Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classic (February 23, 2016)
Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.
A prescient interwar masterpiece, available in English for the first time
‘Absolutely, definitively alone’, a young Jewish student in Romania tries to make sense of a world that has decided he doesn’t belong. Spending his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and gambling, meeting revolutionaries, zealots, lovers and libertines, he adjusts his eyes to the darkness that falls over Europe, and threatens to destroy him.
Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 novel was written amid the anti-Semitism which would, by the end of the decade, force him out of his career and turn his friends and colleagues against him. For Two Thousand Years is a lucid, heart-wrenching chronicle of resilience and despair, broken layers of memory and the terrible forces of history.
“When For Two Thousand Years was first published, in 1934, much attention was focused on the viciously anti-Semitic foreword written for the first edition by Sebastian’s mentor, the philosopher Nae Ionescu. Mihail Sebastian was attacked from both sides; some denounced him for being anti-Semitic, while others saw him as a Zionist. His great mistake was his apparent passivity which was interpreted as acceptance bordering on ambivalence. Even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population, Romania had begun the process of murdering more than 300,000 of its own Jews.
The novel’s central character is a young loner destined to remain an outsider. Even his friends consider Jews a threat to the Romanian spirit. He is a dreamer more content with observing than taking action. Irish writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh brings grace and eloquence to the engaging first-person voice as well as an understanding of the culture. It is a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel in which Ó Ceallaigh conveys the laconic personality of the narrator, an apprentice thinker firmly rooted in European intellectualism, whose thoughts drift between the profound and the ordinary”.
Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times. Read the full review HERE.
‘I am ashamed to be sad’: the remarkable story of a Jewish student in 1920s Romania
The constantly inquiring narrative voice that informs every page of Mihail Sebastian’s resonant novel For Two Thousand Years, bears a close resemblance to the one that can be heard in the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944, the year before he was run over and killed by an army truck in Bucharest while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac at the university. Sebastian, who was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in Brăila, a port on the Danube, in 1907, was a rising star in Romanian culture when For Two Thousand Years (De două mii de ani) was published in 1934. He was a respected lawyer, a successful dramatist and a literary critic and commentator on the arts. He had friends who would be famous in middle age: Mircea Eliade, the expert on the subtle differences between the world’s religions; EM Cioran, the maverick philosopher who moved to Paris and became one of the great prose stylists in the French language, and Eugen Ionescu, the future absurdist playwright who Gallicised his first name to Eugène and changed the “u” at the end of his second to an “o” once he, too, had established himself as a Parisian.
After some reflection, Sebastian told his publisher to go ahead and print, word for hateful word, what Ionescu had written. He was soon to regret his rash decision. Leftwing critics, who included self-proclaimed Zionists, accused him of being antisemitic himself, while those of the infinitely larger rightwing persuasion echoed Ionescu’s sentiments. The Jews, they contested, were responsible for all the ills besetting their beloved country – communism, syphilis and homosexuality being among the most prevalent. In 1935, the wilfully misunderstood writer rose to his own defence in the essay “How I Became a Hooligan” (“Cum am devenit huligan”). It must have occurred to him, before that “low, dishonest decade” reached its end, that he had been fighting a battle that was already lost.
Yet it was the distinguished academic Petru Cretia who spoke for the majority of readers when he observed, in 1997, that Sebastian was not besmirching lofty national values with his “calm, sad and forgiving revelations”. He went on to describe Sebastian as a “fair-minded (often angelic) witness”. That gets it right. Both the novel and the diary are disconcerting because their overall tone is so reasonable, so painstakingly on the side of common sense and simple human decency. Both the anonymous narrator in the one and the beleaguered diarist in the other remain hopeful when hopelessness and numb despair seem like the only options.
For Two Thousand Years has been available in French for a long time, but Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s excellent translation marks its first appearance in English. It opens in 1923, when Romanian Jews were, rather begrudgingly, granted equality with their Gentile compatriots. The new law makes the unnamed teenage narrator aware of his Jewishness, having given the fact little consideration up till then. He does not want to be a “fellow sufferer” or martyr, unlike another pupil Marcel Winder, who almost relishes the beatings he endures. He prefers to be alone and making his own choices. There’s a telling aside in which he notes: “I’d like to be an antisemite for five minutes. To feel an enemy in myself who must be vanquished.” Perhaps that very thought had come to the 16-year-old Iosif Hechter in his early struggles to make sense of the inexplicable.
Sebastian is a novelist who listens to what his people wish to tell him, especially when he disapproves of everything they are saying. He understands, as a man of the theatre, that a conversation can be more revealing than mere exposition allows. For Two Thousand Years is crammed with conversations, with arguments, with outright speechifying. His narrative method, which is not linear by any means, reflects exactly the voluble and volatile society that inspires it. “I preserve an old sense of obligation, an inevitable sympathy, for the isolated or beaten individual. The only pain which I understand directly and instinctively, without needing it explained, is the pain of discouragement.”
On hearing of Nae Ionescu’s death in March 1940, at the age of 49, Sebastian wept for the man he had once revered. A life that should have encompassed lasting intellectual distinction had fizzled out in defeat and failure. He was denied the opportunity of apologising, with hindsight, for the sheer banality of his political opinions, though it remains doubtful that he would ever have done so. Eugène Ionesco, who loved and respected Sebastian, hated his namesake for creating a “stupid and reactionary Romania”. Cioran admitted that he had been wrong in his youth, but Eliade could only allow himself to remark that “communism won”. A lesser human being would have skewered these monsters in his writings, but Sebastian is of an altogether higher order. They are not satirised in For Two Thousand Years, nor are they misrepresented in the scrupulously accurate entries in Journal 1935-1944. “I will never cease to be a Jew, of course,” Sebastian has his architect say at the close of the novel. “This is not a position I can resign from. It’s not a matter of pride or shame.”
These are the sentiments that caused offence to the Zionists in 1934, but they could have been expressed by Primo Levi and Giorgio Bassani when Mussolini gave approval to the racial laws that were introduced in 1938. Two years earlier, in benighted Bucharest, Sebastian had his journalist’s travel pass confiscated and his work as a lawyer dwindled away. Although he was never deported, he spent the rest of his short, splendid life as an exile in the city he had once adorned. He had Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, whose music he heard on a radio that was frequently plagued by interference, to comfort him. He had Proust, too, about whom he wrote perceptively, and Balzac, and the company of a few loyal friends. He fought off the luxury of melancholy as a matter of principle, though he sometimes gave into it. “I am ashamed to be sad,” he noted on 31 December 1944. He had much to look forward to – another love affair, perhaps; the chance of being reunited with his brothers; the freedom to write without the fear of censorship. One likes to think there was a lightness in his step and in his heart as he set off on 29 May 1945, to take his place again in a society ready to accept him and welcome him home.
Paul Bailey in the The Guardian. Read the full review HERE.