Tag Archives: Mihail Sebastian

Internalizing hatred for one’s “kind”

Having read parts of the 1935-44 journal of surviging in Belgrade that Mihail Sebastian (né, Iosif Mendel Hechter, 1907-45) makes it even more difficult to regard his 1934 De două mii de ani, just translated by Philip O Ceallaigh as For Two Thousand Years, as a novel. The narrative voice is the same, and the lack of plot or even much narrative continuity makes 2000 feel more like a journal than a novel.

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It’s not that nothing happens, particularly early on, in 1923 when violence against Jewish students is routine at the University of Bucharest and the narrator is under the spell of a young lecturer on economic history (with a penchant for proto-fascist promotion of Romanian “blood” and the dangers of corruption by Jews), Ghiţă Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu who wrote a rabidly anti-Semitic foreword to the first edition of the book. It is this teacher who convinced the narrator to leave the liberal arts program and become an architect. (This is fiction; Sebastian became a lawyer, not an architect.)

The narrator goes on to help build an oil well/refinery and, after two years of study in Paris, returns to build a villa with a terrace above the Danube. Anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Romania. It is surprising that Sebastian survived the holocaust and WWII—only to be run down by a truck on the way to the first class he was going to teach, on Balzac, in 1945. The diary of fascist times was not published until 1996, when it was “greeted” with renewed bursts of anti-Semitism in Romania.

The novel was not published in English until 2016. (The diary was published in the UK in 2001, in the US in 2012.) Its interest is more for documentation of Romanian fascism and of the psychopathology of self-hatred than as a novel, even a novel of consciousness. It was published in association with the US Holocaust Museum.

I think there is too little Bildung for it to be a Bildgunsroman: rather than growth, it documents flight from very pain-giving reality, following attempts by the narrator(/author) to understand the virulent hatred for Jews.

“I was expecting signs in the street—and there was nothing in the street but confusion, the fog of stupidity, intoxication. So I took refuge in intellectual problems, which cast no light, but gave me consolation.” (109)

“It was difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened. Scattered minor occurrences, gestures of no great account, the making of casual little threats. An argument in a gram today, a newspaper article tomorrow, a broken window after that. These things seem random, unconnected, frivolous. Then, one finr morning, you feel unable to breathe.” (209)

… And this was published in 1934. Things were going to get far worse, especially during the Iron Guard pogroms! (The reader knows this, though the author back then did not.)

For me, the most interesting character is an itinerant seller of books in Yiddish, Abraham Sulitzer, who has a passionate speech about Yiddish as a living language (nor a corrupt dialect of German, nor the attempted reincarnation of Hebrew outside synagogues):

“real Yiddish is a living, breathing language. Millions of Jews speak it, millions live through it. For these millions are printed the books uou see, for those million Yiddish is written, translations are made into Yiddish, and Jewish theater ir performed. It is a complete world, a complete people with itw own elite…. There are Yiddish novelists, poets, critics and essayists… The edgy, gritty urban realism of the ghetto and the mysticism of the synagogue unite in this folk-culture of the Jewish neighborhood.” (83)

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The narrator is convinced Jews are assimilating into national cultures, including Romanian. He rejects Zionism and Marxism, each having a representative advocate among his agemates (Sami Winkler and S.T. Haim, respectively). Most of the book is very talky. I doubt I would have read even the first part if I had had something else to read with me, though I finished the book later, at home.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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