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Review: ‘For Two Thousand Years’ by Mihail Sebastian

What’s immediately unexpected about For Two Thousand Years is the outlook of its protagonist. As a Jewish diarist living in 1920s Romania, attending a university where anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, we might reasonably imagine him to be both scared and scathing of his aggressors.  But, contrary to our expectations, instead of condemning the anti-Semites, the narrator takes issue with their victims. He is critical of the way that certain Jews wear their injuries with pride and how easily they adopt the role of martyr to the cause of Zionism. He sees these things as evidence of a vanity he doesn’t want to be guilty of himself.

In a strange way, this early attitude appears to undercut anti-Semitism by showing us that being Jewish (or, by extrapolation, Muslim, British, female, etc.) does not mean that you are pre-packaged with certain values, aspirations or characteristics; that you are also an individual with your own thoughts, responses and reactions. Later in the book, when we become mired in some truly depressing determinist philosophy, we’ll harken back with fondness to that early chink of redemptive light.

In the meantime, we’re left to navigate a novel that seems very confused about what its author wished it to be. There’s a lot of space given over to speeches by the revolutionaries and philosophers that the narrator meets along the way, suggesting that it is primarily a book of ideas. Expect, for example, to read a transcription of a lecture on the vindication of physiocratic economics. And it’s possible (after looking up what physiocratic economics is) to find that lecture quite compelling. Alongside these radical lecturers there are Marxists, Zionists, anti-Semites (plenty of them). Each get a turn to speak their mind. The author’s decision to let this polyphony of voices declaim shows incredible tolerance and bravery — a lack of judgement which is all the more impressive when we witness the intolerance that the narrator experiences.

Whilst these views make for interesting reading and help to build up a picture of the ideological cauldron bubbling away in inter-war Romania, the author’s somewhat inexplicable attempts at character driven, plot-based fiction are much less engaging. We’re introduced to — among other devices — a romance subplot. Which might be forgiven, if it wasn’t so clear that more conventional fiction really doesn’t seem to be Sebastian’s forte. There are torturous pages in which his diarist reports on the most uninteresting of things. Here’s a typical description from this part of the book:

The offices of Ralph T. Rice in Boulevard Haussmann are barely a modest agency compared to the head offices in Piata Rosetti in Bucharest. A few rooms, some desks, a small archive in the process of being organised. I don’t know exactly what old Ralph wants to set up here: a simple sales office or a public company. It’s up to him to decide whether or not we get working on the Le Havre project. (I’d prefer Dieppe, however, which seems to me more suitable for commerce, and from the construction standpoint is immeasurably more open and spacious. I’ve sent a number of plans to the master, who’ll decide.) He may in the end do nothing. It’s not the moment for heavy investment in a business that…

It goes on, making you feel as if you’ve accidentally been forwarded a not very exciting intra-office email from a company you’re really glad you don’t work for. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of writing that takes up a large part of the book.

Whenever my opinion of a book starts to slide toward the negative, I like to read other reviews to see if it’s just me not quite getting something. Because I take no pleasure in giving a bad review. I’d rather gush about something than do a hatchet job on it, because good books need shouting about whereas bad books will hopefully just drop off the radar of their own accord. (I don’t, by the way, think that dropping off the radar should or will be the fate of For Two Thousand Years.) Most reviews I found are positive. The Guardian proclaim it “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe.” John Banville, for The New York Review of Books, is similarly complementary. But what’s interesting is that both reviews pull in Sebastian’s other book (an actual — as opposed to fictionalised — journal for the years 1935 – 1944) and a lot of supplementary detail about Sebastian’s life and the people on which his characters are based. Very little space is given to the book itself, and even less is spent treating the book as literature. (In his defence, John Banville was also a little confused by the change in tone to a more plot-heavy form of fiction. He writes: “it is as if Sebastian has set himself to write a tale in the manner of Somerset Maugham, with a light Proustian glaze and a dash of Scott Fitzgerald bitters.” Whatever that means.) It’s of course difficult to deny that the book is important as an historical artefact, especially when read in conjunction with other sources, but that doesn’t make it a good novel. And it calls itself a novel, so we must judge it on those terms.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The book is saved by its last 15 pages. The narrator has just learned that his mentor in architecture (a major inspirational figure for the protagonist) is actually an anti-Semite. At this point, the book switches abruptly back to its “novel of ideas” strong-suit. Any attempt at description is abandoned; we’re just left with the speakers shoving big blocks of text at each other. If there were space, I’d quote these fifteen pages in full. As it is I’ll just have to settle for quoting extensively. This is the part of the book which speaks across the decades directly to us, and to our own historical moment. Think back to any time you’ve had an argument with someone whose opening gambit was “I’m not racist, but…” Then consider the following:

Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic. I’ve told you that before and abide by that. But I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit.

Exchange, if you like, the instances of “Semitic” and “Jewish” with “European”, and “Romanian” with “British.” Try it with “black people” and “American.”

Then try to think of the times that you’ve despaired at people who, regardless of the consequences, want to stick two fingers up at the system. Who want to shake things up, no matter the cost. People who think:

We need a generation of men who have had enough of always being intelligent. A small band of men capable of throwing caution to the wind.

People, so dissatisfied with the current system, that they would say something like:

If the revolution demands a pogrom, then give it a pogrom.

(I remember going to school the day after 9/11, talking to some left-wing friends and finding out that they’d actually celebrated the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives. After watching the second plane hit, they headed out to their garage, put Rage Against the Machine on at full volume, moshed and chanted ‘Death to America.’)

What’s worrying here is that these racist apologias, though far away in time, sound terribly familiar to us. They are simply variations on a theme. So we’re left with this horrible feeling that we’re stuck in a series of patterns repeating themselves. And what becomes clear when reading the last 15 pages of For Two Thousand Years is that, if this is “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe” then what it unfortunately isn’t is any sort of textbook for ensuring we avoid that situation recurring.

For starters, a kind of pathology of racism seems impossible. The diarist writes

It is extremely difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enmity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened.

But, much worse than that, is the diarist’s (and, we presume, Sebastian’s) belief that the anti-Semitism he finds himself subject to is a fundamental aspect of existence:

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. His problem, if you like.

With sentences like that, it’s little wonder that the author was accused of being anti-Semitic upon the book’s publication.

Taking a moment to parse these lines reveals a truly depressing view of the possibility for progress with regards to race relations. By ‘metaphysical’, I take Sebastian to mean a state of affairs that holds true regardless of time or locality. It is absolutely essential to a Jew’s nature, he is saying, for a Jew to be detested. Anti-Semitism is not local, not dependent upon specific economic or religious conditions; it is universal and eternal. Because of this, ‘it is futile to argue back’ at anyone who claims to have reasons for their anti-Semitism. As with the narrator’s mentor, anti-Semitism precedes reasoning.

Whilst most of the rest of the book has very little impact, the incredible heft of this final section can’t be denied. What are we supposed to do with such an outlook? If anti-Semitism is metaphysical, then how can it be stopped? Sebastian’s advice for Jews doesn’t provide much in the way of conventional comfort. He suggests a

…reintegration with nature, with the awareness that life goes on after all these individual deaths, they too being part of life, just as the falling leaf is a fact if life for the tree, or the death of the tree to the forest, or the death of the forest for the vegetation of the Earth.

This was written in 1934, seven years before the beginning of the Holocaust. That subsequent horror renders this kind of peaceful resignation almost perverse. Personally, Sebastian feels

I will never cease to be a Jew, of course…It’s a fact…But nor will I, in the same way, ever cease to be from the lands of the Danube. This too is a fact. Whether someone recognizes me as such or not is their business. Their business entirely.

The onus, then, if we’re not Jewish, would seem to be on us. It’s our business how we view Jewish people, and, by extension, any other race. Does this mean that we have some sort of agency? I’m not a philosopher, and so I don’t have the requisite skills to argue against Sebastian’s metaphysical proposition. His claim also has two thousand years’ worth of evidence to back it up.

I’m still wrangling with this problem. It kept me awake last night. There’s something (hopefully) within most of us that balks at such a depressing determinism, and perhaps it’s that refusal to believe that nothing can be done which leaves open the possibility that something can be done? Or is this just wishful thinking? Somehow I feel that if I keep combing through these final pages, I can find the holes in Sebastian’s argument.

For Two Thousand Years / Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh/ Other Press / 12 Sep 2017 (Paperback)

Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer who lives in Bath. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has recently completed his first short story collection.

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