I spent my time reading this book caught between discomfort and relief. Both stemmed from the same place, which was Mihail Sebastian’s brutal honesty and the intimacy of the narrative. So while there are many great reviews about the historical politics, Sebastian’s life and influence, etc., all I can talk about is a highly personal reaction.
So much Jewish literature I’ve read has been us surviving, us resilient, us uncompromising, or on the other end of the spectrum (often when the gentile is the hero but not always): us victims, us pitiable, us rescued. Not all of it is, of course (is this a good time for a Dara Horn plug?) but it’s rare to find ones that break the mold as much as this one. Part of my discomfort probably came from the honesty and doubt that’s rarely afforded fictional Jews: we are not always secure in our faith. We are not always passionate about it, nor are we always courageous. We are frequently sick of hearing about Israel or aliyah. We have to deal with sanctimonious, holier-than-thou friends and family. All of this while feeling the twin pains of perpetual loss – of country, of family, of community – and perpetual oppression and antisemitism.
What a refreshing and slightly disconcerting narrative then – not one about conquering one of the floods of hate and violence directed at the Jews, but rather just the slow trickles which precede them. It’d be great if I could say it just captures a moment in history and I can’t relate to the specifics, but the truth is, even beyond Our Narrator’s theological musings and doubt, it’s eerily relatable to today. His torn loyalty to Romania and to the Jews is the same question I’ve been asked in shul and Hebrew school for years: am I a “Jewish American” or “American Jew?” Do we even know what the difference is? His French friend, to whom he says, “You, as anti-Semites go, are just a dabbler, an amateur,” is the same as listening to the casual antisemitism of friends and strangers in a world where you simply cannot speak out every time, and you feel your standards slipping. His genius professor is the warnings not to trust from parents and grandparents you don’t want to believe but end up being true. Even the real-life component: Sebastian, after publishing this book with a forward written by his antisemitic former professor, was accused of being an antisemite himself by the left and a Zionist by the right, echoing today’s political frustrations – right wing Christians don’t like us for obvious reasons, but we’re branded Zionists & asked to defend Israel by the left.
Obviously today isn’t quite like that (yet). This is also a great snapshot of a specific historical era – pre-holocaust Romania specifically – and despite everything I just said I don’t think antisemitism is anywhere near as overt as it was then. But it’s not far enough away for comfort either.
The amazing thing here is that while antisemitism plays a huge role, his life is rich beyond it. He’s ambitious and clearly smart, but also kind of an asshole. He’s pensive and cerebral at times, as in this passage:
I can know, or say, that God does not exist, and recall with pleasure the physics and chemistry textbooks from school that gave him no place in the Universe. That doesn’t prevent me from praying when I receive bad news or wish to avert it. It’s a familiar God, to whom I offer sacrifices from time to time.…
Sometimes I feel there is something more, beyond that: the God with who I have seen old men in synagogues struggling, the God for whom I beat my breast, long ago, as a child, that God whose singularity I proclaimed every morning, reciting my prayers.
“God is one, and there is only one God.”
Does not “God is one” mean that God is alone? Alone like us, perhaps, who receive our loneliness from him and for him bear it.
This clarifies so many things and obscures so many more…
…and yet at others dismissive of his friends’ discussions. He lives often in his own head and hates engagement. He cares deeply for the town he builds, as he does for his friends, Jews and antisemites both. I don’t know how much of the book was autobiographical, but regardless Our Narrator is nuanced and complicated, which makes even his less admirable moments understandable and sympathetic.
My only reservation isn’t Sebastian’s fault at all: I just hope that non-Jews understand what they’re reading. It can at times feel like the author is brushing off or excusing antisemitism, but only because he has spent a lifetime being literally beaten for being Jewish and having to put up with it just so damn often.
But aside from my concern, this should be more widely read and appreciated. It had me thinking for a solid month about my own, complicated feelings, which is in itself an achievement – but more importantly, it allows Our Narrator to be a real Jewish person, warts and all. More of that, please.