Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading group: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.

It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare, who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.

It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them - (before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr, metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish (and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish translations of European classics.

While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all, and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after, author Sebastian would experience over his book.

There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru, who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes - although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface. Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will. 'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.

Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again, today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary and timely.
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.

However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were grateful to have done so.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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