For Two Thousand Years – A literary masterpiece into English at long last
“For Two Thousand Years” by Mihail Sebastian
(Penguin Books, London 2016, 231pp £9.99)
Reviewed by Trevor Grundy
The Romanian-Jewish author Mihail Sebastian (1907-45) isn’t a household name in Canada, USA or the United Kingdom, so Penguin should be applauded for bringing this extraordinary book before an Anglo-phone audience for the first time. Those who know the Rumanian language say that Philip O Ceallaigh’s translation is not only convincing but one also capable of sweeping the reader along with its unnamed Jewish protagonist from the days of liberal, peaceful Rumania in the late 1920s on towards World War Two and the Holocaust during which Rumania under the orbit of the Iron Guard and Nazi Germany played a major role.
“For Two Thousand Years” is the story of an intellectually and ethically isolated Rumanian Jewish student between the world wars whose deepest wish is to attach himself to the non-Jewish backbone of his homeland even if that meant irrevocably offending his ethnic and religious counterparts.
The unnamed hero (modelled, of course, on the author) ended up seeing the man who helped shape his early life – in real life he was Nae Ionescu who appears in the book as Professor Ghita Blidaru of Bucharest University – turn Jew- hater extraordinaire as Rumania was swept along with the fast rising tide of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany between the late 1920s and late 1930s..
Ionescu one of the most important intellectual architects of the Rumanian Iron Guard that committed crimes that even shocked members of Himmler’s SS. The 1930 Rumanian census showed there were 728,115 persons who identified themselves as Jews. An estimated 270,000 were killed during the Second World War. Most Rumanian Jews today live in Israel where the condition of so many Palestinians might tempt Penguin to publish this book in yet another language – Arabic.
Until now, Mihail Sebastian (pseudonym for Iosif Mendel Hechter) was little known outside western literary/academic/historical circles.
But during his lifetime (1907-1945) he was prominent in Romania as a journalist, author, playwright and poet. His posthumously published Journal: 1935-1944 was a bitter chronicle of life for Rumanian Jews.
Sebastian studied law at Bucharest University (1927-1929) and then worked and studied in Paris (1930-1931).He was greatly influenced by Andrew Gide and Marcel Proust. Ever alert to the rising tide of state-sponsored violence against liberals, communists and Jews in Germany he wrote mainly about cultural matters for prestigious Rumanian magazines and societies.
We first meet the unnamed protagonist in Bucharest in 1923.
Is an important year in Rumania, the date of the country’s post-war constitution which granted minority rights to the Jewish community.
As a law student at Bucharest University, our mild-mannered and always anxious to please, our Parsifal (Perfect Fool) like ‘hero’ believes that he and other Jews would survive turbulent times were they to knuckle down and commit themselves to rising nationalism and live, not as isolated individuals in their own narrow world buckled and bent under the heavy weight of the Talmud and the Torah but rather as fully committed citizens of liberal-minded Romania.
But as Burns Noted – There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.
On December 10 that year, a group of student activists led by Cornelieu Codreanu promulgated an ant-Semitic nationalist programme that challenged the mainstream parties who he and they accused of selling themselves to the Jews and to international finance.
Codreanu led Romania’s inter-war Fascist mainstream movement, the Iron Guard, from its foundation in 1927. He later advocated a military alliance between Romania and Hitler’s Germany.
In the novel, the fiercely “soil, blood and iron,” Ghita Blidaru (Ionescu) tells his adoring student (Sebastian) to drop law, declare war on intelligence, think as a Romanian and search for a grass roots commitment to life. “Do something that connects you to the soil, a craft based on certitudes,” he tells his protégée.
Responding to this advice, the novel’s protagonist distances himself from his Jewish contemporaries –some seeking meaningfulness in Marxism, others in Zionism. He also turns his back on Jewish traditionalists.
To Jews who refuse to commit to Rumanian nationalism he send out bitter, sometimes deadly cruel, words.
To a young Zionist trying to win him for a place in Palestine he says – “Jewish fellow feeling – I hate it. I’m always on the brink of shouting out a coarse word, just to show that even though I’m in the midst of ten people who believe me their ‘brother in suffering’, I am in fact absolutely, definitely alone. Listen Marcel Winder, if you pat me on the shoulder one more time, I’ll punch you out. My business if I’m hurt, your business if your skull gets cracked. I’ve nothing to share with you. You don’t need anything from me. You go your way and I’ll go mine.”
He wants neither Marxist nor Zionism: just a normal life as a Romanian who happens to have been born in a Jewish stable. “I have,” he writes” an immense longing for simplicity and unawareness. If I could re-discover something strong, simple feelings from somewhere centuries back – hunger, thirst, cold, if I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudisms and melancholy, and recover – supposing one of my race has ever had it – the clear joy of life…”
This unnamed loner drops law and qualifies as an architect. He grows quite rich and takes in pride in the fact he appears to have been accepted by Rumanian Christians (Eastern Orthodox mainly) Why not? He is, after all, equal to the next man in the eyes of the law.
But laws, like the minds of men or the boundaries of nations, can easily change.
With the book written, what next for the Rumanian nationalist, Mihail Sebastian?
He asks Ionescu to write the preface to For Two Thousand Years. At that time, Ionescu was a Rumanian nationalist but certainly not an anti-Semite.
By the time it appeared in print in 1934, Ionescu had fallen under the influence of Hitler become a strong supporter of the Iron Cross.
Ionescu’s essay seethed with anti-Jewish rhetoric. Sebastian’s erstwhile hero and mentor mocked the author’s “assimilationist illusion” and predicted that the “sick” author of “For Two Thousand Years” was destined to suffer for his race.
Sebastian was in a no-win situation.
Ionescu mocked him in print.
Co-religionists damned him as a self-loathing Jew.
Why he allowed Ionescu to write what he wrote remains a mystery.
The respected critic and writer Toby Lichtig said in his review of this book (“Financial Times” February 27/28, 2016) – “This edition is crying out for an introductory essay and screaming for some footnotes. I’d have also liked to see the editors take the plunge and publish –what the requisite explanatory caveats that original disturbing preface.”
The author survived the war but only just. He was run over by a truck in Bucharest in May 1945 on his way to deliver a lecture at Bucharest University.
“For Two Thousand Years” is one of his two literary monuments. It’s a book well worth reading because of the light it throws on the growth of anti-Semitism in one Eastern European country (mainly Eastern Orthodox) between the two world wars. It is also a serious study of how minorities live and flourish or decline and die when faced with hostile hosts.
For that reason alone, it’s a book that deserves a wide audience in so many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East at this explosive period of time.
(This review first appeared in Cold Type magazine (Canada) in the Mid-April 2016 edition)