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Was Vladimir Jabotinsky the Zionist Nabokov?

A look at the fearsome ideologue’s brilliant Odessa family novel, ‘The Five’

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(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine)
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One staple of the classic, often hagiographic, biographies of Vladimir Jabotinsky is the idea that his life was split into two while his transformation from a Russian journalist and aesthete into a Zionist was decisive and irrevocable. Yet more recent portrayals of Jabotinsky, in Russian and in English, paint him in a more nuanced light. As Hillel Halkin puts it in his new biography of Jabotinsky, regarding this transformation, “Whether his politics were ultimately coherent—whether his life had a deep inner consistency or was at bottom a tragic contradiction—depends on whether this paradox makes sense to us or whether, like … historian Michael Stanislawski … we regard it as rationalization, ‘at best a non sequitur, at worst nonsensical.’ The deeper debate about Jabotinsky starts here.” Halkin ultimately seems to conclude that Jabotinsky “was a man of contradictions.”

Yet what both his contemporaries and later generations viewed as a “paradox,” Jabotinsky recognized at his deepest as a seamless continuity and union. As a politician and a polemicist, he was a man of unequivocal statements and drastic distinctions, but ultimately his thought betrays “a deep inner consistency” between his earlier and later journalism and, most important, his Zionist philosophy and his art embodied to the fullest in his Russian novels, which brings to mind the famous formula by which one Russian Jew, the writer Viktor Shklovsky, identified the Russian Jew and writer Ilya Ehrenburg: “Saul failed to become Paul. He remains Paul, son of Saul.” The dynamic of Paul/Saul speaks to the inability, which may be seen as weakness or strength and fluidity, to separate the Jew from the gentile, the Russian from the Jew, or the European from the Jew. The “Paul, son of Saul” formula does describe Jabotinsky well and also makes him terribly relevant on this 74th anniversary of his death. His whole life projected the idea that one could be both: an artist and a politician, a Zionist and a citizen of the world.

The most complete and beautiful expression of this duality is his swan song novel The Five. Published in Paris in Russian in 1935, it seems to be an aberration; “what is such a melancholy work about the turn-of-the-century Odessa doing in the oeuvre of this militant Zionist?” is the question often asked of it. Do we also wonder why Chekhov the short-story writer produced a study of penal colonies in Sakhalin or how to reconcile Dostoevsky the novelist with Dostoevsky the journalist? We do, but we realize that complex thinkers can do two things at once and that different genres call for different strategies. We should realize the same about Jabotinsky. In The Five, his true will and testament, he provides hints about the positive and nonreductive unity of his life and thought and the very idea of change in individual lives and history.

The Five is a work of intersections—Russian and Jewish, classical and biblical, autobiographical and generational, lyrical and religious—on the highway of memory. In recreating or rather reimagining the world of the Odessa of his youth, Jabotinsky was closest to how Vladimir Nabokov—who in 1935 was on the move from Berlin to Paris—was also conceptualizing memory. Nabokov realized that the past could be arrived at only via imagination and consciously, contrary to Proust’s involuntary wave of memories. “The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past” to capture “suspended and wondering tonalities of the past” is how Nabokov describes the process in the later Speak, Memory. This is precisely what Jabotinsky is doing in The Five, creating, as one reader pointed out, again about Nabokov, “less a nostalgic ache for what has been lost than an ecstatic re-living.”

What Jabotinsky also realizes, however, is that as beautiful as this work of memory can be, it is also deeply imperfect and fleeting, since, as he admits at the start of the novel, “memory often fails me, and there’s no time to make inquiries.” No time, because he senses his own approaching death, but also because it’s 1935 and, as Jabotinsky foresaw early on, Jews as a whole could soon become a distant memory to the world. These two contexts—that of Nabokov and of the impending catastrophe—are paramount for understanding The Five.

The prism through which Jabotinsky views the past in the novel are the Milgroms, the parents and five children. The narrator remembers them “because with this particular family, like a textbook example, the entire preceding period of Jewish Russification—both good and bad—got even with us.”

The key here is that “good and bad” are intertwined. Jabotinsky does not divide Jewish history into the “bad periods” of assimilation or “good periods” of staying true to tradition. The Milgroms who speak Russian and yet fundamentally think of themselves as Jews are for him an indelible and irreplaceable part of Jewish experience. He valorizes the three of them, Marusya, Marko, and Seriozha, who, while hardly perfect, embody “the spiritual radiation,” which the writer and fellow Odessan Kornei Chukovsky noticed in the young Jabotinsky. All three meet tragic ends—Marusya the ferocious beauty, turned a beautiful mother, dies protecting her children; Marko drowns in an icy river, rushing to save a girl, a figment of his imagination; and Seriozha, desiring to experience life to the fullest, loses everything. It’s not surprising that Jabotinsky repeatedly calls their mother “my Niobe,” a character of Greek tragedy.

What is especially interesting is how in the novel Jabotinsky, an undoubtedly secular figure, presents Judaism. At home, after Marusya’s funeral, the narrator finds her father sitting on the floor unshaven and reading from the book of Job, as is traditionally done during the period of mourning. Like the rabbi of old, Milgrom begins to query Scripture:

The main thing in it is the following question: if something like this happens, what should a person do—rebel, summon God to court of honor, or else stand at attention like a soldier, hands at his sides, or salute, and shout to the whole world: “Very pleased to suffer, Your Excellency!” The question, in my opinion, is to be understood not from the point of view of justice or injustice but altogether differently: from the point of view of pride. Human pride, Job’s … yours and mine. Do you understand: which is prouder—to declare a rebellion or to salute?

This passage is an ideal illustration of the unity of Jabotinsky’s thought and the harmonious reconcilability of Jabotinsky the writer and Jabotinsky the Zionist. The idea of pride is at the core of Jabotinsky’s worldview. In his early Russian play The Foreign Land, the Jewish character Honta recalls how one night he pretended to be a Russian, thus liberating himself from the suffocation of the ghetto. As a result of this experience, he forges his own tablets of the law, which speak “the commandment of pride,/ cold,/ insatiable, insurmountable,/ stale, bottomless pride of a king,/ deprived of his throne and crown.” This is Jabotinsky’s vision of a proud Jew, who would one day reclaim his monarchical status, in other words, his individuality. The philosophy of Betar, Jabotinsky’s Zionist youth movement, is inseparable from this goal. In The Five, remarkably, a great example of such a stoic pride is the old Milgrom, who derives it from Jewish tradition, to which he returns as a result of trauma.

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Was Vladimir Jabotinsky the Zionist Nabokov?

A look at the fearsome ideologue’s brilliant Odessa family novel, ‘The Five’