‘You have to hang on’
- Journal 1935-44 by Mihail Sebastian, translated by Patrick Camiller
Heinemann, 641 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 434 88577 0
In June 1934, a young Romanian Jew published a book about being a Jew in Romania. Mihail Sebastian’s De Doua mii de ani (‘For 2000 Years’) was not an autobiography or a novel or a diary, although a bit of each. The hero, who is never named, lives the tragicomedy of assimilation in a land and a culture that both invite and repel. A rich country full of ragged people, Romania uneasily combined a 19th-century rural and suburban servitude with the sophistication of 20th-century Paris fashions and very mod mod cons. Politics was about patronage: Parliament was a den of time-servers and leeches, democracy a word but not an option, the monarchy a plaster on a wobbly leg. Home-bred troubles are better blamed on others, and the blame for arrogance and intellectual brilliance amid the wretchedness was assigned to Jews.
Even the well-intentioned saw Jews as a problem, and even the Jews, hardened to animosity, found the animadversions hard to bear. Sebastian himself shared the sentiments of a Magyar friend who by most criteria would have been better off away from Hungarian anti-semitism and the numerus clausus: ‘I feel that I would stifle if I didn’t live there, in that atmosphere, with those people. You have to understand: they are my memories, my language, my culture . . . It is not pleasant, sometimes it’s humiliating. But when you really love something, you love what is good and what is bad in a place. This too shall pass one day.’ It doesn’t pass, however. Like the maimed king Amfortas waiting to be touched by the Holy Spear, Sebastian’s hero lives with his open wound: ‘the consciousness of the sin of being a Jew’.
The error of the Jews, he reflects, is that they observe too much and think that they, too, are being observed, whereas the world is indifferent to them. So ‘try not to suffer. Do not give in to the relish of suffering. There’s great voluptuousness in persecution, and feeling wronged is probably the vainest of intimate pleasures. Be careful not to indulge in it.’
Other ‘Jewish’ novels had been published in Romania, but they had all met with public indifference. Sebastian’s novel might have shared their fate had it not been for its introduction, written by a well-known contemporary anti-semite, Nae Ionescu. Ionescu’s venomous preface, made more sensational by its context, wasn’t commissioned by the book’s publisher, as a footnote declares, but by its author, a longtime protégé of Ionescu’s. In 1931, returning from a spell of study in Paris determined to write a Jewish novel, Sebastian had asked his ‘director of conscience’ to write a preface to it. Cuvântul, the daily newspaper which Ionescu edited, was no more hostile to Jews than other publications. It mostly attacked the banks, the venal oligarchy and the no less venal police force that ruled the country. Ionescu himself had written appreciatively of Jews who ‘enriched the spiritual patrimony of mankind’, and had denied any nation’s right to oppress its minorities. But that was in the 1920s, and circumstances alter cases.
Ionescu was a professor of philosophy whose writings were crammed with references to Western literature and philosophy, who bought his clothes in London, his toiletries in Paris, his linen in Vienna and his Mercedes in Germany. He had started out as a Maurrasian monarchist and nationalist. Anti-rationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist, he had long rejected anti-semitism as too negative, and adopted it only as an adjunct to a new-found românism and its Orthodox Christian spirit. He laid the country’s corruption and decay at the door of alien Western models ill-suited to Moldo-Wallachians, and fulminated against those persistent vectors of alienation: Jews. Jews could be good citizens, obey the law, pay taxes, serve in the Army, fight in wars. That made them ‘good Romanians’: it did not make them Romanians – organically connected to the soil and spirit of the race.
By 1933, Ionescu was dismissing assimilation as a sinister farce, a view he repeated in the rather convoluted introduction he handed Sebastian just in time for the book’s publication. Its gist was what Ionescu had been arguing for the past three years: a Jew could be, could feel, as Romanian as he liked; he would always be fundamentally a Jew. However sincere his supposed assimilation, however troubling anti-semitism might be to people who believed themselves to be truly Romanian, the ancient acrimony was a reminder that Jews had a different history, which included their rejection of Christ. From this predicament there could be no way out: ‘A problem implies a solution. Is there a solution to the Jewish problem?’ No there wasn’t. ‘The Jews suffer because they are Jews; they would stop being Jews when their suffering stops; they can’t escape suffering except by ceasing to be Jewish.’ But they can’t cease, said Ionescu, and Sebastian won’t: only the cold and the darkness awaited him.
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