Thursday, 6 October 2016

for two thousand years [mihail sebastian]

This is a love letter to the long-dead Romanian writer. In September 2001, a month that carried a historical weight which thankfully has yet to be emulated in this century, I picked up a copy of Sebastian’s diaries and began to read them. I have no idea where my copy came from. I finished the book on the first day of October. It is quite likely that it was as a direct result of reading his diary that I began to keep my own, something I maintained for four years. Diaries are one of the more curious literary formulations. They aren’t written to be read by anyone else. They accrue thousands and thousands of words. Imagine how long it would take to read all the unread diaries that have ever been written. The quantity of tedium, intimacy, incoherence, self-pity, social commentary. In a Borgesian world, every diary would find its reader. Mihail’s found me, in that moment. His voice, which was not a famous voice, spoke to me. Detailing the facets of his daily life as he struggled to cope with anti-semitism and fear of the war. But also whispering about the power of literature, the way it can make a voice leapfrog across the decades and the centuries, arriving unexpectedly to comfort you like a friend you never knew existed. 

That was fifteen years ago. Since then I have always carried Mihail Sebastian around with me in my memory and my heart. Of all the diaries I have ever read, his was the one that truly made me feel like I could have sat down for a drink with him. Laugh, speculate, opine, all those things. In a way that Kafka’s journals perhaps do not. Kafka being Sebastian’s contemporary and fellow Eastern-European Jew, sharing so many of the same concerns, the same hopes and fears. The pair with this new idea of a state of Israel lurking on the edge of their consciousness, a land which might be a promised land or might be a fable at the end of a rainbow, along with their shared history of Judaism, with its curses and its blessings. Kafka’s fame is exponential; in contrast I never came across another of Sebastian’s book’s in translation; in fact I never came across anyone who had read him or even heard of him. Mihail was a ghost, shadowing my thoughts, keeping watch.

Until I noticed that a book of his had been published this year by Penguin. For Two Thousand Years is a novel, written in a diary format. Over the course of several years it recounts the story of a Romanian Jew, an intellectual, who becomes an architect. The book is divided into six chapters, with each chapter occurring after a temporal break which is long enough to suggest that the writer has now moved on, as has the country he inhabits. The first book describes in mordant detail the abuse he and his fellow Jews receive at university. An abuse which is out in the open, which is treated as some kind of a game, even by Sebastian himself. A few years later, he is working as an architect in a rural part of the country. It appears as though the prejudice has blown over. He lives in Paris for a while, before returning. But the prejudice, which we would now call racism, never dissipates entirely. In the end even his closest colleagues reveal their anti-Semitism. There’s no escaping its insidious hold. 

It would be wrong to see this novel as being entirely about the issue of Sebastian’s Jewishness. It is also about friendship, about being Romanian, about love, about revolution. It provides shard-like insights into life in the late twenties and the early thirties. Within a Europe which had no idea of how close it was to catastrophe. I remember reading Sebastian’s diary, feeling as though I was living a parallel life, willing him to survive the war, to reach safety. Like Barthes, a fellow spirit, he was killed in a traffic accident. Of all the ways of dying that the 20th century had to offer him, this was the one fate chose. Reading the diary, it seems too cruel, although one can’t help feeling Sebastian himself might have enjoyed the irony. Having said that, Mihail lives on. True writers cannot be killed by trucks or bombs or cancer or any other formula fate throws at them. They shall continue to enchant, even when there remain no more eyes to read. How wonderful that this beautiful translation by Phillip O Ceallaigh has now appeared, opening up another window on one of the most elegant, measured voices of the twentieth century. 

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