Born “Iosif Mendel Hechter” to a Jewish family in 1907 in the ancient port of Brăila on the river Danube, Mihail Sebastian is considered one of the most important Romanian writers of the twentieth century. Having studied in Bucharest and Paris, Sebastian wrote fiction and pieces of journalism alongside his law practice and was part of a circle of intellectuals which included the celebrated historian of religion Mircea Eliade, the playwright Eugene Ionesco and the philosopher Emil Cioran.
When the fascist and anti-Semitic Iron Guard rose to power in Romania in 1927, Sebastian was prohibited from journalistic work and abandoned by his friends. Between 1935 to 1944, he chronicled his experiences in a diary, which was, eventually, through the efforts of his family, published in 1996 in Romania after the Securitate (secret police) left behind by the Socialist Republic of Romania was dismantled. [Sebastian had survived the war but was killed way earlier in May 1945, at age 38, after being hit by a truck while crossing the road. He was going to teach his first university lecture on the French writer Honoré de Balzac.] Sebastian’s collection of documents, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, when released, instantly became a bestseller in Romania and generated great controversy over responsibility for war crimes and the country’s history of anti-Semitism.
During his lifetime, Sebastian’s most famous work was the 1934 novel For Two Thousand Years set in 1920s and 1930s Romania. Now available in an elegant first-time English translation by the Irish writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh, For Two Thousand Years (publisher’s website: for2000years.penguinclassics.co.uk) was Sebastian’s masterful and very contentious semi-autobiographical project. Narrated by a young, unnamed Romanian Jew, the novel has at its heart the year 1923, when a new Romanian constitution proposed the conferral of citizenship upon ethnic and religious minorities. The immediate aftermath was hostility, with Jews being beaten up and barred from university lectures.
The reader first meets the hero when he is a law student in Bucharest, experiencing discomfort in the wake of escalating intolerance. He later becomes an architect upon the advice of Ghiţă Blidaru, a professor of political economy who makes quite an impression on him – modelled on the character of Sebastian’s friend, the philosopher Nae Ionescu (an anti-Semite whose scathing preface Sebastian funnily allowed to be published with his novel, absent from the translation). “You should do something that connects you to the soil”, says Blidaru, “Something to give you back your feel for matter…” For a while, the protagonist is almost stable and even spends some time in Paris. But as years go by, he finds it difficult to find a secure place and position on the continent that has decided to reject him. He begins bumping into revolutionaries and libertines, walking aimlessly down the streets with the taste of cigarette ash in mouth. The end of the novel is particularly prescient. When on Romanian streets, boys go about selling newspapers, crying, unobserved and unopposed, “Death to the Yids!”, the narrator is sure that a terrible darkness is falling over Europe, a historical conflagration is drawing ever closer.
For Two Thousand Years was Sebastian’s most politically charged and ambiguous piece of writing. Commentators on the Right criticised the author for being a Zionist, whereas those on the Left accused him of anti-Semitic tendencies (even though he was himself Jewish). That is due to the bouts of self-loathing the protagonist undergoes. “We’re impulsive,” he says at one point. “And impure.” Internally conflicted – “when will we make peace with ourselves?” He doesn’t want to become a brother-in-suffering to fellow Jews but asserts that he is “absolutely, definitively alone”. Even though the political dilemmas of the novel remain unsolved, what makes it an absolutely splendid read is its thorough exposition of the human need for a permanent identity and the desire to belong to an enduring community.
The words of Mihail Sebastian’s unnamed Jewish protagonist:
- I know, though, what horror is. Horror, Yes. Little nothings which nobody else noticed loomed before me menacingly and froze me with terror.
- I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in, a book I could devour with the same intense passion with which I first read Descartes. Every chapter would be a personal struggle.
- If I cry, I’m lost.
- Calm exteriors. Perhaps antagonism has acquired a certain style.
- I should run for hours through the streets, or chop up a wagonload of barrels with a hatchet, to collapse in my bed in the evening and sleep and forget.
- I envy the supreme insensibility of objects, their extreme indifference.
- I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.
- I’ve put up a big map of Europe on the wall facing the bed. I need a globe but I haven’t enough money. Maybe it’s childish, but I need to draw upon the symbolism of this map and to read off the cities and countries on it. It’s a daily reminder of the world’s existence. And that every kind of escape is possible.
- There’s a character in me who loves tension and the whirling tumult of raging winds. And there’s another that likes cold ideas, precise distinctions, reserve and waiting. Agreement is difficult between these two characters, but all my personal efforts are directed towards finding this agreement, which needs to be arrived at and maintained.
Fascism (Oxford Readers) (1995) by Roger Griffin
The Anatomy of Fascism (2005) by Robert O. Paxton
Fascism (A Very Short Introduction) (2014) by Kevin Passmore
A Concise History of Romania (2014) by Keith Hitchins
The Silent Holocaust: Romania and Its Jews (1992) by Rene Spodheim
The History of Jews in Romania hosted by the JewishVirtualLibrary.org
The Constitution of Romania: A Contextual Analysis (2016) by Bianca Selejan-Gutan
Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook (2004) by Jerome A. Chanes
A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (2013) by Walter Laqueur
Featured: Bucharest in the 1930s (edited), Wikipedia, Public Domain