Journal 1935-1944: The Facist Yearsby Mihail Sebastian, Patrick Camiller (Translator)
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Hailed as one of the most important portrayals of the dark years of Nazism, this powerful chronicle by the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian aroused a furious response in Eastern Europe when it was first published. A profound and powerful literary achievement, it offers a lucid and finely shaded analysis of erotic and social life, a Jew’s diary, a reader’s notebook, a music-lover’s journal. Above all, it is an account of the “rhinocerization” of major Romanian intellectuals whom Sebastian counted among his friends, including Mircea Eliade and E.M. Cioran, writers and thinkers who were mesmerized by the Nazi-fascist delirium of Europe’s “reactionary revolution.” In poignant, unforgettable sequences, Sebastian follows the grinding progression of the “machinery” of brutalization and traces the historical context in which it developed. Despite the pressure of hatred and horror in the “huge anti-Semitic factory” that was Romania in the years of World War II, his writing maintains the grace of its perceptive and luminous intelligence. The legacy of a journalist, novelist, and playwright, Sebastian’s Journal stands as one of the most important human and literary documents of the climate that preceded the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
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[Tuesday], 12 February 1935
The radio is tuned to Prague. I have been listening to a concerto by J. S. Bach in G for trumpet, oboe, harpsichord, and orchestra. After the intermission, there will be a concerto of his in G minor for piano and orchestra.
I am immersed in Bach. Yesterday evening, while writing a long letter to Poldy, I listened to the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto from Lyonsfor the first time with extremely clear receptionand then to a Mozart concerto for piano and orchestra.
I went to see an eye specialist. He recommended glasses and I have started to wear them. It changes me quite a lot and makes me look ugly.
It was funny when I told him my name. He said that his family has much discussed my De doua mii de ani [For Two Thousand Years], which he has not read himself. He has heard a lot of people cursing me. I realize that my trial has really been lost. Cum am devenit huligan [How I Became a Hooligan] is not reaching the circles where I am cursed even by "hearsay."
On Sunday at Tirgoviste, where I had gone for a lecture, Samy Herscovici told me a story that indicates how the "affair" is seen by the public.
The bookseller who was selling tickets for the lecture offered one to a professor at the teachers' training college: "Sebastian? Aha! That yid who got himself baptized."
Yesterday evening, Nae was due to speak at the [Royal] Foundation about "National Solidarity." Hislecture was banned by the government. The students were herded together on the pavement near the palace, where they booed, shouted, and sang. Then they were driven farther, into Piata Ateneului, where Nae, bareheaded and wearing his coat with a wolfskin collar, made a speech while perched on their shoulders.
"Nae was a fine sight," related Nina.
There were scuffles, fistfights, firecrackers going off. Even some shots were said to have been fired in the air.
Not a word in today's papers.
How disgusting is the issue of Credinta devoted to Nae. Petru Manoliu, Sandu Tudor, and Zaharia Stancuabout Nae Ionescu! I've lived to see this too.
[Monday], 18 February
Yesterday evening, two of Handel's organ concertos, in B-flat major and G minor, from Stuttgart. Very Mozart-Haydn. Could I tell him apart from those other two?
For a week now, beginnings of revolution at the Bar. A few meetings campaigning for a "numerus clausus." On Saturday, the day before yesterday, Istrate Micescu spoke and went right over to the Movement. It is exactly a week since my interview with him appeared. I am obviously losing my touch.
What people! Made of whey, yogurt, and water. M[icescu] told me the other day: "If you want to know who is my master in politics, it is Alain." He spoke then about freedom, about individual resistance to the state, about the stupid idea of a "collective" and how it is exploited by dictatorships. And now look at him, an anti-Semite gone over to the "national revolution."
Nae has had a hand in this too. Micescu admitted to Froda that he had had a visit from Nae, who had urged him to take the leadership of what was happening at the Bar. Look at how the professor is going to make a new Romania! What a cruel, ridiculous, terrible affair, in which everyone, including Nae, makes his little contribution.
But spring has come. Yesterday I went with Benu to Baneasa. A March wind was blowing, it was sunny, and I felt young. Not for a long time have I felt such a keen desire to be happy.
[Sunday], 17 March
I have come tired from the station (got up at 6 a.m. to go to Braila, now I am back). But I don't want to leave this note until tomorrow, having vowed in the train to write it.
I traveled with Nae Ionescu. He was going to give a lecture in Galati (about "Signs and Symbols"). Nothing interesting in the morning: we read the papers, talked politics, and had a pleasant time chatting with a girl who had struck up a conversation with us. I got off in Braila and we agreed to meet again in the evening on the return journey.
In the evening we did indeed find ourselves in the same compartment. Professor Vechiu, leader of Argetoianu's supporters in Braila, was also there with us. All three of us had dinner in the restaurant car. Nae put on a great political act.
It is he who got Vaida's movement off the ground. (Ten days ago he assured me of exactly the opposite.) He and the Iron Guard will support him, but without taking part themselves. He recognizes that the "numerus valachius" is really a platform for agitation, not at all a political program. He accepts the fact that it cannot be implemented. "Things like that could happen only as a consequence of something else, if there were a change in the general framework."
His plan is very simple. Keep Tatarescu in power for the time being-for another three months, say, until Vaida's movement acquires solid foundations and cadres. Then a Vaida government, produced by sixty Iron Guard deputies and some ten to twenty-five from other parties, so that "the Guard will be His Majesty's Opposition." Logically, when this Vaida government falls, the succession will fall to the Guardists.
I do not know what chances this plan has. Rather few, I would think, and in my hew he is a fantasy-monger. Quite logical, of course.
What made me feel a little sad for Nae was the tone in which he said everything. Scheming, artful, "enfant terrible." What he said to Averescu, how he duped George Bratianu, how he got even with Vaida in Brasov ...
"I really landed them in the shit."
I certainly prefer him in the lecture hall.
As we traveled back in the compartment, a feeling of vague unease turned into one of pain. What a poseur that man can be! There were two colonels in the compartment. He started chatting and managed to get them both "at sixes and sevens." I could see victory on his lips, a sense of triumph at having flummoxed them. He said some bewildering thingsof the kind he uses to startle people by turning the discussion from a local matter to a problem of world history. The talk was of a possible war between France and Germany.
"Rubbish! The whole crux is in Singapore. That's where Europe is playing its cards. And it can play without Germany. That's all there is to it."
In Singapore? Maybe. But anyway, before the problem can be properly discussed, Nae's bolt from the blue put an end to it. The colonels exchanged looks of admiration and astonishment, suddenly alight from the revelation of the truth. Nae could feel this and basked in the warm glow.
In one hour he retold everything I know about him: how he lived through the revolution in Munich, how he gave speeches to the revolutionary ministers, how the revolution finally put an end to the Dachau money factory, how Colonel Epp did this and did that, etc., etc. Things I heard from him years ago, riveted to the wall in his office at Cuvantul.
Then he moved on to more recent matters. To Beck in Warsaw he had said that it was necessary to move closer to Germany. To Karl Radek he had explained that Stalin's successor would be Genghis Khan. In Berlin he had told a general this, shown a minister that ...
"And do you know Hitler personally?"
(One of the colonels threw in this question when Nae was in full flow. I well knew that he had never met Hitler. He said so categorically a year ago, and again last summer. But he was at risk of disappointing the colonel, who was so full of admiration.)
"Yes, I've seen him. There's a great politician for you. You see, Trotsky, who is enormously intelligent, and Stalin, who is a fool, ... (The change of tack was probably out of prudence, but he kept up the liea lie of pure blusterbecause he could not bear to let slip any of the glory he had promised himself. What a child he is! Five minutes later, Vechiu asked him in turn, "Have you seen Hitler?" And he again replied "Yes," rapidly moving on to something else, either because he felt awkward or because he was bored with having to dream up too many things to say.)
He looked as he must have fifteen years ago holding forth at the Capsa. How young he is, dear old Nae Ionescu!
Saturday, 30 March
Nae's class yesterday was suffocating. Iron Guardism pure and simpleno nuances, no complications, no excuses. "A state of combat is what we call politics. One party contains in its very being an obligation to wipe out all the others. The final conclusion is that `internal politics' is an absurdity. There can only be a conquest or seizure of power and a merging of the party with the whole collective. From that moment all that exists is household management, since all possibility of reaction has been eliminated. A collective that contains within itself the idea of war is called a nation. A nation is defined by the friend-foe equation." And so on and so forth ...
I should have liked to tell him how monstrously he contradicted himself, but he was in too much of a hurry and left straight after the lecture.
His whole heresy stems from a wild and terrifying abstraction: the collective. It is colder, more insubstantial, more artificial than the abstraction of the "individual." He forgets that he is speaking of human beings; that they have passions andwhatever one may sayan instinct for freedom, an awareness of their own individual existence.
Even more depressing is the fact that all those theories stem from vulgar political calculation. I am convinced that if he spoke like that yesterdaywith so many political allusions and so painfully Hitler-likeit was because an Iron Guardist dressed in national costume was sitting in the front row of the audience. I could feel that he was speaking for him.
I have been listening a lot to Bach recently. Last Sunday the St. Matthew Passion at the Ateneu. I think I am really very fond of his music. In any case, I can now easily tell a piece by Bach from any other.
Over the past three weeks I have picked up many of his works on various radio stations. One evening, from Warsaw, there was the Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, the Concerto in D Minor for Three Pianos, and another concerto, also in D minor, for piano and orchestra. Stuttgart had the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, two cantatas, and a trio sonata for harpsichord, violin, and viola da gamba. (The same evening, from Warsaw, there was a Debussy sonata for flute, cello, and harp. Magnificent.) Later, two preludes and a fugue for organ, from Bucharest. Last Monday the Second Brandenburg Concerto, an aria, and a cantata from Budapest, and on Tuesdayagain from Praguethe Third Brandenburg Concerto and another one in E major. One evening Berlin had a few organ piecesI no longer remember which onesand a suite for unaccompanied cello, heartrendingly calm and solemn.
And then, very many things I can no longer recall. (Bach two to three times a week from Stuttgart, after one in the morning. And one evening a delightful Kleine nachtmusik by Mozart, also from there.)
Finally, longer ago, Vienna had a memorable performance of the double violin concerto. A Handel sonata, Ysaye's Variations on an Old Theme, and a sonata by Philipp Emanuel Bach.
A cold rainy springI do not mean sad ...
Sunday, 7 April
Elections at the S.S.R. How wretched! I cannot forgive myself that for one moment I had the naiveté to think the game was serious.
As soon as you give up being alone, everything is lost.
Thursday, 11 April
This evening I listened to a Bruno Walter concert from Prague.
The overture to Gluck's Iphigènie en Aulide, a Mozart violin concerto in G major (the first time I have heard it, I think), and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The Mozart seemed more delicate and melodic than ever. The universities are closed. So tomorrow I no longer have Nae's course.
I saw some appalling things in the street. Wild animals.
Sunday, 14 April
Yesterday Leni came at one o'clock to pick me up at the newspaper. It was a beautiful day, like the middle of June. She was superb. Tailor-made suit, shoes, handbag, a little ribbon around her neck, the brim of her blue hat. With me she has a kind of timidity that makes her look solemn.
She said she had heard of a lover I am supposed to have had for a long time in Braila.
"That's the reason I haven't called you any more. It's how I explain why you are so reserved. I haven't wanted to disturb you."
I protested and said there was no truth in it.
"So then"I said to myself: be sensible, kid. "So then, it's just my natural reserve."
"Caution, in other words."
"If you like. But I think it's more a question of self-knowledge. It would be expecting too much of things I don't deserve."
"You don't know what you do and do not deserve. And in particular, you don't know what someone else may be thinking about you."
We went for a walk in Cismigiu, and I was proud of how beautiful she was. It could be love.
Thursday, 18 [April]
An eventful day. Visited Leni. We are in love; we said it to each other. She is young and beautiful, has an admirably simple way of speaking-and I find it so inexplicable that she is coming closer to me.
But it is not prudent, and I don't know how I'll ever get out of this. How many things have gone wrong because of my ill luck! I had so much going for me to be happy. I had enormous ability, with no complications and no drama. And all that broke down horribly at the age of seventeen and a half. I am disgusted by it sometimes, or more often saddened. Why, Lord, why?
I would so much like to be happy, and I would have asked so little.
The evening at the Nenisors' and then at Zissu. (I danced.) When I hooted for fun on the way home, she said: "You've so much of the child inside you, yet you're so tired of life."
For someone who has known me for only ten days, that was surprisingly accurate. Yes, it's true. It's terrible how calmly I accept the idea of death.
Sunday, 21 [April]
Went for a walk with Leni and a friend of hers, Jeni Crutescu, on the Sosea. The first spring morning, after so many rainy ones. It was warm; a lot of green, a lot of yellow. We had vermouths and snacks at the Flora. Leni was delightfully dressed. People turned their heads at us, and I was again proud to be walking beside her.
But in the afternoon I felt a terrible need to see her again. That is not good at all, though I'm beginning to be seriously in love with her. How will I get out of that?
Tuesday, 23 [April]
I met her at a football match (Venus-Juventus), but she arrived late from a theatre rehearsal for the next premiere.
I cannot explain the interest she has in me. She is so beautiful I am so badly dressed, so awkward. I realize how simple this love could be, how restful.
Wednesday, 22 May
Lunch at Aristide Blank's with Leni, Froda, Mrs. Blank, a guy I've never met before, and two young womena rather ugly Viennese brunette and a South American blonde who spoke French with a delightful Anglo-Saxon accent.
Coffee and cognac on a terrace, in a kind of courtyard made restful by the colors and the wind blowing through it. Blank is a poseur. Leni was surprisingly ill at ease, but with adorably simple gestures. She is extremely shy, to my amazement. She claims that I intimidate her.
(Yesterday, at the football match at the O.N.E.E [Stadium], she was uneasy, silent, "melancholic" for a lot of the time, but immediately became talkative, expansive, almost boisterous when Ronea, from the Regina Maria Theatre, joined our groupa man with whom she has certainly slept in the past. Her sudden "mise à l'aise" infuriated me. But it is certainly not her fault. I am always the one to blame: I am probably too complicated and basically incomprehensible for her, whereas she has been so straightforward with me from the beginning.)
I did not mean to write about this, however, but about the South American blonde. We exchanged a few words, enough for me to draw a cinema sketch of her. She said:
"I'm South American. Where do I live? Pretty well everywhere. Look, I've just come from Vienna and plan to stay a couple of weeks. Then I'll go back to Vienna and meet up with my husband, who is on a business trip in Africa at the moment. No, I don't live in Germany. I have a house in Hamburg, though I haven't been there for three years. But I'll be going on the Rhine for a while this summer. We have a villa there. Then maybe to North Africa, where we also have a little house."
So, I said, you live on the whole planet.
"No," she smiled with sincere modesty. "No."
Strange people. And we can vegetate for a whole lifetime in Sfintii Apostoli, Popa Tatu, or Radu-Voda!
[Monday], 10 June
I must see Poldy! The trip that I initially thought to be out of the question must become possible. Things need to be cleared upso that at least I know where I stand. How funny it would be if there were only a medical matter involved!
But no, I don't have too many illusions. But I do want to know.
Like a fool, I allowed myself to get caught up in a story that I knew from the beginning would lead nowhere. Here I am smitten, jealous of every man with whom she ever slept, preoccupied at every moment with what she is or might be doing, happy when she is smiling, miserable when she is too jolly, trembling when I hear her voice on the telephone. I am rediscovering that ebb and flow of emotions that I have not experienced for a long while, since Jeni's time, in the most feverish moments of my lovemornings when everything is simple and unimportant, when it seems neither here nor there whether I see her or not; evenings heavy with melancholy, with a desire to see her that is physically located in the heart.
All this takes a form that is comically sentimental, schoolboyish, adolescent. It sickens me to think that she is meanwhile occupied with a load of trivia that amuse or excite her, in her little life of pleasures, walks, and frivolities. It is altogether likely that she is sleeping aroundand I am stupid enough to talk to her gravely and with a ridiculous lack of skill about various overcomplicated "problems."
She, who expected just another man, seems weary of my hesitations, of my excessive complications. And I suffer like a child because of all these meaningless trifles.
She is a "good girl." Will I one day be able to receive her in my bachelor flat, fuck her, drink a glass of wine and smoke a cigarette with her, put a record on the gramophone, and listen with indifferenceor at best with amusementas she talks about her past lovers? If I can, everything will be perfect. That too is a kind of happiness, and I would certainly be happy. But what if I can't? Another failure and it's all over.
Anyway, things are very bad as they stand. It is sickeningly trite that today I bought her a copy of Barbellion's Journalfor her about whom Berariu said to me two months ago: "Go chat her upyou can't go wrongshe'll screw with anyone."
And he was probably right.
I'm seeing her tomorrow. She leaves on Sunday.
I broke with Jeni appallingly. The poor girl!
[Tuesday], 11 June
She was supposed to call me and she didn't. Everything can end at that, in the simplest way. Any move on my part would be more than ridiculous, worse than imprudent.
I ought to understandand do understand perfectlythat it would be out of all proportion to note here every sordid little thing that has happened to me in this "love story." Enough!
Four hours later
More stupid than any lovesick fool, for I have absolutely no excuse.
I went to see her after all (after phoning twice: the first time she was asleep, the second time on her way out shopping). I told herand I did it quite well, with perfect gestures, frown, and voicethat I am in love with her. Then I left, because someone was due to call on her at a quarter past eight.
"I got the times mixed up," she said candidly.
What an ass I am!
[Thursday,] 13 June
Chance has it that I am just now rereading a volume of Proustthe second one of Albertine disparue.
So many things should make me skeptical about my amatory "sufferings." I am well aware that they will not last, that I shall forget them, that they are all derisory, and that one day they will mean so little as not even to appear ridiculous. Yet such words of wisdom, such calculations that I know to be objectively correct, do not lessen in the slightest today's depression, the absurd need to see her, the physical pain of constantly thinking about her, of seeing again certain moments that now present a mystery I should like to clear up.
I wonder, for example, what happened that day when we went to lunch at Blank's. He took her aside, put his hand around her waist, and talked with her about something or other. Later, in the afternoon, I tried to reach her by telephone. Once she was asleep, the second time she was out. Something tells me that he met her that afternoon, and that when he took her aside he arranged a rendezvous.
And the following eveningon Monday, I think, as we were leaving the Piccadilly where I had met her by chance (she was with J[eni] C[rutescu], I went with her toward the telephone and she stopped to call someonewhom?
What stupid, childish worries, especially as I know how little point there is in that old old game, so familiar and always the same.
But knowledge is not a cure, just as precise knowledge of the stages of typhoid fever does not spare you from suffering them.
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Mihail Sebastian was born in 1907 to a middle-class Jewish family in the Danube port of Braila; he died in an automobile accident in the spring of 1945. During the period between the wars, he was well known for his lyrical and ironic plays and for urbane psychological novels tinged with melancholy, as well as for his extraordinary literary essays.
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The cosmopolite city of Braila, a Romanian port of the Danube, where Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Jewish merchants used to elbow, had already given Panait Istrati to the European literature. 1907 saw the birth there of another writer of great talent, Mihail Sebastian. Dead since 1945, he is still hotly discussed in Romania, where his books are raising solid controversies. His JOUNAL was also abundantly commented in France, in spite of the fact that events and people discussed in the book are less familiar. Bound to be a lawyer, Sebastian was absorbed by the Golden Years (1920-1944) of the Romanian literature, when the Jewish population of the country had doubled, thanks to the lands obtained after WWI, when the Fascist ideology was spread by Nae Ionescu and his disciples, including Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran. Sebastian became notorious after his first book, SINCE 2000 YEARS, with a venomous foreword solicited from Nae Ionescu, the mentor of his beginnings, who summed up the old ideas against 'the Jews who refused and crucified Messiah'. Disgusted, Sebastian switched to more pleasant writings, with a successful play and a lively novel. But 1940 saw the triumph of the fascist Iron Guard, and Mihail Sebastian had to abandon both Law and literature. He survived during the war with precarious jobs provided by his numerous Romanian friends, who helped him to stage under a false name his best play, STAR WITHOUT A NAME. Others kept him on a payroll or gave him some translations; he was also a teacher for a Jewish college. After the Red Army invasion of the country, some of his Romanian friends were worried by the presence of many Jews in the Communist hierarchy. So Sebastian found himself torn between them and his Jewish acquaintances, who frowned him upon when they failed to enroll him. He refused many offers and was about to becoma a full-time teacher, when a mad truck put an end to a hard life and a promising literary career. His last play, BREAKING NEWS, was a posthumous success, then he disappeared from the dictionaries until 1990, after the fall of Ceaucescu the Communist tyrant. 2000 YEARS was reissued, with the ominous foreword, bringing to the book a large success among... the renascent antisemites! Then the publishers discovered the existence of a personal diary, covering the last nine years of his life and preserved in Israel by his family. It was published in Bucharest, with an enormous success: many readers discovered what their real living conditions were during WWII and also that the conditions for the Jews were not consisting of 'just a few rags, some extra taxes, a few camps of reeducation and eight hours a day of civic work, with home sleep in a warm bed', as boasted in his prison cell by the former Commissar to the Jewish Affairs. As a matter of fact, this diary was not meant for publication, but it is of an immense richness, because it is in the same time a well-informed account of the war, an intimate diary, a reflexion on artistic creation and the description of the Jewish common life during the 'restrictions'. Some readers may not like it; others, like me, will sum up Sebastian as a very brilliant isolated individual, torn between his Jewish conscience and his belonging to the Romanian community. He was refused by both. His publisher called him 'my brother Sebastian', trying to compare his sufferings to those of the Romanian dissidents, persecuted by Ceaucescu. The two destinies while comparable, are of an entirely different structure, and such a comparison may be interpreted only as a step towards 'a Communist Nuremberg'. This allusion has developed since into an acute controversion, lining up the Romanian intellectuals in two opposite camps; the first camp, listing mainly expatriated writers like Norman Manea, the second animated by the publisher and some eminent intellectuals, whose chauvinistic inclinations found there an excellent field for expansion, bringing help to the traditionally visceral a