For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian

Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99

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Review by Malcolm Forbes

WHEN Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years was published in the late 1990s, it was hailed as both an important chronicle of the rise of European anti-Semitism – particularly in the Jewish author’s native Romania – and a searing personal account of staying afloat in a society that was growing more hostile and offering fewer freedoms. Arthur Miller compared Sebastian’s prose to that of Chekhov. Philip Roth declared the book deserved a place on the same self as Anne Frank’s Diary.

Sebastian was a prominent novelist and playwright who avoided the murderous wrath of the Iron Guard but instead suffered as a pariah when many of his friends turned to the fascist regime. After his death he languished in obscurity for decades. The publication of his journal precipitated something of an international revival of his work, although curiously not for Anglophone readers who had to make do with only a translation of a minor novel called The Accident.

Now, Penguin have added a 1934 masterpiece by Sebastian to their Modern Classics range, and if there is any justice his posthumous profile will increase. Available for the first time in English – and expertly translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh – For Two Thousand Years is an autobiographical novel about a Jewish Romanian intellectual buffeted and occasionally battered by political forces in Bucharest in the 1920s and 30s. If not a fictionalised version of the journal it is at least a vital companion piece to it.

The book takes the form of a notebook or diary and unfolds in sections or entries – each of them undated and written by a student who is unnamed. When it opens it is 1923 and he is 20. At university he faces daily persecution from anti-Semitic, bayonet-wielding activists, ranging from merciless taunts to full-scale beatings. Someone tells him to keep his chin up – “it’ll pass”. Someone else tells him it has been going on for 2,000 years.

He takes refuge in bookshops and brothels, and gets consolation from “the bitter-tasting nights of gambling.” He finds further solace in an open relationship with the beguiling Marga (“a tacit pact of freedom and forgiveness”), the lectures and counsel of his favourite professor, and debates with friends of varying ideological stripes – including a Zionist, a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, and even an anti-Semite. However, the company he most prefers is his own. “I am in fact absolutely, definitively alone.” As he roams the streets, he records the mounting unrest – “the fog of stupidity” – and loses himself in reveries and meditations on love, work, “Jewishness” and his inability to fit in and belong.

Sebastian steers his character (or alter-ego) through the years. He hobnobs with thinkers and libertines at La Coupole in Paris and the Central back in Bucharest; he has an affair with a married woman and ruffles feathers participating in a controversial construction project. In time, the violence and prejudice around him hint at an imminent “conflagration”. Chaos engulfs him, destroying his equilibrium and dashing his hopes for the future. “I have always believed it my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself,” he tells us. “Now look at it, kicked open. The doors are off their hinges, the portals unguarded, every cover blown.”

Sebastian’s nameless protagonist carries the novel. He could easily have been unlovable: a pretentious aesthete, a rudderless flaneur, beset by youthful angst and preoccupied with mind-numbing navel-gazing. Instead, Sebastian presents a tortured soul, and skilfully conveys his character’s fear, despair, melancholy and relentless metaphysical struggle. If we don’t always share his pain, we constantly root for him throughout.

We also relish his various prose styles. Thoughts and deeds are recounted in stark, no-nonsense reportorial passages or else scrutinised in sharp, analytical asides. Essayistic discussions give way to more personal, heart-on-sleeve confessions. Now and again quick wit shines through in the form of subtle irony or neat understatement. When his mother hears about the fighting at the university she advises him merely to, “Leave the showing off to the others.”

More abundant, though, and always satisfying, are the flourishes of lyrical beauty. He remembers how his watchmaker grandfather “organised tiny autonomous worlds, tiny abstract entities from those miniscule dots of metal, which came together as a precise, strict, ordered harmony of hundreds of rhythmic voices in fine, ticking music.” Marga sits at the piano and produces “a tight, painstaking Mozart, like the cutting of an incredibly fine surgical saw.”

While following and championing our narrator, we come upon moments of dark foreboding. Thinking of Marga, our hero says “I envy her for her happy, sane and easy-going practical spirit”. That envy rears its ugly head again: “I envy the supreme insensibility of objects, their extreme indifference.” But later he admits that “More than once I envied the simple life of the ghetto Jew, wearing his yellow patch.” That fanciful dream would go on to become a tragic reality. We experience a similar queasiness when a supposed friend informs him there is “a Jewish problem” which needs to be solved. “One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.”

Miraculously, Sebastian wasn’t eliminated in the Holocaust. But still he died early, aged only thirty-eight, when hit by a truck while crossing the road to teach his first class. He left behind this powerful and prescient novel which throws light on darkness and disturbs as it entrances.