Hollywood’s Natalie Portman delights book fans with Olga Tokarczuk interview
Several weeks after selecting Olga Tokarczuk’s best-selling ‘Drive your plow over the bones of the dead’ as her Book of the Month, Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman interviewed the author last week on her Insta channel.
Followed by nearly 90,000 subscribers, Nat’s Book Club has become a cult sensation on the social media platform since first launching just over a year ago with the Hollywood star subsequently speaking to a series of acclaimed authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Benjamin Moser and Dorothy Baker.
First announcing it as her book pick in September, Portman wrote: “Loving the way this fable-like Polish novel blends mystery, dark comedy, politics, and philosophy.
“As Janina, an astrologist who prefers the company of animals, sets out to investigate the dead bodies turning up around her, there is friction between Janina and the hunters. I hope you’ll join me this month in reading!”
Liked over 7,000 times by the channel’s followers – and nearly 70,000 times on her principal Instagram platform – comments made at the time were overwhelmingly positive with one Insta user calling it “one of my favourite reads this year”.
Another wrote: “Really love Olga Tokarczuk. Her writing is special, magical, modern and classical, full of mystery, of myth. All her books are great. Good pick.”
In the weeks leading up to the interview, Portman published several excerpts that she had highlighted in pen.
“People have a duty towards animals to lead them, in successive lives, to liberation,” reads one passage that the actress had marked-up. “We’re all travelling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.”
Another, described by Portman as “memorable”, reads: “… I felt flooded by a powerful sense of communion with the people passing by. Each man was my brother and each woman my sister. We were so very much alike. So fragile, impertinent and easily destroyed.”
Finally speaking to the 2018 Nobel prize-winning author last Wednesday, Portman wrote: “Loved discussing the ways humans are bonded to trees, rivers, and animals. And I am still amazed that Olga wrote Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead while simultaneously writing The Books of Jacob!”
Revealing her unusual working habits, Tokarczuk described her writing process as “schizophrenic”.
“In my small room there are two desks – on one, a huge amount of books, notes about the 19th century, the Polish aristocracy and Jews, and on the other smaller desk was my small laptop,” she told Portman. “I would jump between one desk to the other.”
Talking about the protagonist of the book, Janina Duszejko, Tokarczuk said she had been inspired to create the character due to the lack of representation that women over 60 have enjoyed in both the Polish and Western media.
“Writing this book, I had just crossed forty myself,” said Tokarczuk, “and I noticed that I had become a little invisible.”
Continuing, Tokarczuk said: “I tried to make her true and independent from all expectations which society used to have of women of such an age. I tried to invent her own language to underline that she is special – we are all special but we sometimes forget that and imitate what isn’t ours.”
Discussing also her incorporation of the works of William Blake, Tokarczuk explained that her passion for the English poet and painter was born several decades ago.
“The place where I live is like a small tail on the southern border of Poland; in the 1980s it was a place where hippies used to come,” she said.
“I don’t know how it happened, but three of the four translators of William Blake in Poland used to live in my town. I was very young at the time, but I remember during parties the subject of Blake was always present.
“I realised in one moment that he is similar to me, and I am similar to him. I had so much in common with him in that he was anti-establishment and always looking for a new way of thinking.
“He was even vegetarian, which at that time was crazy. Madness… I had the feeling this was a person very close to my heart.”
Running nearly 10 minutes in length, the interview touched, as well, on one of the underlying motifs found running through Tokarczuk’s books.
“From my third book I’ve tried to say the same, that there is an ‘unus mundus’ – one world in which we live in and that we are all inter-connected to such an extent that we don’t even understand.
“I truly believe in science, and that perhaps in the next decade scientists will try and resolve all those secrets as to how we are bonded to each other, to the trees, to the landscape, to the rivers…”
First making her screen breakthrough after starring in Leon at the age of twelve, Portman has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars following high-profile roles in Star Wars, Black Swan, Closer and Jackie.
However, the iconic actress is also regarded as one of Hollywood’s more academically-minded stars having graduated from Harvard in 2003. In 2013, she sparked a press scramble in Poland after making the revelation that her grandfather had come from Rzeszów.
Tokarczuk, meanwhile, has become Poland’s best-known living author with her works translated into 40 languages. Aside from the Nobel Prize in Literature, other awards include the Man Booker International Prize as well as Poland’s own most prestigious literary prize, the Nike.