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

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