For Two Thousand Years
|I love this cover, I do
I only heard of this novel/writer in the last couple of years, and it should be better known! This is an amazing book, and also sort of semi-biographical. Sebastian had this charismatic professor who is portrayed in the novel, and he asked him to write the foreword, which he did; but the foreword was a vicious polemic. Sebastian published it anyway. And it's not included here, presumably because of the 'vicious polemic' part.
This is a diary that covers about ten years (1923 - 33), and the narrator remains unnamed. He starts as a Jewish university student in Bucharest, and the university houses other students who make it a point to bar Jewish students from classes and beat them up. Getting to class is an impossible daily ordeal. Some Jewish students enjoy the street battles and fistfights, and in their dingy dormitory, they discuss Zionism and Communism and so on. Our narrator can't sympathize with all this fervor and feels both cut off from his fellow Jews and trapped by his unwanted heritage. He's always on the outside, unable to join into any popular group fervor, which he figures must be a failing -- but one he's secretly proud of.
As he becomes an architect and moves to Paris to work, he sees every brand of anti-Semitism there is, along with every sort of other ism: fascism, Marxism, and so on. He has friends and mentors, but everywhere he goes, eventually he runs into yet another form of hatred for Jews. As he catalogues his society's slide into extremism, he asserts his right to love his Romanian homeland, even if it doesn't love him.
The novel turns into an expose and critique of anti-Semitism, revealing its banality, lack of thought, and even its absurdity. To quote an unrelated article I read last week, it shows "the nature of antisemitism: No matter the grievance or the identity of the aggrieved, Jews are held responsible." ( --Pamela Paresky) At the end, even our narrator's 'master' is revealed as an anti-Semite of, perhaps, the worst type: one who deludes himself with pseudo-reasoning so that he can think of himself as rational and logical instead of just the same old thing.
It helps to know some background, so the introduction is handy. It describes pre-WWII Romania as a deeply anti-Semitic society, one that was constantly discussing "the Jewish question" -- which is chillingly described as the question of why Jews should exist at all. (Yow.)
I particularly enjoyed a conversation with an older, eccentric man who defends Yiddish language and literature. Like most of his fellow intellectuals of the time (and for decades afterwards), our narrator is inclined to think of Yiddish as an ugly mongrel dialect, not a real language, and therefore not respectable enough to produce 'real' literature. This attitude was pervasive enough that eventually, it nearly meant the loss of millions of Yiddish works, and it seems idiotic to us today. It's not like there's such a thing as a 'pure' language; what does that even mean? Sebastian produces a beautifully eloquent defense of Yiddish as a vital and living language and culture. Our narrator is skeptical and dismissive of this 'intolerant' old weirdo, but he's also, against his will, deeply touched by the works of Sholem Aleichem. Hm, maybe that old weirdo has a point?
It's a masterfully written novel, and one I recommend. Of course it's not much fun, but it is valuable and a work of art.