Josephine A. McQuail reviews Olga Tokarczuk’s award-winning Blakean novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones. Riverhead Books, 2009; translation © 2018)
Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 (the prize was delayed, due to various scandals involving some members of the Nobel Prize Committee). Her 2007 novel Flights was translated into English finally in 2018, winning the Man Booker Prize, and paving the way for the Nobel Prize.
Tokarczuk speculated, “Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner … because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication” (quoted in Armitstead).
As anyone who has read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and remembers “The Proverbs of Hell” will recognize, the title of Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel is a quote from William Blake – or technically a paraphrase, as the actual quote is “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”
Not to give anything away, but the quote has a lot of relevance to the plot of the novel, as it turns out. Tokarczuk’s protagonist Janina is an elderly woman who has a passion for horoscopes; a skill that comes into play when her neighbors turn up dead. She lives full time in a country setting in rural Poland bordering on the Czech Republic (as Olga Tokarczuk herself does). She lives on a plateau, with harsh weather, and pointedly, calls it “the world of Urizen” (p. 56) (Urizen in Blake, or “Your Reason” as it is sometimes pronounced, is a cold, repressive force).
Each of the seventeen chapters has an epigraph by William Blake – quotes (as vaguely indicated in the Author’s Note) taken from “the Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller and the letters of William Blake” (p. 275). The misattribution of “The Proverbs of Hell” (and not Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is puzzling, and also the lack of mention of The Book of Urizen, which is specifically discussed and quoted in the novel (“What demon hath formed this adominable void?”, p. 71). Like the misquote of the Proverb of Hell in the title, are these subtle signals that we have not the “real” Blake alluded to here, but a “filtered” one?
In a move reminiscent of Blake’s satirical Island in the Moon, Janina gives nicknames to most of the people in her world: her former student and now friend “Dizzy”, for example, who translates William Blake. Tokarczuk’s thoughtful speculation regarding the earlier translation of her novel into English and her delayed international reputation is interesting in view of Dizzy and Janina’s translations of William Blake into Polish. Indeed, translation as a topic is important in the novel. The rendering of Blake translated into Polish is a tour de force, accomplished by giving differing “translations” of Blake in English, reproducing the effect of attempting to capture nuances of meaning in any translation of an original into a foreign language. Dizzy is not into astrology, but is “prone to effusive digressions on the topic of Blake’s bizarre symbolism …” (p. 57).
Despite the tenuous connection between the plot of the novel and the Blake elements, there are some provocative comments on Blake’s work. It would be interesting to examine the Polish translations Tokarczuk uses of Blake in her original Polish. Janina asserts that she doesn’t understand poetry and wonders why the ideas in poetry can’t be stated unequivocally, in prose. Puzzled, she “can’t make head or tail of the beautiful, dramatic images that Blake conjured up in words” (p. 69). She asks Dizzy, “Did he really think like that? What was he describing? Where is that? Where is it happening and when? Is it a fable or a myth?” (p. 69). “ ‘It’s happening all the time and everywhere,’ he’d say with a gleam in his eye” (p. 70).
It’s sad to me that Tokarczuk shows no awareness of Blake’s images, but I imagine there are few translations into Polish of Blake’s poetry with facing pages of the illuminations (though Fostowicz, who she mentions as the translator of Blake’s Letters, did, in Boska Analogia or Divine Analogy, publish over 100 images from Blake according to Eliza Borkowska in Erle and Paley’s The Reception of William Blake in Europe, Vol. 2, pp. 494-5). What Janina calls Blake’s most famous poem, “Auguries of Innocence” seems an odd choice (as Blake’s “The Tyger” usually has that honor, as Kazin remarks).
Every Night and every Morn,
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to Endless Night. (Blake, quoted on pp. 70-1)
Perhaps Tokarkczuk is echoing Patti Smith’s predilection for Auguries of Innocence (the title of Smith’s own 2005 collection of poems), or perhaps this is the character’s own naivetë. For Janina lives an obscure life. She drinks black tea, clears accumulations of snow off of absent neighbors’ homes singlehandedly in the Urizenic winter, and makes repairs in the neighborhood as well. Most, especially the hunters who are the villains of the novel, regard her as a mad woman – and worse, an old mad woman. She is perhaps an unlikely heroine, but she is a heroine like Blake’s Thel, who, in this case, does not flee back to the world of Innocence, but engages in the sufferings and cruelty of Experience.
The name “Urizen” has also often been associated with the word “horizon” and limitations. In exploring Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Blake, we come up with the limits imposed by the boundary between author and character, and by the history of Blake’s translations into Polish (as well as national borders). Upon my first reading of the novel, I admit to being somewhat offended at the plot implications that Blake was simply a madman with a predilection for poetry and random capitalization, the latter which Janina also indulges in.
Looking over the chapter on “Blake’s Reception in Poland” by Eliza Borkowska, I am able to at least speculate on where Tokarczuk’s knowledge of Blake may have come. A very apropos quote from Blake’s letters regarding to the astrologer who was detained by police; Blake’s comment is, “The Man who can Read the Stars is often oppressed by their Influence …” (Blake, quoted in Tokarczuk p. 268). There is a reference in Tokarczuk’s novel to Michał Fostowicz, the Polish artist and translator of the volume of Blake’s Letters that Dizzy gives her. (This may be an “in joke,” because I can find no such translation by Fostowicz, though he has several other translations of Blake’s works). Tokarczuk’s – or her characters’ – views of Blake seem informed by some of the earliest Polish views of Blake – for instance the earliest known reference to Blake in Polish, in 1894, “ ‘the anti-rationalist and irrational Blake’” of Leon Winiarski (Borkowska, p. 474).
The narrator Janina herself is involved in some rather Urizenic tasks. For instance, she reports:
I went back to my Inquiries. This time I carefully analyzed the television schedule for as many channels as I could and studied the correlation between the contents of the films and the configuration of the Planets on a given day. (p. 96)
Janina is a quintessentially unreliable narrator, and we can assume that she is unreliable about William Blake as well. This is nothing new; Blake is frequently and universally misunderstood. A review of Tokarczuk’s novel on the U.S.’s National Public Radio by Kamal Ahsan praises her treatment of Nature, because Blake is “the philosopher and poet so preoccupied [with] respecting the innocence of the natural world … Tokarczuk manages to link Blake’s sharp indictment of human encroachment into nature with Janina’s horror at the hunting and killing of animals, and the creep of human corruption into the Polish wilderness.” This is a common misunderstanding of Blake. Blake believed in the spiritual – the material world, including Nature, is, in a sense, a delusion. After all, his goal was building the NEW Jerusalem, the ideal spiritual CITY of divine Imagination.
That said, Tokarczuk has much in common with Blake, and not just her lyrical writing. Though her work, unlike Blake’s during his lifetime, has won prizes and accolades, the film based on her novel directed by Agnieska Holland, Spoor, was called in Poland “ ‘a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism’ “ (quoted in Perry), and Tokarczuk herself has been denounced as a traitor by Polish nationalists. Blake was no stranger to scorn and derision; nor is Tokarczuk, despite her fame; nor is Janina Duszejko, her character. We can safely say that all of them get the last laugh.
Dr. Josephine A. McQuail is a Blake scholar and Professor of English at TTU. She was recently awarded a Non-instructional research grant (sabbatical) which she is using to research William Blake and James Joyce in London, England. At U.C. Berkeley she was awarded a Maude Fife Fellowship, and her Master’s thesis at University of Virginia won the Department of English Emily Clark Balch essay award.
Ahsan, Kamal. Rev. “Drive Your Plow” is Philosophical Lament, Disguised as a Whodunit.” 16 Aug. 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/16/751323423/drive-your-plow-is-philosophical-lament-disguised-as-a-whodunit
Armitstead, Claire. “Olga Tokarczuk: The Dreadlocked Feminist Winner the Nobel Needed.” The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/olga-tokarczuk-the-dreadlocked-feminist-winner-the-nobel-needed
Borkowska, Eliza. “The Reception of Blake in Poland: From Voices in the Night to ‘Choir of the Day!’ “ The Reception of William Blake in Europe. Edited Sibylle Erle and Morton D. Paley. Bloomsbury, 2019. Vol 2. Pp. 473-499.
Kazin, A. (1977). The Portable William Blake. Penguin.
Perry, Sarah, Rev. “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk : The Entire Cosmic Catastrophe.” The Guardian. 21 Sept. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/21/drive-your-plow-over-the-bones-of-the-dead-review
Spoor (Pokot). Directed by Agnieszka Holland, Kasia Adamik. Screenplay by Agnieszka Holland, Olga Tokarczuk. Starring: Agnieszka Mandat, Jakup Gierszal, Wiktor Zborowki, Borys Szyc. 24 Feb. 2018
Tokarczuk, Olga. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Trans. Anotonia Lloyd-Jones. Riverhead Books, 2009