BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 19, 2005
By Vladimir Jabotinsky
Translated by Michael R. Katz
(Cornell University Press, 203 pp., $17.95)
Politicians who write novels are not as rare as one might think. In recent years, in the United States alone, Jimmy Carter, Ed Koch, Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, and William Weld--the list is a partial one--have helped while away their retirement by turning out works of fiction. It is no more harmful than playing golf, and it tends to get more attention. But politicians who write memorable novels are something else. Pressed to name one, an educated reader might come up with Disraeli. Yet who still reads Tancred or Sybil? And if one does, one is impressed less by how good they are (although they are in fact still quite readable) than by their having been written by a man who, far from being retired at the time, was fighting for corn laws and reform bills and serving as England's chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister.
Which brings us to this novel by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Outside of Israel, where portraits of him are ritually hung behind the speakers' podium at the unruly Likud conventions for which he would have felt great distaste, Jabotinsky has been largely forgotten; and if he is remembered at all, it is generally as the reputedly extremist, even fascistic, Zionist leader of the British Mandate- period Revisionist Party, the political grandfather of today's Likud. (The Likud's father was Menachem Begin and his Herut Party.) This is a pity, not only because Jabotinsky was a European liberal who despised fascism, but also because he was one of the most intelligent, talented, honest, and likeable of all twentieth-century politicians.
He was born in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in 1880. The Russian city with the largest number of Jewish inhabitants in the years before World War I (in Jabotinsky's youth its 140,000 Jews were a third of its total population), Odessa had the briefest of both Russian and Jewish histories, having been little more than a Tatar outpost when it fell to the Czarist Empire in 1789. Moreover, the social and economic elite of its early years of phenomenal growth--by the end of the nineteenth century it was Russia's major seaport--was not Russian at all, but rather French and Italian. (The city's first governor was Louis Francois Armand, the Duc de Richelieu, who arrived at the invitation of the czar with a contingent of aristocrats exiled by the French Revolution.) To this founding kernel was added, beside local Ukrainians, large numbers of Russians, Turks, Greeks, and Armenians who came to seek their fortunes in a boom town, as well as Jews flocking from the Pale of Settlement to the one city outside it that placed no restrictions on their residence and treated them, despite occasional anti-Jewish outbreaks, as just another ethnic minority in a city with no ethnic majority.
Like Odessa itself, Odessa Jewry was atypical. At its top, it had great wealth and a sizable middle class, both nourished by a Ukrainian wheat export trade controlled by Jewish merchants. And unlike Moscow or St. Petersburg, to which only Jewish professionals and businessmen were admitted, Odessa also had a large Jewish working class, concentrated in neighborhoods like the Moldovanka district later made famous by the stories of Isaac Babel. Yet its Jewish poor, too, were more Russified, less ghettoized, and less religiously traditional than poor Jews elsewhere. The city also had a vibrant Jewish intellectual and cultural life and a strong Zionist movement. Among its prominent residents when Jabotinsky was growing up were the early Zionists Leo Pinsker and Moshe Leib Lilienblum; the Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha'am; the great Hebrew and Yiddish writers S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim) and Sholem Aleichem; the Hebrew poet Haim Nachman Bialik; the historian Joseph Klausner; the Yiddish linguist and ideologue of socialist Zionism Ber Borochov; and still others.
Cosmopolitan, fun-loving, southern, and sunny-skied: this was the city that Jabotinsky, who was raised in a semitraditional Jewish, Russian-speaking home, later remembered with great affection. In a short essay about it, he wrote years later:
I have friends and acquaintances from many places, and I have often heard them speak of their formative years and felt (I'm referring to the Jews among them) that they grew up in an atmosphere thick with the grimness and bitter salt of Jewish tragedy ... Perhaps Jewish society in such places was more deeply and consciously "Jewish," and far better educated in Jewish terms. I've always thought that in their psyches, from childhood on, [these Jews] lived in a harsh climate, under gray skies-- always in a state of war in which they had to fight their way forward while defending themselves against countless enemies. This may have been, I admit, a better training ground for a Jewish existence; it created more profound, perhaps more finely attuned types. Odessa was never profound about anything--but for that reason, it never pecked at the soul. Having no traditions, it didn't fear new ways of life or doing things. This made us more temperamental and less hungry for success; more cynical, but not so bitter.
Jabotinsky left Odessa in 1898 for Switzerland and Italy, where he studied and worked as a correspondent for Russian newspapers. He returned for a brief stay in 1901-1902, during which he wrote two plays that were produced onstage; helped organize a Jewish self-defense force--the first of its kind in Russia--in anticipation of a pogrom that never occurred; spent fifty days in jail for possession of illegal literature; and then departed again for good.
He had become a confirmed socialist Zionist, partly under the influence of Italy--a country he loved and called his "spiritual homeland"--and the humanistic nationalism of its Risorgimento, and he threw himself, both as a publicist and an organizer, into full-time Zionist work. Jabotinsky was a key figure at a conference at Helsinki in 1906 that sought to expand Zionism from a project of colonization in Palestine into a political and cultural movement in the Diaspora as well. He ran and lost several times on a Zionist ticket for the Russian Duma; and he came to the attention of world Jewry during World War I, when he led a successful campaign to persuade the British government, now committed by the Balfour Declaration to a "Jewish homeland" in Palestine, to form a volunteer "Jewish Legion" to fight there with its expeditionary force. Enlisting in the Legion's ranks, he saw action against the Turks as a junior officer in the war's final months.
It was after the war that Jabotinsky broke with the Zionist left that had gained control of the political and economic institutions of Jewish Palestine, and formed his "Revisionist" opposition to it. Two things pushed him to this. One was his feeling, starting with the tepid British reaction to anti-Zionist riots in Jerusalem in 1920, that the Mandate government was tilting toward the Arabs, and that the left, concerned more with its own hegemony in Palestine than with the worldwide fate of the Jews, was turning a blind eye to the erosion of the Balfour commitments. The other was his revulsion at the brutality of the Bolshevik Revolution. Convinced that its root cause was the intrinsically coercive nature of economic collectivization, he abandoned his socialist views and moved rightward.
It was not long before he became the recognized head of the Zionist right, and the increasingly maligned rival of the World Zionist Organization's two great leaders, David Ben-Gurion in Palestine and Chaim Weizmann in London. (Although the charges of fascism hurled against him were baseless, some Revisionists were indeed attracted to the model of Mussolini's corporate state. Nor did the hero worship of many of Jabotinsky's followers, or the brown-shirted uniforms and military-style parades of the Revisionist youth movement Betar, help him to defend himself against the accusations.) Barred by the British from Palestine in 1930, he spent the last decade of his life headquartered in Paris, and traveling constantly to Jewish communities all over Europe, and as far as South Africa and the United States, to preach his message. He was a masterful orator who could address his audiences in a half-dozen languages.
Jabotinsky was now possessed by a growing sense of urgency: he was certain that Europe's Jews were faced with an unprecedented conflagration, and that only the emigration of millions of them to Palestine, which was opposed by the British and viewed as impractical by the Zionist left, could save them. At the time of his death from a heart attack in 1940, the outbreak of war having scuttled his hopes that anti-Semitic governments in Central and Eastern Europe might pressure the Mandate into accepting the wholesale evacuation of their Jewish populations, he was seeking to repeat the success of the Jewish Legion by obtaining British agreement to raise an international force of a quarter of a million Jews to take part in the battle against Hitler. For his admirers, he died a heroic figure, a martyr to the petty politics of a socialist Zionist establishment blind to the sweep of his vision and the prescience of his warnings. For his enemies, he was at best a quixotic dreamer, at worst a dangerous demagogue ready to make common cause with darkly reactionary forces.
Like Disraeli, Jabotinsky, even in the thick of the political fray, never stopped writing. Feuilletons, plays, poems, speeches, essays, newspaper columns, memoirs, translations from and into different languages (including a marvelous Hebrew rendition of Poe's "The Raven"), a book on Zionism, a monograph on Hebrew phonetics, an autobiography--it is hard to understand how, with all his hectic activity, much of it on the road, he found the time or the concentration for it. He also wrote two novels in Russian: a biblical one called Samson (which was the inspiration for, and gained him a credit on, Cecil B. DeMille's movie with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature) and The Five.
The Five, which was published in 1936, is set in start-of-the-century Odessa--a place that its nameless narrator, then a young journalist, describes looking back on it as having been "an amusing city," whose gaiety "began when [its different] tribes started laughing at one another; then they learned to laugh at themselves, and then at everything on earth, even at what hurt and at what they loved." The novel's opening pages suggest a wistful work of nostalgia unrelated to Jabotinsky's agitated political life of the 1930s, an imaginative refuge in a past that, however accurately re-created, is nonetheless a diversion--an etude played by a harried amateur pianist to keep out, if only for a few moments, the sounds of the menacing street.
The five are the children of the Milgroms, a well-to-do Jewish family whose father, Ignatz Albertovich Milgrom, is a shrewd grain merchant, and whose mother, Anna Mikhailovna, is a woman of insight and cultivation. Marusya, their eldest, is about twenty when the narrative begins; Torik (or Viktor), the youngest, is thirteen or fourteen, and in between are Sergei (or Serezha), Marko, and Lika. As often happens in large families, they are all very different, each having carved out a niche for his or her character that is in no danger of being occupied by a rival.
Marusya is an attractive redhead, lively, funny, unconventional-minded, and sexually provocative; while it is never quite clear how much her verbal flamboyance is matched by deeds, it conceals, as we are made aware from the start, a serious, soulful interior. Serezha is a Wunderkind, adept at everything: sports, music, poetry, mechanics, card tricks, friendships. "In general," Ignatz Albertovich says of him, "he's a charlatan: I love charlatans." Marko is more slow-witted and idealistic; short-lived in his enthusiasms, he gets, his father says, "a new dream every month or so." Lika is the family rebel and malcontent; sullen and withdrawn, she lives like a nun in her bare room and reads revolutionary literature. Torik is just the opposite: a polite, friendly boy who excels in school.
The narrator befriends the Milgroms and gets to know them well. But it is Marusya, to whom he is closest in age, with whom he also has the closest relationship. Although it never becomes a romantic one, it sometimes teeters on the edge, and its unspoken restraint at such times is what makes its bond so strong. It is one of those friendships between a man and a woman that is instinctively understood by both to be too precious to be squandered sexually.
Only toward the book's end does the subject of physical love come up explicitly between them. Marusya is now married--improbably (or so it seems) to a hard-working, conscientious, and rather dull pharmacist--and is the happy mother of a small boy, and the narrator has come to visit her in the provincial town to which she has moved from Odessa. Her husband is away, and they lie intimately talking and touching on the narrator's guestroom bed. It is late at night when Marusya gets to her feet and tells the narrator that she is going to sleep and that there will be coffee for him in the morning. As she lingers there before him, he asks, "What are you being so quiet about?" He then tells us:
She made no reply, freed her hand [from mine], and went to the door, but stopped and turned to face me.
She started laughing and answered as if she were twenty years old again, as if she were once more a reddish kitten in a muff [his impression of her the first time he saw her in a fur stole at the Odessa opera], as if she hadn't learned anything or forgotten anything:
"I'll confess. I was standing here thinking: I ought to say farewell to him in a special way--perhaps we'll never meet again. But as you can see, I've reconsidered. You and I have missed all our deadlines; in general, it's unnecessary; let things remain as they've been.... Go to sleep my dear. `Dream me,' if one can say that."
They never meet again, for shortly afterwards Marusya dies in a fire.
Marusya's death forms the somber denouement of a book that darkens as it progresses, but she is not the only one of "the Five" to end badly. So do all the Milgroms. Serezha falls in with a crowd of cardsharps, becomes involved in an extortion racket, and is blinded in an acid attack. Marko, having taken up and abandoned one cause after another, ridiculously drowns while jumping off a bridge to rescue a woman he mistakenly thinks is screaming for help when she is actually safe on dry land. Lika joins the Bolsheviks and becomes a secret agent. The last time the narrator meets her, living a double life as the glamorous mistress of a high Czarist police spy, he says to her: "You're a monster, Lika: you live with a spy, you're in love with him like a kitten, and you spy on him for others. I don't believe that even a good cause is worth that kind of service."
As for Torik, his fate is, Jewishly speaking, the least exceptional. Intent on becoming a successful lawyer, he has himself baptized as a sensible career move. Yet although he leaves the Jewish fold without qualms, it is not without thought, for he tells the narrator:
[I]t seems to me that if I were in a shipwreck, I wouldn't leap into a lifeboat before all the women, children, old folk, and cripples had been taken care of; at least, I hope I'd have the strength not to. But, it's a different matter altogether when everyone else has already jumped ship or has inwardly resolved to; besides, there are plenty of lifeboats all around and there's room for everybody; and the ship isn't really sinking; it's merely uncomfortable, dirty and crowded, it isn't going anywhere, and everyone's sick and tired of it.... The best school for all this in my opinion, is our family: the children, the five of us. Each one of us was a valuable person in his or her own way.... and look at what's happened to us.
Long before we have reached Torik's baptism, which takes place after Marusya's death, we realize what Jabotinsky is really up to. The Five is not a diversion; not at all. It is a classic Verfallroman, the story of the collapse of a pre-World War I world doomed by forces stronger than its own innocence. The Milgrom children end as they do--all except Marusya, anyway--because they do not, for all their charm and intelligence, have the self-knowledge to discern their inner flaws.
In this they are no different from Odessa itself. "It was strange," comments the narrator:
In our homes, it seems, we lived apart; the Poles visited and invited other Poles, Russians invited Russians, Jews, other Jews; exceptions were encountered relatively infrequently; but we had yet to wonder why this was so, unconsciously considering it simply an indication of temporary oversight, and the Babylonian diversity of our common forum, as a symbol of a splendid tomorrow. Perhaps one honest and foolish drinking companion of mine, an opera tenor with a Ukrainian surname, best expressed this mood-- its conciliatory surface and concealed threat. One Saturday, after drinking a bit too much, he came over to embrace me for some speech I had given at dinner.
"Today, you grabbed me by the guts," he said, kissing me three times. "Now we're thick as thieves; we're sworn brothers for life. It's a pity that people are still going on about religion: one's a Russian, another's a Jew. What difference does it make? There should be a common soul, just like you and I have. Then again, there's X --now that's different: he has a Jewish soul, a filthy soul ..."
A city in which nationalism and anti-Semitism are waiting to erupt, the Milgroms' Odessa lives with the illusion that it is immune to such things, and that there is no need to prepare for them--and nowhere more than in the Jewish circles the Milgroms move in. When the narrator, after a night on the town, suggests to Marko, ever on the lookout for a new "ism," that he might "team up with the Zionists," Marko "opened his round eyes and stared at me, filled with amazement; it was clear from his glance that even as a joke, at five o'clock in the morning, a normal person couldn't agree to such an immense absurdity."
Despite their different styles and registers, the work of modern Jewish fiction that The Five most resembles is Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman, in which each of the children of a large family similarly undergoes a representative fate, collectively symbolizing the disintegration of Russian Jewry. Tevye's daughters and the Milgroms go down many of the same paths. Tevye's Hodl, like Lika, chooses the Revolution. His Chava, like Torik, converts. Marko and Tevye's Shprintze both drown--the latter a conscious suicide, the former perhaps an unconscious one. Shprintze's boyfriend Aronchik is a cruder version of the Milgroms' Serezha, a hedonistic playboy with no inner core. And in Tevye's family, too, there are no Zionists, and no one but Tevye with the slightest inkling that the "grimness and bitter salt of Jewish tragedy" lie in wait for them all.
And Marusya? Marusya is another story. In trying to complete our picture of Jabotinsky's intentions in The Five, Marusya's death at first seems a puzzle. The most inward and self-aware of the Milgrom children, she is the only one whose fate is determined by a mere accident. Standing in her kitchen one morning while warming milk, she carelessly lets the sleeve of her nightgown brush the stove, and it catches fire. Afraid that her son Mishka, who is by her side, will be burned, she picks up a broom, pushes him into the hallway with it, and shuts and locks the door. Only then does she try to tear off her nightgown--but by now it is too late. Her last, seemingly senseless act is to crawl to the open window and throw out the key, which is later found in the street below.
But might not Marusya have saved herself, had she torn her nightgown off at once? The possibility is hinted at. And if she might have saved herself, then her death is not so accidental after all, for it, too, is an expression of character--of her love for her son and her instinctive sense of duty that commands her to get him out of harm's way before worrying about herself. In fact, a steely sense of duty has lain coiled in Marusya all along.
This is the clue to her marriage to the staid Jewish pharmacist Samoilo Kozodoi--a marriage, the novel implies, that she has made up her mind about long in advance and already knows will take place even as she is playing the flirt all over Odessa--even as the narrator hears her say, that first night at the opera, when told of an admirer's wish to kiss her: "Fancy that, what an honor! Soon there won't be a single student left on Deribasov Street who can brag that he's never kissed me."
It is precisely Kozodoi's staidness and dependability to which Marusya is attracted. Although she respects him, she does not love him, or even pretend to love him. ("There were moments," she "writes" to the narrator after her death in an imaginary letter that is his fulfillment of her request that he "dream" her, "when for one piece of candy, and even the candy was unnecessary, I could've been an unfaithful wife, just so, not for any particular reason.") Yet within herself she has always understood that when the time for youth and its freedoms has passed, one renounces them willingly for the sake of one's obligations, or one gets dragged down to destruction by one's refusal to part with them.
A sense of duty like steel--and a will of steel. Here is how a friend of the narrator's, the journalist Shtrok, explains the key that was found in the street:
It's clear. At such a moment anyone, not merely you and I, would first of all want to escape. Madam Kozodoi is, after all, also only a human being, and she, too, wanted to escape; the worse it grew, the more she would want to. ... But Mishka's out there. Let's say the key was still in her hand. Perhaps it was different: the key was still in the lock, and a fraction of a second arrived when her hand all on its own was stretching out to reach it. Then Madam Kozodoi says to herself: "No. It's forbidden." And so there wouldn't be any argument, she hurls the key into the street.
This is the act of an extraordinary woman. But who is she? Apart, that is, from being a wonderfully drawn character and a tribute to Jabotinsky's novelistic skills, whom or what does she represent in The Five's scheme of things? The answer, I think, is obvious. She represents Jabotinsky himself.
Somewhere--I may have come across it in his autobiography, The Story of My Times--Jabotinsky writes that at heart he was and always had been an anarchist, and that the iron discipline that he expected, both of himself as a political leader and of his Revisionist followers, was quite foreign to his nature. And yet, he goes on, there was no contradiction between the two things, since this discipline was something that he had freely chosen for himself, and he hoped his followers had chosen it freely, too. Although he might have preferred to live a different life, a literary life perhaps, he had deliberately assumed the responsibilities that the times had laid at his door.
As Michael Stanislawski observes in his introduction to Michael R. Katz's fluent translation of The Five, novels are sometimes, paradoxically, more autobiographically truthful than autobiography, since the autobiographer, who is presumed by his readers to be telling the truth, may lie to protect himself or to manipulate his image, whereas the novelist, who is presumed to be relating a fiction, has less compunction about telling the truth. This is an astute comment, and The Five, which is several times the length of the Odessa section of The Story of My Times, is no doubt the more reliable guide to the world of the young Jabotinsky.
But on the question of freedom and duty, The Story of My Times and The Five are fully consonant. Whether there was a real Marusya on whom Jabotinsky's character was modeled, or whether she was largely or wholly his invention, is hardly germane; she is in the novel, in either case, a projection of his own self. The man who refused to "leap into a lifeboat" when his people's ship was on fire, portrayed in The Story of My Times as having been a carefree, mischievous boy who liked playing hooky in Odessa's streets and port better than going to school or being serious, is fully recognizable in the wittily non-conformist young woman who eventually locks herself in a burning kitchen to save her child. Both are acting on the same high impulse.
And yet in the end, the most remarkable thing about The Five is not that it was written by a man who, the year before its publication, was occupied day and night in leading his Revisionist Party out of the World Zionist Organization and founding a rump Zionist body after a negotiated truce between him and Ben-Gurion was voted down by the Histadrut, the Jewish labor federation of Palestine. The Five would be just as tender yet unsentimental a novel, and as technically accomplished, even were it to turn out that its author had been publicly played by a double while spending his time holed up in his Paris apartment, composing leisurely draft after draft. The most remarkable thing about this novel is how good it is.
By Hillel Halkin