Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writers and Revolutionaries in Odessa

The frontier-like atmosphere of Odessa appealed to creative Jewish writers, as well as to aspiring businessmen. Mendele (Yiddish writer Shalom Yakov Abramovitch) lived there from 1881 until he died in 1917. Odessa was home to Sholem Aleichem for a short time in the 1890s. Bialik, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, lived there later, leaving in 1921. The free and assimilated atmosphere and active cultural scene before World War I and the Russian Revolution was clearly condusive to creativity.

Odessa was the birthplace of several noted Jewish authors whose assimilated background contributed to their writing style. I’ve been sampling translations of three writers of Russian-language works of fiction: Vladimir Jabotinsky, Isaac Babel, and Ilya Ilf. Despite similar origins in Odessa’s Russianized Jewish community, their works almost seem designed to illuminate the various political and artistic routes open to writers of their time and place.

This post is about Vladimir Jabotinsky, mainly known as a dissident Zionist leader who favored armed struggle over the more peaceful approach of the mainstream. Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880 and attended Russian schools, which Jews were allowed to do there. He became a Zionist and journalist and activist. During World War I, he and Trumpeldor (another Zionist hero) founded a Jewish military unit, the Jewish Legion, to fight for the British.

Much later, Jabotinsky returned to his calling as a writer with the novel The Five. (First published in 1936.) The narrator of The Five, like Jabotinsky, was a traveling journalist who wrote popular newspaper articles. The book is in the form of a memoir of a family with five children, obviously depicted carefully to represent typical Jewish characters in Odessa. It begins just before the crucial events of 1905 including the Potemkin, which had already been made famous by Eisenstein’s film (as I wrote yesterday) by the time Jabotinsky wrote the book. It mentions the war with Japan, which seems to have a rather small impact on the family. I think Jabotinsky expects the reader to fill in the impact of these major events, which at this long remove is hardto do.

Whatever else it is, The Five is above all a political novel. The narrator not only describes the family, he experiences a number of revelations about Odessa life and politics –all of which one sees are there partly to advance Jabotinsky’s perspective from decades later. The narrator travels, and while abroad, first hears “the use of the words Bolshevikand Menshevik, terms that were still little known in Russia outside the underground.” He notices a “rigid hierarchy in degrees of revolutionary orthodoxy … The Plekhanovites apologized to the Leninists, the Social Revolutionaries to the Marxists, the Bundists to all the rest, the Social Zionists of various stripes to the Bundists; simple Zionists were generally considered to be out of bounds and didn’t even attempt to beg forgiveness.” (p.100-101)

Although political, The Five is also very good and amazingly readable. The very typical characters are very believable. I think it would be read more widely if Odessa at that time were better known, but it’s too full of obscure cultural references to authors, poets, plays (like a quote from Chekov’s “Cherry Orchard,” which was new the year the book’s events take place).

For example, the first chapter takes place in the Odessa Opera House – which I only heard of in my recent reading of histories of the city; it also refers to a number of operas and singers that were popular then. Anotherchapter takes place in cafes on the most famous street in the city (also described by historians).

In the end, the five children of the central family meet very sad fates because there’s really nothing else possible for them. In a way, the father – a grain dealer who came from Zhitomir and overcame his Jewish accent and culture – is more comfortable in his skin than any of his assimilated children; the mother is the anchor of everyone in the family, but her life becomes sadder and sadder until the narrator calls her Niobe, the mother from a Greek myth, who defied the gods and was punished by the death of all her children.

One son tries everything non-religiously spiritual: from Yoga breathing exercises to keeping kosher (instead of eating sausages at a café) to vegetarianism. One daughter chooses a purely bourgoise marriage; the other joins the underground. Another son becomes a philosophical gangster, who says “the initial stages of mass assimilation are very difficult.” (p. 170)

At the end, the surviving youngest son, who was always a paragon in school, decides against Zionism – which is supposed to be the obvious solution by that point – and determines that he’ll convert to Christianity. I suspect the reader in the 1930s already knows how that’s going to work for him. By then, the Russian Revolution had devastated the Odessa Jewish community, along with so much of the territory.

It’s interesting that this novel was virtually unknown when published in Russian (well, ok, in 1936 it was bound to be obscured by what was happening there). It made little impact in a Hebrew translation (well, ok, a lot was going on in pre-state Israel too). And the first English translation only appeared in 2005, by which time it had become fairly opaque to most readers.

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