Mihail Sebastians novel for Two Thousand Years now translated into English is one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of nazism in Europe
The constantly inquiring narrative voice that informs every page of Mihail Sebastians resonant novel For Two Thousand Years, bears a close resemblance to the one that can be heard in the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944, the year before he was run over and killed by an army truck in Bucharest while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac at the university. Sebastian, who was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in Brila, a port on the Danube, in 1907, was a rising star in Romanian culture when For Two Thousand Years (De dou mii de ani) was published in 1934. He was a respected lawyer, a successful dramatist and a literary critic and commentator on the arts. He had friends who would be famous in middle age: Mircea Eliade, the expert on the subtle differences between the worlds religions; EM Cioran, the maverick philosopher who moved to Paris and became one of the great prose stylists in the French language, and Eugen Ionescu, the future absurdist playwright who Gallicised his first name to Eugne and changed the u at the end of his second to an o once he, too, had established himself as a Parisian.
Sebastians mentor, the man he admired above all others, was also called Ionescu. Not related to Eugen, Nae Ionescu was a philosopher with an interest in politics and economics. The younger man was so in awe of him that he was often tongue-tied in his presence. Even though Nae had begun to express antisemitic opinions, Sebastian gave him the typescript of For Two Thousand Years to read and asked him to write a foreword. Ionescu duly obliged with a venomous diatribe in which he chastised the author he had once praised and encouraged for daring to assert that a Jew could belong to any national community: It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brila on the Danube.
After some reflection, Sebastian told his publisher to go ahead and print, word for hateful word, what Ionescu had written. He was soon to regret his rash decision. Leftwing critics, who included self-proclaimed Zionists, accused him of being antisemitic himself, while those of the infinitely larger rightwing persuasion echoed Ionescus sentiments. The Jews, they contested, were responsible for all the ills besetting their beloved country communism, syphilis and homosexuality being among the most prevalent. In 1935, the wilfully misunderstood writer rose to his own defence in the essay How I Became a Hooligan (Cum am devenit huligan). It must have occurred to him, before that low, dishonest decade reached its end, that he had been fighting a battle that was already lost.
It is thanks to his brother Benu, who secreted the unpublished journal in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest when he emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1961, that Mihail Sebastian is now regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of the rise of nazism in civilised Europe. The manuscript remained in the Hechter familys possession until they thought it safe to send a copy to a reputable publishing house in Romania. Journal 1935-1944 finally appeared in 1996, after the secret police had been disbanded. The book received enormous coverage in the media and Sebastian was suddenly famous, in a way that he never really had been in life. This gentle, cultivated and good humoured man, with his passionate love of classical music, was the subject of widespread controversy. A new generation of conservative critics voiced opinions not entirely dissimilar to Nae Ionescus, asserting that Sebastians problems were entirely Jewish, with the long dormant phrase Jewish problem being resurrected in several reviews. The truth is that Sebastians problems were of the everyday kind before his friends saw fit to remind him that, for all his cleverness, he was essentially an outcast. In one particularly vivid entry in Journal, he records how the actress Marietta Sadova always happy to take leading parts in his plays was choking with antisemitism.