the five -- 12/17/21

Today's selection -- from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. Vladimir Jabotinsky's The Five:

"The Five, the work of the Odessa journalist and Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, was written in Russian in 1935 and published in Paris the next year. It was translated into Hebrew in the 1940s but only made it into English -- the first translation into any West­ern language -- in 2005. The novel looks back on a much earlier time, the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and Odessa's long march away from the cosmopolitan ideals in which its reputation was grounded. It contains poetic descriptions of early-twentieth-century Odessa, with nostalgia-tinged portraits of its streets and smells, its characters and passions.

"The story lines are multiple and disjointed, but the main arc follows the lives of a group of successful, Russian-speaking Jews, the Milgrom family and their associates. The Milgroms might be superficially described as assimilated Jews, inhabiting a Russian cul­tural space and thriving in a city that they considered fully their own. They sit in a box at the opera. The mother, Anna Mikhailovna, floats above a shifting array of intellectuals and artists, a society matron of the first order. The father, Ignars Albertovich, com­mands a grain emporium whose fortunes run from the Dnieper River to the Mediterranean. The family's five children have an infinity of choices in life: to read Nietzsche like Marko or the Torah like Torik; to take on the trappings of a nihilist and troubled revo­lutionary like Lika; to skip school and slum it with cardsharps and crooks like Seryozha; or to be the toast of Odessa society like the coquettish and unattainable Marusya, the Milgrom's scandalously modern daughter whose only limit with the boys, she says, is her diaphragm.

Jabotinsky in 1935

"Yet the idea of assimilation -- implying a fixed identity that morphs into something else -- barely figures into their self-image.

"They wear their religious heritage lightly. They see themselves as having nothing in common with the shtetl Jews who filter into the city during harvest season. Zionism holds little appeal. They are Russian in most senses of the term -- most senses, that is, except the one that came to matter most: the ability to negotiate their path through a society increasingly divided along national lines. Odessa was a club of nationalities, says the novel's narrator, a place of 'good-natured fraternization' where the city's 'eight or ten tribes' managed to get along. But in their homes, they lived apart. '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.'

"Like the city itself, the Milgroms found themselves living in a world of tissue paper and crystal, beautiful, delicate, and unspeak­ably fragile. In an era of political radicalization, Lika is expelled from school and sent off to a two-year exile for seditious activity. Marko puts down Nietzsche and joins a Jewish self-defense organi­zation in the back streets of Moldavanka. Torik, the conscientious student and good Jew who pores over Hebrew textbooks, makes plans to convert to Christianity. Seryozha, the fun-loving hedo­nist, has acid splashed in his face by a cuckolded husband. Even for Marusya, the perpetual tease, things end badly. In the novel's cli­max, she performs a shocking act of self-sacrifice. Now married and with children, she heats milk on the stove for her young son, who is playing in the hallway of their country house. In a moment of carelessness, she allows the fire to lick the sleeve of her housecoat. Seconds later, engulfed in flames, Marusya struggles to the kitchen door and throws the latch from the inside, preventing her son from opening it. He remains safely in the hall while his mother burns to death only inches away. Half of Odessa attended her funeral.

"The Five has many messages. Decay holds more interest than flourishing. Pride is the essence of human agency. Rebellion against misfortune may seem the logical and heroic option, but pride rein­forces the power of the sufferer. Even though it was written more than a quarter century after the period it describes, the novel has a freshness that makes it a powerful characterization of the city's tra­vails. Odessans spent their history learning to laugh at one another, the narrator says, and this was the crucial skill that enabled its many tribes to live together, more or less.

"But joie de vivre and jokester skills were only a weak kind of social glue. In times of trouble, the novel asks, what resources did this urban society really have at its disposal other than shrugged shoulders and comic relief? Gentle, early-evening strolls were cut short or abandoned. People now hurried along, drawing themselves into the shadows. 'They'd always cursed each other as rogues or idi­ots, and had sometimes even fought,' the narrator says of Odessa's major ethnic communities, 'but in all my memory there'd never been any authentic, ferocious hostility. Now all this had changed. The first sign of benevolence among men had disappeared-that is, the southern custom of considering the street as your home.'"



Charles King


Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Charles King


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