by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian. Published in 1934, now translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh into English, 2017, Other Press, 256 pages.
ARTHUR MILLER said that the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) wrote like Chekhov; Philip Roth that Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944 deserves to be on the same shelf as The Diary of Anne Frank and have just as huge a readership. Coming fresh from a reading of his 1934 novel, For Two Thousand Years, now available in English for the first time, I agree. The work is quietly eloquent as literature and illuminating as social history. Unfortunately, it was eclipsed by a devastation that it anticipated, predicted even, yet still could not imagine. The novel is both light and heavy, light writing and a heavy content — Jewish mystique, Yiddish anxiety, Romanian stolidity, and antisemitism.
Sebastian (born Iosif Mendel Hechter) was a playwright, novelist, essayist and journalist. Although persecuted by the fascist government of Romania, he survived the war — because the government switched its allegiance midway from Germany to the Allies — only to be run over by a truck on one of Bucharest’s main boulevards in 1945, on his way to deliver a lecture on Balzac.
For Two Thousand Years is a fine record of the rising tide of antisemitism in mid 20th-century Europe by, as one Romanian critic put it, “a fair-minded angelic witness.” Antisemitism in Romania, both home-grown and Nazi-driven, was intense. Hannah Arendt declared Romania to be the most antisemitic country in pre-war Europe, so much so that the SS, she wrote, “often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.”
Antisemitism is the leitmotif that carries through the book, dominating the confessional stream of narrative.
HOW DO YOU deal with antisemitism when it is rife and in your face daily, when the shout, “Death to the yids!” echoes from street corners and you are beaten when you try to attend classes, when a good friend of long standing can suddenly say, “Don’t act the Jew . . . don’t talk that Jew-talk with me” — yet the only home you know is Romania?
The narrator (whom I will call Sebastian) wants only solitude, detachment from the urgent violence of the streets: “I have always believed it my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself.” A Marxist friend writes to him: “Your complacency horrifies me . . . . If that’s all it takes for you to sleep peacefully . . . I wish you long, dark periods of insomnia.” Sebastian will neither cry (“If I cry, I’m lost”) nor cry out. But occasionally there are reasons to doubt his word: he cries, for example, when he hears a Jewish song from his childhood.
The mood he cultivates is in stark contrast to his situation as one of a small number of Jewish law students chased and beaten daily. Sebastian contemplates the violence with a quiet fatalism: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” He searches for what in himself, in his racial character, gives some legitimacy to the prevailing attitude toward Jews: “One day — who knows — we may make peace with the antisemites. But when will we make peace with ourselves?”
Ordinary life is fraught with an antisemitism on the verge of violence, and Sebastian’s response is a casual acceptance, as if it were smog or an infestation of mosquitoes. Add extreme self-consciousness to the paradox: “‘You might be overdoing it,’ whispers my anti-Semitic voice (as I have an anti-Semitic voice, with which I converse in moments of reflection).” Sebastian has a tortured relationship to his Jewishness. (To smother it with the current label of Jewish self-hatred feels utterly reductive.)
Sebastian is unwilling to commit himself to any of the positions available to an Eastern European Jew — Marxism, Zionism, Hasidism, Yiddish secularism. Each of these positions is subject to critique and, while they may not be inadequate answers to the dilemma of being Jewish, they are not for him. Sebastian wants above all to reconcile his Jewish and Romanian selves, something his adversaries declare to be impossible. He tries to understand “the knot of adversity and conflict with which I am bound up in Romanian life.” He continues: “Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic . . . . But I’m Romanian. And all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous, There is a corrosive Jewish spirit. I must defend myself against it.”
THE NOVEL ADVANCES through a dialectic of binaries: ghetto Jew vs. Romanian peasant (Jews are separatists anyway because they don’t “live among the trees and the beasts”); the Danube vs. the Ghetto (his father’s as opposed to his mother’s family); Moldovan vs. Muntenian (the province of Sebastian’s early upbringing); Yiddish vs. Hebrew, Europe vs. the Balkans. Earth is the symbol of Romanian virtue as opposed to the abstract thought and ravaging emotionality of the Jewish temperament. His turn to architecture from law is presented as a turn to the Earth.
Although the novel takes place at a time of revolutionary ferment and reaction, very little happens in its pages. Sebastian works for an architectural firm and is engaged in various projects. The novel, if that is what it is, concerns itself with the narrator’s inner life and, with respect to the social world, registers a range of acquaintanceships and friendships, some of them with charismatic authority figures (the university professor Ghita Blidaru, the master architect Mircea Vieru, a young ideologue Stefan Pârlea), most of whom turn out to be deep-dyed antisemites. In real life they were Mircea Eliade (at one time his closest friend) and E. M. Cioran (Pârlea) who both came to support the fascist Iron Guard (Cioran later apologized, Eliade never did).
One such act of tolerance ends up biting him badly. Sebastian requests a preface from his adored intellectual mentor, Nae Ionescu (Blidaru) — no relation to Eugène Ionescue, who was a sympathetic Christian friend. Nae Ionescu’s philosophy had recently hardened into a nationalistic form of fascism (succumbing to the disease of “rhinoceritus” that Eugène would feature in his play Rhinoceros). What Sebastian receives from him (and allows to stand as the preface) is a withering denunciation and an antisemitic curse:
It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian . . . Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Braila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Braila on the Danube . . . . Time is running out for you, Isaac Hechter, and I can do nothing for you. You or all your nation. Isaac Hechter, can you hear the water overcoming you?”
The novel ends with Blidaru going silently through the house that the narrator has built for him, and Sebastian asserting his deep love of and loyalty to the Romania he grew up in.
Welcome to the moody, meditative, introspective Eastern European Jewish sensibility of the early twentieth century. If this sensibility reminds you of Kafka, you’re on target. Although the novel suffers at time from the rarified atmosphere of introspection, it is a fine work of literature, beautifully written, although how much of this is due to the translator, Philip Ó Ceallaigh, I cannot say.
For Two Thousand Years was suppressed not only by the Fascist regimes but by succeeding Communist regimes as well.
Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.