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For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For Two Thousand Years

by Mihail Sebastian

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Even in these days of a resurgent anti-Semitism, I doubt whether there is anyone of my post-war generation, brought up in England, who has experienced it in the very unsubtle and very physical way that the author describes in this semi-autobiographical novel. As a student in Bucharest in 1923, the writer experiences daily anti-Semitism at the university, where Jews are obstructed from attending classes and beaten up by violent fellow students. "I received two punches during today's lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches." Mihail Sebastian, who survived the Shoah but was subsequently knocked down and killed by a car, was a Romanian Jew born and brought up in Braila, a port on the Danube. This, his most well known work, was first published in 1934, but an English translation only appeared for the first time in 2016. It is written as a first-person journal, covering periods of the writer's life between 1923 and 1931. 1923 was a tumultuous year in Romania, when - accompanied by much violent political activity - a new constitution was established, granting citizenship to all the many ethnic minorities of the country - including Jews.

Although the need for protection and group action force Sebastian's protagonist into a physical solidarity with his fellow Jewish students, he resists identifying with any of them; the Marxist who sees everything from a class-conscious point of view, the Revisionist Zionist who believes that Jews need to take the responsibility for creating a country into their own hands, the seller of Yiddish books who tries to impress on him the authenticity and beauty of Yiddish culture. He feels isolated, and blames this on his Jewishness: " if I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy and recover - supposing one of my race has ever had it - the clear joy of life." There is indeed some justification for the criticism leveled at Sebastian, when this book was published, that he was an anti-Semitic Jew. "I regret that, in this internal conflict, I retain some sympathy for myself. I'd like to hate myself without excuses or forgiveness."

He is advised by an academic mentor to switch from studying law to architecture, on the grounds that this more practical down-to-earth subject will relieve him of his existential anxiety. This advice is apparently well founded; several years later, working as an architect, he reflects on his student years:" it was a moment of crisis... I reduced everything to the drama of being a Jew, not such an overwhelming reality that it should cancel or even supersede strictly personal dramas and comedies." He muses on the fact that a colleague, who had been a cudgel-wielding anti-Semite in their student days, was now a good friend. He dismisses the self-professed anti-Semitism of another colleague as "the marking out of an intellectual position, not an antagonism", and expresses his confidence in being able to overcome it, as if it were just one of the common barriers to establishing any personal relationship.

In the end, the persistent anti-Semitism of people whom he considered friends or whom he had respected for professional reasons, brings him face to face with its enduring and universal nature. Anti-Semitism is not based on religion, economics or politics; it precedes and underlies all of these excuses and rationales. "If tomorrow's social structure centres on bee-keeping, the Jew will be detested from the point of view of keeping bees", he argues to a colleague who tells him (just as today's anti-Semites clothe their prejudice in opposition to Israel) that he is “only” concerned with the threat that the large Jewish population of Romania represents to the country. Although there are echoes of the same self-hatred that characterized his student days - "the Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested" - he ends with the more optimistic reflection, that his identification with the land of his birth is as real and as permanent as the fact of his being a Jew, and that no prejudice or discrimination can alter those facts.

Uncomfortable as the idea may be, the author’s acceptance of anti-Jewish prejudice as inevitable, may not be wrong; being a “light unto the nations” probably means casting some shadows too. What his protagonist – and perhaps the author too – rejects, is any of the many unique and positive ways of living as a Jew, which more than compensate for any negative baggage it carries with it. ( )
  maimonedes | Mar 7, 2019 |
For two thousand years is a journal kept intermittently by a Romanian jew during the late 1920s - early 1930s, divided into six sections. Each section sees Sebastian at a different phase in his life, whenever he feels the need for regular journal-keeping. The first section deals with his experiences as a first-year undergrad, dodging punches in the aula and anti-semitic trouble-seekers in the hallways. Later sections see him striking up a friendship with a revolutionary-spirited professor, as an ordinary architect in a factory serving as American-led modernization propaganda, and hanging out in Roaring Twenties Paris.

There’s no real structure to this journal: life just happens to uncoil plotlessly. Sebastian uses his journal to keep track of what happens, what he feels about that, and what his friends think -- fellow jews, revolutionaries, students, mentors, hard-working colleagues, mistresses. He’s more the hanger-on type, writing almost wistfully about his idealized friends, wishing he could sometimes be bothered to want to be more like them. One recurring worry is the individual’s inability to change a (sub)culture, when that group considers his undesirableness to lie in what he is, not what he does. Another is the lament that adulting is hard, but dogged persistence in aiming for lower-hanging fruit is one way of getting somewhere.

A Romanian friend of mine described Sebastian as “a shitty philosopher”, and I can see that: many of his musings can come across as underdeveloped, and, dare I say it, as coming from a first-year undergrad. Also, as Sebastian grows up and his concerns turn to his job and his easy living, assorted practicalities dominate -- there is less time for Pure Thought. That is true. But the philosophical themes surrounding man-versus-society and man-versus-himself and man-versus-subculture are pretty universal and essentially without definitive answer, and I’m not faulting Sebastian for using his diary of musings to only cover well-trodden philosophical ground. Every individual mind will have to deal with the beginnings of philosophy, however fumbling. Even the ones who wrote pre-Adorno and pre-Levinas. ( )
  Petroglyph | Dec 13, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Written in 1934, this largely autobiographical fiction features a young Jewish Romanian university student. This young man and his friends ponder the plight of Jews across the globe, for the eons of persecution. They also give thought to the on-going question of the Palestinians. Given that this was written prior to WWII, the Holocaust, and the creation of Israel as a nation, there is much that is thought provoking, and also terribly sad. Most of this book is written as a kind of constant stream of the young man's thoughts as he goes about his days.
I received an audio edition of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. ( )
  jhoaglin | Dec 17, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really really could not get into this book. I wanted to like it as I'm very intrigued by the topic and era of history, but the writing style was so odd that it was very offputting to me and I couldn't enjoy it. I couldn't even finish it and I very rarely ever give up on a book.

That said, don't let my opinion stop you from checking it out if the subject interests you. You may like it. Personally, I just couldn't track with the author's way of telling the story, but you may have a different experience.

I received a free audiobook copy of this book via the Early Reviewers program. ( )
  jonnydollar77 | Dec 5, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This review is completely related to the format sent to me, and not the literature itself. The vocal performance is excellent. The software that allows the clunky, and almost impossible to use. Saving the cd to my laptop would never work, and thus electronically bookmarking the book was impossible. Sad, because I was loving the book. ( )
  lanewillson | Dec 2, 2017 |
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"Mihail Sebastian's 1934 masterpiece, now available in English for the first time, was written as the rise of fascism forced him out of his literary career and turned his friends and colleagues against him. Confronted with the violence of a recurrent anti-Semitism, Sebastian questions its causes in this perceptive testimony, illuminating the ideological debates of the interwar period with wit, simplicity and vivacity"--… (more)

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