Mihail Sebastian translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

For Two Thousand Years

Publication Date: Sep 12, 2017

240 pp


ISBN: 978-1-59051-877-9

Trade Paperback

List Price US $16.95
Trim Size (H x W): 5.5 x 8.25
ISBN: 978-1-59051-876-2

Available in English for the first time, Mihail Sebastian’s classic 1934 novel delves into the mind of a Jewish student in Romania during the fraught years preceding World War II.

 This literary masterpiece revives the ideological debates of the interwar period through the journal of a Romanian Jewish student caught between anti-Semitism and Zionism. Although he endures persistent threats just to attend lectures, he feels disconnected from his Jewish peers and questions whether their activism is worth the cost. Spending his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and conversing with revolutionaries, zealots, and libertines, he remains isolated, even from the women he loves. From Bucharest to Paris, he strives to make peace with himself in an increasingly hostile world.

For Two Thousand Years echoes Mihail Sebastian’s struggles as the rise of fascism ended his career and turned his friends and colleagues against him. Born of the violence of relentless anti-Semitism, his searching, self-derisive work captures a defining moment in history and lights the way for generations to come—a prescient, heart-wrenching chronicle of resilience and despair, resistance and acceptance.

Excerpt from For Two Thousand Years

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.

And yet, I walked bareheaded through the deserted streets of the city when it was occupied by Germans: a white trail in the sky marking the passage of planes, bombs falling all about, even close by, the short dry thumps echoing across the open country.

And yet, with cold, childlike curiosity I calmly observed cartloads of frozen Turks passing by the gates in December, and not even before those pyramids of bodies stacked like logs in a woodpile did the presence of death make me tremble.

And yet, I crossed the Danube in a damaged boat, taking in water, to Lipovan villages, just rolling up my sleeves when it seemed the rotten bottom could no longer hold out. And God knows what a bad swimmer I am.

No, I don’t think I’ve ever been fearful, even though the Greeks from the big garden, who pelted us with stones when they caught us there, shouted “Cowardly Jew!” at me daily from the moment they knew me. I grew up with that shout, spat at me from behind.

I know, though, what horror is. Horror, yes. Little nothings which nobody else noticed loomed before me menacingly and froze me with terror.

“Remarkably pertinent to our time and place… elegiac and lyrical…What’s chilling about For Two Thousand Years, in this sensitive translation by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, is how its oppressive atmosphere foreshadows the rise of Romanian authoritarianism and the destruction of Romanian Jewry, even though it was published before the fascists came to power….I can’t help thinking that Mihail Sebastian is sending us a message across the generations.” —New York Times Review of Books

“Sebastian, born in 1907, was a writer deeply immersed in the intellectual life of Romania in the interwar decades, and his book chillingly foreshadows the rise of authoritarianism in his country.”  —New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

“Mordant, meditative, knotty, provocative…More than a fascinating historical document, it is a coherent and persuasive novel…Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s translation is highly convincing and sweeps us along with its protagonist’s emotional shifts.” —Financial Times

“In Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, first published in 1934 and only now appearing in America, the narrator, a Jewish student in 1920s Romania who faces daily beatings from anti-Semitic ideologues, finds a disturbing echo of his plight in a history book… This scintillating novel—a fiery coming-of-age story introduced to the combustible material of extremist politics—which wrestles with the question of how one should live in the face of hatred…reveals a young, idealistic man grasping for freedom from the external oppression of anti-Semitism but also, paradoxically, from the beholdens of his Jewish heritage. …The passage of time has also added gravity to a story that foreshadows yet cannot quite envision the genocide on the horizon. The narrator maintains friendships with his colleagues and mentors, trying to stoically transcend the manias of the age, and is heartbroken anew as, one by one, each succumbs to the ‘eternal phenomenon’ of anti-Semitism. ‘This will pass too,’ a Jewish acquaintance tells him, determined to be hopeful. But we know that it did not.” —Wall Street Journal 

“Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s fluid translation of the novel comes to us at the right moment… Sebastian’s nuanced novel does not simply decry Romanian history as another, inevitable episode in a 2,000-year-old cycle of anti-Semitic violence. The strength and timeliness of this novel lie in the diarist’s grappling with how to respond as an individual to what we now call hate speech and to violence on the university campus. …The English text reads fluently, and the translator has pleasingly left traces of the Romanian in the names of places…. ‘A book either knocks you down or raises you up. Otherwise, why pay money for it?’ Sebastian’s novel does both.” —Los Angeles Review of Books 

“This novel, published in 1934 and ably translated for the first time into English, traces the path of its protagonist from his university days to a career as an architect, during which he frequently hears the cry ‘Death to the Yids.’ It’s so pervasive, in fact, that he seems inured to it and is shocked to learn by novel’s end that several longtime Romanian colleagues have been anti-Semites all along…Laced throughout with debate regarding the place of the Jewish people and their culture in the world, among other issues, this work sits uneasily between philosophical speculation and narrative fiction. But it is an important historical document—prophetically, the protagonist cries out, ‘Has anybody had a greater need of a fatherland?’” —Library Journal 

“A sparkling translation…. The book is exceptional: brilliant, subtle, complex, and beautiful, a modernist masterpiece. In addition to being deeply philosophical, however, For Two Thousand Years is also ravishingly poetic. The brilliance of the book is to combine these modes. Even when the narrator is merely admiring his surroundings he always injects a thought-provoking note. ” —Open Letters Monthly

“Any Jew who is tempted to blithely claim the status of pariah should first be compelled to read For Two Thousand Years, an autobiographical novel by the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian…Perhaps the most important conclusion one can draw from Sebastian’s book is that pariahdom—in which Sebastian’s narrator sometimes glories, sometimes suffers—is not a moral achievement, but a condition of profound vulnerability. The psychological price it exacts is beautifully documented in For Two Thousand Years, but the physical price is even higher—too high for anyone to agree to pay.” —Tablet

“Beautifully observed and brimming with insight, not a word of which feels even slightly contrived.” —Moment Magazine

“A fantastic piece of literary steak, dealing with ‘2000 years’ of Romanian Jewish life (and its mirror anti-Semitism), to sink your teeth into… it is extremely well written, shocking in its candor, sexy, funny at times. It is really about the desire of human beings to maintain ‘normalcy’ under the roughest of circumstances….Only a European could have written this book, and that in itself should make it interesting to Americans, especially now in our hard-to-believe Age of Donald Trump. The fatalism of Europe, the sense that we will all ‘muddle through’ in the face of genuine evil—just stinks throughout it.  There is a real lesson here for all of us.” —Huffington Post
For Two Thousand Years is one of the most powerful stories of the rise of fascism to almost never make it into English translation….One of the key strengths of Sebastian’s book lies in his masterful portrayal of the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism and fascism, and of the ease with which people who are friends and colleagues one day can be co-opted by fascist and racist ideas the next….Sebastian has masterfully captured the range of arguments used to express and justify anti-Semitism and illustrates both their circular logic as well as the tenacious self-righteousness that define them. To the modern educated reader they sound ridiculous, yet at the same time eerily resonant of contemporary forms of bigotry, and the arguments that drive them….Its depiction of the many faces of anti-Semitism, from workplace jokes between colleagues to street violence, is breath-taking in its horror yet also masterfully eloquent….Sebastian’s book illustrates important realities of the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism.”

“In For Two Thousand Years, Sebastian gives a vibrant inner life of a man reconciling himself with his historical moment. His account may be fictionalized, but it grows all the darker, all the more portentous as the story passes into the 1930s, on the edge of what today’s readers know is to come for Jews in Romania and across Europe. Sebastian’s words serve as unshakable evidence for Hannah Arendt’s indictment, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, that Romania was ‘the most anti-Semitic country in pre-war Europe.’ And the questions of identity Sebastian raised have persisted long after the war.” —Music & Literature  

“In brilliantly charting the psychological effects of anti-Semitism on both its perpetrators and its victims, a newly translated 1934 novel outdoes even such master analysts as Freud and Proust…. this novel and his posthumously published diary are enough in themselves to secure his place as one of Romania’s greatest writers.” —Mosaic Magazine

“The author has penned a shrewd autobiographical novel about his coming of age during a thriving but fractious decade leading up to World War II…The result is a searing vision of his fraught times—draw near and you may also see our own.” —Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star  

“Eerily prophetic… a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel. For Two Thousand Years is a book of truths.” —Irish Times

“At a dark moment of identity politics and resurgent nationalism, the books that have left the deepest impression have been those that offer a sense of what we might learn from times past. Nothing I have read is more affecting than Mihail Sebastian’s magnificent, haunting 1934 novel, For Two Thousand Years (trans Philip Ó Ceallaigh), now available in English.” —Philippe Sands, Guardian Books of the Year

“The best novel of the year was written in 1934. Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, an account of interwar Bucharest by a nameless Jewish student, took a human lifespan to find an English translation.”—Janan Ganesh, Financial Times

“One of the most unusual, seductive and beautiful books I’ve read in years. It has lightness of touch coupled with astonishing range… Like any classic of a type we’ve not seen before, it is a book which needs to be read and re-read and which, over years, will become a reliable friend for life.” —John Self, Jewish Quarterly

For Two Thousand Years wonderfully captures the sense of prewar Romania in all its sophistication, its beauty, and its horror…I love Sebastian’s courage, his lightness, and his wit.” —John Banville, author of The Sea

For Two Thousand Years is—among many other things—an elegant and candid and horrifyingly understated account of watching violent unreason rise around you.”  —Ben Lerner, author of 10:04

“For Two Thousand Years is lucid, melancholy and playful—a fictional memoir recreating the night-life and love affairs, friendships and betrayals of a world that was falling apart.” —John Gray, author of The Soul of the Marionette

“Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s meticulous and vibrant translation restores to us the wry, bitterly intelligent, endlessly self-castigating yet dauntingly perceptive and prophetic voice of Mihail Sebastian. For Two Thousand Years is a masterful book charged with the tension and paranoia that preceded one of the bloodiest convulsions in the history of the 20th century, and the terrifying thing is, it could have been written yesterday, today, tomorrow.” —Colin Barrett, author of Young Skins

“A powerful and prescient novel which throws light on darkness and disturbs as it entrances… If there is any justice [Sebastian’s] posthumous profile will increase.”  —Malcolm Forbes, Herald Scotland

“Complex, unsettling… Sebastian seldom provoked indifference in his readers. That is why he belongs in the pantheon of classic authors… For Two Thousand Years is a work that also speaks to our own discontents right now.”  —Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman

“His prose is like something Chekhov might have written – the same modesty, candour, and subtleness of observation.”  —Arthur Miller

  1. To what does the “two thousand years” of the title refer?
  1. How does the narrator’s experience of anti-Semitism shape his daily existence? How does it change over the course of his journal entries?
  1. Describe the narrator’s experience of being Jewish in Romania. How does he interact with other Jews?
  1. What are the ideological positions the narrator meets in Sami Winkler, S. T. Haim, and Abraham Sulitzer? Does he align himself with any of them?
  1. Why is the narrator uninterested in emigrating to “a Jewish homeland in Palestine” (p 71)?
  1. The narrator says of Maurice Burets that “Observing gives him far greater pleasure than living does” (p 154). Does this describe the narrator as well? How does the narrator “live”—what is it he ultimately aims to find?
  1. How long has the narrator’s family lived in Romania? When the narrator speaks of his family, does he cast them as Jews or Romanians? What part of Romania is the narrator most tied to?
  1. Why do you think that despite his attraction to Marga Stern and to Marjorie Dunton, the narrator never forms a permanent attachment to any woman?
  1. Why do you think the narrator maintains relationships with Dronțu and Vieru even after he discovers they have anti-Semitic leanings, and is able to leave his last conversation with Vieru “with a truly warm handshake” (p 221)? What effect do you think it has on him to be faced with friends and mentors who say, “I have no patience with Teutons and Jews” (p 174), “Don’t act the Jew. I’m from Oltenia. Don’t speak that Jew-talk with me” (p 210), and “there is a Jewish problem . . . I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand” (p 214).
  1. What impact does Ghiță Blidaru have on the narrator’s life? Is it a positive or negative one? Do you think, if the novel were to continue, that he would be revealed to be an anti-Semite, like Dronțu and Vieru?
  1. In the penultimate entry (p 228) the narrator writes, “It seems more urgent and effective to me to achieve a harmony in my own life between the Romanian and Jewish parts of my character than to obtain or lose certain civil rights.” Do you agree with him? If so, why? If not, then what is the conclusion you think he should arrive at instead?
  1. Can you describe the narrator’s explanation for and understanding of anti-Semitism, as shown in his final conversation with Vieru (pp 214–221)? List the anti-Semites the narrator meets and interacts with. What is his relationship with them?