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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian

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To purchase For Two Thousand Years

Title: For Two Thousand Years
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 233 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: For Two Thousand Years - US
For Two Thousand Years - UK
For Two Thousand Years - Canada
For Two Thousand Years - India
Depuis deux mille ans - France
Seit zweitausend Jahren - Deutschland
Desde hace dos mil años - España
  • Romanian title: De două mii de ani ...
  • Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
  • With a Foreword by Mark Mazower (US edition)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : uneven, but impressively sustained voice

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 26/2/2016 Toby Lichtig
The Guardian . 19/3/2016 Paul Bailey
Irish Times . 29/2/2016 Eileen Battersby
New Statesman . 10/4/2016 Gavin Jacobson
The NY Rev. of Books . 26/5/2016 John Banville
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/10/2017 Ken Kalfus
TLS . 12/10/2016 Costica Bradatan
Wall St. Journal . 22/9/2017 Sam Sacks

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed -- though UK edition could have used supporting material

  From the Reviews:
  • "For Two Thousand Years is mordant, meditative, knotty, provocative. It scores high on psychological verisimilitude and low on larks -- though there is some room for humour and even the odd bedroom escapade. More than a fascinating historical document, it is a coherent and persuasive novel, atoning in setting and character development for what it lacks in narrative pace. " - Toby Lichtig, Financial Times

  • "Sebastian is a novelist who listens to what his people wish to tell him, especially when he disapproves of everything they are saying. He understands, as a man of the theatre, that a conversation can be more revealing than mere exposition allows." - Paul Bailey, The Guardian

  • "It is a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel in which Ó Ceallaigh conveys the laconic personality of the narrator, an apprentice thinker firmly rooted in European intellectualism, whose thoughts drift between the profound and the ordinary. (...) For Two Thousand Years is a book of truths which ultimately adopts a rhetorical stance." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Penguin should be commended for bringing Sebastian’s work to the anglophone world. Yet it is strange that a novel famed for its introductory essay now arrives without one. For Two Thousand Years is a complex, unsettling, often rebarbative roman-à-clef that confronts the incendiary nature of political ideas in interwar Europe. Present-day readers would have been well served by a foreword, or footnotes. (...) But the tone is that of Dostoevskyís Underground Man, pitched in the seething idiom of self-loathing and despair." - Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman

  • "In its way, For Two Thousand Years is as much a condemnation of Romania, and especially Romanian intellectuals, in appalling times as is the Journal; indeed, one might say it is a novel written as a journal, while the Journal is a journal written as a novel." - John Banville, The New York Review of Books

  • "Whatís 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. (...) This is the way fascism takes hold, regardless of how the sides are defined. I canít help thinking that Mihail Sebastian is sending us a message across the generations." - Ken Kalfus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Philip Ó Ceallaigh has succeeded in preserving the unique mixture of alienation, ennui, and barely disguised anxiety that marks Sebastian’s prose. Nevertheless, For Two Thousand Years remains stylistically uneven and sometimes lacks narrative unity: the role of some of the chapters chronicling the narrator’s stay in France, for example, is unclear. What redeems the novel are the long sections written in diary form: these are not just memorable, they are overwhelming." - Costica Bradatan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The struggle animates 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. (...) The slender plot serves mostly as a vessel for passionate arguments. (...) Many of Sebastianís characters are modeled on intellectuals who would have been well known to his Romanian readers but now require recondite web searching to identify. But the passage of time has also added gravity to a story that foreshadows yet cannot quite envision the genocide on the horizon." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In For Two Thousand Years the Sebastian-like anonymous narrator recounts his life as a student and a young architect in Romania (and briefly Paris) in the 1920s and early 1930s. A Jewish student -- of law, initially -- from relatively humble circumstances, his account opens with him facing threats daily merely in trying to attend his classes, as anti-Semitic fervor bursts over all around. Conflict is out in the open, returning home from the university bruised after being roughed up not uncommon, and he repeatedly has to run to save himself. He presents the outrageous situation with some humor -- "I received two punches during today's lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value for two punches" -- but the conditions are horrific.
       Questions of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism are prominent throughout the work. The narrator struggles with his Jewish identity, realizing it is inescapable yet frustrated by its absurd burden -- foisted on it by outside forces. He does not easily identify himself as part of a group -- quickly moving out of the school dorm rooms, for example -- and is more or a loner. Other economic and political issues also don't galvanize him -- though there are any number of them in the years covered in his account. As he notes early on: "I'm never going to be a social revolutionary".
       Anti-Semitism is just one manifestation of the unrest in and conflicts of the Romania of the times. The narrator is able to observe much of this from two central vantage points, university -- itself frequently a battlefield -- and then a large project in which he is involved, a (typical capitalist) American exploiting oil fields in Uioara, displacing an entire town and old livelihoods (even as it brings modernity and wealth as well). The country remains torn in the same way so many are (adjusting only for regional differences):

     To put it crudely, Romanian culture has remained stuck with the same intellectual problems which arose when the first railroad was built in 1860. With the problem of identifying with the west or the east, with Europe or the Balkans, with urban culture or the spirit of the countryside. The issues have always remained the same.
       And so it is also unsurprising to find, for example, one of the students who used to abuse him later telling the narrator about the school violence (and general unrest):
     I'm not sorry about what happened. I'm sorry about how it ended: in indifference, in forgetting ... Smashing windows is fine. Any act of violence is good. 'Down with Yids' is idiotic, agreed ! But what does it matter ? The point is to shake the country up a bit. Begin with the Jews -- if there's no other way. But finish higher up, with a general conflagration, with an all-consuming earthquake. This was our situation back then, our real aspiration.
       By the end, the narrator notes, the cry 'Death to the Yids' has become an almost empty slogan that no one reacts to any longer -- and that's part of, or the actual, problem:
     Now that I think about it, the problem isn't that three boys can stand at a street corner and cry "Death to the Yids," but that the cry goes unobserved and unopposed, like the tinkling of a bell on a tram.
       The normalization of the outrageous -- even if, for now, only as thought rather than deed -- is what is should be of concern
       The narrator admits to being more focused on self than society -- indeed, the novel's epigraph begins with Montaigne's strong statement that: "I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself", while the narrator admits: "Everything I do, all I think, all I suffer is circumscribed: 'Me.'" Yet he also displays a sense of being ill at ease in his own skin: "I am so ill at ease in my own company; how badly another person must feel being with me". In his account he is also cautious in his presentation of his dealings with others, some of his more intimate relationships with women addressed, but only probed so far. And while close to family and some friends, there's always a sense of some distance and remove. He does let himself be influenced -- he is strongly drawn to one professor, in particular, and even changes his course of studies, from law to architecture, at his suggestion -- but maintains (or at least repeatedly (re)asserts) a critical distance.
       The narrator sees himself as an intellectual -- and is frustrated by his intellectualism:
The real problem is the intellectual's inaptitude for real life, methodically cultivated through reading, thinking and dialectic. It is deformity by stages, as systematic habituation, day by day, a slow atrophying of the reflexes and instincts, a step by step destruction of the natural vital power that allows us to pass untroubled through storms.
       Other takes action -- and even his Jewish acquaintances make choices. For some, Zionism has some appeal, with its promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But the narrator is unconvinced by this -- or any -- of the supposed solutions to the Jewish condition -- and his own issues. As with most everything else, he instead goes his own solitary way. (Even the final scene is one of embracing solitude (though here also achievement), as: "I waited until the people had left one by one and remained alone in the doorway, the last one left".)
       For Two Thousand Years begins as a sort of notebook-diary, and the journal-style is one he returns to repeatedly, rarely describing any sequence of events at much length, but rather shifting fairly rapidly back and forth . At points the novel does lack flow and cohesion -- jumping ahead several years or, especially, detouring briefly to Paris -- but so many of the individual scenes and reflections are so crisply, sharply distilled that their power blurs the narrative's shortcomings. The novel certainly gives a good, somber impression of much of the Romanian situation in those years.
       A great deal here resonates uncomfortably easily too, familiar from the present-day all around us as For Two Thousand Years proves timeless in a way that the author could hardly have expected.
       An impressive, dark, feverish young-man's work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 August 2017

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For Two Thousand Years: Reviews: Other books by Mihail Sebastian under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Mihail Sebastian (born Iosif Hechter) lived 1907 to 1945.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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