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For Two Thousand Years is an incendiary confrontation of politics in interwar Europe

Today's reader of Mihail Sebastian's disturbing, existential exploration of alienation and self-loathing might benefit from footnotes - but the book still speaks to today's discontents.

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 first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist