Mihail Sebastian: De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years)
This is a novel about anti-Semitism. As I mentioned in my review of Max Blecher‘s Întâmplări din irealitatea imediată (Adventures in Immediate Irreality; later: Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality), there has never, since the 1920s anyway, been a good time for a book written by a Jew in Romania. This book was published in 1934, when the Iron Guard, the Romanian Fascists, were on the rise and Jews were subject to lots of anti-Semitic attacks.
Sebastian had been very much influenced by the philosopher Nae Ionescu – he appears in this book as Ghiţă Blidaru, a lecturer in the University in Bucharest where the narrator is studying – and considered him to be his mentor. Accordingly, he asked Ionescu to write a foreword to this book. Ionescu had started expressing anti-Semitic views at this time and his foreword was a venomous anti-Semitic diatribe. Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter [Sebastian’s real name], a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.
Sebastian discussed the issue with his publisher and it was agreed that they would leave Ionescu’s foreword intact. As as result he was attacked by his supporters for doing so but also attacked by the anti-Semites, who shared Ionescu’s views. Sebastian responded with his Cum am devenit huligan [How I Became a Hooligan]. (The book is still available in the Romanian original – 360 pages – but has not, as far as I can tell, been published in any other languages though you can find a few excerpts in English here.)
This book follows our narrator at university. He is in a dormitory with fellow Jews. When they try to study, they are subject not only to abuse but to physical attacks. We see numerous examples of this. I watch how they return in the evening from the university, in dribs and drabs, or singly, worn out. And each one grimly enumerates the fights he’s got into, like a billiard score. They do try going to lectures en masse rather than individually, which does help a bit. Some of them clearly like to show how much they have been attacked and how many fights they have been in. This not for our narrator.
He discovers the lectures of Ghiţă Blidaru and is very impressed, trying to attend as many as he can, though, again, the attacks do occur. Blidaru is sympathetic and befriends him.
Meanwhile, when he goes back home, he is hailed as a hero by his fellow Jews. For two thousand years … says Moritz Bercovici. He thinks of his grandfather, a watch repairer and somewhat envies him as he at least he had something to focus on in his daily life.
However, our hero decides to move out of the dorm. He does not want to get into fights. He wants to study law. He gets a small room and studies on his own and passes his exams. He is befriended by Ştefan D. Pârlea, who is based on Emil Cioran. However, it is Blidaru who suggest a another subject for him to study – architecture – which would take him away from the anti-Semitic conflict. He concurs but, apart from his girlfriend Magda, everyone else thinks it is a bad idea. So he takes up architecture.
He ruminates on the role of the intellectual. The real problem is the intellectual’s inaptitude for real life, methodically cultivated through reading, thinking and dialectic. Nevertheless, he remains an intellectual. Of course he takes it further and thinks of the Jewish intellectual: all my thoughts are about the isolation of the Jew, and particularly of the Jewish intellectual, his isolation from the masses, and how poorly adapted he is for social reality and even life in general.
While talking to his fellow Jews, he sees various currents, There is an active movement towards Zionism and many of them are thinking of emigrating to Palestine and preparing accordingly. However, how can they achieve a Jewish state? Can the British be trusted, after the Balfour Declaration? Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a “Jewish homeland”, is one response. Others take a view that Jews should be Marxist and involved in the general struggle for their class and not focus on nationalism. Our hero’s bookseller friend, Abraham Sulitzer, defends the ghetto and the speaking of Yiddish. In defending the ghetto, he is no less intolerant than Winkler defending Zionism or S.T. Haim cursing about both. Extremism is their common vice. In other words, he just wants to live his life and not be involved in political struggles.
He is often critical of Jews. For example, he cannot understand the excessive mourning. Our grieving is visceral, tyrannical, uncomprehending. And, more seriously, it is lacking in love. Of the many trivial aspects of the Jewish sensibility, this unrestrained mourning is the most unworthy.
We now jump five years. He has qualified as an architect and is working on a project involving building oil wells, an oil refinery and associated offices. We follow the various problems such as the moving of the peasants who had previously occupied the lands and their precious plum trees. We also follow the various personal issues of the staff involved, with sex and adultery high on the list. The issue of anti-Semitism seems to be quieter though it has not disappeared. He is close friends with a Frenchman, Maurice Buret, so is somewhat surprised by his comments.
I’m a Frenchman. And a Breton, furthermore. I have no patience with Teutons and Jews.
‘Yes. Not in politics, but in psychology, certainly. I hope you understand and are not offended.’
He is working for a well-respected architect, Mircea Vieru, and is very close to him and full of admiration. Just as the author was horrified by the betrayal of Nae Ionescu, he is horrified by the comments of Vieru towards the end of the book. Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it 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 and I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit. I must defend myself against it. In the press, in finance, in the army – I feel it exerting its influence everywhere.
In short, anti-Semitism is everywhere and is not disappearing. Indeed, though there are now far fewer Jews in Romania, anti-Semitism still persists.
First published in 1934 by Editura Națională-Ciornei
First published in 2016 in English by Penguin
Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh