Mihail Sebastian, born Iosef Hechter, was a Romanian Jew who, having survived the war and the Holocaust, died at the age of 38 in 1945 when he was hit by a truck while crossing the road. On the strength of this book, first published in 1934 and now available in English for the first time, this is a loss to literature as great as that of Bruno Schulz or Jiří Weil.
For Two Thousand Years (translated beautifully by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh, a fine writer in his own right) is an unusual and seductive semi-autobiographical novel, coupling lightness of touch with astonishing range. The opening paragraph exemplifies Sebastian’s style:
“I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed—that black band slashing across my bedcovers—a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.”
Here it all is: the transport from higher thought to direct experience; the attention to detail which sounds like life; the heights of emotion; the sense overall of a great literary intelligence. The passage, too, has a classical feel to it; the first sentence sounds like an observation that has been circling for a long time before Sebastian plucked and pinned it for us.
There are many passages like this in For Two Thousand Years, though they don’t always give themselves up easily. It is scattered and loose, a novel in the form of a fictional diary, and it leaps to and fro. The plot, such as it is, describes the drift toward social unrest in Romania, beginning in 1923 when laws granting citizenship to minorities led to nationalist protests and ultimately the rise of the fascist Iron Guard…
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For Two Thousand Years
By Mihail Sebastian, translated by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh