It’s true that I get my fair share of review copies in the mail (when Australia Post deigns to deliver them to my doorstep…), but I’ve usually asked for, or agreed to take a look at, most of these, and real surprises are rare. As you can imagine, then, when something unexpected turns up, a book I’d neither asked for (nor even heard of), my interest is aroused. And when that book turns out to be good, so much the better 🙂
For Two Thousand Years (translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, review copy courtesy of Penguin Classics) 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…