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For Two Thousand Years (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – International Edition, February 23, 2016
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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 O Ceallaigh), now available in English -- Philippe Sands * Guardian Books of the Year * Remarkably pertinent to our time and place. . . What's chilling about For Two Thousand Years, in this sensitive translation by Philip O 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 * 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 * It wonderfully captures the sense of pre-war Romania in all its sophistication, its beauty and its horror... I love Sebastian's courage, his lightness and his wit -- John Banville * Open Book, Radio 4 * An elegant and candid and horrifyingly understated account of watching violent unreason rise around you -- Ben Lerner * Paris Review * Mordant, meditative, knotty, provocative... More than a fascinating historical document, it is a coherent and persuasive novel... Penguin should be applauded for finally bringing this book to an anglophone audience. Philip O Ceallaigh's translation is highly convincing and sweeps us along with its protagonist's emotional shifts -- Toby Lichtig * Financial Times * Eerily prophetic... a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel. For Two Thousand Years is a book of truths -- Eileen Battersby * Irish 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 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 O 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 Restraint is the defining mark of both For Two Thousand Years and the subsequent Journal, as it is of Sebastian's personality... In a truly atrocious time he refused to compromise on his duties as a civilized human being... Even on the darkest pages he finds room for a graceful turn of phrase, a flash of wit, a gesture of understanding and forgiveness -- John Banville * New York Review of Books *
About the Author
Mihail Sebastian was born in Romania in 1907 as Iosef Hecter. He worked as a lawyer and writer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in a road accident early in 1945 as he was crossing the street to teach his first class. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published to great acclaim in the late 1990s.
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This is an exceptional story, written as a journal or diary, by a young Romanian Jew as he moves through the late 1920's early 1930's. Sharing these glimpses into the difficult daily life of young Mihail Sebastian as he struggles through his schooling and into a career as an architect is heart wrenching. As the world crumbles around him, there is so much to learn of this time, this place. The first and hardest lesson is absorbing the fact that Mihail expects and accepts the bullying and harassment he encounters at school and on the streets without resentment. Add in the fact that you know what is coming for this community, this country, this young man, For Two Thousand Years can break your heart.
There is a lot out there to read in an effort to understand about World War II from the aspect of Europeans who suffered through these hard times. I have not found a great deal about Romania written by Romanians. I was most pleased to find this treasure. It will go into my history bookcase to read again at leisure. Thank you, Other Books, for bringing this work into our world. With more understanding of what folded our world into World War II perhaps we can back up and avoid WWIII.
Recommends This Book
What makes reading any book of this type so eerie is that we, the readers, know what happened after the book was published in Romanian in the early 1930's; we know that Jews who stayed in Romania during the rest of the 1930's were in great peril, and we know that more than a third of Romania's Jews ultimately were murdered in the Holocaust. For Two Thousand Years recounts a number of small events that we now know were part of the much bigger picture and looming catastrophe. In this volume, the characters sense that a political disruption is afoot as things unraveled in Europe and various extreme political parties vied for power.
Based upon real events, this novel also has relevance to the present day because it shows how easily unspoken prejudices can suddenly break out into the open en masse when the power structure condones, encourages or supports such bias. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and this book is as much a cautionary tale as it is autobiographical historical fiction.
I found this to be a quick, easy read. So, I recommend this strongly to anyone interested in WWII history, 20th century Europe, Romania, anti-Semitism, and/or philosophy.
And, I have to add this Postscript. I read this book and wrote my first version of this review here under the impression and belief that this book consists of the author's actual diary and journals. While doing more research on Sebastian, I realized that the book is actually fiction and that Sebastian had made the main character an architect, whereas Sebastian was a lawyer, author and scholar. So, readers should be aware that the characters in the book are fictitious, but the text nonetheless seems to be more than loosely based on the author's actual experiences and life.
I liked the conversations, the interactions and the sense of first person account of the time. I loved the small touches, such as the death of his grandma vs the life of his (other) grandmother. It’s an oddly intimate book and I found myself reflecting back on it quite a bit after reading it. A worthy addition to the literature of the age.