Mihail Sebastian was born in Romania in 1907 into an assimilated Jewish family. By the time of his death in 1945 – a truck hit him as he crossed the road on the way to give a lecture – he was a prominent figure in the intellectual life of his country. He was best known as a playwright, but what first brought him to public attention was his novel For Two Thousand Years, which was published in 1934.
Or, more precisely, it was the book’s preface. In 1931, after he had decided to write a novel reflecting on the status of Jews in Romania, Sebastian approached his friend Nae Ionescu, a philosopher at the University of Bucharest, and asked him to contribute an introductory essay. But by 1933 Ionescu had become an intellectual lodestar of the Iron Guard, a far-right movement drawn to the revivalist theology of fascism and Orthodox Christianity. What Sebastian received just days before the book’s publication was a hateful invective against Romania’s Jews. He was crushed but decided to publish the foreword anyway, and replied to it in a separate pamphlet defending the idea that one could be both Jewish and Romanian.
Penguin should be commended for bringing Sebastian’s work to the anglophone world. Yet it is strange that a novel famed for its introductory essay now arrives without one. For Two Thousand Years is a complex, unsettling, often rebarbative roman-à-clef that confronts the incendiary nature of political ideas in interwar Europe. Present-day readers would have been well served by a foreword, or footnotes.
Sebastian had a notion that it would become a classic. In his Journal: 1935-44, he remarks: “There is no doubt that, of everything I have written, that is the book that will live on.” Composed in the form of an undated diary, For Two Thousand Years centres on the Jewish experience in Romania from 1923 – when a new constitution gave citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities – until the end of 1933. Romania was still adapting to the effects of its new geography, having acquired Bessarabia, Bukovina, Transylvania and parts of northern Bulgaria after the First World War. Territorial expansion had doubled the population, and many of the new subjects were Jews, uprooted from their homelands and now considered outsiders in a country whose leaders defined it as an ethnically homogeneous nation state.
The unnamed narrator chronicles his encounters with anti-Semitism, from the ritual beatings and verbal abuse he suffers at university to his time working as an architect, when his Gentile colleagues reject him. He refuses to explain the violence or the inescapable so-called Jewish question. His predicament is two thousand years old, unfathomable in its endurance and universality. If “anti-Semitism is indeed so general and persistent”, he wonders, “is it not useless to try and seek its Romanian causes? . . . I wish you saw that the essence of anti-Semitism is not of a religious order, or of a political order, or of an economic order. I believe it is purely and simply a metaphysical essence.”
His various Jewish interlocutors seek deliverance from their suffering through assimilation, or in communism and Zionism. But the narrator rejects these in favour of something else: escapism. Solitude and isolation, as opposed to collective action, are the true vocation of the Jewish intellectual, and the source of his salvation. “Far from being painful to me,” he writes, “the thought of the impenetrable solitude our nature destines us to cheers me up.”
The idea of finding freedom in solitude, and of celebrating the redemptive virtues of individualism, owed a great deal to Sebastian’s interest in the Renaissance philosophy of Montaigne (the epigraph of For Two Thousand Years comes from the essay “De l’art de conférer”: “I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself.”)
But the tone is that of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, pitched in the seething idiom of self-loathing and despair. Even in the latter stages of the book, when the narrator has lost most of his adolescent self-regard, there remains a latent fury, as if embers of resentment were smouldering beneath his more civil disguise. His fatalism regarding the impossibility of social acceptance, and the historical weight of Jewish tragedy passed down from his ancestors, gives way to indifference; even, it seems, towards Jewish suffering, as if he had co-opted the callousness of his own tormentors. After For Two Thousand Years was published, the Romanian political left described Sebastian as anti-Semitic, while the right accused him of being a Zionist.
Sebastian seldom provoked indifference in his readers. That is why he belongs in the pantheon of classic authors. As Italo Calvino wrote in his essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.” The irony is that Sebastian was concerned most of all with what he saw as indifference to suffering in the European age of extremes.
Yet, in its disturbing, existential exploration of alienation and self-loathing, in the way it depicts that tension between our insatiable amour propre and the need for belonging, and its concern with cultural assimilation in the nation state, For Two Thousand Years is a work that also speaks to our own discontents right now.
For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, is published by Penguin Classics (240pp, £9.99)
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war