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Mihail Sebastian


 
 
 
 

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Mihail Sebastian

By Loredana Dima

Almost a decade ago, a book written in the 1930's and 40's by a Romanian Jewish writer led to a vivid polemic that has not faded yet. The contested book is Journal.1935-1944 and its author is Mihail Sebastian (Iosef Hechter, after his Jewish name). The nine notebooks of the diary were kept by the writer's brother, Benu , who agreed with their publication after many hesitations. In 2000 the Journal was also published in English, translated by Patrick Camiller and with an introduction signed by Radu Ioanid.

The Journal has been considered a mixture of diaries by most of its commentators and as such was divided into a few distinct journals (mainly a private diary, a writing one, a diary of war and anti-Semitism).

The entire book is in fact a testimony of a moral and intellectual consciousness and also of the troubled years before and during the Second World War, an authentic document of a period that continues to arouse contentious and adversarial debates. It is the attempt of a Jew who deeply assumes his Jewry to talk with no inhibitions about his condition as a minority. There are 600 pages of journal entries that chronicle the Romanian Holocaust and the Second World War.

Born in 1907 in a town on the Danube, Mihail Sebastian was constantly marked by his Jewish identity. Paradoxically, his characters never acknowledge this inner struggle of the author. Even the text of the diary is not an indictment of the inter-war period, but a credible and profound analysis of the progressive stages of humiliation and discrimination that Sebastian is obliged to pass. Keeping a diary is for the writer a way to survive and to prove to himself that he can move on. It is also an attempt of its author to hide from himself and from the others; he reveals himself in many of his daily notes as being tired, disgusted and resigned in front of a world that seems to lose its bench marks. Despite his busy life in a crowded Bucharest (as a lawyer and writer), he feels alone, in a space of solitude. His confessions become a desperate attempt to preserve his intimacy and the right to absolute difference from the others.

In a way Sebastian recreates the apology of loneliness that Descartes had done more than three centuries ago in a letter to his friend Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, who was advised to find his peace and rest not in the country but in the middle of the city, in the crowd, in the noisy streets. It is the same kind of solitude that Sebastian looks for, the one that helps him find time for himself, time for writing, the one that helps him get rid of the bitter taste of losing friends and loves. During some explosive years, marked by a sharp escalation of anti-Semitic attitudes, an authentic and untroubled loneliness is all that Sebastian could hope for.

A reading of his works (especially his Journal) outside the inter-war political context is very difficult (if not impossible). So this is, very briefly, the political background of Sebastian's Journal.

The first part covered by his notes, 1935-1938, is marked by tough confrontations between the democratic forces and the dictatorial ones, in an extremely unstable European political context, where all states of Central and Southeast Europe had dictatorial or authoritarian regimes (Mussolini in Italy, Salazar in Portugal, Hitler in Germany and a bit later Franco in Spain). In Romania, King Carol II deposed his government and instituted a royal dictatorship on February 10, 1938, after dissolving all political parties and abolishing the Constitution.

As the international political situation continued to deteriorate with the signing of Molotov—Ribbentrop pact, through which the Soviet Union and the Third Reich divided the spheres of interest, and with the obligation of Romania to cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, then with the Vienna Awards of 1940 that gave Northern Transylvania to Hungary and eventually by ceding the southern of Dobrudja to Bulgaria, King Carol II, accused by the entire country and compromised, abdicated in favor of his son Michael who had only a decorative role, the country being governed in practice by the pro-German regime of Ion Antonescu. Romania was proclaimed a National Legionary State, with a military and legionary majority in the government. In the first phase, Antonescu approached the Iron Guard, but the situation radically changed when the latter tried to monopolize the power. As the Iron Guard did not have the support of Germany, their rebellion on January 21, 1941 was crushed.

Sebastian describes in the notes of those days the way that the rebellion turned into a pogrom, the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in the streets, in the people's hearts.

Romania's entrance into the war in June 1941 against the Soviet Union led to the reoccupation of the lost territories with a huge human sacrifice and also with victims behind the front (like in the pogrom of Iasi).

In August 1944 Romania turned against Germany and joined the Red Army, while Antonescu was arrested. The separation of Romania from Germany happened after a long process, although Antonescu had been aware that the politics of Berlin had no chance any longer. It is sure that the act on August 23, 1944 led to the collapse of Germany half a year early, but unfortunately led to the entrance of Romania under the control of the Soviet Union, following the meeting of Churchill and Stalin. It is the moment when Romanian history radically changes again, but also the moment when Sebastian's Journal ends. The writer died in an unfortunate accident a few months later.

His Journal defines the plurality and complexity of its author's interests and preoccupations, who is also well-known as a journalist, translator, playwright and novelist, all stages of his formation as a writer and of the evolution of his modalities to express.

The journalist Mihail Sebastian was extremely prodigious, writing as a literary, music and theater critic for many of the inter-war publications, focused especially on the analysis of the European modern novel, always connected to the ideas and attitudes in the European literature and literary theory.

However, Sebastian became famous for his plays, revealing an apparently fragile world, with characters who find refuge in illusions. Star Without a Name, Let's Play Vacation, and The Last Hour are all marked by a note of interior tragism and refined irony.

As a novelist, Sebastian constantly emphasizes the authenticist principle of lucidity and sincerity. I enumerate the novels here in the chronological order of their publication, not the one of their writing: Fragments of a Found Notebook, Women, For Two Thousand Years (together with the essay How I Became a Hooligan. Texts, facts, people), The Town with Acacia Trees, The Accident. Actually, not all of them are novels in the traditional sense of the word, since neither the theme nor the compositional structure belong to the traditional novel. They are works dedicated to confession, to the fiction of confession.

If Sebastian's work could be defined with just one word, undoubtedly that word should be "diversity". Everything he wrote was the answer of a vocation, a literary form widely opened toward public life and inner life as well. Sixty years after the writer's death, his books continue to fascinate, a sign that he reached "the only kind of eternity that matters".


Loredana Dima is university lecturer in Constanta, Romania and completing a PhD program in literature with the title "Jews and Jewry in the Interwar Romanian Literature".

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from the November 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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