Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk[1] ([tɔˈkart͡ʂuk]; born 29 January 1962) is a Polish writer, activist,[2] and public intellectual[3] considered one of the most critically acclaimed and successful authors of her generation in Poland. In 2019 she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Polish female prose writer "for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life." For her novel Flights, Tokarczuk has been awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (translated by Jennifer Croft). Her works include Primeval and Other Times, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and The Books of Jacob.

Olga Tokarczuk
Tokarczuk in 2019
Tokarczuk in 2019
Born (1962-01-29) 29 January 1962 (age 59)
Sulechów, Poland
Occupation
  • Novelist
  • essayist
  • poet
  • psychologist
  • screenwriter
NationalityPolish
EducationUniversity of Warsaw (MA)
Period1989–present
Notable works
Notable awards
Signature

Tokarczuk is particularly noted for the mythical tone of her writing. A clinical psychologist from the University of Warsaw, she has published a collection of poems, several novels, as well as other books with shorter prose works. For Flights and The Books of Jacob, she won the Nike Awards, Poland's top literary prize, among other accolades; she also won five times Nike audience award. In 2015, she received the German-Polish Bridge Prize for contribution in mutual understanding between European nations. Tokarczuk faced some backlash from nationalist groups in her homeland after the publication of The Books of Jacob, as set in 18th century Poland, the novel celebrates the country’s cultural diversity.

Her works have been translated into almost 40 languages, making her one of the most translated contemporary Polish writers.[4] The Books of Jacob, her magnum opus, is set for the UK release in November 2021 and the US release in February 2022, after several years of translation work.[5]

BiographyEdit

Early life, and educationEdit

Olga Tokarczuk was born in Sulechów near Zielona Góra, in western Poland. She is a daughter of two teachers, Wanda Słabowska and Józef Tokarczuk, and has a sister.[6] Her parents were resettled from former Polish eastern regions after the Second World War; one of her grandmothers was of Ukrainian origin.[7][8][9] The family lived in the countryside in Klenica, some 11mi away from Zielona Góra, where her father ran a school library in which she found her love of literature.[10] Her father was a member of the communist PZPR party.[11] Tokarczuk liked popular Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel In Desert and Wilderness and fairy tales, among others.[12] They later moved south-east to Kietrz in Opolian Silesia, where she graduated from the C.K. Norwid High school.[13] In 1979, she debuted with two short stories published in youth scouting magazine Na Przełaj.

Tokarczuk went on to study clinical psychology at the University of Warsaw from 1980, and during her studies she volunteered in an asylum for adolescents with behavioural problems.[14] After graduation in 1985, she moved to Wrocław and later to Wałbrzych, where she worked as a psychotherapists in 1986-89 and teachers' trainer in 1989-96. In the meantime, she published poems and reviews in the press, and published a book of poetry in 1989.[6] Tokarczuk quit to concentrate on literature, she also said she felt "more neurotic than [her] clients."[10] She worked doing odd jobs in London for a while, improving her English, and went for literary scholarships in the United States (1996) and in Berlin (2001/02).[6]

Inspiration, and familyEdit

 
Tokarczuk in Kraków, Poland (2005)

Tokarczuk considers herself a disciple of Carl Jung and cites his psychology as an inspiration for her literary work.[15][16][17]

Since 1998, she has lived between Krajanów and Wrocław, in Lower Silesia. Her home in Krajanów near Nowa Ruda is located in the Sudetes mountains at the multi-cultural Polish-Czech borderland. The locale has influenced her literary work;[13] the novel House of Day, House of Night (1998) touches on life in the adopted home, and the action of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) takes place at the picturesque Kłodzko Valley. In 1998, together with her first husband, Tokarczuk founded the Ruta publishing house, which operated until 2004.[6] She was an organizer of the International Short Story Festival, which inaugurated in Wrocław in 2004. As a guest lecturer, she conducted prose workshops at universities in Kraków and Opole. Tokarczuk joined the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna (Eng. ed. Political Critique), a magazine as well as large pan-regional network of institutions and activists, and currently serves on the Board of trustees of its academic and research unit – Institute for Advance Study in Warsaw. She also travelled around the world.[6][18]

In 2009, Tokarczuk received literary scholarship from the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and during her stay at the NIAS' campus in Wassenaar she has written her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which was published the same year.[6][12]

Roman Fingas, fellow psychologist, was Tokarczuk's first husband. They married when she was 23 and later divorced; their son Zbigniew was born in 1986. Grzegorz Zygadło is her second husband. She is a vegetarian.[12]

Literary careerEdit

Olga Tokarczuk's first book was published in 1989, a collection of poems entitled Miasta w lustrach (Cities in Mirrors).[14] Her debut novel, Podróż ludzi księgi (The Journey of the Book-People), was published in 1993. A parable on two lovers' quest for the "secret of the Book" – a metaphor for the meaning of life – is set in 17th century, and portrays an expedition to a monastery in the Pyrenees on the trail of a book which reveals the mystery of life, ending with an ironic twist. It was well received by critics, and won Polish Publisher’s Prize for best debut.[19] Ever since then, Tokarczuk’s novels and short stories have ranked her amongst the top of Polish contemporary writers of prose.

The follow-up novel E.E. (1995) plays with the conventions of the modernist psychological novel, and took its title from the initials of its protagonist, the adolescent Erna Eltzner, who develops psychic abilities. Growing up in a wealthy German-Polish family in the 1920s in Wrocław, which was at that time a German city named Breslau, she allegedly becomes a medium, a fact her mother begins to take advantage of by organizing spiritual sessions. Tokarczuk introduces the characters of scientists, the psychiatrist-patient relationship, and despite elements of spiritualism, occultism as well as gnosticism, she represents psychological realism and cognitive scepticism. Katarzyna Kantner, a literary scholar who defended her PhD thesis on the works of Olga Tokarczuk, points out C.G. Jung’s doctoral dissertation 'On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena' as an inspiration."[15][20]

Her third novel, Primeval and Other Times (Prawiek i inne czasy, Eng. 2010), was published in 1996 and became highly successful. It is set in the fictitious village of Primeval at the very heart of Poland, which is populated by some eccentric, archetypical characters. The village, a microcosm of Europe, is guarded by four archangels, from whose perspective the book chronicles the lives of its inhabitants over a period of eight decades, beginning in the year that World War I broke out.[21] The book presents the creation of a myth emerging before the reader’s eyes. "This is Primeval: an enclosed snow globe, a world in itself, which it may or may not be possible to ever leave. [...] And yet, as much as the town of Primeval is devastated, over and over, by history, there is also a counter dream, full of creaturely magic and wonder."[22] Translated into many languages, with English version by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Primeval and Other Times established Tokarczuk's international reputation as one of the most important representatives of Polish literature in her generation.[23][24]

After Primeval and Other Times, her work began drifting away from the novel genre towards shorter prose texts and essays. Tokarczuk's next book Szafa (The Wardrobe, 1997) was a collection of three novella-type stories.

House of Day, House of Night (Dom dzienny, dom nocny, 1998, Eng. 2003), is what Tokarczuk terms the ’constellation novel’, a patchwork of loosely connected disparate stories, sketches, and essays about life past and present in the author's adopted home in Krajanów, which allow various interpretations and enable communication at a deeper, psychological level. Her goal is to make those images, fragments of narrative and motif, merge together only on entering the reader’s consciousness. While some, at least those unfamiliar with Central European history, have labeled it Tokarczuk's most "difficult" piece, it was her first book to be published in English, and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2004.[25][26]

House of Day, House of Night was followed by a collection of short stories Gra na wielu bębenkach (Playing on Many Drums, 2001) as well as a book-length non-fiction essay Lalka i perła (The Doll and the Pearl, 2000), on the subject of Bolesław Prus' classic novel The Doll.[27] She also published a volume with three modern Christmas tales, together with her fellow writers Jerzy Pilch and Andrzej Stasiuk (Opowieści wigilijne, 2000).[28] Ostatnie historie (The Last Stories) of 2004 is an exploration of death from the perspectives of three generations, while the novel Anna in the Tombs of the World (2006) was a contribution to the Canongate Myth Series by Polish publisher Znak.

 
Olga Tokarczuk and director Agnieszka Holland in 2017

Tokarczuk's novel Flights (Bieguni, 2007, Eng. 2018) returns to the patchwork approach of essay and fiction, the major theme of which is modern day nomads. The book explores how a person moves through time and space as well as psychology of travelling.[29][30][31] For Flights she has been awarded both the jury and the readers prize of Polish Nike Awards in 2008, and then the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (translation by Jennifer Croft).[32] The novel landed on the short list for the U.S. prestigious National Book Award in the 'Translated Literature' category; a panel of judges stated:[33]

Through [...] brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.

In 2009, she has published an existential, noir thriller novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, Eng. 2019), which is not a conventional crime story, transforming into an acid social satire. The main character and narrator is Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s living in a rural area at the Polish Kłodzko Valley, eccentric in perception of other humans through astrology and fond of the poetry of William Blake, from whose work the title of the book is taken. She decides to investigate murders of members of local hunting club, and initially explains these deaths as caused by wild animals in vengeance on hunters.[34][35][36] The novel has become one of the bestsellers in Poland.[37] It was the basis of the crime film Spoor (2017) directed by Agnieszka Holland, which won the Alfred Bauer Prize (Silver Bear) at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.[38] English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones earned Tokarczuk second nomination for the Man Booker International Prize.

 
Tokarczuk during presentation of movie Spoor at the Berlinale 2017

An epic novel The Books of Jacob (2014, Eng. 2021 translated by Jennifer Croft) is a journey over seven borders, five languages, and three major religions. Beginning in 1752 at the historical eastern Galicia region, now western Ukraine, it revolves around a controversial 18th Polish-Jewish religious leader and mystic Jacob Frank among other historical figures, and winds up near mid-20th-century Korolówka, Poland, where a family of local Jews had hidden from the Holocaust. Frank, who founded the Frankist sect fighting for the rights and emancipation of the Jews, encouraged his followers to transgress moral boundaries. The Frankists were persecuted in the Jewish community, including salvation through orgiastic rites. Frank led his followers to be baptised by the Roman Catholic church, however the church imprisoned him for heresy for more than a decade, only for Frank to declare that he was the messiah. Through third-person accounts, the action takes place also in present-day Turkey, Greece, Austria and Germany, capturing regional spirit, climate as well as interesting customs. Jan Michalski Prize jury praised:[39]

A work of immense erudition with a powerful epic sweep. [...] The thematic richness is impressive. The story of the Frankists, rendered through a series of mythic narratives, is transformed into a universal epic tale of the struggle against rigid thinking, either religious or philosophical, that ostracize and enslave people. An extensive and prolific work that warns against our inability to embrace an environment complex in its diversity, fueling a fanatical sectarianism which ends in disaster. The Books of Jacob, by telling the past with a dazzling virtuosity, helps us to better understand the world in which we live.

In regard to the historical and ideological divides of Polish literature, the book has been characterized as anti-Sienkiewicz. It was soon acclaimed by critics and readers alike, but its reception has been hostile in some Polish nationalist circles and Olga Tokarczuk became a target of some internet hate and harassment campaign.[40][41]

Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 for "a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life."[42]

In 2021, it was announced that The Books of Jacob would finally be published in the UK and in the US. The novel has taken seven years to translate into English.[5]

Tokarczuk's works have become the subject of several dozens academic papers and thesis.[43]

Literary Heights FestivalEdit

 
O. Tokarczuk and Karol Maliszewski at the Literary Heights Festival (2018)

Since its foundation in 2015, Olga Tokarczuk has become co-host of the annual Literary Heights Festival, which has included events in her village. The festival has a rich programme of cultural events such as educational sessions and workshops, debates, concerts, film screenings as well as various exhibitions.

Olga Tokarczuk FoundationEdit

In November 2019, Tokarczuk has established a foundation with a planned wide range of activities related to literature to create progressive intellectual and artistic centre. It was declared that Polish poet Tymoteusz Karpowicz's villa in Wrocław would become its future seat.[44] The writer allocated 10% of her Nobel financial prize to the body and, aside from her, Agnieszka Holland and Ireneusz Grin have joined the Foundation Council. The foundation has started its operations in October 2020 implementing educational programs, organizing writing contests and public debates, funding scholarships for young aspiring writers as well as, also international, residencies.[45]

ViewsEdit

Tokarczuk is a leftist, an atheist, and a feminist.[46][47][48] She has been criticized by some nationalist groups in Poland as unpatriotic, anti-Christian and a promoter of eco-terrorism.[49][47] She has denied the allegations, has described herself as a "true patriot" and said that groups criticizing her are xenophobic and damage Poland's international reputation.[50][51][52]

In 2015, after the publication of The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk was criticized by the Nowa Ruda Patriots association, who demanded that the town's council revoke the writer's honorary citizenship of Nowa Ruda because, as the association claimed, she had tarnished the good name of the Polish nation. Those people's postulate was supported by Senator Waldemar Bonkowski of the Law and Justice Party, according to whom Tokarczuk's literary output and public statements are in "absolute contradiction to the assumptions of the Polish historical politics". Tokarczuk asserted that she is the true patriot, not the people and groups who criticize her, and whose alleged xenophobic and racist attitudes and actions are harmful to Poland and its image abroad.[50][51][52]

In 2020, she was one of the signatories alongside other prominent writers such as Margaret Atwood, John Banville and John Maxwell Coetzee of an open letter addressed to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, urging the European Union to "to take immediate steps to defend core European values – equality, non-discrimination, respect for minorities – which are being blatantly violated in Poland" and appealing to the Polish government to stop targeting sexual minorities and to withdraw support from organizations promoting homophobia.[53][54]

Awards and recognitionEdit

Olga Tokarczuk is the laureate of numerous literary awards both in and outside Poland. In 2004, her novel House of Day, House of Night was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.[55]

She has been twice awarded Nike Award, the most important Polish literary accolade – for Flights in 2008, and The Books of Jacob in 2015.[56][46] She won the Nike Readers’ Choice Award five times, Primeval & Other Times being the award's first recipient ever.

For Flights, Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, translated by Jennifer Croft.[3][57]

For The Books of Jacob, she was awarded the 2016 Kulturhuset Stadsteatern International Literary Prize in Stockholm.[58] The novel translated into French was recognised as the 2018 'Best European novel' by French cultural magazine Transfuge, won the 2018 Swiss Jan Michalski Prize, and the 2019 Prix Laure Bataillon for the best foreign-language book translated in the previous year.[39][59]

In 2010, Tokarczuk received the Silver Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis.[60] In 2013, she was awarded the Slovene Vilenica Prize.[16]

Tokarczuk is the recipient of the 2015 Brückepreis, the 20th edition of the award granted by the "Europa-City Zgorzelec/Görlitz". The prize is a joint undertaking of the German and Polish border twin cities aimed at advancing mutual, regional and European peace, understanding and cooperation among people of different nationalities, cultures and viewpoints. Particularly appreciated by the jury was Tokarczuk's creation of literary bridges connecting people, generations and cultures, especially residents of the border territories of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, who have had often different existential and historical experiences. Also stressed was Tokarczuk's "rediscovery" and elucidation of the complex multinational and multicultural past of the Lower Silesia region, an area of great political conflicts. Attending the award ceremony in Görlitz, Tokarczuk was impressed by the positive and pragmatic attitude demonstrated by the mayor of the German town in regard to the current refugee and migrant crisis, which she contrasted with the ideological uproar surrounding the issue in Poland.[61][50][62][63]

In 2019, her 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, her second work nominated.[64]

Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. The 2018 award had been postponed due to controversy within the Nobel committee.[65][42][66][10][67]

In 2020, she received the title of an Honorary Citizen of Warsaw as a recognition of her literary achievements.[68]

In 2021, Tokarczuk received the title of a Doctor Honoris Causa from Jagiellonian University.[69][70]

PublicationsEdit

English translationsEdit

  • House of Day, House of Night. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2003. ISBN 978-0-8101-1892-8.
  • Primeval & Other Times. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2010. ISBN 9788086264356.
  • Flights. Translated by Jennifer Croft. New York: Penguin, 2018. ISBN 978-0525534204.
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. New York: Penguin Random House/Riverhead Books, 2019. ISBN 9780525541332.
  • The Lost Soul. Illustrated by Joanna Concejo. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2021. ISBN 9781644210352.
  • The Books of Jacob. Translated by Jennifer Croft. New York: Penguin, 2021. ISBN 9780593332528.

Novels

Short story collections

  • Gra na wielu bębenkach: 19 opowiadań [Playing on Many Drums: 19 stories] (in Polish). Wałbrzych: Ruta. 2001. ISBN 9788391286593.
  • Opowiadania bizarne [Bizarre Stories] (in Polish). Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie. 2018. ISBN 9788308064986.

Poetry

  • Miasto w lustrach [The City in Mirrors] (in Polish). Warszawa: Zarząd Główny Związku Socjalistycznej Młodzieży Polskiej. 1989. OCLC 958216951.

Nonfiction

Children's

  • Zgubiona Dusza [The Lost Soul]. Translated by Lloyd-Jones, Antonia. New York: Seven Stories Press. 2021 [Originally published by Wydawnictwo Format, Wrocław, in 2017]. ISBN 9781644210345.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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  2. ^ "Nobelove ceny za literatúru sú známe: Laureátom za rok 2018 je Olga Tokarczuková, za rok 2019 Peter Handke" [Nobel prizes in literature are known: Olga Tokarczuk for 2018, Peter Handke for 2019]. style.hnonline.sk (in Slovak). 10 October 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Olga Tokarczuk's 'extraordinary' Flights wins Man Booker International prize". The Guardian. 22 May 2018. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
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  7. ^ «Всесвіт», 2009, № 11–12. — С. 181
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  9. ^ "Ольга ТОКАРЧУК: "Коли бачу вулицю Бандери, у мене мороз по шкірі"". Галицький Кореспондент (in Ukrainian). 25 September 2011.
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  48. ^ Shotter, James (14 February 2020). "Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk: why populist nostalgia will pass". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved 11 June 2021.
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  51. ^ a b Piekarska, Magda (15 December 2015). "Nowa polityka historyczna wg PiS. Żądają odebrania Tokarczuk obywatelstwa Nowej Rudy" [A new historical politics according to PiS. They demand that Nowa Ruda revokes Tokarczuk's citizenship]. Gazeta Wyborcza (in Polish).
  52. ^ a b Czapliński, Przemysław (15 October 2015). "Czapliński: list otwarty do senatora Waldemara Bonkowskiego" [Czapliński: an open letter to Senator Waldemar Bonkowski] (in Polish). Krytyka Polityczna.
  53. ^ "LGBT+ Community in Poland: a Letter of Solidarity and Protest". Retrieved 21 August 2020.
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Further readingEdit

  • Ruth Franklin, "Past Master: An experimental novelist and the battle for Poland's national narrative", The New Yorker, 5 & 12 August 2019, pp. 20–26. "Her role, as she sees it, is to force her readers to examine aspects of history – their own or their nation's – that they would rather avoid. She has become, she says, a 'psychotherapist of the past.'" (p. 26.)

External linksEdit