Jabotinsky’s Five.

I’ve been trying for a couple of days now to come up with some sort of focused approach to a post on Vladimir Jabotinsky’s novel Пятеро (The Five; see this post), but between the heat and the humidity and the general coronafog (does anybody really know what time it is?) my brain is refusing to enter focus mode, so I’m just going to type away and see what I wind up saying.

A minor point, but I care about these things and I don’t want to forget to mention it: in that earlier post I dated it to 1936, and that’s when it was published as a book, but in fact almost all of it had appeared in Jabotinsky’s Paris journal Rassvet in 1932-34 and early versions of a couple of chapters as far back as June 1910 in the newspaper Odesskie novosti, so the writing was not as distant from the events as I had thought (it takes place in the first decade of the century).

First things first: it’s a delightful and powerful read, and I think pretty much anyone would enjoy it — especially those with an interest in prerevolutionary Odessa or Jewish life in Russia. That said, I disagree with those who call it a great Russian novel; in one sense it’s barely a novel at all, more a series of character sketches and anecdotes held together by the conceit of the Milgrom family and the narrator’s relationship to it. (The narrator is a barely disguised version of the author; he works as a reporter in the same Passage building where Jabotinsky worked, and biographers have said the novel provides a truer version of his life at the time than his tendentious memoirs.) Mind you, it’s wonderfully written; in 1910, by which time Jabotinsky had pretty much given up literature for Zionist activity, Alexander Kuprin told an audience of Odessa Jews «У Жаботинского врожденный талант, он может вырасти в орла русской литературы, а вы украли его у нас, просто украли…» [Jabotinsky has innate talent, he could have grown into an eagle of Russian literature, but you stole him from us, just plain stole him]. But it’s not the work of a novelist but of a newspaper feuilletonist with a good style and a clear eye for people and their doings. Actually, what it reminds me of most is the fiction of Victor Serge (see my post on his novel Unforgiving Years), another excellent writer who chose to focus his energies on politics. (For that matter, so was Trotsky.) When reproached (by Chaim Weizmann’s wife!) with his choice, Jabotinsky replied “But Vera Yasaevna, my dear, politics are my greatest gift and talent!”

“The five” are the children of the assimilated Milgrom family, Marusya, Seryozha, Marko, Lika, and Torik. The first two are the main characters; the narrator claims not to have been in love with Marusya (unlike the dozens of men who kept packing the Milgrom apartment during her at-home evenings) but is very close to her and can’t forget her, and the omnicompetent but amoral Seryozha is a good, if exasperating, friend. The other three are more one-note: Marko is lovable but feckless, Lika was born with a hate-filled heart (someone calls her an executioner), and Torik, the youngest, is calm and hyper-rational (spoiler: in the end, he converts to Christianity so he can be more successful). Eventually you realize they represent a spread of possibilities available to Jews at that time and place, and the biographer Hillel Halkin (see this post) says:

The Five is not a divertissement at all. It is a classic Verfallroman, the story of the decline of a pre–World War I Russian Jewish society doomed by forces stronger than its own innocence. Despite its very different setting, style, and register, the work of fiction it most resembles is Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, in which each of the children of a large Jewish family similarly undergoes a representative fate.

I think this hurts it as a work of art, since the characters are forced to play out predetermined roles; Dostoevsky (another former feuilletonist) also intended his characters to play roles, but since he was a true novelist they kept getting away from him and becoming complicated, contradictory people. And now that I mention Dostoevsky, Seryozha’s corrosive “а почему нельзя?” [why not? why is it forbidden?] reminded me of Ivan Karamazov’s famous всё позволено [everything is permitted].

But enough quibbling; I’ve been pushing back against the “great novel” idea, which is pretty pointless, since hardly anyone has even heard of the book and I think it should be much more widely known. I haven’t even mentioned the best part, the loving portrait of Odessa, whose original blissful, carefree state, before nationalism tore it apart, Jabotinsky spent the rest of his life missing. The streets (especially Deribasovskaya), the buildings, the cafes, the port, the slopes down to the shoreline — all are unforgettably portrayed, and you want to visit that magical place yourself (you can at least see some striking pictures here). And there’s a bit where he interrupts his story to say “I can’t continue right now, so let me put in a chapter about nature — a reviewer once complained that I didn’t have descriptions of nature in my work, and it stung.” Which is hilarious because it’s true: all the Great Russian Writers, from Gogol to Pasternak and beyond, insert lavish descriptions of fields, orchards, meadows, sunlight slanting through trees, etc. etc., so if you want to be accepted you’d better do it yourself.

One thing that kept striking me was affinities with Valentin Kataev, another Odessa writer from the same period. Lika falls in love with a right-winger she betrays, which is startlingly similar to a plot line in Трава забвения [The Grass of Oblivion] (see this and subsequent posts). At one point he mentions the “малорослый пароход «Тургенев», возвращавшийся перед вечером из Очакова” [the little steamer Turgenev, returning before evening from Ochakov], which is the very ship the Potemkin sailor escapes from, jump-starting the plot of Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams] (see this post), and Месаксуди (Mesaxoudes = Μεσαξούδης, an Ottoman-Greek tobacco firm in Kerch), briefly mentioned by Kataev, becomes a funny little plot point in The Five.

I’ll end with this passage from the final chapter, “L’Envoi”:

In my childhood, chimneys and masts stuck up like a forest in all the harbors, when Odessa was a queen; later it became feebler, much feebler, but I want it the way it was in my childhood: a forest, and everywhere sailors, boatmen, and stevedores shouting to each other, and if you could hear it, you’d hear the best song of humanity: a hundred languages.

В детстве моем еще лесом, бывало, торчали трубы и мачты во всех гаванях, когда Одесса была царицей; потом стало жиже, много жиже, но я хочу так, как было в детстве: лес, и повсюду уже перекликаются матросы, лодочники, грузчики, и если бы можно было услышать, услышал бы лучшую песню человечества: сто языков.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this great post!

  2. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It’s currently half past teatime.

  3. Verfallsroman seems the proper spelling, The Buddenbrooks a classic example. The Five is smartly narrated, full of subtleties and circumlocutions, and requires a diligent and preferably multilingual translator. Someone as linguistically gifted as Jabotinsky. By the way, низкорослый is “short of stature”: the steamboat looked squat but sprawling (in contrast to the writer; there are pictures of Turgenev on the web).

    According to Mikhail L. Gasparov, Omry Ronen thought that the knight with a wound-up spring in his chest was a self-portrait.

  4. Verfallsroman seems the proper spelling

    I wondered about that, but Verfallroman gets a lot of Google Books hits.

  5. If you put the search term inside quotation marks to run a verbatim search – to exclude false hits like “Verfall: Roman” – you only get three pages of Google Books hits, and all but two are related to Odessa, Zionism or Jewish history, which means (almost certainly) that they all quote Halkin on The Five.

  6. I read a chunk of Пятеро some years ago but I think my expectations (perhaps that same “great Russian novel” promise?) were too far from my actual reading experience for me to appreciate the book for what it is. I sometimes look at the book’s spine on the shelf and think I should try again, particularly since I remember it being lively, which is always a good start. Thank you for that reminder!

    I hope the heat, humidity, and coronafog ease up for you soon! We’ve had some blissfully coolish days here but I know the heat and humidity are making their way north.

  7. If you put the search term inside quotation marks to run a verbatim search – to exclude false hits like “Verfall: Roman” – you only get three pages of Google Books hits, and all but two are related to Odessa, Zionism or Jewish history, which means (almost certainly) that they all quote Halkin on The Five.

    That makes sense. It’s so easy to go wrong with those furshlugginer -s-’s!

  8. I sometimes look at the book’s spine on the shelf and think I should try again, particularly since I remember it being lively, which is always a good start.

    You should; I promise you’ll enjoy it. (I know it won’t bother you, with your love of chernukha, when it gets grim in the later sections.)

  9. You should; I promise you’ll enjoy it. (I know it won’t bother you, with your love of chernukha, when it gets grim in the later sections.)

    I just took it off the shelf and found a 2015 New Republic review of Michael Katz’s translation inside… but I’m not going to even glance at the review again. So to the “Read Sooner” shelf the book goes! I should add that my edition of Пятеро has a Chagall-themed dust cover with faces on the spine so it really does catch my eye often (it’s at eye height) and make me wonder.

  10. I see I’m not the only one who sticks reviews in copies of books!

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    Verfallsroman seems the proper spelling

    In Germany it is the spelling of the correct word. The word is correct in that it is demonstrably used by German lit crits to characterize certain novels as Verfallsromane, for example Buddenbrooks as mentioned already.

    The medial “s” can be talked up as a Fugen-s or a genitive “s” or both.

    Of course there’s no law to prevent an English-speaking author from embellishing his prose with mangled German words. I would call that self-defeating. However, if few of his readers have a better command of German than the author does, then his attempts to pimp his prose with foreign feathers will have to be acknowledged as successful.

  12. Right, but it would be nice if it didn’t catch on — I feel guilty for perpetrating the error!

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    C’mon, it takes a long time to learn these things. So you (one) flub(s) up occasionally, so what ? At least it’s not that perpetual humiliation machine known as “French”.

  14. I didn’t flub up, I copied Halkin’s flub. When I quotes I quotes, I don’t silently edit.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    You can always insert a loud [sic!]. Isn’t that derrière for quoters ?

  16. I second Xerîb. Thanks for letting me know about Jabotinsky as a writer. I hadn’t known him as anything but a political theoretician, something I find dreary (and not my favorite side, either).

    (P.S. I count myself three steps removed from Jabotinsky, in two different chains of acquaintanceship, one through Weizman, another through Begin. There must be others as well.)

  17. I hadn’t known him as anything but a political theoretician, something I find dreary

    Same here! Discovering him as a writer is one of the many joys of my immersion in Russian lit.

  18. Crawdad Tom says:

    Wonderful passage at the end.

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