Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly:
“I was born in Romania, and I am Jewish. That makes me a Jew, and a Romanian.” This might seem a straightforward, even self-evident claim. But for Mihail Sebastian—whose brilliant novel For Two Thousand Years, first published in 1934, is now available in a sparkling translation by the Romanian-based Irish short story writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh—this assertion of identity names a problem rather than a tautology. To be a Jew and to be Romanian: the impossibility of this “and” is Sebastian’s great subject.
Born Iosif Hechter to a Jewish family in the Danubian port city of Brâila in 1907, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and Paris in the late 1920s and early 30s. After returning to Romania he turned increasingly to literature, drawn to a group called Criterion, which included the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, the philosopher E. M. Cioran, and the playwright Eugen (later Eugène) Ionesco. Although at first apolitical, the group became increasingly fascistic and anti-Semitic; Sebastian found himself marginalized by his former colleagues.
Sebastian turned this hostility into art. Taking the form of the notebooks of an unnamed protagonist closely modeled on Sebastian himself, For Two Thousand Years documents the struggle of an introspective young Jewish man intent on making his way in a profoundly anti-Semitic society. (Romania granted legal equality to Jews only in 1923.)