Flee, die or receive baptism?

Rex Dunn reviews: Mihail Sebastian, 'For two thousand years', Penguin Modern Classics, 2016, pp231, £9.99

Mihail Sebastian: survived

The relaunch of this novel, first published in 1934, is timely, since it deals with world crisis, and the failure of the working class and its leadership to offer a revolutionary alternative, allowing the perennial scourge of nationalism to boil up again.

After nearly a decade of austerity and increasing inequality, we find ourselves in the age of Brexit and Trumpism, accompanied by a revival of the old scourge infecting both left and right. Today we hear voices from both sides calling for the restoration of ‘national sovereignty’, as the new ‘panacea’ for everyone: ie, a seismic shift away from globalisation, whereby the free market has ruled the planet - via supranational institutions - for the last 50 years. The maverick Trump promises to “make America great again”. This will be achieved by means of stringent immigration controls, on the one hand, and a return to American protectionism, on the other. The last time we had that, it led to Pearl Harbour.

Nationalism of the chauvinist variety leads to the oppression of ethnic minorities. It also encourages aggression abroad. Oppressed nations, albeit they are few in number, are threatened with annihilation (eg, Palestine). In a period of crisis and destabilisation of the world order, left to their own devices, the masses seek the nearest scapegoat to blame for their plight. Yesterday it was the Jews; today it is immigrants (especially Muslims), etc.

Can we learn the lessons of history before it is too late? Mihail Sebastian’s first novel takes its title from 2,000 years of Jewish persecution. As a Romanian law-student, who is also a Jew, he went on to graduate as a lawyer and a writer, despite the rising tide of anti-Semitism. It overflowed like a blocked cesspit on more than one occasion, and even engulfed the ivory towers of academia. In 1923 Jewish students were attacked and beaten as they tried to enter classes at the University of Bucharest. There was a new upsurge in 1930-31, as the great depression began to bite.

Sebastian wanted to be assimilated into Romanian society, but he was frustrated by rising social unrest. Some of his ‘friends’ went so far as to argue that the Jews are the root of the ‘problem’ and that their extermination is the only ‘solution’ (an echo of the holocaust to come). His experience shows us what anti-Semitism can be like at a personal level. Every day he had to deal with the contradiction, ‘You’re my friend, but I hate the Jews’.

Following the crash of 1929, in atavistic fashion, Romania resorted to anti-Semitism. Thus it acquired the dubious distinction of spearheading a new fascist movement in Europe - wherein anti-Semitism would play a leading role (cf Italian fascism) - even before the rise of the Nazi regime (at least for a while).

Sebastian kept a diary of his ordeal, which covered the period, 1935-44.1 So For two thousand years is really a novel-come-diary dealing with the preceding period. It is more condensed, which is in keeping with its literary character, making it more like a novel. It therefore includes fictional names and occupations for the real dramatis personae, starting with Sebastian himself. Instead of graduating as a lawyer and writer, he now becomes an architect. Real-life philosopher Nae Ionescu, who was a leading ideologist for the proto-fascist Iron Guard party, is now an economics professor called Ghita Blidaru, aka “the master”. (Yet, for some reason, Ionescu was invited to write the introduction to the novel’s launch in 1934, wherein he opined: “a Jew cannot belong to any national community [You cannot] think of yourself as Romanian. It is an assimilationist illusion.”2)

This diary-come-novel is not only written in the first person: it is also episodic in form (the literary equivalent of continuous jump shots in an early Godard movie). So it is not easy to read. There is no real plot either; rather the author skilfully creates a scenario which builds towards a climax, wherein the situation for Sebastian and his fellow Jews has changed from anti-Semitic attacks to the threat of a pogrom (the latter was delayed until 1941, if only because of a growing rivalry between the dictatorship of King Carol II and the Iron Guard). The ‘story’ is structured around four or five main characters, whose divergent views enable a complex set of arguments to emerge, straight from the mouths of the characters themselves.

Assimilation?

The first argument concerns the question of whether it is best for the Jews to try and assimilate themselves within Romanian society or rather support the Zionist project: ie, emigrate to Palestine and build a Jewish ‘homeland’ there. So argues Winkler, one of Sebastian’s friends. But the latter is unconvinced, because, as a proud Danubian, he sees this as his own ‘fatherland’. He is also steeped in western culture - ideally he would like to be assimilated as a Romanian citizen, who just happens to have been born a Jew. (If only his friends could be more accommodating! He goes out of his is way to win their approval.) Maybe the Jews are a problem after all. At one point, he says, “I also have an anti-Semitic voice.”

Ironically, therefore, he has an affinity with his mentor, Blidaru, the economics professor, although, of course, the latter wants an ethnically cleansed fatherland - a Christian country, purified of Jews and communists. Hence Blidaru’s preference for the peasants, because they are the sons of the soil.

Then there is STH (Haim), a rich intellectual, who is also a communist dilettante (“I’m serving the revolution. By the simple fact that ... my every word is a protest”). We first encounter him arguing forcefully against the Zionist project, as

a capitalist venture, which the massacred native Arabs and the Jewish proletariat will pay for ... Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez canal, so it invented the myth of a ‘Jewish homeland’.

Other threads in Sebastian’s story emerge: the clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, linked to the clash between the urban and rural, along with that between modernism and tradition; in short the struggle between the need for revolutionary change and fascism, as an excrescence of a bourgeoisie whose system is in crisis again. The focus for this is Sebastian’s involvement in the construction of an oilfield project at Uioara. Haim welcomes this as a means to “proletarianise the peasantry”. It can’t come sooner, because he knows that the crisis will reach breaking point before the decade is out. The more workers, the better, otherwise the right will use the peasantry against the revolution.

Modernist architect Viera also supports the project, because it gives him the chance to design new functional buildings (à la Bauhaus). He also appears to oppose anti-Semitism, because he does not believe in stereotyping any group. This is a recipe for the destabilisation of the country, he argues, just when the economy needs to expand (but there is more to Viera than meets the eye, as we shall see). Predictably the ‘master’ opposes the whole thing, because it will “destroy the plum trees” and the peasant way of life!

Thinking aloud, Sebastian says that he is “alarmed at how many of my friends are superfluous and uninteresting”. It would be better to have just a few genuine ones. Yet, apropos his relationships with women, he is interested only in superfluous relationships: ie, casual sex. It is therefore ironic that, later in life, the real Sebastian became obsessed with the actress, Leny Caler, who had many lovers!

Clearly Sebastian is an intense young man. He records a conversation with Haim in 1931, who tries to put him right:

An “anxious generation” ... How amusing you are, friends ... You’re a generation of proletarians without class-consciousness. There are fewer jobs ... You’ve been left out ... One day you’ll see that the bourgeois state no longer accommodates you, then you’ll join the revolution. That’ll blow your angst away.

Unfortunately for Haim, a short time later he is arrested and jailed for 12 years, just for being a communist. At least Sebastian values this friendship, because he visits Haim in prison. The real writer and future playwright is an acute observer of others. His fictional self frequents the Central Cafe, because it is a bohemian haven from the world outside. Even though there is a crisis coming, it is “full of Oblomovs”. As one character says,

We’re all stumbling through the night, ... some falling, some not, each to his fate. When morning comes, we’ll see who’s still standing ... Revolution ... Could be ... By George’s Day the gallows will be ready.

There is a strike at the oil refinery - 60 workers are shot by the police. “For 10 years the wells have spoken,” says Blidaru. “Now it’s the turn of the plum trees.” There are bands of young men on street corners chanting “Death to the Yids” again. The Zionist, Winkler, dressed in “a workman’s shirt, ... knapsack on his back, as a man who’s making history”, is about to depart for Haifa, hoping to find “peace among the Palestinian orange groves” (if only someone had a crystal ball!). But, says Sebastian, “Two thousand years can’t be overcome by leaving for somewhere.”

‘Jewish problem’

Re-enter the rational, modernist architect, Viera, who now reveals his true self:

There is a Jewish problem ... One million, eight hundred thousand Jews [in Romania] is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.

Later the Nazi occupiers and the quisling regime would oblige him.

Sebastian is also his own worst enemy. As an intellectual, nurtured by idealist philosophy, he is steeped in transcendental ideas, separated from the material world. He is only able to respond to events in a self-centred, fatalistic fashion, whilst striving to be optimistic at the same time. Thus he accepts the unacceptable:

I believe that it’s an implacable fact and know that neither you nor I nor anybody else can do anything about it. If we could be exterminated, that would be very good ... But it isn’t possible either. Our obligation to always be in the world confirms it over so many thousands of years, which you know have not been merciful ... individually, each Jew can ask in panic what he has to do. To flee, to die, to kill himself, to receive baptism.

As a human being grappling with a problem beyond his control, I sympathise with his dilemma. However, thanks to some of his friends and acquaintances, the real Sebastian was lucky. He was one of a minority of central European Jews to survive the holocaust. In 1945, he stepped out into a new country, which was at last prepared to grant him his wish - to be accepted as a Romanian citizen. But, just as he was about to begin this hard-won new chapter in his life, he suffered the cruellest of fates:

On May 29 1945, as he rushed across a street in downtown Bucharest, 38-year-old Mihail Sebastian ... was hit and killed by a truck. As it happened, Sebastian was late to an appointment at Dalles hall, where he was to teach a class about Honoré de Balzac (pvii).

The faithful should be questioning Jehovah - the rest of us can only weep.

rexdunn.co.uk

Notes

1. M Sebastian Journal 1935-1944 London 2003.

2. Ibid introduction, pxii.