Iron-fisted in Politics, Velvet-gloved in Fiction

Fiction

By Saul Austerlitz

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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The Five: A Novel of Jewish Life in Turn-of-the-Century Odessa

Vladimir Jabotinsky, translated from the Russian by Michael R. Katz

Cornell University Press, 203 pages, $17.95.

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The tradition of the statesman-writer is one with a long history — particularly in Britain, where Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill (winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature) cast long shadows over the spheres of both politics and letters. In the United States, every year seems to greet the arrival of a memoir or potboiler from some senator or congressman, as witnessed by the recent literary efforts of Newt Gingrich and Barbara Boxer. But often forgotten in such discussions, perhaps for the disjunction between the velvet-glove sensitivity of his writing and his iron-fisted politics, is Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), Odessan exile turned Revisionist Zionist leader. Published four years before his death, Jabotinsky’s novel “The Five” is now finally available in English, and its publication casts the legendary Zionist in a new, and surprising, light: Vladimir Jabotinsky the Russian novelist, disciple to the traditions of two other writers, Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev.

Set in the Odessa of his youth, in the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution, “The Five” is a chronicle of life before the fall, coated in the glaze of the irredeemably vanished. Heavy with the air of nostalgia for a life that is gone, and a city now unrecognizable, “The Five” aches for the peace and tolerance of fin-de-siècle Odessa. Taking his cues from traditional 19th-century Russian novelists, Jabotinsky adopts a chatty, conversational, digressive tone, always interrupting himself with a fresh anecdote, or explaining his characters’ motivations at the Olympian remove of the all-knowing seer. As the book progresses inexorably into the future, and modernity sets its talons into the characters and setting, that tone falls away, and a harder, less starry-eyed authorial voice emerges. Odessa may have been paradise, but it is irrevocably lost, and “The Five” ultimately slams the door on the city — that lovely but poisonous mirage.

Reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” another novel about the passing of an era, “The Five” concerns an outsider’s obsession with, and relation to, an alluring, complex family notable for its tangled alliances and air of tragedy. The unnamed narrator, bearing a distinct resemblance in age and profession to Jabotinsky himself, first meets the Milgroms at the opera. Spotting the beauty Marusya surrounded by a sea of swains, he ingratiates himself into the family’s society, entering first the affections of mother Anna Mikhailovna and then eventually, all five of her children. Each falls victim in his or her own way to a world poised precariously, as Jabotinsky sees it, between the lost past of Jewish tradition and a future of complete assimilation. In the interim, the fate of these de-Judaized intellectuals, neither Russians nor Jews, is to be cast adrift. The die has already been cast, though, and the tragedies have already occurred; this is a story told after all its events have already come to pass, and the dishes of a life have already been cleared from the table.

Marusya, pursued by dozens of suitors, offers liberally of her charms, proclaiming her position on the rudeness of wearing a back-fastened blouse when heading to the park for an evening with a gentleman caller. Sister Lika, with her lank hair and disheveled appearance, and the proletarian décor of her bedroom, is a budding revolutionary, heartlessly devoted to her cause. She sees no room in the world to come for sympathy or humanity; the voices in her head repeat one word, over and over: “scum.” Marko is an intellectual flirt, bouncing from one enthusiasm to the next (a proclaimed Nietzschean, one day he pushes away a plate of sausage at a local tavern and announces his intention to maintain a kosher diet from then on). Serezha, a casually amoral gadabout, cardsharp, and thief, is too distracted by pursuits like the translation of dirty French ditties to concentrate on the storm clouds hovering menacingly over his head. And the youngest son, Torik, is the family’s pet, its self-proclaimed future success, intended to compensate for the failures of his older siblings.

The narrator is required to watch, helpless, as a series of tragedies befall the Milgroms. Worst for him is what befalls Marusya, whom he loves from afar, refusing to ever touch her, afraid to spoil her aura. “Each person likes to pray in his own way, not as those have done before him,” he tells her, and although he chooses not to be one in a line of momentary lovers, he comes to question his decision now that “the earth was made of filth and slush.” By the later stages of “The Five,” each time he sees one of the Milgroms, the person has self-transformed, or been transformed, into something unrecognizable. The family, like the city, is in irrevocable decline, and each of the Milgroms falls under the wheels of modernity’s clattering carriage. Only Torik, young enough to belong to the next generation, avoids their tragic fate, but it requires the collapse of his family, and his final separation from its shared past, to make his future. Torik may be the most sensible of the Milgroms, but he is also the most heartless, making even the revolutionary Lika look like a softie.

The closing chapters of “The Five” are like a punch to the guts, with the narrator — and Jabotinsky — saying goodbye, once and for all, to a beloved city. In his novel, Jabotinsky writes the final chapter of Jewish life in Odessa with a love and delicacy surprising in one so dedicated to the Zionist cause. For him, the next chapter of Jewish history would be a better one, but this era was not to be dismissed. Even amid disintegration and tragedy, as his narrator astutely notes, the seeds of regeneration were steadily being planted.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City. He is at work on his first book, a history of music videos.






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