Mihail Sebastian - Spending his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and gambling, meeting revolutionaries, zealots, lovers and libertines, he adjusts his eyes to the darkness that falls over Europe, and threatens to destroy him

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Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years, Trans. by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Penguin Classics, 2016.




A prescient interwar masterpiece, available in English for the first time
'Absolutely, definitively alone', a young Jewish student in Romania tries to make sense of a world that has decided he doesn't belong. Spending his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and gambling, meeting revolutionaries, zealots, lovers and libertines, he adjusts his eyes to the darkness that falls over Europe, and threatens to destroy him.
Mihail Sebastian's 1934 novel was written amid the anti-Semitism which would, by the end of the decade, force him out of his career and turn his friends and colleagues against him. For Two Thousand Years is a lucid, heart-wrenching chronicle of resilience and despair, broken layers of memory and the terrible forces of history.


extract:
I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed – that black band slashing across my bedcovers – a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.
And yet, I walked bareheaded through the deserted streets of the city when it was occupied by Germans: a white trail in the sky marking the passage of planes, bombs falling all about, even close by, the short dry thumps echoing across the open country.




Mihail Sebastian was a Romanian writer best known for his plays and his journal of 1935-44 (“The Fascist Years”) which recorded Jewish persecution and the antisemitism that even his friends displayed toward him. One handy example arose when he asked the playwright Nae Ionescu to write a preface to this novel, and his friend included antisemitic passages – which Sebastian published anyway. The reception to the book and the preface was such that, when Sebastian later published a collection of essays summarising the experience, he called it How I Became a Hooligan. Having been made homeless by antisemitic laws, he nonetheless survived the Second World War and, the author bio in this first English translation briskly tells us, was hit by a truck and killed in early 1945, at the age of 38, as he was crossing the road to teach his first class. Having read this book, that strikes me as a loss to literature as great as that of Bruno Schulz or Jiří Weil.
For Two Thousand Years (1934, tr. 2016 by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh) is one of the most unusual, seductive and beautiful books I’ve read in years. It has lightness of touch coupled with astonishing range. The epigraph, from Montaigne’s ‘On the Art of Conversation’ (“I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself…”), tells us what we are in for: a discursive, digressive, circular account of a time in a man’s life. And I admit I was taken by the opening paragraph, which exemplifies Sebastian’s style:
I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed – that black band slashing across my bedcovers – a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.
Here it all is: the transport from higher thought to direct experience; the attention to detail which sounds like life (“the third poplar”); the heights of emotion (“poisoned … terrifying”); the sense overall of a real literary intelligence. The passage also, to me, has a classical feel to it: the opening sentence in particular sounds like something you’ve heard before, like a thought that has been circling for a long time before Sebastian plucked and pinned it for us.
There are many paragraphs like this in For Two Thousand Years, though it’s worth adding that they don’t always give themselves up so easily. This is a scattered, loose book, a novel in the form of a fictional diary, and it flips and leaps to and fro. The unnamed narrator (he’s not unlike Sebastian) doesn’t always explain who people are when he first mentions them, which is truthful – a real diary wouldn’t explain – if challenging. “I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in,” he says early on. The plot, such as it is, describes the drift toward social unrest in Romania, beginning in 1923 when laws granting citizenship to minorities led to nationalist protests and ultimately the rise of the fascist Iron Guard. At this point our man is a student, and we get plenty of evidence of the crawling antisemitism among his contemporaries. “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Back at home, one Jewish businessman offers assurance: “It’s nothing, lads, keep your chins up, God is good, it’ll pass,” but another, with a longer memory, murmurs, “For two thousand years…” Sebastian’s narrator is not without conflicts himself.
I have an immense longing for simplicity and unawareness. If I could rediscover some strong, simple feelings from somewhere centuries back – hunger, thirst, cold – if I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy, and recover – supposing my race has ever had it – the clear joy of life…
The status, identity and role of the Jew in his society is the central thread of the book. Most of the episodic chapters are taken up with our man encountering new and old people in his life. There’s Ghiță Blidaru, the professor who persuades him to change his studies from law to architecture. “He is the only man to whom I have ever felt it necessary to submit myself, but I do it with a sense of fulfilment and reintegration rather than of surrender.” There’s his sometime girlfriend Marga Stern. “I re-read what I wrote above and laugh. Dear girl! What is left of you in this writing that complicates you, comments on you, changes you?” There’s the “dissident Zionist” Jabotinski and the narrator’s friend S.T. Haim, whose opposing views give us thrilling oratory on Zionism. “Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a ‘Jewish homeland’. ‘Homeland’ is too nice a word. No doubt some Quaker or Puritan came up with it. But millions of sentimental Jews have taken it at face value.” There’s Marjorie Dunton, whose status with the narrator (“yes? no? yes? no?”) keeps us guessing. Sebastian even manages to give a satisfying and insightful angle on sleeping next to a stranger (“He’s the first person ever to enter my life without knocking”).
This is what I meant by ‘wide-ranging’. There are passages on town planning, Yiddish v Hebrew, poetry (the poet Arnold Max, whose “passion for poetry [is] half-simulated in order to give some sense to the terrible void in which he lives and from which he flees”), and of course icy, furious antisemitism, even by those friends and acquaintances, such as Maurice Buret. “I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. […] A clearheaded Jew is a phenomenon. The majority are sleepwalkers.” This cornucopia aspect doesn’t make For Two Thousand Years easy to follow, though it’s not a strongly plot-driven book anyway, other than a general progression toward social and political anarchy and dissolution. But its subject matter doesn’t stop it from being bright-eyed, relentlessly vivid and often funny.
The abundance of beards in period of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted. It’s the handiest way people have of making themselves mysterious.
There is a conflict sometimes between the beauty of the individual passages and the failure – or refusal – of these to flow more easily into one another. But finally my sense on For Two Thousand Years is that, like any classic of a type we’ve not seen before, it is a book which needs to be read and re-read and which, over years, will become a reliable friend for life.  - John Self




The Romanian-Jewish author Mihail Sebastian (1907—45) is today best known for his posthumously published Journal: 1935—44, a bitter chronicle of life under fascism. But during his lifetime his most famous book was For Two Thousand Years (1934), now published in English for the first time. Much like Journal, the novel concerns anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation, but the setting is earlier — the 1920s and early 1930s, a period in which Sebastian was himself under the sway of far-right ideology. The result is a conflicted, corrosive and metaphysically tortuous exploration of one man’s lust for belonging in a world that insistently rejects him.
We first meet the unnamed protagonist in 1923 as a callow, angsty aesthete studying law at Bucharest university. The year is important: the date of Romania’s new constitution, which granted minority rights to the country’s Jewish population. There was a backlash and our narrator feels the heat of it. Jews are attacked, barred from lectures. Some turn to communism, some to Zionism, but our narrator sees only isolation: “I am in fact absolutely, definitively alone”. He abhors “Jewish fellow feeling”; he even craves, if only “for five minutes”, to be an anti-Semite.
One year later, he is studying architecture, encouraged by Ghiță Blidaru, a mercurial and demagogic professor of political economy who peppers his lectures with ominous references to the “luxury” of intelligence and the need for a “new order”. Blidaru has advised our hero to “do something that connects you to the soil . . . a craft based on certitudes”. The choice is a good one: the narrator grows to love his new vocation.
His Jewishness, however, remains a source of anguish: of yearning, incompleteness, irresolution. He sees Jews as inherently disputatious (“when will we make peace with ourselves?”), lachrymose, impulsive and melancholic: in short all the accusations flung about by the anti-Semites. This stereotyping has, in his eyes, become self-fulfilling. Even rejecting Judaism is impossible, for “the very act of . . .  apostasy is a Jewish act”. Intense conversations with his fellow students hinge on whether Zionism offers hope or an illusion; whether it is itself a “fascist” venture. The man’s uncertain sexual relationships seem to symbolise his rootlessness.
Several years later our narrator is more settled, happily working as an architect for an international firm. He looks back on his student years with condescension: “I reduced everything to the drama of being a Jew”. Anti-Semitism is ebbing. But Europe remains unstable and, after the 1929 crash, “something’s brewing” in Romania. The narrator must once more confront “the Jewish problem” as those around him warn against “the agents of corruption”.
For Two Thousand Years is mordant, meditative, knotty, provocative. It scores high on psychological verisimilitude and low on larks — though there is some room for humour and even the odd bedroom escapade. More than a fascinating historical document, it is a coherent and persuasive novel, atoning in setting and character development for what it lacks in narrative pace.
It is disturbing not just for the fatalism of its characters but for the fatalism of its own internal logic: Sebastian was accused of anti-Semitism, and there is certainly something unsavory about his hero’s unchallenged internalisation of anti-Semitic projection. More disturbing still — and controversial at the time — was the author’s decision to include a preface provided by his friend, the philosopher Nae Ionescu, on whom the character of Ghiță Blidaru was based. The essay seethed with anti-Semitic rhetoric, mocking the “assimilationist illusion” and lamenting a “sick” author destined to “suffer” for his race.
In the end Sebastian survived the war unscathed, but there is a tragic footnote to his story that owes nothing to his Jewishness (if plenty to modernity): in late May 1945, some three weeks after VE Day, he was fatally run over by a truck while crossing the road. He was, it is reported, on his way to deliver his first university lecture.
Penguin should be applauded for finally bringing this book to an anglophone audience. Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s translation is highly convincing and sweeps us along with its protagonist’s emotional shifts. This edition is, however, crying out for an introductory essay and screaming for some footnotes. I’d have also liked to see the editors take the plunge and publish — with the requisite explanatory caveats — that original disturbing preface. - Toby Lichtig


When the 27-year-old Romanian Jew Mihail Sebastian began keeping his diary, he sounded like any ambitious, self-involved young writer; in the atmosphere of Bucharest between the wars, this meant his intellectual and cultural reference points were predominantly French. In love he was Proust's Charles Swann, suffering at the hands of Odette, or not suffering enough. There was a new Odette nearly every week. It isn't at all clear how the dreamy Francophile we first meet in 1935 will respond to the blows of history. 
His early journal entries pass over in silence what was surely a glimpse of the nightmare to come. The year before starting his diary, Sebastian had asked his mentor, Nae Ionescu, to write a preface for his novel, ''For Two Thousand Years,'' the portrait of a Jewish Romanian intellectual. His former teacher responded with a crudely anti-Semitic diatribe. For reasons we will never understand, Sebastian agreed to let the preface be printed with the book. There is no analysis of this crisis as the diary opens and little sense of Sebastian except as a shallow aesthete. He is so unappealing in the first 100 pages, his diary so tedious, that I was tempted to stop reading. The surprise was that 50 pages later everything seemed to change, and I read the rest of the book with a gripped attentiveness, feeling closer and closer to the writer and his times. The change was palpable, and making sense of it is part of what makes this diary compelling. In keeping with the cultural climate in what Hannah Arendt called, in ''Eichmann in Jerusalem,'' ''the most anti-Semitic country in prewar Europe,'' the majority of Mihail Sebastian's intellectual circle followed Nae Ionescu in supporting the Iron Guard, Romania's fascist party. Sebastian sounds nonplussed, then horrified, as one friend after another defects to the fascist ranks. By 1938, he has begun to criticize the regime and fears that if his apartment is searched, his diary will incriminate him. Mihail Sebastian's hell is unique, even among European Jewish intellectuals, because danger comes to him first of all not from the state, or from the echoes of Hitler's voice at the Nuremberg rallies, or from the reactionary Romanian government. It comes from his very closest friends and colleagues. His teacher Nae Ionescu was the dean of Iron Guard intellectuals; Mircea Eliade (who distinguished himself after the war as a professor of religion at the University of Chicago) and even the philosopher E. M. Cioran were supporters of a blood-and-soil Romanian fascism, unapologetically in favor of violence against Jews. Yet Sebastian, born Iosef Hechter, who took his pen name from Proust's own favorite arrow-pierced martyr, St. Sebastian, could never manage to give up on his old friends. Was it masochism, navïeté or simply a writer's need to stay in the thick of the intelligentsia? Whatever the reason, it is precisely his capacity to remain in touch with men and women who should have been his enemies that makes Mihail Sebastian an unparalleled diarist. By August 1942, Romania had murdered nearly 300,000 Jews without German assistance. Most of the killing took place in provinces distant from Sebastian's Bucharest, and this is one of the reasons the writer was able to survive the war. The history of that war in Romania is exceedingly complex. Romania's Jews were not immediately deported to Nazi death camps, but the country's own anti-Semitic violence, its massacres and death marches, were so brutal, Arendt reported, that the SS ''often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.'' Just as the Germans were about to put a full-scale deportation plan into motion, the Romanian dictator, Gen. Ion Antonescu, sensed the winds shifting in favor of the Allies; he also discovered that international emigration groups would pay cash for the release of Jews abroad. In the end, opportunism was stronger than ideology. So by 1944, in a bizarre about-face, Romania was no longer the most dangerous spot in Europe for Jews; it was a pathway for Jewish emigration to Palestine. The French critic Philippe Lejeune wrote recently that a diary is a way of hedging one's bets against death, a kind of insurance policy for survival. One writes each day with the idea that there will be a next day, and a next. Diaries are made to ease one's mind in a time of crisis, to provide some sense of stability or continuity, if only through the act of gradually filling the blank pages of a notebook. As Sebastian watches the success of the Iron Guard intellectuals, then records the escalating anti-Jewish legislation of the Antonescu regime, as he takes note of his increasing isolation and persecution, his literary name-dropping and romantic dallying give way to a panic and a pain that is both physical and metaphysical, and a vision that is sharp and clear: ''In a deserted Bucharest, depopulated, shuttered, burnt by invisible white flames, I translate and translate.'' It is a curious and moving experience to accompany Sebastian as he undergoes his metamorphosis from ambitious dandy to lucid analyst of the most precarious of human conditions. After France falls in 1940, he goes silent for seven months: feelings of ''disgust and, above all, a terrible sense of futility'' prevent him from writing. By the time he picks up his pen again in 1941, he has been banned from the practice of law, lost his job in a government publication office and been assigned to army-supervised forced labor. A ''rent act'' aimed at Jewish tenants forces him out of his apartment. When Jewish-owned property is confiscated and redistributed to ethnic Romanians, the writer Camil Petrescu whines to Sebastian that he, Petrescu, won't be given one of the confiscated houses because ''they never give me anything.'' As the war drags on, Sebastian keeps talking to Petrescu and keeps recording his statements with a kind of glee, as though he is happy to have discovered a character who so perfectly represents the dominant ideology. By 1941, the low point of the war, Sebastian's diary takes on the qualities of an extended allegory composed of complex, uncanny dreams, many involving his brother Poldy, lost to him in occupied France. His readings of Shakespeare, Thucydides and Tolstoy, and his responses to the music he hears on the radio, are all set against his lucid accounts of Jews hung on meat hooks in a slaughterhouse and perishing by the thousands in death marches to the camp in the Transnistria district of Ukraine. Along with his friend Eugene Ionesco, who was to immortalize the portrait of official doublespeak as ''rhinoceritis,'' Sebastian understood what a violent instrument of betrayal language can be: ''Later, much later,'' he writes, ''a study may be written about a strange phenomenon of these times: namely, the fact that words are losing their meaning, becoming weightless and devoid of content.'' And yet the more despair he feels about the language around him, the more his own words are able to convey. We see the change in him, but, sadly, Sebastian never understood his own achievement as a diarist. ''Will I ever write again?'' he asks in 1941, in the midst of his richest entries. In 1943 he calls his journal ''a bad habit, nothing more.'' The introduction to this unforgettable book, by Radu Ioanid, an authority on both fascist ideology and the Holocaust in Romania, sets the intellectual context for Romanian fascism of the 1930's and supplies a tragic postscript. Mihail Sebastian was killed by a truck as he crossed a busy Bucharest street in May 1945, only months after Romania was liberated by the Red Army. He was 38. When his diary was finally published in Bucharest in 1996, it became a best seller, generating a heated controversy over Romanian responsibility for war crimes. To appreciate Mihail Sebastian's ''Journal,'' which has been smoothly translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller, we need to remember the slaughterhouse that was Romania from 1940 to 1944. But finally, the importance of his diary is not extraliterary; it is in Sebastian's language, and in the miracle he records: the emergence of a profoundly intelligent literary voice in the midst of political disempowerment, corruption and carnage. - Alice Kaplan


As well as attending lectures and weighing the wisdom offered by the professors, Jewish students in 1920s Romania, such as the narrator of Mihail Sebastian’s philosophical second novel, must accept their daily beatings, along with relentless verbal abuse. It lends a surreal fatalistic edge to their lives as well as to this eerily prophetic work.
When For Two Thousand Years was first published, in 1934, much attention was focused on the viciously anti-Semitic foreword written for the first edition by Sebastian’s mentor, the philosopher Nae Ionescu. Mihail Sebastian was attacked from both sides; some denounced him for being anti-Semitic, while others saw him as a Zionist. His great mistake was his apparent passivity which was interpreted as acceptance bordering on ambivalence. Even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population, Romania had begun the process of murdering more than 300,000 of its own Jews.
The novel’s central character is a young loner destined to remain an outsider. Even his friends consider Jews a threat to the Romanian spirit. He is a dreamer more content with observing than taking action. Irish writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh brings grace and eloquence to the engaging first-person voice as well as an understanding of the culture. It is a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel in which Ó Ceallaigh conveys the laconic personality of the narrator, an apprentice thinker firmly rooted in European intellectualism, whose thoughts drift between the profound and the ordinary.
Landmark publication
Sebastian’s journals recalling the years 1935-1944 were heralded as a landmark publication on finally appearing in Romania in 1996, only three years before a US edition was available. For Two Thousand Years is similar in tone and consolidates Arthur Miller’s comment about Sebastian’s candour. Considering the seriousness of his subject and his awareness of religious persecution he also had an impressive lightness of touch, evident in plays such as Holiday Game (1938), Nameless Star or The Star Without a Name (1944) and The Last Hour (1945). Ó Ceallaigh is sensitive to a profound humanity which had its share of whimsy. Sebastian’s young man likes women and is not immune to having a good time.
In the opening sections describing the student life of the 1920s, the narrator is a youth besotted by one of his professors, a character named Ghita Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu. The narrator initially does not seem to feel particularly Jewish, but he does have an affinity for the Danube, he thinks about his grandparents, enjoys browsing in book stores, believes that the only real victories we win are against ourselves and confides his musings in his notebook.
His hero-worship of Blidaru infiltrates his mind: “I will understand later, when I’m older, what kind of thinker Blidaru is. But I already know he is a great artist.”
The sense of certainty, however vague, makes the narrator sympathetic, particularly in his panic when attempting to converse with his hero: “I walked nervously beside him, eager to cut through his small talk to interject the questions I want to ask, the things I don’t clearly understand but which seem so compelling . . .” Every attempt he makes to formulate a coherent sentence ends in failure. Yet Blidaru, who appears to have a parallel response to the world, advises the student to become an architect, which he does.
The line between fiction and conversational autobiography simply dissolves as the narrator delves ever deeper into his understanding of Jewishness and the novel, with historical hindsight, becomes a meditation increasingly interspersed with dialogue and astute polemic.
Compelling character
One of the most compelling characters is Abraham Sulitzer, an elderly bookseller whom the narrator first notices on a train. Later they meet again and the narrator, still seeking answers, visits the old man’s home. “He shows me an entire library, full of surprises. A Yiddish translation of Cervantes, Molière, Shakespeare. And nearer to us, Galsworthy,Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Thomas Hardy. I’m amazed, he is triumphant.” For the narrator Yiddish appears to be “A culture in dialect? European culture in dialect. Why? For whom?” Sulitzer’s outrage is obvious: “Dialect! Broken German! A ghetto language: that’s what Yiddish is to you. If I told you it was a language, neither a beautiful or ugly one, but a living one, through which people have suffered and sung for hundreds of years . . . dialect indeed! It’s a living language with nerves and blood.”
Time passes and the narrator has become an architect. A village is uprooted to facilitate a project involving the oil business. The locals are distressed by the destruction of their plum trees. Meanwhile an entire culture is facing destruction.
Sebastian was born Iosif Hechter, in 1907. The highly cerebral life of this admittedly unconventional novelist of memory and sensation reveals the originality of his thinking. A busy writer, he also worked intermittently as a lawyer. He was friendly with philosopher and historian Mircea Eliade, whose autobiographical novel Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent will be published for the first time in April. Eliade’s support of the fascist Iron Guard would dismay Sebastian and increase his sense of isolation in anti-Semitic Romania.
For Two Thousand Years is a book of truths which ultimately adopts a rhetorical stance. “Yet I wish you could recognize at least that the essence of anti-Semitism is neither of a religious, political nor an economic nature,” says the narrator, in the course of a long conversation with a colleague. “I believe it is purely metaphysical in nature... The Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested. That’s his role in the world. Why? I don’t know. His curse. His fate... I don’t say this out of pride or defiance. On the contrary, I say it with sadness, weariness and bitterness... If we could be exterminated, that would be very good. It would be simple, in any case. But this isn’t possible either...”
He is always reasonable; as is the narrative.
Having survived the Holocaust, Mihail Sebastian, while crossing a Bucharest street on May 29th 1945, to give a lecture on Balzac, was killed by a truck. He was 37. - Eileen Battersby


For Two Thousand Years is a 1934 work by Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian.  The first half of the book looks at a year in his life as a student in Bucharest.  A melancholy soul, he’s constantly anguished by both his Jewish background and the anti-semitic violence plaguing the university, using his diary to note down his thoughts on the internal and external turmoil.
After about ninety pages, there’s a sudden jump, and time moves on.  Six years later, the young man is an architect for an oil company out in the country; after another two years, he’s been sent to Paris in preparation for a major project; finally, he goes back to Romania, a country in the grip of violence and political unrest.  On his return, the writer discovers that as much as he thought his past was in the past, his problems are very much of the present day…
Sebastian is a writer I’d never heard of, with For Two Thousand Years being his only novel (having escaped the Holocaust, he was unfortunately killed in an accident shortly after the war).  An eastern European Jew, the writer works through his thoughts about his heritage in his novel, with his protagonist wrestling with an identity he doesn’t entirely accept.  However, the novel is also a wider look at the forces controlling Romanian society during the Interwar period.
The first parts, set in 1923, have the makings of a typical Bildungsroman.  The narrator is a moody young man, with short diary extracts sketching out his walks through the windy streets of Bucharest, allowing us insights into his thoughts on being a Jew, and the struggle he’s forced to take part in, one he’d much rather avoid:
The whole thing bores me to death.  I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in, a book I could devour with the same intense passion with which I first read Descartes.  Every chapter would be a personal struggle.
But no: I’m involved in a ‘matter of principle’. Ridiculous.
p.8 (Penguin Classics, 2016)
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.  He may just want to learn, but the fights in the lecture theatres and the punches aimed at any Jew foolish enough to sneak in make it a difficult task.
Despite the accounts of the struggles, though, the writer always returns to his heritage.  He’s fascinated by anti-semitism, but more so by the nature of his people’s character:
I would criticize anti-semitism above all, were it to permit me to judge it, for its lack of imagination: ‘freemasonry, usury, ritual killing’.
Is that all?  How paltry!
The most basic Jewish conscience, the most commonplace Jewish intelligence, will find within itself much graver sins, an immeasurably deeper darker, incomparably more shattering catastrophes.
All they have to use against us are stones, and sometimes guns.  In our eternal struggle with ourselves, we have a subtle, slow-working but irremediable vitriol in our own hearts. (p.45)
Which is certainly one way of looking at it…
This early part of the book, the fragmented outpourings of a tortured young man, has echoes of several classic characters (Stephen Dedalus as a Jew, Malte Laurids Brigge exiled in Bucharest, young Werner with a little more sense and a little less drama…), and everything is symbolic, and often larger than life.  Good examples of this include the narrator’s chance encounter with Abraham Sulitzer, a salesman of Yiddish literature and scripture (a true wandering Jew), and the fiery discussions with the Zionist Sami Winkler and the Marxist S.T. Heim (a combination which brings to mind The Magic Mountain, with the narrator as Hans Castorp caught between Settembrini and Naphta).
These early passages contrast nicely with the second half of the book, in which the narrator has matured, a working man with little time to dwell on the issues which plagued him during his student years.  The events of the past have receded in memory, leaving him more confident in his future, and that of his country.  Yet the older he gets, the more Romania changes, albeit in the background, away from the writer’s viewpoint, meaning the violence of 1923 is bound to return eventually…
The style is very different here with longer, more measured pieces, showing the emotional growth of the man responsible for the shorter, angst-laden early fragments.  The gradual development of the style is rendered excellently by Ó Ceallaigh, an Irish short-story writer who has spent a lot of time in Bucharest.  The book as a whole is a joy to read, from the bleakest, most cynical of the early passages, to the longer, more hopeful pieces later in the novel; particularly in the early parts, I was jotting down sentences for possible use in the review on almost every page :)
For Two Thousand Years is a book that’s hard to summarise.  The reader is torn between a focus on the mental turmoil of a highly-strung individual, an examination of the rise of Fascism in 1930s Europe and an eery harbinger of the fate which was to befall the Jewish people a handful of years in the future.  In truth, it could be all of them.  A friend of the young man senses as much, with intimations of the gathering clouds:
Leaning over the map, he looked like a general reviewing the course of a battle that has not yet begun, but which is imminent. (p.199)
The novel was written years before the Second World War, but Sebastian seems to anticipate the war to come, and as much as the narrator wants to be himself, deep down he knows that his fate is unavoidable and that blood doesn’t lie.  The storm is coming… - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/for-two-thousand-years-by-mihail-sebastian-review/


In June 1934, a young Romanian Jew published a book about being a Jew in Romania. Mihail Sebastian’s De Doua mii de ani (‘For 2000 Years’) was not an autobiography or a novel or a diary, although a bit of each. The hero, who is never named, lives the tragicomedy of assimilation in a land and a culture that both invite and repel. A rich country full of ragged people, Romania uneasily combined a 19th-century rural and suburban servitude with the sophistication of 20th-century Paris fashions and very mod mod cons. Politics was about patronage: Parliament was a den of time-servers and leeches, democracy a word but not an option, the monarchy a plaster on a wobbly leg. Home-bred troubles are better blamed on others, and the blame for arrogance and intellectual brilliance amid the wretchedness was assigned to Jews.
Even the well-intentioned saw Jews as a problem, and even the Jews, hardened to animosity, found the animadversions hard to bear. Sebastian himself shared the sentiments of a Magyar friend who by most criteria would have been better off away from Hungarian anti-semitism and the numerus clausus: ‘I feel that I would stifle if I didn’t live there, in that atmosphere, with those people. You have to understand: they are my memories, my language, my culture . . . It is not pleasant, sometimes it’s humiliating. But when you really love something, you love what is good and what is bad in a place. This too shall pass one day.’ It doesn’t pass, however. Like the maimed king Amfortas waiting to be touched by the Holy Spear, Sebastian’s hero lives with his open wound: ‘the consciousness of the sin of being a Jew’.
The error of the Jews, he reflects, is that they observe too much and think that they, too, are being observed, whereas the world is indifferent to them. So ‘try not to suffer. Do not give in to the relish of suffering. There’s great voluptuousness in persecution, and feeling wronged is probably the vainest of intimate pleasures. Be careful not to indulge in it.’
Other ‘Jewish’ novels had been published in Romania, but they had all met with public indifference. Sebastian’s novel might have shared their fate had it not been for its introduction, written by a well-known contemporary anti-semite, Nae Ionescu. Ionescu’s venomous preface, made more sensational by its context, wasn’t commissioned by the book’s publisher, as a footnote declares, but by its author, a longtime protégé of Ionescu’s. In 1931, returning from a spell of study in Paris determined to write a Jewish novel, Sebastian had asked his ‘director of conscience’ to write a preface to it. Cuvântul, the daily newspaper which Ionescu edited, was no more hostile to Jews than other publications. It mostly attacked the banks, the venal oligarchy and the no less venal police force that ruled the country. Ionescu himself had written appreciatively of Jews who ‘enriched the spiritual patrimony of mankind’, and had denied any nation’s right to oppress its minorities. But that was in the 1920s, and circumstances alter cases.
Ionescu was a professor of philosophy whose writings were crammed with references to Western literature and philosophy, who bought his clothes in London, his toiletries in Paris, his linen in Vienna and his Mercedes in Germany. He had started out as a Maurrasian monarchist and nationalist. Anti-rationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist, he had long rejected anti-semitism as too negative, and adopted it only as an adjunct to a new-found românism and its Orthodox Christian spirit. He laid the country’s corruption and decay at the door of alien Western models ill-suited to Moldo-Wallachians, and fulminated against those persistent vectors of alienation: Jews. Jews could be good citizens, obey the law, pay taxes, serve in the Army, fight in wars. That made them ‘good Romanians’: it did not make them Romanians – organically connected to the soil and spirit of the race.
By 1933, Ionescu was dismissing assimilation as a sinister farce, a view he repeated in the rather convoluted introduction he handed Sebastian just in time for the book’s publication. Its gist was what Ionescu had been arguing for the past three years: a Jew could be, could feel, as Romanian as he liked; he would always be fundamentally a Jew. However sincere his supposed assimilation, however troubling anti-semitism might be to people who believed themselves to be truly Romanian, the ancient acrimony was a reminder that Jews had a different history, which included their rejection of Christ. From this predicament there could be no way out: ‘A problem implies a solution. Is there a solution to the Jewish problem?’ No there wasn’t. ‘The Jews suffer because they are Jews; they would stop being Jews when their suffering stops; they can’t escape suffering except by ceasing to be Jewish.’ But they can’t cease, said Ionescu, and Sebastian won’t: only the cold and the darkness awaited him. (...) - Eugen Weber


Almost a decade ago, a book written in the 1930's and 40's by a Romanian Jewish writer led to a vivid polemic that has not faded yet. The contested book is Journal.1935-1944 and its author is Mihail Sebastian (Iosef Hechter, after his Jewish name). The nine notebooks of the diary were kept by the writer's brother, Benu , who agreed with their publication after many hesitations. In 2000 the Journal was also published in English, translated by Patrick Camiller and with an introduction signed by Radu Ioanid. The Journal has been considered a mixture of diaries by most of its commentators and as such was divided into a few distinct journals (mainly a private diary, a writing one, a diary of war and anti-Semitism). The entire book is in fact a testimony of a moral and intellectual consciousness and also of the troubled years before and during the Second World War, an authentic document of a period that continues to arouse contentious and adversarial debates. It is the attempt of a Jew who deeply assumes his Jewry to talk with no inhibitions about his condition as a minority. There are 600 pages of journal entries that chronicle the Romanian Holocaust and the Second World War. Born in 1907 in a town on the Danube, Mihail Sebastian was constantly marked by his Jewish identity. Paradoxically, his characters never acknowledge this inner struggle of the author. Even the text of the diary is not an indictment of the inter-war period, but a credible and profound analysis of the progressive stages of humiliation and discrimination that Sebastian is obliged to pass. Keeping a diary is for the writer a way to survive and to prove to himself that he can move on. It is also an attempt of its author to hide from himself and from the others; he reveals himself in many of his daily notes as being tired, disgusted and resigned in front of a world that seems to lose its bench marks. Despite his busy life in a crowded Bucharest (as a lawyer and writer), he feels alone, in a space of solitude. His confessions become a desperate attempt to preserve his intimacy and the right to absolute difference from the others. In a way Sebastian recreates the apology of loneliness that Descartes had done more than three centuries ago in a letter to his friend Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, who was advised to find his peace and rest not in the country but in the middle of the city, in the crowd, in the noisy streets. It is the same kind of solitude that Sebastian looks for, the one that helps him find time for himself, time for writing, the one that helps him get rid of the bitter taste of losing friends and loves. During some explosive years, marked by a sharp escalation of anti-Semitic attitudes, an authentic and untroubled loneliness is all that Sebastian could hope for. A reading of his works (especially his Journal) outside the inter-war political context is very difficult (if not impossible). So this is, very briefly, the political background of Sebastian's Journal. The first part covered by his notes, 1935-1938, is marked by tough confrontations between the democratic forces and the dictatorial ones, in an extremely unstable European political context, where all states of Central and Southeast Europe had dictatorial or authoritarian regimes (Mussolini in Italy, Salazar in Portugal, Hitler in Germany and a bit later Franco in Spain). In Romania, King Carol II deposed his government and instituted a royal dictatorship on February 10, 1938, after dissolving all political parties and abolishing the Constitution. As the international political situation continued to deteriorate with the signing of Molotov—Ribbentrop pact, through which the Soviet Union and the Third Reich divided the spheres of interest, and with the obligation of Romania to cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, then with the Vienna Awards of 1940 that gave Northern Transylvania to Hungary and eventually by ceding the southern of Dobrudja to Bulgaria, King Carol II, accused by the entire country and compromised, abdicated in favor of his son Michael who had only a decorative role, the country being governed in practice by the pro-German regime of Ion Antonescu. Romania was proclaimed a National Legionary State, with a military and legionary majority in the government. In the first phase, Antonescu approached the Iron Guard, but the situation radically changed when the latter tried to monopolize the power. As the Iron Guard did not have the support of Germany, their rebellion on January 21, 1941 was crushed. Sebastian describes in the notes of those days the way that the rebellion turned into a pogrom, the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in the streets, in the people's hearts. Romania's entrance into the war in June 1941 against the Soviet Union led to the reoccupation of the lost territories with a huge human sacrifice and also with victims behind the front (like in the pogrom of Iasi). In August 1944 Romania turned against Germany and joined the Red Army, while Antonescu was arrested. The separation of Romania from Germany happened after a long process, although Antonescu had been aware that the politics of Berlin had no chance any longer. It is sure that the act on August 23, 1944 led to the collapse of Germany half a year early, but unfortunately led to the entrance of Romania under the control of the Soviet Union, following the meeting of Churchill and Stalin. It is the moment when Romanian history radically changes again, but also the moment when Sebastian's Journal ends. The writer died in an unfortunate accident a few months later. His Journal defines the plurality and complexity of its author's interests and preoccupations, who is also well-known as a journalist, translator, playwright and novelist, all stages of his formation as a writer and of the evolution of his modalities to express. The journalist Mihail Sebastian was extremely prodigious, writing as a literary, music and theater critic for many of the inter-war publications, focused especially on the analysis of the European modern novel, always connected to the ideas and attitudes in the European literature and literary theory. However, Sebastian became famous for his plays, revealing an apparently fragile world, with characters who find refuge in illusions. Star Without a Name, Let's Play Vacation, and The Last Hour are all marked by a note of interior tragism and refined irony. As a novelist, Sebastian constantly emphasizes the authenticist principle of lucidity and sincerity. I enumerate the novels here in the chronological order of their publication, not the one of their writing: Fragments of a Found Notebook, Women, For Two Thousand Years (together with the essay How I Became a Hooligan. Texts, facts, people), The Town with Acacia Trees, The Accident. Actually, not all of them are novels in the traditional sense of the word, since neither the theme nor the compositional structure belong to the traditional novel. They are works dedicated to confession, to the fiction of confession. If Sebastian's work could be defined with just one word, undoubtedly that word should be "diversity". Everything he wrote was the answer of a vocation, a literary form widely opened toward public life and inner life as well. Sixty years after the writer's death, his books continue to fascinate, a sign that he reached "the only kind of eternity that matters". - Loredana Dima


Mihail Sebastian, Journal 1935-44: The Fascist Years, William Heinemann, 2001.
read it at Google Books


The diary of a Rumanian Jewish writer who lived in Bucharest throughout the thirties and the war, The Fascist Years records Mihail Sebastian's increasing experience of anti-semitism, the increasing restrictions on his freedom, his increasing alienation from his Aryan friends as they compromise with Rumania's fascist regime, as well as his love of music, reading and books.. The obvious comparison is with Victor Klemperer's diary, published recently in two volumes by Weidenfeld, another diary of a Jew who survived the war and escaped the camps, but Sebastian is by far the better writer and by far the more interesting person.




"This book is alive, a human soul lives in it, along with the unfolding ghastliness of the last century, which passed an inch away from Sebastian's nose. His prose is like something Chekov might have written - the same modesty, candour, and subtleness of observation. Here is a life, and an absurd death, whose spell will last a long time" - Arthur Miller

"This humane masterpiece deserves to be ranked alongside the diaries of Victor Klemperer for its quiet, and indeed humorous, insights into the nature of wickedness" - Paul Bailey

"A brilliantly haunting account of the rise of anit-Semitism and Fascism. At times it gives so intimate a feeling of fear that it is painful to read" - BBC History
"Moving, perceptive and sharply observed...the journal is a valuable addition not just to the canon of wartime and holocaust literature, but to that of all humanity" - Literary Review   


'Deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank's Diary and to find as huge a readership' - Philip Roth      


     When first published in Romania in 1996, Sebastian's journal from the period of Romania's fascist past met a stormy reception, for Romania was none too eager to explore anew its dark years of dictatorship and Nazism. Sebastian's journal, much like Victor Klemperer's recently celebrated diaries from Nazi Germany, stands as an extraordinary document of daily life as fascist powers gained control in the years before and during WWII. Sebastian, a Jewish writer of fiction and literary criticism, was active in Bucharest intellectual society. It was good fortune and connections that saved him from deportation (he continued to teach during the war); death came when he was hit by a truck in May 1945. Sebastian's journal offers a fascinating look at the political and intellectual life of Romania in the decade 1935--1944, from the literary scene in which he was so active to the musical tastes of himself and his friends, to the critical political shift from democratic sympathies to dictatorship and fascism. Interwoven with the panoramic view of society at large are the details of the author's stormy personal life, spiced by countless unsatisfying love affairs and close friendships with Romania's leading intellectualsDamong them Mircea Eliade and E.M. Cioran. Supported by an excellent introduction by Radu Ioanid and an adept translation, Sebastian's Journal represents an important source for understanding the dynamics of Romanian intellectual society in the 1930s and 1940s. This is being published in association with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it should appeal to a wide readership interested in learning more about life in Europe before and during WWII. First serial to the New Yorker. - Publishers Weekly



Mihail Sebastian, The Accident, Trans. by Stephen Henighan, Biblioasis, 2011.
excerpt
read it at Google Books


In the tradition of Sandor Marai, Mihail Sebastian is a captivating Central European storyteller from the first half of the twentieth century whose work is being rediscovered by new generations of readers throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States. The 2000 publication of his Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years introduced his writing to an English-speaking audience for the first time, garnering universal acclaim. Philip Roth wrote that Sebastian's Journal "deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank's Diary and to find as huge a readership." Outside of the English-speaking world, Sebastian's reputation rests on his fiction. This publication of The Accident marks the first appearance of the author's fiction in English. A love story set in the Bucharest art world of the 1930s and the Transylvanian mountains, it is a deeply romantic, enthralling tale of two people who meet by chance. Along snowy ski trails and among a mysterious family in a mountain cabin, Paul and Nora, united by an attraction that contains elements of repulsion, find the keys to their fate. Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was born in southeastern Romania and worked in Bucharest as a lawyer, journalist, novelist, and playwright until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published in seven countries between 1996 and 2007, launching an international revival of his work. Sebastian's novels and plays are available in translation throughout Europe, and also have been published in Chinese, Hindi, Bengali, and Hebrew.


In this post-postmodern world of teenybopper angst-pop, maudlin chick flicks, and cheesy reality-show melodrama, love's elegant argument has been largely lost. Indeed, given the narrowed ambitions of minimalism and the astringent ironies of postmodernism, the complicated dynamic of love has been all but ceded to the soft porn of pulp romances. This makes particularly seductive the dignity, the elevation of Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian's dense anatomy of love's compelling illogic, first published in 1940 and available now in a lyrical translation with an afterword by University of Guelph's Stephen Henighan. Known to the English-speaking world largely for his journal, which chronicled fascism in interwar Romania, Sebastian, who died in 1945, here examines the gravitas of attraction--Paul, a classically gloomy intellectual reeling from a tempestuous relationship with a mercurial artist, impulsively assists a stranger, a vibrant French teacher named Nora, when she takes a spill from a Bucharest tram one wintry morning. The metaphor of the fortunate fall becomes Sebastian's most revealing motif-suggesting the redemptive devastation of the reluctant heart. Indeed, Nora sees love as a way to minister to her emotionally disaffected Good Samaritan. She takes Paul on a Christmas ski vacation to the Carpathians. There, against the gathering storm of fascism, the cloaking smother of the sweeping mountains, and a melancholic sense of doom, they meet a young, apparently robust German painter who is doomed by a bad heart. Paul and Nora, like the classic Modernist characters of Proust, Mann, and Pasternak, engage love's Big Questions: the friction between chance and destiny; the terrorism of vulnerability; the struggle with fidelity; the dilemma of obsession; the uncivil war between logic and desire; the tonic pull of nature; and, supremely, the irony of love given the inevitability of mortality. Sebastian's novel is a sumptuous read, a reminder of the unnerving implications of love's dark necessity. - Joseph Dewey


The Accident arrives as something of an appendix to the massive Journal of Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), a record of his life as a Romanian Jewish writer from 1935 to 1944. Though Sebastian is known in Romania for his plays and, to a lesser extent, his novels, to my knowledge nothing of his appeared in English until his Journal was published in 2000, chronicling the horrors and fears of life in Romania during World War II. The Accident is his first translated work of fiction.
Next to the immediacy of the Journal, The Accident initially disappoints. The novel begins promisingly with an evocative scene in which the intense, quixotic Nora falls while exiting a tram and is helped up by the downtrodden intellectual Paul. They tentatively embark on a rushed affair driven by Nora’s fixation on Paul, which frightens and liberates them. But the novel then loses its way in a flashback chronicling Paul’s earlier involvement with Ann, a dreary artist. Ann clearly represents the faux-bohemian life that has ensnared Paul, but both she and Paul remain too diffuse for this section to take hold as a picture of the limits of Paul’s life. Paul’s criticism of Ann’s paintings telegraphs the problem with their entire milieu: “There’s something gesticulating in your paintings. They’re too hearty, too talkative, too familiar at the first glance.” Ann replies: “I am talkative, I am frivolous.”
The greater import of The Accident reveals itself only against the background of Sebastian’s Journal, which described in some detail his writing of the novel. But the greater context is crucial as well. The Journal was not published until 1996 (it was translated into in English in 2000), when its portrayal of Romanian complicity in the Holocaust caused controversy. Over 300,000 Romanian Jews died during World War II, a large percentage by death squads set up by Romania’s own aggressively anti-Semitic government. Sebastian was fortunate to live in Bucharest, which was spared the worst of Romania’s policies, but he witnessed the virulent anti-Semitism and deportations and heard firsthand accounts of the government’s massacres carried out on the orders of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. Sebastian sensitively, painfully chronicled details of the Holocaust as it was happening that many would not know until after the war. Sebastian survived the war, only to be killed in an auto accident in 1945.
The Accident was Sebastian’s fourth and final novel, written during 1937 to 1940, and his journals describe its creation: Sebastian starts the novel, loses a good chunk of the manuscript, reconstructs it, struggles with it, and finishes it after reaching a period of intense focus, only to be set upon by grave doubts about its quality and his talent after publication. In between, he finds solace in classical music and skiing while wondering how to reconcile his life and his profession with the increasingly horrific political situation. After publication, he makes little subsequent mention of The Accident in his journal, and moves on to writing plays.
Read in light of the circumstances of its writing, The Accident reveals itself much more darkly. We have an explanation for the weakness of the Ann section: this seems to be precisely the section that Sebastian lost and had to rewrite. He bemoans his inability to recapture the intensity of the original draft. His instincts were right. Knowing of Sebastian’s dissatisfaction with his reconstruction of the manuscript makes it sad to read. Yet the darkness only grows greater over the more successful remainder of the novel.
Once the focus returns to Paul and Nora, the novel regains momentum, as Nora becomes a catalyst to pull the hesitant, almost hapless Paul out of his mundane life. She is not an intellectual, but this is an advantage: “You, too, should be ridiculous a few times in your life,” she tells Paul. “You should see it does you good.”
They take a long journey to the ski resort near Brasov, and the rest of the novel shifts between ski chalets, the city, and a strange, small cabin inhabited by a young recluse named Gunther. Each location has its own personality and subject matter, and Nora and Paul alternate among them. The chalets are domesticated, rustic outposts. The villages are bustling small communities with local color. And the cabin is a Gothic portrayal of a hermetic existence. (This is where the Stifter influence is most felt.)
That final location is the oddest, and Sebastian was correct to sense that it fit uneasily into the novel. Gunther is the outcast scion of a prominent local German family, and he lives in the cabin as a recluse with his older caretaker Hagen. Nora stumbles on the cabin by accident after rushing out of a chalet late one night, and soon finds out that it is a forbidden place where no one goes, Gunther being a willing exile from his own family and the product of a dark family past.
We hear both Nora and Paul’s thoughts, but as the novel goes on, Paul emerges as the protagonist, and Nora as the object which is acting on him. Sebastian loses touch with the vulnerability and somewhat creepy obsessiveness Nora possessed in the early scenes and transforms her into a secular redeemer for Paul. Her past lover Grig, who was not described in detail as Ann was, is completely forgotten.
And yet the book remains something of a travelogue. Nora and especially Paul appear to grow and gain meaning over the course of the book, but they do not engage with their surroundings. They care about them, particularly about Gunther, to whom they become close, but their actions only affect their surroundings to a small extent. Rather, the events serve to drive Nora and especially Paul’s fulfillment.
It is, in other words, a process of bourgeois self-actualization that Sebastian portrays, a safe sort of freedom based in the culture that he and Paul inhabited. Nora ostensibly becomes Paul’s liberating angel, but she too remains insulated from the drama of her surroundings. As visitors to Brasov, she and Paul can travel from scene to scene without consequence or commitment. This life brings them happiness, but at the cost of genuine engagement with the world.
The Accident seemingly portrays this process as a positive thing. Sebastian’s tale of liberation from a bourgeois life is similar to the work of another assimilated Jewish writer of the period, the Hungarian Antal Szerb. Both utilized a mildly expressionistic Romanticism that draws a bit from Thomas Mann, but also from less fashionable 19th century writers such as Adelbart Stifter and Gottfried Keller. Both were aware of the limitations of this style. Its inability to face up to their present-day realities was obvious.
But unlike Szerb’s superb Journey by Moonlight, The Accident does not deflate the Romantic ideals it sets up, but neither does it convincingly endorse them. Paul and Nora’s momentary epiphanies of Romantic freedom seem mundane, almost naive. Some of its passages seem possessed of a naivete that cannot be credited: Nora tells Paul, “Our lives are full of bad habits, compulsions and obsessions. Skiing cleanses us of them.” This seems almost insensate, even trivially comic, next to the Sturm und Drang of Gunther and his dour family.
Why does it fall flat? Why does the novel seem so half-hearted? The Journal makes the answer clear. Sebastian was being torn between bourgeois comfort and political horror, and the novel reflects that conflict in its very construction. The novel portrays of Sebastian’s own inability to commit to an emotional, Romantic liberation of the soul, even as he clings to it as an ideal of hope. Paul’s guided journey through Brasov was the greatest self-actualization that Sebastian could envision, but Sebastian couldn’t believe in his own happy ending.
Sebastian’s doubts are explicit and incessant in the Journal, but they are there in The Accident as well, if one knows the context. The novel presents the self-actualization at face value, but it gains real meaning only if it is taken ironically, with Paul and Nora clinging to threads of life that they don’t understand. The mixture of settings don’t represent alternative possibilities in life, but nonthreatening, innocuous fantasies. Their ineffectiveness evokes real horror, turning this light, unsatisfying book into a cenotaph.
Two other, better-known writers of the period worked in with the material of bourgeois life set upon by crisis: Stefan Zweig and Sandor Marai. Both have seen revivals recently and both remain mediocre, falling prey to collapsing complicated socio-political issues into banal psychological portraits, thinking they had discovered the real reason that explains why humans are the way that they are. Sebastian and Szerb are superior, ironically, because they do not stretch themselves quite so far. By remaining within the realm of the bourgeois and Romantic, they reveal its cracks far more visibly.
Szerb’s is the greater novel, however, because Sebastian’s is too compromised by its very nature, requiring background knowledge of its composition to have its greatest effect. Sebastian did not think himself a great artist, and the Journal records his many doubts about his skills. Yet that clarity turns to an edifying muddle in The Accident, which bears strong moral weight behind its text, in its construction. Read in tandem with the Journal, it is a powerful experience. - David Auerbach


Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident takes place in 1935 in Bucharest, a cosmopolitan city free of stifling social mores. It begins with a chance meeting, in which a French teacher, Nora, is injured falling from the slippery steps of a tram; a bystander, Paul, reluctantly assists her home and helps see to her injury. Almost immediately, they embark on a one-sided relationship that feels predictable and somewhat shallow; there’s little about the characters or situation to draw the reader in.
That is, until the next portion of the novel begins, with Paul on his own, analyzing his previous relationship with Ann, a flighty artist who hides her narcissism under a veil of childish hyperactivity. Desperate to see her, possibly suicidal, he is fueled by a passion that drives the story to a much higher level; it becomes a fascinating character study of Ann, whose behavior keeps him off kilter, and of Paul himself, a lawyer who has become so jaded and angry he’s ceased feeling emotion. Ann draws attention everywhere she goes, causing Paul to react with something like confusion:
In each alien glance that was directed towards Ann, in each greeting, he seemed to see a memory and an invitation. . . . signals that went over his head like so many telegrams in code, which he intercepted without being able to read them, for nobody could assure him that each new greeting didn’t bear a message, an allusion or a proposition.
This section so surpasses the beginning of the book that I found myself wondering if Nora would even reappear. Sebastian leaves many details vague, and his prose underlines the tension created:
Far away and deep down, close to his heart, something stopped in its tracks and waited to break or unravel. It was like being under a heavy anaesthetic: he felt the wound, he felt the skin’s resistance to the blade, and the very precise, very exact rending, and yet it didn’t hurt, it didn’t hurt . . .
The novel then cuts away from Ann and back to Nora, where she and Paul reunite and journey to the Transylvanian Alps for a skiing expedition wherein Nora patiently attempts to resuscitate Paul’s feelings. Nora is a trooper, a sturdy, good-natured woman who is competent in virtually everything—including skiing. But is she too good? It’s as if she senses her position as replacement to Ann, although never knowing her competition. Her tactic is to be gracious and generous to a fault. As she teaches Paul to ski, he finds that his rediscovery of nature through the snow alters his moods, changing who he had become. But who are they, together? Which woman does Paul choose?
Mihail Sebastian set The Accident in the time and place of his adult life, and similarities abound between the novel and own experiences. The timing he chose is relevant because it parallels his own identity struggle in pre-war Romania. Enjoying fame from writing both novels and plays, the Jewish Sebastian (born Iosef Hechter) also worked as a journalist with many noteworthy literary figures. However, Hitler’s ideas found fertile ground in Romania, with Sebastian’s peers distancing themselves from him and publishing anti-Semitic propaganda. The paper’s editor, Nae Ionescu, became a fierce proponent of fascism but added a religious element to its fervor.
Ironically, Sebastian had previously asked his former mentor to write the preface to The Accident, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Ionescu used the opportunity to attack Sebastian and his race, stating, “Iosif Hechter, you are sick. You are sick to the core because all you can do is suffer . . . do you not feel that cold and darkness are enfolding you?” Sebastian recoiled from the remarks, calling them a death sentence, but ultimately allowed the preface to go to print with the book. In her essay “Romanian-Intellectual-Jew: Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest,” Joanne Roberts states that Sebastian “defended his decision to publish the Preface arguing that he had not asked Ionescu for a particular type of Preface and that he could not be party to censorship.”
Sebastian may have considered this an act of defiance to resist Ionescu’s bullying, yet some Jews felt that by permitting the preface to remain he was giving tacit agreement to its contents. Thus, he was alienated from both his peers and his race. The question of true identity becomes a theme in his remaining works, which sadly are few as he died in 1945 after being hit by a truck. The Translator’s Afterword in this volume provides more details about Sebastian’s biography and unites them with several of the book’s themes; Stephen Henighan’s translation is precise and his notes show how closely he studied Sebastian’s life and work. - Amy Henry


All serious writers have at least two dreams. The primal dream is of immediate discovery: at a preposterously early point in your career, Important People will discover your genuine greatness and encourage it along, putting you in place for decades of attention and accolades. Call this the Philip Roth model of literary success. The back-up dream is of posthumous discovery: many years after one has lived, written and died, Important People somehow come across your work, perceive its true worth, and make up for your life of being ignored by introducing you, posthumously, to enthusiastic new generations of readers. Call this the John Kennedy Toole model of literary success. Of course, most successful literary writers live out more modest versions of one or of both of these dreams.
In recent years, however, the posthumous discovery, at least by English-language readers, of books by otherwise little-known international writers such as Robert Bolaño and Irene Némirovsky has been newsworthy for the intense interest and runaway success of their works upon  the release of English translations. In both of these instances, the inherent strengths of the works are matched by both their authors’ compelling and tragic stories and by breathless tales of the works’ miraculous uncovering.

If not as prodigious as Bolaño or as emotive and dramatic as Némirovsky, the Jewish-Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian is nevertheless very much deserving of fresh discovery today, which has been made possible by the first-ever publication of his fiction in English — in this case his final novel, The Accident. Long a respected name in European circles, Sebastian, a lawyer, playwright, intellectual and novelist who grimly suffered through a succession of anti-Semitic cruelties and indignities during the Second World War only to be fatally hit by a truck after the war ended, enjoyed a flurry of English-language attention about a decade ago with the translation of his war-era diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years (which won rare praise from Philip Roth, incidentally, among many others). One hopes this new book, whose lyricism and depth of feeling have been made wonderfully apparent thanks to Stephen Henighan’s elegant translation, will only expand his English readership.
The novel is deceptively simple in its premise: Nora, a vital young French teacher, injures herself while exiting a tram in Bucharest and is helped by Paul, a diffident, cerebral younger man who happens to be passing by. The two of them tentatively begin a relationship, mostly animated by Nora’s desire to lift Paul out of his inexplicable yet elaborate moroseness (were he more ridiculous than serious about this moroseness, he’d be a perfect character for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). This takes the form of her organizing for them a Christmas-time ski trip in the Transylvanian mountains, where they are surrounded by snow and mildly eccentric skiers and locals, including in particular the odd end-pieces of a wealthy and dysfunctional German family. Paul and Nora’s repeated efforts at deeper romantic connection are made difficult by their respective private anxieties, in particular the young man’s concealed and fraught relationship with Ann, another, less stable woman; and also by the idyllic yet foreboding atmosphere of their alpine surroundings.
Composed in the late 1930s — as Henighan’s indispensable afterword explains, as part of a larger introduction and commentary on Sebastian’s life and work — the novel is intentionally set earlier in that decade. The result, for the reader, is relentless dramatic irony: The main characters sense the world as they know it is under severe, even mortal pressure, yet they can know nothing more than this, and so talk and sleep and ski for days on end. In turn, we can only vicariously enjoy their recuperative-cum-romantic holiday so much, knowing with the cold hard certainty of greater history the terrible events that await them.
Of course, Sebastian knew this as well, which is what endows so much of this book with its undertow of longing and melancholy. At the same time, he delicately leaves intact the sincerity and intensity of feeling evident in the characters’ extended reveries and sometimes ardent, sometimes fraught exchanges, instead of heavy-handedly undermining it. Late in the novel, for instance, after Paul has a fall while skiing, Sebastian writes that “there was something radiant in his gaze, an expression of great calm.” Trying to explain it to Nora, Paul exclaims “‘I’ve forgotten everything, absolutely everything. And here in the snow beneath your eyes, Nora, I’m a man without memories, a free man — you hear me? A free man …’”
What remarkable sentences from Sebastian, to give his character the wondrous sense of sudden freedom from a burdensome past while at the same time leaving the nature of his future open with ellipses, full well knowing, as do we, the far heavier sentences that awaited so many melancholic young innocents like Paul and Nora. - Randy Boyagoda


Mihail Sebastian’s 1940 novel Accidentul (The Accident), which I read in Stephen Henighan’s translation from the original Romanian, is a peculiar and often absorbing book about a chance meeting that evolves into romance and a skiing adventure. Nora, a French teacher, and Paul, an attorney, meet after Nora falls while exiting a moving tram. Time stops, symbolically, when Nora’s watch is smashed, and Nora sees herself as resembling the clock because she “heard nothing of her own being.” Her knee is just scraped but her life has shifted.
Though The Accident suffers from some serious pacing problems—I thought accounts of Paul’s previous infatuation with an artist named Ann were both too long and too, well, boringly typical without having a reason to be… though the image of Paul staring at large photos of Ann on the street are (blurb word alert!) poignant—its disparate elements manage to meld enough to form a novel that is, to borrow a phrase from M.A. Orthofer on The Complete Review, a “solid, interesting period piece.” I’m glad Canadian publisher Biblioasis brought it out in English.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Accident is Nora’s use of skiing to save Paul from himself. Paul’s “himself” is, in a way, a sort of not-Paul, since he has a suicidal bent and can be remote and self-destructively surly. Lucky for Paul, Nora’s teaching skills extend to skiing: she spontaneously proposes spending the winter holidays in the Carpathians, they buy him some skis, get on a train, and go. Skiing gives Paul new perspectives on nothingness:
“He tried to explain to [Nora] the sensation of nothingness from which he had just emerged. He felt as though he were on the outer edges of human life.”
When Nora tells Paul his speed is under control, Paul says, “Under whose control? I felt like I was in a whirlpool, a chaos. I couldn’t see anything.” On the next pages, he closes his eyes while skiing, “Only for a few second. He felt weightless, without memory, without a past…” And a few paragraphs later he calls skiing “a kind of bliss.” As someone who gave up on skiing because I never felt enough control or bliss and once saw someone taken off the mountain with fatal injuries, I thought the skiing passages made a nice metaphor for exploring risk, control, and purpose, I’m not as optimistic as Ann that skiing is a real cure for Paul or that, “He who has been in the mountains is a free man.” David Auerbach’s piece for The Quarterly Conversation includes a nice discussion of this line; Auerbach writes that, “Paul’s guided journey through Brasov was the greatest self-actualization that Sebastian could envision, but Sebastian couldn’t believe in his own happy ending.”
Another chance occurrence in The Accident brings Paul and Ann to the mountain chalet of a young man named Gunther Grodeck. That meeting felt particularly programmed to me, though the Gothic element it brings to the book felt almost like (tragi?)comic relief among some of the rather earnest skiing scenes: Gunther lives in the chalet with a sheepdog named Faffner, a blurry portrait of his mother, and a man in a black cape whom Gunther calls Hagen for the character in The Götterdämmerung.
If I sound a little uninspired, it’s because I am: The Accident is interesting and I’m glad I read it, but it feels a little lumpy. The Accident generated a fair number of reviews when it was released in Henighan’s English translation. I’ve linked to a few below; some contain interesting background on Sebastian’s life and Romanian history. - Lisa Hayden Espenschade 

The Accident is very much a novel of 1930s Romania. A chance encounter -- the accident of the title -- brings Nora and Paul together, and one thing leads to another, as each finds in the other (and the path they take together) something they need at that point. Nora, a teacher, was still sort of seeing another man, but it's Paul whose life has been turned upside down by the woman he's been involved with, Ann, and who needs to get over her in order to get on with his life.
       The novel begins with the chance encounter, and the spontaneous actions that follow leave it unclear at first where this headed. Paul is the mysterious stranger -- but he is also clearly weighed down by something. Or rather, someone. Nora senses that the secret can be found in a single page of his passport:
Nora saw again the blue passport, the photograph, the identifying signs, the visa page, Hegenrath, 23 juillet. Again it seemed to her that in the name of that border crossing, in that forgotten date of July 23, 1934, lay his whole mystery.
       She's not wrong, though the essence of his 'mystery' is a pretty straightforward one: he's hopelessly in love with Ann, but Ann is kind of a tramp. In fact, she's an enormously successful painter -- but, as someone explains to him:
That girl, sir, she's come into the painting world like a siren, like an actress who runs after the director, the ministry, her cousin, the kept mistress, in order to get a role, and she sleeps with this one and she sleeps with that one, with the director, the office manager, even the porter if she has to, but she doesn't stop until she gets to the top.
       Fast-rising, Ann has apparently not stopped yet ..... His failed love has gotten to Paul; he claims he's not unhappy now but admits he's: "weary ... yes ... very weary ...".
       Nora is intrigued by this air of mystery and sadness around him:
He was capable of silences that seemed as though they would never end. How far away was he ? How could she call him back ?         Rather spontaneously again they decide to go skiing together over the Christmas vacation, a change from urbane Bucharest to the rustic Carpathians -- though, as it turns out, different sorts of decadence can be found in each. On the ski slopes they wind up in the mountain home of Gunther Grodeck , a young man from an important local family who is an outsider (and has quite a bit of romantic fatalism to him too). In case readers didn't get the Trakl-allusion (the dark 'Grodek' is Georg Trakl's most famous poem) Sebastian has the young man recite (well whisper, "as if to himself, as though it were a spell") a verse from another Trakl poem ..... Yes, The Accident is that kind of heavy-handed novel.
       The skiing vacation does them Paul and Nora good, yet their problems are not easily worked through: "Aren't we here together ?" Paul asks, but at that point Nora still finds they are: "Together, yet alone." Finally Paul must face the root of the problem --and conveniently for everyone involved, Ann shows up in the neighborhood, and Paul -- and Nora -- soon see whether he has been able to put her behind him.
       The Accident is in some ways a typical Alpine (well, Carpathian) ski- or nature-novel, the great outdoors an eye-opening change for city-folk who have gotten too used to urban ways: "Nora, do you think skiing can save a person ? Can it change his life ?" Paul asks overeagerly at the end (when all he wants is confirmation that in his case it has). The setting, and the ski-experience that is very different from the modern ones (no lifts, for one), add nicely to the atmosphere, while moody Paul's hopeless love, decadent Ann, and free-spirited but dutiful Nora (who never forgets that she has a teaching job to get back to in early January -- though she does skip a few of her last classes before the winter break ...), and, of course, young Grodeck (and his faithful dog) are very much characters -- but ones whose story is interesting to follow.
       It is all a bit overheated and artificial, but that's also part of the fun, especially in how it presents 1930s Romania. An exaggeratedly but at least fairly inventively romantic story, The Accident isn't a particularly remarkable novel, but it's a solid, interesting period piece, and the comparisons to another Central European author of the time, Márai Sándor, aren't far fetched.
       Even if it is little more than a curiosity, it's nice to see the novel has been resurrected. - M.A.Orthofer


Romanian author Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident, translated into English here for the first time, is a compelling, mercurial novel. French teacher Nora slips while exiting a tram in 1934 Bucharest, sustains superficial injuries, and is rescued by the recalcitrant lawyer, Paul. The hero soon proves a mystery to Nora, one she is determined to unravel. Although this setup maybe well-worn, the pair’s story is anything but simple.
A malaise hangs over Paul who, at thirty, reeling from a lost love, has adopted a nihilistic outlook on life. Nora, four years his senior, sees Paul’s depression as a challenge—and his entrance into her life as a last chance for love. Her dedication to Paul and the unfolding of his heartbreak drive the novel. Sebastian uses these two opposite characters to wage a kind of intellectual war as Nora’s optimism clashes with Paul’s pessimism. It is a war with losses as subtle as an ambivalent shrug, the victories of which come in the form of a shared twist-of-phrase and the brief levity two lost people find in each other.
Anticipating the reader’s familiarity with the type of romance story he is telling, and the direction of the narrative, Sebastian frequently subverts expectations. The Accident is at turns a love story, a lament, a mystery, and a surreal journey into the Transylvanian mountains, but ultimately it’s about renewal, as Paul slowly begins to emerge from the cloud of ennui.
The Accident was first published in 1949; despite being Sebastian’s first novel to be translated into English it is chronologically the last book of fiction he wrote. A young star of the Bucharest literary world, Sebastian’s burgeoning career was interrupted by the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania. The next work the Jewish novelist and playwright published four years later was the account of his harrowing time under fascism in Bucharest, his acclaimed journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years.
The Accident can be enjoyed for the dynamic,
confused love story it presents as well as for its historical relevance in the life of one of Romania’s most influential mid-century writers. The Accident was published in a country under rule of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard, and although the war is not mentioned directly it is impossible to read now without this shadow hanging over the novel.
Mihail Sebastian’s life was cut tragically short in 1945 when, in an accident eerily similar to the inciting incident of his novel, he was stuck down by a truck in the streets of Bucharest. Sebastian was thirty-seven. The author’s last work of fiction is a tale of the struggle to regain hope after embracing hopelessness. Two of his plays staged soon after his death became wildly popular, and, at the time of his death, Sebastian’s own emergence, like his character Paul in The Accident, was perhaps just beginning. - Michael Beeman                           
What gets imprinted upon a work of fiction when society is unraveling all around the writer? This is a question I grappled with while reading Mihail Sebastian’s fourth and last novel, The Accident, his first work of fiction to appear in English. Sebastian (1907-1945) first made waves in the English reading world when his Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years was translated in 2000. In that work, the novelist, playwright, and lawyer observed the literati around him growing increasingly right-wing as anti-Semitic legislation passed, legislation that (as Henighan helpfully explains in his Afterword to The Accident) expelled him from the bar association and the Romanian Academy, and took away his right to publish.

In The Accident, set in 1934 and originally published in 1940, Paul, a suicidal lawyer tries to forget Anna, a blond, blue-eyed waif of a painter. Instead, he meets Nora, a sturdy French teacher, after she falls off a tram – in a scene rendered with incredibly precise aural and tactile detail. Paul helps Nora, and despite his insufferable, depressed shrugs, their carefully-etched love story is off with a lurch. Nora convinces him to take a holiday to shake off his despair. They leave Bucharest to ski in Transylvania, except Paul has never skied before and Nora must teach him. There’s something transcendental to Paul’s hurtling through the blinding snow – he would be content to hurtle and continue a sensation of floating and brightness – but, irritatingly, Nora forces him to learn control.

The opposition of a waifish, scatterbrained, younger Anna with the sensitive, wanting-to-be-noticed and almost-a-spinster-but-not Nora risks veering toward stereotype, but Sebastian avoids this through carefully considered interior monologues that alternate at satisfying intervals between Nora and Paul. And, the story might have felt a bit thin if it centered solely on this trio, but it gathers richness up in the forested mountains, where Nora and Paul encounter the young Gunther Grodek and his family, of the Saxon minority in Transylvania.  The Grodeks are a tight-lipped bunch, but a parallel story of love, ambition, obligation, and loss slowly arises, one more difficult to grasp because we only enter the minds of Nora and Paul, but one whose mystery adds an important texture to the story. When Nora and Paul return to Braşov, the regional capital at the base of the mountains, and when Paul encounters and misunderstands the import of Hungarian headlines (Hungarians are another minority in Transylvania), the sense of the story widens out, casting a darker edge to the novel.

The Accident glimpses a lost world of inter-war, pre-Communist Romania, and it also delicately foreshadows the war. Celebratory imagery is often eerily militaristic, such as when popping champagne corks are described as “detonation” and droves of holiday skiers, dressed in similar ski suits and piled into special skiers’ train cars, are compared to troops.

Even setting historical background aside, The Accident remains a powerful work of art. Descriptions of landscape are lush (“Clouds flowed down towards Poiana like buoyant lava”), encounters with local fauna glint with incandescent magic, and the reader is intimately engaged with Nora and Paul – the undulations of their fears and their doubts, their desires and, however ephemeral, their exaltations.
- Anca L. Szilágyi 


A first encounter with the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), and his novel The Accident, might benefit from some personal context—a little of mine, and a good bit of the author’s. I was born in Romania in 1979, emigrated when I was a child, and returned to the country in 2004 to work in film.  One of the fondest memories I have of the two years I lived in Bucharest is of the evening a friend treated me to a gramophone recording of Sebastian’s play The Star Without a Name.  A vinyl record has the textured quality and depth of celluloid, the vividness of events captured in time, with all the surrounding air.  As with the movies I love, what I remembered afterward, more than plot, characters or dialogue, was the play’s rich (in this case, distinctly Chekovian) atmosphere.
The house in which my friend lived also played an important role.  It was built in the early 1930s, and its gilded beauty had long since oxidized into a heavyset and broody presence, lightened only slightly by the Art Deco flourishes that characterized the architecture of that period.  It belonged to my friend’s great aunt and uncle and very much to the interbellum Bucharest that shaped Sebastian’s literary career, grievously short as it was.  Born Iosif Hechter to a secular, Romanian-speaking Jewish family from Braila, Sebastian was hit by a truck and killed at the age of thirty-seven, a year after publishing The Star Without a Name.
At the time, I didn’t grasp the gravity of the context surrounding the publication of the work, or the irony of the title itself; The Star Without a Name is now a Romanian classic, but its first staging in March of 1944 credited another writer, since the official state policy of that period suppressed works by Jewish authors.  Eerily prophetic in its title, The Accident was the last work Sebastian published under his own name (itself a pseudonym that failed to protect him), in 1940; it is also the first of his novels to appear in English.  If one hasn’t already read Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years (published in 2000), Stephen Henighan’s translation of The Accident—along with his insightful endnotes—provide an intriguing introduction to the Romanian essayist, journalist, playwright, and novelist.
The Accident begins inside the mind of a woman as she regains her consciousness in the aftermath of a tram accident.  It’s an effectively dramatic conceit, to meet her—in her own mind, as it were—as she herself materializes; the language (Sebastian’s and Henighan’s both) is evocative and lyrical:
Then, like a wave of blood, the cold rose above her knees and spread like a fine net through her calf, calling back to life new regions of her flesh.  The snow was fluffy, soothing, and it had the softness of chilled bedclothes.
As a consequence of the accident, Nora meets Paul, a mysterious and apathetic witness who helps her home—begrudgingly, it seems.  A strained but passionate romance begins, eventually leading them out of Bucharest, to the ski resorts in the Carpathian Mountains, near the city of Brasov. (As Henighan points out in his notes, the mountains and skiing were important refuges for Sebastian; also, Nora’s last name “Munteanu,” means “of the mountains,” which makes her an agent of redemption).  While Nora and Paul become more intimate, and as they grow closer to their hosts in the mountains (the secretive and troubled Grodeck family), it becomes clear that Paul is suicidal and obsessively preoccupied with a former lover, a painter named Ann, who betrayed him in her own obsessive lust for success.
The Accident is far from a perfect novel.  The narrative wanders somewhat aimlessly at points, and the characters cave sometimes under the pressure of their overdetermined motivations and identities.  (Paul is the intellectual precariously removed from his own emotions, and Nora, the relentlessly maternal, self-chiding angel who means to return Paul to his senses).  The couple’s story hinges on various important cusps: a fateful accident, the closing of the year, the eve of Paul’s thirtieth birthday, changes in the weather. Often it feels as if the characters have woefully little agency in driving the plot.  It’s a story about coincidence, fortuitous or not, and about lives subjugated to the whims of fortune, much like the author’s own.
Mihail Sebastian’s death, no less hideous for being accidental, was not an assassination, as it might be possible to assume.  But the ten years leading up to his death were in every way like a prolonged assassination; once part of an influential circle that included the novelist and scholar of religious studies Mircea Eliade, the philosopher Emil Cioran, and the playwright Eugen Ionescu, Sebastian saw himself systematically disenfranchised from the literary scene, betrayed and abandoned by one friend after another, as the fascist, anti-Semitic Iron Guard rose to power.
The most crucial blow came in 1934, when Sebastian asked his one-time mentor Nae Ionescu to write the preface to his second novel It’s Been Two Thousand Years, a story informed specifically by Sebastian’s experience as a Romanian Jew.  Ionescu, twenty years Sebastian’s senior and also from Braila, edited the ultra-nationalist daily Cuvantul/ The Word, the newspaper that eventually became the official voice of the Iron Guard, to which Eliade, Cioran and Sebastian himself contributed.  He agreed to write the preface, but it was an incendiary attack on the author and the work, about which he said: “It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe they are Romanian [ . . .] Are you Iosef Hechter, a human being from Braila on the Danube?  No, you are a Jew from Braila on the Danube.”  Under the circumstances, Sebastian saw no other course of action than to publish the book, with Ionescu’s unaltered preface.
In retrospect, opting to publish the preface seems like an unfathomable show of rectitude, or pride, or desperation.  In any event, it was a dizzyingly torturous decision, one that might throw even the brightest intellect into profound depression.  Although Sebastian published The Accident in 1940, the time of the action is specifically December 1934, the same year as the Ionescu scandal.
There is a point in The Accident where one stops seeing the seams of the autobiographical and just absorbs the story on its own terms.  It is the first day that Nora takes Paul down the mountain on skis.  Part freedom, part freefall, his first descent restores his capacity to feel, if not exactly his will to live, and what one feels reading this chapter, beyond style, beyond character development, comes very close to what I’d felt in that house in Bucharest when I first heard The Star Without a Name: the atmosphere of what it was like to be alive in Romania when you could descend the summit of Poiana and enter Brasov on skis. - Oana Sanziana Marian










Mihail Sebastian is one of the most important Romanian writers of the twentieth century. During his lifetime, his most famous book was the novel For Two Thousand Years. Published in 1934, it sparked a furious debate in the newspapers for its ambiguous political stance. Critics on the left accused Sebastian of being anti-Semitic although he was Jewish, while those on the right attacked him for being a Zionist. At the core of the novel is the year 1923, when a new constitution gave citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed by a truck whilst crossing the street in May 1945, as he was going to teach his first university lecture on Balzac. He was 38. - Oana Sanziana Marian


In For Two Thousand Years the Sebastian-like anonymous narrator recounts his life as a student and a young architect in Romania (and briefly Paris) in the 1920s and early 1930s. A Jewish student -- of law, initially -- from relatively humble circumstances, his account opens with him facing threats daily merely in trying to attend his classes, as anti-Semitic fervor bursts over all around. Conflict is out in the open, returning home from the university bruised after being roughed up not uncommon, and he repeatedly has to run to save himself. He presents the outrageous situation with some humor -- "I received two punches during today's lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value for two punches" -- but the conditions are horrific.
       Questions of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism are prominent throughout the work. The narrator struggles with his Jewish identity, realizing it is inescapable yet frustrated by its absurd burden -- foisted on it by outside forces. He does not easily identify himself as part of a group -- quickly moving out of the school dorm rooms, for example -- and is more or a loner. Other economic and political issues also don't galvanize him -- though there are any number of them in the years covered in his account. As he notes early on: "I'm never going to be a social revolutionary".
       Anti-Semitism is just one manifestation of the unrest in and conflicts of the Romania of the times. The narrator is able to observe much of this from two central vantage points, university -- itself frequently a battlefield -- and then a large project in which he is involved, a (typical capitalist) American exploiting oil fields in Uioara, displacing an entire town and old livelihoods (even as it brings modernity and wealth as well). The country remains torn in the same way so many are (adjusting only for regional differences):
     To put it crudely, Romanian culture has remained stuck with the same intellectual problems which arose when the first railroad was built in 1860. With the problem of identifying with the west or the east, with Europe or the Balkans, with urban culture or the spirit of the countryside. The issues have always remained the same.
       And so it is also unsurprising to find, for example, one of the students who used to abuse him later telling the narrator about the school violence (and general unrest):
     I'm not sorry about what happened. I'm sorry about how it ended: in indifference, in forgetting ... Smashing windows is fine. Any act of violence is good. 'Down with Yids' is idiotic, agreed ! But what does it matter ? The point is to shake the country up a bit. Begin with the Jews -- if there's no other way. But finish higher up, with a general conflagration, with an all-consuming earthquake. This was our situation back then, our real aspiration.
       By the end, the narrator notes, the cry 'Death to the Yids' has become an almost empty slogan that no one reacts to any longer -- and that's part of, or the actual, problem:
     Now that I think about it, the problem isn't that three boys can stand at a street corner and cry "Death to the Yids," but that the cry goes unobserved and unopposed, like the tinkling of a bell on a tram.
       The normalization of the outrageous -- even if, for now, only as thought rather than deed -- is what is should be of concern
       The narrator admits to being more focused on self than society -- indeed, the novel's epigraph begins with Montaigne's strong statement that: "I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself", while the narrator admits: "Everything I do, all I think, all I suffer is circumscribed: 'Me.'" Yet he also displays a sense of being ill at ease in his own skin: "I am so ill at ease in my own company; how badly another person must feel being with me". In his account he is also cautious in his presentation of his dealings with others, some of his more intimate relationships with women addressed, but only probed so far. And while close to family and some friends, there's always a sense of some distance and remove. He does let himself be influenced -- he is strongly drawn to one professor, in particular, and even changes his course of studies, from law to architecture, at his suggestion -- but maintains (or at least repeatedly (re)asserts) a critical distance.
       The narrator sees himself as an intellectual -- and is frustrated by his intellectualism:
The real problem is the intellectual's inaptitude for real life, methodically cultivated through reading, thinking and dialectic. It is deformity by stages, as systematic habituation, day by day, a slow atrophying of the reflexes and instincts, a step by step destruction of the natural vital power that allows us to pass untroubled through storms.
       Other takes action -- and even his Jewish acquaintances make choices. For some, Zionism has some appeal, with its promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But the narrator is unconvinced by this -- or any -- of the supposed solutions to the Jewish condition -- and his own issues. As with most everything else, he instead goes his own solitary way. (Even the final scene is one of embracing solitude (though here also achievement), as: "I waited until the people had left one by one and remained alone in the doorway, the last one left".)
       For Two Thousand Years begins as a sort of notebook-diary, and the journal-style is one he returns to repeatedly, rarely describing any sequence of events at much length, but rather shifting fairly rapidly back and forth . At points the novel does lack flow and cohesion -- jumping ahead several years or, especially, detouring briefly to Paris -- but so many of the individual scenes and reflections are so crisply, sharply distilled that their power blurs the narrative's shortcomings. The novel certainly gives a good, somber impression of much of the Romanian situation in those years.
       A great deal here resonates uncomfortably easily too, familiar from the present-day all around us as For Two Thousand Years proves timeless in a way that the author could hardly have expected.
       An impressive, dark, feverish young-man's work. - M.A.Orthofer











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