For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian
Over the years, Penguin Modern Classics have been a pretty reliable guide to what I want to read; in fact a substantial amount of the literature I’ve read has probably been in their editions. So when they bring out a new book which is lauded all over the place, I’m going to be interested. The recent book in question was “For Two Thousand Years” by Mihail Sebastian, first published in 1934 and translated into English for the first time.
Wikipedia simply says of the author: Mihail Sebastian; born Iosif Mendel Hechter (October 18, 1907 – May 29, 1945) was a Romanian playwright, essayist, journalist and novelist. Of Jewish extraction, he studied law in Bucharest and was drawn into the literary life there. However, antisemitic feeling was rising in the country, and this novel (which presumably is somewhat autobiographical) relates the coming of age of a young Jewish man in Romania over 10 years, starting in 1923.
Our narrator is attending university, where alas he’s experiencing much persecution. Despite suffering regular beatings from other students, he and his fellow Jews are determined to keep studying and not to give in to the victimization. The narrator falls under the influence of a charismatic professor, Ghiță Blidaru, and manages to attend his lectures despite the violence; and it is Blidaru (who will reappear in the narrator’s life) who persuades him to drop law and take up architecture instead.
The narrator (let’s just call him Sebastian for ease!) finds a niche (ha!) for himself here, joining a firm and travelling abroad; he becomes involved in the building of an oil plant, which meets with hostility from local people; falls rather hopelessly in love; and then moves to Paris. But as his ten-year journey to maturity draws to an end, anti-Semitism is once more on the rise; Sebastian’s friends draw back from him, exposing their real views, and he must once again deal with his Jewishness.
I too had breathed the diffuse poison of hostility, I too knew what it was like to have someone swear at you over their shoulder, or to land a punch without a word, or to slam a door in your face.
Identity, in fact, is the running theme of the book; Sebastian spends much of his time wrestling with his heritage and trying to work out why he’s defined by it. He’s a Romanian and a Jew and struggles to reconcile these two facts. Rejecting much of his heritage, he wishes to move past this and simply make his way on in life; but the world will not let him, and as the book comes to an end a seeming period of tolerance is also ending, with prejudice on the rise.
The title “For Two Thousand Years” refers to the two centuries of persecution suffered by Jewish people since the crucifixion, and it’s a striking one. Certainly, Sebastian seems unhappy with his heritage, wishing to deny it or downplay its importance. He seems firmly in the camp of assimilation, rejecting those Zionists who are planning to move to Palestine. In fact, his rejection of his Jewishness ends up being almost worrying; some of the angsty discussions he has with himself about his race, almost internalizing and taking the blame for being hated, come close to reading as anti-Semitic themselves.
If I’m not free, then I’m nothing. Free to think, free to ascribe values or fix hierarchies.
The book was controversial when first published, as it included a foreword by the philosopher Nae Ionescu, the role model for Blidaru; and it was riddled with the most virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric. Sebastian decided to publish it as it was, and there was a backlash; from the left-wingers and the Zionists, who accused him of anti-Semitism himself, and from the right-wingers who agreed with what was said. It certainly is a complex book, almost uncomfortable to read in places as we watch Sebastian question his race and his beliefs, trying to distance himself from his Jewishness and expressing dislike of traditional Jewish customs.
However, this is also a very philosophical book, with Sebastian musing in many places on what it is to be human.
Something tells me that we are unable to live any of life’s moments fully. Not one of them. That we eternally stand at a remove from what is happening. A little above or a little below things, but never at their heart. That we don’t experience feelings or events fully, and then we drag these unresolved matters after ourselves. That we have never been complete villains or complete angels. That the fires we lit to offer up our hearts smouldered out too soon. That we have lived through an eternal compromise between fortune and misfortune.
There’s even room for dry humour, as Sebastian is capable of standing aside from the passions of his fellows, and is able to wryly note at one point:
The abundance of beards in periods of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted. It’s the handiest way people have of making themselves mysterious.
Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, the prose in FTTY reads quite lyrically; and the sense of place is strong, with the locations beautifully conjured. It’s a book that looks long and hard at a person’s sense of identity, and whether this comes from your heritage, where you’re born or where you choose to make your life. It also shows a man in conflict with his own race, in denial at times yet finally coming to realise that he cannot escape his past. Ultimately, while telling an absorbing and fascinating tale, it raises many questions that I was still thinking about a long time after finishing the book. It’s a shame it took so long for it to be rendered in English, but I’m really glad it finally has.