I will speak of a land that is mine, and for her I will risk appearing ridiculous, and I will love that which I am not allowed to love.
Mihail Sebastian is a very important writer, one of Romania’s finest and yet, possibly, lesser-known.
Born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 to a Jewish family living in the town of Brăila on the Danube, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest before being attracted to literary circles and the ideas of intellectual groups (which included Mircea Eliade). He had a number of novels and stories published – including For Two Thousand Years – yet his timing was tragic; a Jew at the time when Europe, and Romania, saw an increase in anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Even amongst his friends Sebastian was seen as an outsider. Even more so when Eliade became a supporter of the Iron Guard.
From 1935-1944, undoubtedly one of the worst time periods to be of the Jewish faith in Europe, Eliade kept a journal – it detailed the growing and horrifying persecution he faced both from strangers and former friends and the anti-Semitism that was rife in Romania at the time. It caused uproar when it was eventually published in 1996 (having been previously been smuggled out of the country by his brother in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and kept safe until Romania was no longer under Communist rule) as it shone a light on many a crime that had been quietly hidden and gained Sebastian a larger audience in the West thanks to its unflinching honesty.
I happened to find it, in English, one day some years ago in a bookshop in Bucharest – a few hours before my flight out. Thinking it might be more of a ‘war diary’ and with my interest in that field, I picked it up and was instantly hooked. For, alongside the fascinating accounts of how the writer pieced together the novel and plays he worked on during the period, the fact that a gentle, intelligent man who loved his country and it’s culture, was ruthlessly targeted, harassed and humiliated from all sides because of his faith left me aghast. It meant I stopped reading Eliade quite so keenly, too. In many a way it has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary.
It left me with a thirst for more of Sebastian’s writing but I couldn’t find any of his work translated into English (there is a huge amount of literature from Romania that I’d love to see published in the UK). That was until, in bizarrely similar circumstances, I found this new (2016) translation of For Two Thousand Years during a long wait for a flight at Gatwick Airport.
It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Written in a journal-like manner (though with more focus, of course, than a genuine journal), Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years is, essentially, a story of what it means to be a Jew in Romania. A story in three parts, focusing first on the narrator’s tumultuous time at University in 1923 (when the constitution awarded citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities) where intimidation and violence was a daily part of simply trying to attend classes before moving ahead some six years to find the narrator moving ahead in his career then on to Paris before heading back to Romania.
At first the style is a little bewildering but, when framed in the context in which it is set, this becomes only more apt and well realised – a young man confronted with violence and setbacks struggling to understand and find his own way. As the narrator becomes more at ease with life with age and experience so too does the narrative change.
For Two Thousand Years is not only a brilliantly written story, framing some exceedingly important questions into its prose, but it’s disturbingly prescient with it’s dread of the future (it was published in 1934), predicting Vienna and the Anschluss as the tipping point. In this respect it’s also deeply moving for, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that the narrator’s fears that his work and dreams may amount to nothing and will likely be crushed by the changing socio-political landscape are more than accurate.
It – like Sebastian’s own journal – is an eye opener in terms of the treatment of Jews at the time. The narrator – as the author – remains proud of his fatherland, loves the Danube he grew up with and yet knows that he can never be truly considered Romanian. I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn from my mother-in-law that the novel had been banned in Romania for a long time.
Recalling how, for example, during military service, he is not permitted to take a shift of guard duty “since I might betray [the country] in the course of a night on guard duty.”
The resigned-to-fate manner of its conclusion becomes all the more evocative when viewed through today’s eyes and the knowledge of the trials and horrors that awaited those of his faith.
It’s hard, today and in my own privileged position and disregard for the petty ways in which we define people by the speck of dirt chance happened to place their birth, to imagine the world in which Sebastian lived; persecuted and prevented from being considered ‘of’ a country because of his faith. A such For Two Thousand Years insightful and compellingly searching novel and was well worth the wait to finally read.
Having survived the Second World War, during which time he was refused permission to work and was kicked out of his home and forced to live in a slum, Mihail Sebastian got a job as a lecturer at Bucharest University. Unfortunately, on the way to give his first lecture (on Balzac) on May 29th, 1945 he was hit by an army truck and died. My hope is that there was a lightness and optimism in his heart at the time at least.
Yet, I won’t end there, after all in both For Two Thousand Years and his own journal Sebastian refused to give in to melancholy and sadness. I’ll pick up the quote I started this entry with:
“I will speak of the Bărăgan and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows. I will speak of the spirit of this place, of its particular genius, of the lucidity I have distinguished here under the white light of the sun on the plain and the melancholy I perceive in the landscape of the Danube, drowsing to the right of the town, in the watery marshes.”