the more he aroused my sympathy.

The positive side of heterodoxy, or why heresies attract me

I think true stories about historical figures move along parallel tracks that rarely meet.

I would say that one of these tracks is in full sight – the one described by the media and history books. It’s tempting to follow the example of Father Benedykt Chmielowski, and to invoke the Polish phrase that best explains the obvious: koń jaki jest, każdy widzi, literally, “a horse is as everyone sees it” – the world is as everyone sees it. This is the official, fully visible reality, carefully considered and repeatedly agreed upon. This is where peace is concluded, alliances are formed, and things are as they seem to be. For at least a while, theories are in force here that provide a perfect explanation of what is what and what it means. God is good and merciful, but infinitely patient toward petty human acts that cause suffering. The world is like a box full of compartments, where everything has its place. And even when chaos intrudes, the mess is soon cleaned up and everything is returned to roughly the same position.

The second track, inferior and hidden by consensus, is great historical ignorance, in which lie stifled rage and despair, and where endless dissatisfaction with the world and its systems prevails. Here human beings constantly defy creation, pointing out its absurdity and lack of meaning. They have doubt. They don’t agree. They pose questions. They rebel. This stifled, radical alternative occasionally bursts through into the light of day and harasses the bright side, which is sure of being right in the end, and wallows in self-satisfaction and pride. It is from this place that every heterodoxy comes. This is where we find the dark mirror in which everything that’s generally accepted, official and obvious changes into a grimace, a nightmare, something absurd and grotesque.

Alfred North Whitehead said that religion is the deepest form of loyalty to the world. I would add that heresy is the deepest form of protest against it. Every kind of heresy offers an idea for changing the world. Deconstruction of the binding faith immediately leads to new designs for life and the existence of society, a repossession of the old notions and their replacement with new ones. The emergence of heresy is always revolutionary and always dreadful. It is the end of the world, hence the metaphor of the Last Judgment often accompanies religious revolutions. The dangerous thing about heresy is not that God is being understood in a different way; the danger actually has nothing to do with theology. It is more that a change in the perception of religious order is also a way of questioning the whole of human order, a way of undermining the obvious nature of the laws that are in force, and that’s why it so often leads to rebellion.

***

Frankist heresy was deeply rooted in the tradition of Jewish Gnosticism, but Christian elements were not alien to it either. Gnosis is older than Christianity, and may go back further than Judaism too. It is a specific religious state of mind that completely challenges the human being’s comfortable place in the world, which it shows to be hostile and inhuman, or at best indifferent. Gnosticism is a powerful, sinister chord that throughout history strikes alongside the bright, cheerful trills of the official religions, in which God is good and rewards good deeds.

The heterodox mind is restless and searching, it is brave and eager to experiment.

Heterodoxy proves the existence of a healthy spirit, a basic metaphysical intelligence that may be granted to simple, not necessarily educated people. But heresy appears only where faith is genuinely strong, where it’s taken seriously and experienced deeply on an everyday basis. That’s why I would say contrarily that any religion that has to grapple with religious heterodoxy is fortunate. Grapple, which doesn’t mean the same as to fight and destroy.

Rooting out heresy is like cutting oneself off from the sources of one’s own strength and shifting into neutral gear. It’s like paving over a reservoir of fresh water and only drinking water that circulates within a closed system. In Poland I have always felt a lack of good, solid heresy, so the unexpected appearance of Jacob Frank and his understanding of the Virgin Mary of Jasna Góra as the incarnation of Shekhinah put me in a state of readiness to write.

Life while writing a book

When I sat down to write The Books of Jacob I already had the main facts and events listed on my roll of gray paper, and I had gathered a large amount of material. I spent time in libraries, photocopied unobtainable sources, and put on white gloves to examine antique books. I went on several expeditions, during which I took thousands of photographs.

During the six years I spent writing the book, a lot of things happened to me. I moved house several times – some of those moves were very painful and brought chaos into my life, I went through a divorce and entered a new relationship, I did a lot of traveling, and my son became independent. I wrote a murder mystery. I lost several good friends and gained some new ones. During the final stages of editing, my father died. Everywhere I went, I took cardboard boxes full of material with me and gave them pride of place, and wherever I ended up, the first thing I did was to pin up maps, lists of characters and other useful images.

I bored my friends with incomplete stories and major or minor discoveries, fully aware that I’d never be able to explain what I was really doing, what I was working on, until I’d written the whole thing. Like this, I spent six years in a strange state of isolation, where a writer becomes the director of a phantom theater that’s invisible to others, and spends ten or more hours a day at this ghost job, directing a dramatic performance as its only spectator. There won’t be any review of this show in the morning paper, or any feedback; no one’s going to clap while it’s on, and no one’s going to boo. What’s more, it fills your mind outside working hours, in your sleep and while you rest, as you travel and at your meetings.

Life splits disturbingly in two, as if straddling two streams of reality that rarely have anything in common. Finally the two currents start to overlap dangerously, then merge, and you lose track of where you really are. At that point, it’s time to finish.

Mundus adiumens, or how the world extends a helping hand to the writer

I often felt as if I had caught hold of the end of a thread and was following it, trusting that whatever I was looking for would suddenly loom ahead of me from around the corner. And it really did happen.

I don’t know if it’s at all possible to describe a phenomenon of which I’ve often been aware as a writer, but never as frequently or as intensely as while working on this particular book. So perhaps it’s time to try. It’s something the writer receives spontaneously and subjectively, as if some external, independent force were providing access to the history you’re writing about, as if some special powers had joined up and were bringing help. All right, I know that sounds like pie in the sky.

But it’s true that many a time, while standing at someone’s party with glass in hand, I pulled a random book from the shelf and opened it to an equally random page, only to find to my amazement exactly what I needed – a character, an event, some information, a reference or a title I didn’t know about.

Plenty of times, just like that, I stumbled upon a person who’d be the solution to whatever problem was bothering me. An innocent trip to an accidental place would set me on a path I’d had no idea about.

In these situations, first you start to look around suspiciously, but then the weird thought occurs that for some strange reason the world cares about the writing of this book. I realize how ludicrous that sounds and what an ambiguous light it puts me in. What do I care?! Writers are in the end artists, and artists have won themselves a greater margin of eccentricity than, say, scientists, and don’t expect to be given academic titles.

But to gain some gravitas, I’ve found some support for myself in Latin. This sort of helping world is called the mundus adiumens, and it makes you feel as if you’re being led by the hand and drawn into a miraculous state, like a narcotic trance, into a light, very pleasant and at the same time tiring psychosis that’s hard to control. I think it’s addictive, and when you come back from your journey into a novel, only briefly do you feel relieved that it’s all over. This state of mind is, without exaggerating, a blessed one. The self, normally so pampered and well-fed, shrinks to a small size and lets itself be surrounded by a storm of awareness and ignorance, engulfed by an ocean of words and images, and ties the end of the thread to a target in the labyrinth.

My travels and the power of the imagination

Naturally my first journey was to Podolia. In early autumn 2009 we set off east through Lviv, trying to get a physical feel for the borders of the world I was already building in my imagination. We went as far as the Zbruch River to the east and the Dniester to the south. I had marked on our map several dozen places that appeared in the sources. As we zigzagged our way from one to the next, I felt more and more gloom and an increasingly palpable sense of loss. There was nothing here – none of what I’d been expecting. There was a world, an interesting one perhaps, but completely different. Alien. We looked around lots of small villages and towns bathed in September sunlight, coated in dust, as if transparent. We saw chaotic, ugly post-Soviet marketplace buildings, the ruins of churches and synagogues, weed-choked parks, clumsily constructed modern cultural centers, and garden squares covered in asphalt, with grass growing in the cracks. The names I knew from Kraushar, from the “Words of the Lord” or from family stories, loaded with so many mental images, turned out to be sad, empty hamlets full of sheet metal and plastic. At first I felt genuine despair – I shouldn’t have left home, I could just as well have looked at photographs or videos, and read about the fauna and flora of Podolia in Wikipedia. But eventually, realizing that my expectations were childish, I emerged from this despair and started as it were to retrain my vision.

And so, as I gazed at a graveyard in Korolivka, with the grass blowing in the wind, I slowly started to perceive the figures of children playing, and on the potholed dirt road a foggily drawn cart shakily emerged, like a mirage. Our visit to Firlejówka, now a village called Lypivka, made a great impression on me. The most important place for me there was the church – Father Chmielowski’s presbytery must have stood somewhere near it. As I walked around the recently restored but firmly locked church, I tried, like an archaeologist, to work out from the arrangement of the ruined buildings where it might have stood, and where Father Benedykt’s famous garden could have been – the place where he stubbornly tried to recreate the miracles of horticultural art he had seen at the Dzieduszyckis’ unrivaled Cecołowce palace. We stopped the car in the middle of a forlorn plain on the Dniester, knowing that the wagons of the “orthodox” heretics must have traveled along this same road when they flocked to the commune in Iwanie.

This journey and all the ones that followed became about gathering insights of this kind. In Istanbul I went to look at a bazaar with booths so tiny that the vendors hardly had room for themselves, and a dazzling wealth of colourful spices piled in pyramids, and I silently assumed that not much could have changed here since Frank’s day. Purely to find out more, I got into buying a malachite necklace, which took two hours. The owner invited me inside his booth, where we talked over several cups of tea while negotiating the price of the necklace, and I imagined that Jacob Frank must have sold his gems in a similar way in Krajowa.

Altogether I made two major trips to Ukraine, to the former Wallachia and “turecczyzna” – land occupied by the Turks – and to Moravia and the German countries all the way to Offenbach am Main, where the famous Isenburger Schloss still stands in very good shape, the headquarters of the European Frankists, and now a first-rate school of design.

History and cigarettes

The Books of Jacob is a historical novel written in the full knowledge that the binding historical narrative is something that has been formulated over and over again. I would never have believed for instance how faint the presence of women is in historical events, and yet in the main sources they appear only marginally and have no special significance.

Just about everyone has a mother, wife, sister or daughter, and knows that it’s impossible for them to be missing from the events of life, unless it’s a story about being in the army, or a monastery. I regard the absence of women in the version of history that ends up in the textbooks as a feature of a patriarchal mentality that fails to see women and doesn’t record their contributions.

I have found a place for them in my history by meticulously gathering every crumb of information. I did it with a sense of justice, believing that most of human history needs to be rewritten from this particular point of view. I also did my best, as far as psychologically possible, to drop my own modern sense of morality. I knew I was describing a pre-Victorian world where other rules of coexistence were in force. For many principled readers, they might seem very loose.

Of course it is impossible to leave oneself and one’s own time behind entirely. In this sense the historical novel doesn’t exist, because its roots are always stuck in the author’s present day. History is simply a never-ending interpretation of real and imagined events from the past that allows us to perceive formerly invisible meanings in it.

I finished writing The Books of Jacob late at night on 30 January this year [2014], and immediately fetched a packet of cigarettes that I’d bought for the occasion. I stood on the balcony in the winter frost and smoked one cigarette after another, until I started to feel sick. That was my eccentric, unhealthy reward for myself after all the toil of writing – a reward for the phantom theater director, now that the curtain had fallen.

  


First published in Gazeta Wyborcza’s books supplement, “Książki. Magazyn do czytania” in September 2014; reprinted there in October 2019.

https://wyborcza.pl/ksiazki/7,154165,25308071,literacki-nobel-dla-olgi-tokarczuk-przeczytaj-esej-noblistki.html

 

The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk
$34.99