#3. Lessons in Manliness

There has been a steady import of Scandinavian and Nordic television and film in recent years. We’re well acquanted with crime, thanks to dramas like Borgen and The Bridge. Along with this though, there has been welcome import of films, some of which have been standout, should you have visited your local, independent cinema (if you’re lucky to have one). This  culminated last year with Roy Andersson finishing his ‘Living Trilogy’ with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), and there was also Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2015), my favourite film (beating Mad Max) of 2015. Both very different styles and subject matters, yet seem to be concerned with what goes on beneath the sultry and stylish veneer we associate with Scandanavia.

She Monkeys (2011) was Liza Aschen’s directorial debut. It was praised and awarded in Sweden, but didn’t receive too much attention over here. This no real surprise for a Swedish film, directed by female director that is just under ninety minutes long. Like Ostlund however, it encompasses a threatening tone beneath the clean and clinical surface of what we perceive people and ‘forms’ to be. It asks many questions and answers some of them.

It is though a film by a female director predominantly about feminity in a male world. There are few males in it; a father that even though he appears to be the single parent is given no real presence; and a couple of boys that act as potential love interests for the two female leads. In doing a film about females though, in a world and industry mostly led by males and reviewed by males inevitably means that it gets misconstrued. Andrew Pulver in The Guardian for instance wrote that it is a film ‘about lesbians’. Certainly there appears to be a homoerotic tension which sometimes does spill into actual manifested action, but we hardly call something like Zack Snyder’s 300 a gay film, despite there being half-naked males engaged in throwing of phallic looking objects . With She Monkeys being mostly about Emma and Cassandra’s friendship then, it is rather about the boundaries between comradeship,close friendship and potential eroticism, even if it is two females in a high stake society that preaches perfection.

Pulver then added that the film ‘need more passion’. Twin this with a comment on the streaming service I used ,who, on giving it two stars stated “that they didn’t lez [sic] off once”. Whether this was an ironic comment it or not, it illuminates the issue. In the hands of a male director in Hollywood, they might well have ‘lezzed off’ (like in Soderbergh’s Side Effects ? Which it feasibly didn’t need).

It begins when Emma joins an Equestian team and Cassandra immediately takes to Emma. Emma and Cassandra are two, athletic looking types, competing in a sport where girls try and exhibit perfect poses and forms on horses, and by this the film becomes about the restraint and what is withheld beneath these perfected forms. Emma and Cassandra’s friendship develop in a buddy-ish manner; it doesn’t necessarily develop with erotic tension, but a defensive one. How could they let one another see each other’s imperfections or weaknesses? It instead has to evolve in this suppressed away, as if there are ulterior passions and motives beneath the surface, and can only develop by the mutual desire to become as perfect as the other – a competition they haven’t created but are engaged. In this manner how could they ever ‘give themselves away’ to a boy when the opportunity arises?

And so we do not see any more of Emma’s life – it doesn’t matter. We see her at home (with her younger sister and father), at training and with Cassandra, and briefly with two boys. Aschen does not delve, or give a psychological reasoning why they are like they are. Take the example of the mother and how we are revealed nothing about her: is she absent or just never in the film, in the same way Emma never seems to be at school? This is why there is no lezzing off. We can infer but we do not know.

Another aspect that has been greatly missed is the development of the sister’s character. Emma’s young sister, around the age of six, gets told to cover-up at the swimming baths where she usually goes topless, clearly at an age where there is no real bodily signs of gender. She begins to cover up her top half, but wants to do it with a bikini. Her father warily buys her one, presumably cautious that it may be too mature for her to wear at such an age, but so he doesn’t break a promise to her, he buys it. It is leopard print and she wears it all the time.

Maybe it is about the sexualisation of females, but there is a great irony to it if there is by her covering herself up in a two-piece. And who is the one making all of the decisions? Her father may be seen to be, but she effectively cons him into it. Men may be making rules for women, but she finds her own way to deceive him.

All the relationships are built upon exchange however like the above. Cassandra literally ‘takes’ Emma’s virginity when she sabotages her opportunity with a boy (as if rescuing her rather than an act of jealousy) and makes the boy flee. Emma’s sister, who is enamoured with cousin, gives the money to him from her bikini pants that her dad pays him for babysitting her. She receives scratches from her father on her belly (but spurned by her cousin) a knowing sense of a incomprehensible desire to be satisfied?

And so are they she-monkeys? Aschen asks, are they more than animals? More than apes or monkeys? Again, it is loaded with irony. Of course they’re more than that. To the ignorant male they might not be, but it’s as if the film is made by a female through the lens of a males, and seems film purposefully made for and expecting misinterpretation. Is this a film really about women then? Hardly.

Review: A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

A Game of Chess and Other Stories
by Stefan Zweig (translated by Peter James Bowman)
Alma Classics: 320pp.: £4.99

Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, which was discussed recently, proved that there is no estimating the if and when an artist will receive their due recognition, considering that Sebastian has been translated into English 82 years after original publication. This discussion continues to an extent here with Stefan Zweig.

One must be wary though of being ethno-centric, and it points to the problem of ‘generalising’ and measuring success; even though the world’s languages may be homogenising, with several languages becoming universal mediators, we’re becoming inclined to think that anything outside of that linguistic sphere is not worthy. For instance, although we might think Hollywood as the pinnacle of the film industry, its takings are eclipsed by India’s Bollywood, yet it doesn’t have much of a market over here. Language, as Wittgenstein said, really is the limits of our world.

Zweig’s fate was arguably completely opposite to that of Sebastian’s. Zweig parallels somebody like Dickens, in that he was enormously successful in his lifetime, and was reportedly one of the first ‘star authors’. Zweig’s death was treated with the attention and opprobrium that our celebrities and stars receive today. The man was globally known and traveled, fleeing his homeland of Austria, once the Nazis invaded.

But all this is well known; one only has to do a quick Google search to find this out. It’s worth mentioning however, because where his home may have been decimated, the world eventually became his home, finally ending up in Brazil before his death by suicide. Like Dickens though, the equation of fame and artistry does not necessarily mean quality is discounted. Popular can still be artful. And like Dickens Zweig almost disappeared, left in the annals along with many authors who were victim to the rapid modernisation that the second world war brought, quickly becoming outdated and out of tune.

The problem and accusation levelled at Zweig seemed to be that he didn’t really ‘have anything to say’. Nicolas Lezard in the Guardian has written about how when Zweig came to London he wouldn’t comment on the Third Reich, saying that constant denunciations wore themselves out by repetition. Any maybe they do, but as a man from Vienna, Zweig will have known that not having anything to say is not the same as not wanting to say anything.

Of course the advent of film means that books and authors can suddenly see their name subject to guerrilla marketing, being branded across film posters and bus-sides, and recently Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) drew from Zweig’s life and works. Anderson was unashamed in his admiration of Zweig, claiming to have plagiarised him, and certainly Zweig’s presence is felt throughout, both physically and spectrally, appearing at first as a bronze monument, and then a potential character in what had become a drab hotel, relaying the glory years to another writer.

Different levels and stories within stories is certainly Zweig’s influence even though Anderson’s film probably says more about film than it does about Zweig (as film always does, closer to Nolan’s Inception maybe?). Zweig never published a novel (Beware of Pity comes closest), but Zweig was concerned with the story. Alma have republished four of them, including his final one before his death. All of these effectively involve a narrative framed within another narrative.

There is reason to see why Zweig might have faded out of critical quarters. The most apocryphal a stories’ title gets is ‘The Invisible Collection’, and almost seem purposefully dull and suggest they’re catering for a particular audience at a particular time. A world that has witnessed its second war and one of the worst humanity crimes in history might not be so hooked by something like this:

“Two stations beyond Dresden, an elderly gentleman entered out compartment, made a polite general greeting and then, raising his eyes, nodded to me in particular as if to a firm acquaintance”

Pre-war, diminishing Victorian social mores would likely to, and did respond to this, but it looks quickly antiquated.

Quality and commercialism are not necessarily polar opposites. George Orwell began a resurgence of Dickens and he hasn’t been forgotten since. To understand the importance of Zweig is again, is to understanding the idea of having and resisting to say something. Zweig was in tune with his world ; he traveled, conversed and was from one of the great cultural hotspots of its time, where as already mentioned, Freud, and the likes of Mann were working, liaising and arguing.

And so beneath this tempered prose, his embellishment is perhaps a kind of repression threatening to break through: Zweig is an adept psychologist as much as he is a writer. Take “24 Hours in a Woman’s Life”. It’s reportage like, first person account, a clinical, yet casual mise-en-scéne of a well-ordered society (as they usually are). In a guest-house on the Italian Riveria, the narrator who could be Zweig (who could always be Zweig), is witnessing a discussion almost boil over into an argument. There are several different nationalities and types of people in the guest-house, but there is at least one thing that unites them all:

“Thus it was the day in our thoroughly bourgeois group of regular diners, who otherwise stuck to innocuous small talk and mild little pleasantries and usually went their separate ways after the meal was over: the German couple to their excursions and amateur photography, the portly Dane to his tedious angling, the refined English lady to her books, the Italian couple to their escapades in Monte Carlo, and I lolling in the garden chair or to my work.”

These are not stories about stories, and even though it does tell us many things about the guest-house, it inadvertently tells us something about the narrator. It is ironic, yet not self-conscious, and the author is unconscious of themselves if anything. It’s a mine of details. Look at those telling Jamesian modifiers; ‘thoroughly bourgeois‘; tedious angling’; ‘refined English lady’. . All this is blown apart when one of the wives runs away with a mysterious Frenchman that had just been staying at the guest-house. But it is the refined English lady that becomes the focal point. The lid is lifted, and whatever desires those people have been suppressing in order to maintain the society are unscrewed and dispersed.

Zweig is able to observe it acutely from that bourgeois position- “The testiness began, I think, with both of the married men instinctively wanting to dismiss the possibility that such perils and abasement might befall their own wives”– naturally. Harlot and wanton most of them describe the woman’s infidelity, but the English lady supports the woman’s actions and in turn, relays her repressed secret. It takes one to know one.

The narrator though describes the husband’s meltdown as “it’s natural that all this, striking like lightning before our very eyes…” and this image of lightning recurs throughout the stories, as both a physical and metaphysical phenomenon. But note the use of ‘natural’ as well. There is a constant feeling that, although on the surface life may be natural and normal, but either beneath or beyond, there always something supernatural, superhuman threatening to break through.

Although a story is not literally re-told in ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, it is effectively a failure of this, when language is a barrier rather than a bridge. And again, it has that less than emphatic title and opening, yet there is something threatening to disturb the normal order; in this case a “a curious object on the surface of the water”. This object transpires to be a Russian man, and again we have the image of somebody fleeing, pertinently adding to the contemporaneity.

The man has left his war-stricken homeland, but has no recourse to language. Here is also where Zweig deploys his ability to evoke the swift, fickle changes in human emotion and perception:

“Without moving, the fugitive gazed after him, and the farther off the one person who knew his language went, the more the brightness that had entered his countenance faded away”.

Hope then despair in a breath.

It is about perception though, literal becoming metaphoric as is the case with the ‘curious object’ above. The gaze attaches to something and inadvertently transforms and becomes transformed in itself. This is why Zweig is a thoroughly modern writer and perhaps indicates why there was an academic abandonment of him at the turn of postmodernity, narratives and meta-narratives, rather than the humble story itself.

‘The Invisible Collection’ has a melancholic feel as an antiquarian art dealer in search of more stock goes through the list of his old customers and visits one he knows to have prints of Rembrandt and Duras. Following his trail he arrives at another provincial, rich setting “full of petty-bourgeoise junk”. The collector is blind, and believing that he still has these prints, his daughters actually sold them during the war to generate some income, but replaced them with blank sheets of paper. Obviously he cannot buy these prints now, so he becomes complicit in the deception. Upon meeting the man however, he states:

“Ever since childhood I have always felt ill at ease in the presence of the sightless. I can never get over a sort of shame and embarrassment at perceiving a living person in front of me and knowing that he cannot perceive me in the same way.”

Perception doesn’t happen in the eyes but in the brain, and they don’t just happen, they are constructed with more than just visual stimuli. Look how the man on the surface was at first an object. What goes on beneath visual perception? Is the mind that feeds it sanctity or sanatorium? Noble in a quest for truth or just another layer of deception? The stories seem to culminate in suggesting the latter to those questions, in the long, final story ‘A Game of Chess’.

Back on the water, a cruise-ship bound for Buenos Aires. The narrator sees a frenzy of photographers and media frenzy around the world chess champion Mirko Czentovic. Ironically, while the inner workings has been something of intrigue, and knowing that Chess Grand-masters are usually highly intelligent people with an ability to process and anticipate many moves ahead in advance, Czentovic “cannot even write a single, properly spelt sentence in any language”.

The language barriers means that the narrator cannot approach the Grand-master for a game, but attracted by his enigma, he lures him into a game by setting up a chess table, a ‘primitive trap’. He observes that Chess, “as in love, a partner is indispensable”. There it is again, the unacknowledged begging to be acknowledged, much like love but also like war, no? This is what makes Zweig’s writings  modern and important; the internal battle beneath the external one, the dialectic of mind and madness, and what can and cannot be suppressed. Are these really the stories of characters Zweig meets or just his need to expel a story, tell a lie with a lie and choosing what not to say?

In ‘Chess’ the importance of within probably presides and why it takes a darker, ulterior tone, and more obviously. What happens externally though is that the narrator teams up with a Scottish man also travelling on the boat, who, thanks to his insatiable competitive desire, they continue to play him, and eventually, with the help of a mercurial stranger, earn a draw. As a result they want to set-up a game with the Austrian stranger and Czentovic, but when the man refuses claiming not to have sat at a chess-board in twenty-five years, it takes another therapeutic offloading before he will sit for a game.

He reveals that when the German’s swept through Austria he was tortured for information by being left in a room that was completely bare, and nothing to stimulate the mind. As a way of combatting the solitude, the man, after stealing one of the guard’s books (a collection of one hundred championship matches moves and results), recreates in his mind, games of chess. He does it to alleviate the torture but it becomes a form of torture in itself, as he states that it is a ‘logical absurdity’ to play chess against oneself, to split and deceive ones own mind:

“If black and white are one and the same person, a preposterous situation is produced in which a single mind is supposed both to know something and not to know it, so that its white self should, by self-command, forget all the aims and intentions of its black self a minute earlier.”

Whether it is actually impossible or not to deceive your self would require a life-work mediation, but even though we constantly tell lies to ourselves a part of us knows the truths. This is Zweig at his best. Constantly, cognitive scientists tell us how the mind is like a computer, but a computer lacks the essential part and essence – consciousness – it’s exceptional mystery but also its folly. Why is the brain the only part of the human anatomy that is said to work like something else rather than the other way round? Regardless, the black and the white are of the same body, the dark underside to existence.

Like the denouement of Anderson’s film suggest, beneath all the beauty, artistry and wonder, there is the dark-side that even the greatest minds don’t want to acknowledge at times, yet even when they don’t, it leaks through. Zweig’s compatriot and friend, Freud, understood this. You can see the global tragedy behind the veneer of fiction, and when Zweig  finally acknowledged it, he embraced it tragically.

Thank you to Alma for providing a review copy. 

Structural Work

curb complex

The Story of My Teeth
Valeria Luiselli
Granta: 188pp. : £12.99

“Whilst conceding that I might need money (there was the divorce and the costs involved in having my ‘teeth fixed’) she said she didn’t see why she should subisidise my greed. Later, in her note of apology, she said she’d had a toothache when the journalist rang.”

This is from Martin Amis’ memoirs –  Experience – and the ‘she’ in question is A.S Byatt. It’s interesting that I’ve used a footnote from the book because Amis devotes a lot of his memoir, and indeed portions of his fiction (Money for instance) to teeth. This quote is referring to the publication of The Information and the friendship – ending advance he attained for it, by leaving then agent Pat Kavanagh, and wife of friend Julian Barnes, for the famously ruthless Andrew ‘The Jackal’ Wylie.  The press coverage, as…

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Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

curb complex

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle…

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Review: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For Two Thousand Years
Mihail Sebastian (translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh)
Penguin Classics: 231pp.:£9.99

Recognition of literary talent is an impossible thing to predict and there is no predicting, if and when, it will be acknowledged. Most artists comfort themselves with the fact that one day, even if they don’t live to see it, they will receive the recognition their art deserves. This is what art gives us, a chance of an afterlife.

Sometimes the artist may have just died too young like Kafka, or their time and era simply did not recognise them(the recent revival of John Williams and after the re-publication of Stoner comes to mind). Mihail Sebastian is a mixture of both. He died in 1945, a Jewish person, who survived the Holocaust, and was reportedly on his way to teach a lecture on Balzac, before being hit by a truck. Certainly, after finishing For Two Thousand Years, you cannot help but feel the tragic loss of talent. And since, the only published work in English are his journals written during the war, which have received plaudits from Arthur Miller and Philip Roth no less. It at least means there is still some plays, and novels to mine for.

FTTY was first published in 1934 in a world between two wars, financial ruin, and the rise of extreme fascist, politics. We can never definitively say how much the Zeitgeist influences the novel, but FTTY  suggest a confused, despair over ones own individuality. In this case, character, is not the formative, definitive thing that the early modern novel portrayed it as, nor was it the experiential, streaming consciousness of the moderns, and nor was it the constructionist solipsisms of postmodernity. This confusion is perhaps reflected by the great disparity of styles of other writers at the time, showing traces of the above in some way. Just look at the apparently ‘Most Famous Books Published in the 1930’s’ on Goodreads. It ranges from Fitzgerald, to Faulkner, to Orwell, to Sartre, not forgetting all those that had already gone and were emerging. But there we have modernist, political allegorical, existential, so no wonder Sebastian’s narrator is despairing as to who ‘I’ is.

But this is not to say Sebastian was received in his native country because the turbulence of the twentieth century was probably experienced  by nobody more than the ‘Other’ at the time – the Jew. Whilst Kafka was known, and his posthumous fame was just beginning to ignite, Sebastian’s novels have not been translated until now (quite superbly: I don’t know any Romanian but this appears to be seemless by writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh ). Harold Bloom may have called Kafka the ‘quintessential Jewish writer’, but there is still some disagreement both academically and not as to the extent of the Jewish question in Kafka’s works. Kafka was allegorical, parabolical, symbolic, so here I give you FTTY’s opening sentence – “I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things.” Sebastian, although on a similar journey as Kafka, is taking an entirely different path. If anything, he poses a dialectic to  Kafka. For Sebastian, symbols are at the expense of religious and political organisations to conceal and suppress meanings and the world he was in, was likely to be overwhelmed with them.

We know for a start, that the unnamed narrator of FTTY is Jewish, and there is an obvious autobiographical element. As anti-Semitism became mainstream in Romania Sebastian was a reportedly an outsider in all groups; an outsider to his Jewish friends because of his association with the anti-Semitic philosopher Nae Ionescu, and predicably an outsider to mainstream Romanian society. In an introduction that was written by Ionesco, despite it containing anti-Semitic passages, Sebastian still went ahead and published it  (Ionescu’s introduction has not been re-published). As confusing as that appears to be, the core of the novel seems to be concerned with this question: what am I and what am I not in the face of what people think I am? Is that singular or a composite and can embody many different identities?

It’s a loose, dialectic, aphoristic, diary-like novel set in 1923 Romania written in a style that looks easy to replicate, but isn’t,  much like Kafka. The narrator has encounters with friends and other students, lecturers (most notably Ghita Blidaru, one of the few people that the narrator willingly lets influences his ideas), and then five years later it charts his development as an architect, which Blidaru advises him to become.

And although the novel is tender and touching, Sebastian, like Kafka, is brilliantly ironic, which is where that unreplicable aspect maybe materialises (Sebastian’s life seems to be pervaded with a tragic irony though; a Jew who’s book gets branded anti-Semitic; he survives the holocaust and then gets killed by a truck on the way to teach a lecture). In the fight, said Kafka, against you and the world, back the world, and Sebastian’s narrator seems to have taken this on board as he deals with ‘the voluptuousness of being in a world that believes it owns you’. Voluptuousness is seemingly an odd word and strikes you when you first encounter, but it reappears throughout. But the world is voluptuously excessive. For instance, he and his Jewish student friends receive beatings: ‘I received two punches today during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value for two punches’. Voluptuousness and excess, results in banality and there is the voluptuousness of the constant confusion and equation of the physical, bodily experience with the metaphysical, psychological one, of messages both physical and cognitive (the ‘blows’ he receives are both physical and metaphysical). The difference between a physical body and a conceptual one as a result is grappled with throughout. A conceptual body implies a semantic, symbolic, shared field which he has already declared his fear of in the first line, and this seems to instigate his struggle to submit to the idea of ‘we’ in an environment that an afflicted group of people need to be in order to to survive. He is caught in a Faustian pact:

“I note that I’ve picked up on the detestable habit of stating categorical truths. Too often I use that plural formulation (‘we’ are this, ‘we’ are that, ‘our’ destiny, ‘our’ duty) and generalise a collective, confused experience in this ‘we’, that at other times I wouldn’t allow myself to use without verifying  it in the light of personal experience.”

For him to concede that he is composed and influenced by the ideas of others, would be to give up his own individuality, and seemingly submit to some kind of ideology. As he interacts with other characters, they appear nothing more than two-dimensional ideologues. S.T.Haim for instance is an ‘incurable Marxist’ and now has a ‘complete inability to understand life in any other terms’.  This is not just the gravest fate for the narrator but, in the times that the novel becomes quite meta, this is a fate that the potential novelist wants to avoid (think of Nabokov and the ‘liberal reader’).

This is the mind and body, the individual and the collective. The Descartes dichotomy is riffed upon further;  the narrator describes fellow architect as a ‘Cartesian in Budapest’ who is ‘the urban type par excellence. One of those Europeans that has been shaped by Cartersianism, the bourgeois revolution… “I believe in the identity of man. I believe in permanent, universal values . I believe in the dignity of my intelligence.”’
Along with this, the narrator explicit refers to psychology and ‘psychologising’, because knowingly Cartesian dualism particularly takes reigns in the study of psychology, which would have been developing at the time, particularly behaviourism (the beatings they receive almost seem to be like a voluptuous attempt at negative reinforcement). Maurice Burets, a man, according to the narrator who has “enough raw material for four or five successful characters’, but the narrator ‘has no desire for psychological experiments. And if I had Maurice Buret, would cure me once and for all.” The novel as a medium is entwined with psychology, but is what is he criticising here?

‘Character’ refers to unchangeable and predictable behaviours, but the stories we tell ourselves are not the reality of who we are to other people. The narrator seems to be suggesting a redundancy of this: if the narrator believes, even if he doesn’t feel Jewish, that he has his own independent faculties on which he constructs his own identity, why is he still getting beaten up for being Jewish (this is why it refutes postmodern intepretation)? And as his friends with different belief systems impose themselves on his experience and blur the lens, in the dialectic way that the novel proceeds, it doesn’t become a question of him thinking that makes him or I think therefore I am, but they think therefore I’m not.

The narrator is already condemned to be a ‘thing’ by the world. Like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, he is very unenlightened by enlightenment philosophy.  But unlike Raskolnikov, although we know Raskolnikov did the act, think back to the scenes with him and Luzhin, where they talk of ‘form’, ‘second guessing’ and ‘double-ended psychology.’ You can treat the murders that Raskolnikov commits in various ways, but it is not somebody ‘driven’ to murder (he might be driven, but the murder happens early in the narrative so we don’t know the events preceding it, which Dostoyevsky, crucially chose to do in a re-draft). So instead, we’re left with a man who is guilty of something, believing himself to be in control of that internal force of guilt and what he ‘gives away’, but Luzhin knows more than Raskolnikov knows about him, and in turn so does the reader. Although not in the same way, Sebastian is asking similar, existential questions, as Dostoyevsky and Kafka do (in the Metamorphosis for instance): how do we know a character and my character, both internally and externally, if I am already such a thing, at least born into the novelistic world? We do not get back stories of either of the characters, we don’t know how they ended up here.  But for the narrator here,unlike a traditionally existential position, he is finding it impossible to impose any meaning on the world. The battle rages on internally:

“Let’s presume that the hostility of anti-Semites is, in the end, endurable. But how do we proceed with our own internal conflict? One day – who knows – we may make peace with our anti-Semites. But when will we make peace with ourselves?”

This is almost a reformulation of Kafka’s aphorism and you better back the world, because the toughest battle will be within with oneself eventually. We blame ourselves for how we experience the world, but with so many ideologies, theologies, how do we ever truly experience it as ‘I’? How do I ever experience something Sebastian asks – we only believe that we believe as Kierkegaard said. When empathy fails, what else is there, even when trying to experience the world as the projection of the thing that hates us most, the thing we believe we’re most not.


It was another 47 years after his death before Fernando Pessoa’s work was published as The Book of Disquiet. A ‘factless biography’ of a man who wrote under many pseudonyms, so much so, that they didn’t believe the workings of Disquiet were the work of one solitary author. The book reminded me of FTTY. One of Pessoa’s abstract entries reads, “I am the outskirts of a non-existent town”, and perhaps here is the dialectical answer to the narrators of Sebastian’s work.  All those entries, and all those different names that Pessoa used, so that the book became the workings of not one, but many, projected into the world from one source, the creator. And here brings us to the title. “Let’s go back to the start…back to two thousand years…” the narrator of FTTY says at one point as he talks about the plight of the Jews and Zionists. Like the rest of the novel it has an ambiguous meaning of reference. It could be religious as he explicitly discusses in the book, but it could also be political, oddly invoking Lenin’s quip on Communists to ‘begin from the beginning, over and over again’.

However, here is Bellow, another writer who was Jewish, from Seize the Day:

“If you wanted to talk about a glass of water you had to start back with God creating the Heavens and the Earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; the Middle Ages; gun-powder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After getting this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water…And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met  You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood…”

Seize the day, start again, over and over, create and create. You have to start again, you have to read again, you have to change again. Although this book is about society at the time it is also about novel writing, and about creating. All great works of art tell us something about the world, but they also tell us something about the craft. Whether or not, somebody created this world two thousand years ago, we’re all entering, creating and engineering, new worlds every day. And perhaps it is no great surprise that the book has been republished now, 82 years later, in a global, precarious state of affairs.

This is irrelevant though, because this could have been published any time, because it is a great novel that transcends any time. This is a book that you’ll reach for in the dark, sleepless nights, a book that will last longer than any lifetime. Here is Mihail Sebastian’s belated afterlife: life may be fragile, but great art, once again, proves that it isn’t.

Thank you to Penguin for providing a review copy. For Two Thousand Years was published on the 25th February