“Yesterday I opened Montaigne by chance (I needed to trace some Latin verse), and I couldn’t put it down. What delights! Not for a very long time—perhaps never—has he seemed so lively, so enchanting, so direct and familiar. Yesterday I read `De l'utile et de l'honnête,’ and today I began `De l'expérience.’ Everything, almost every line, seemed subversive and liable to censorship in today’s world.”
The man who wrote this on July 19, 1942, was a Jewish novelist and playwright living in Bucharest, Romania, a nation described by Hannah Arendt as “the most anti-Semitic country in prewar Europe.” The Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party, required no coaching from Hitler. By the late nineteen-thirties, most of Mihail Sebastian’s literary circle had been seduced by the lure of fascism and anti-Semitism, including names well-known to readers today -- Mircea Eliade and E. M. Cioran. No one is more credulous, self-serving and fashion-conscious than an intellectual, and little has changed in seventy-five years.
Sebastian’s journal was smuggled out of Romania to Israel by his brother in 1961. The writer had survived the war but was hit and killed by a truck in Bucharest just weeks after Germany’s surrender. Sebastian was thirty-eight. The journal was first published in Romanian in 1996, then in French in 1998. The English translation by Patrick Camiller, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, came out in 2000. Early portions of the text read like uninspired gossip. Sebastian recounts the inbred doings of Bucharest’s litterateurs and his own struggles with writing and publishing. Slowly the tone changes as his isolation becomes more apparent. What impresses me most about Sebastian is his enduring devotion to literary culture despite the spineless treachery of former friends. Sebastian instinctively turns to books for solace. One day after the passage quoted above he writes: “I have learned with surprise, and with pleasure (from a commentary by Duval), that Shakespeare read Montaigne and was passionately fond of his Essays. I seem to like him all the more now, because I am reading both of them at once.” Ten days later, he is reading an unlikely American novel, though Shakespeare and Montaigne are still on his mind:
“I have read a Dreiser novel with great interest: The Financier . It is powerful, solid, and large. But he lacks a little poetry, the mysterious magnetism of a Balzac, to be a really first-rate writer. Anyway, it is enough to put me off any novel I have written or may ever want to write. Meanwhile I am getting on with my Shakespeare and Montaigne. Finished Richard II, begun The Comedy of Errors. Also read the last two acts of Hamlet, which I had left unfinished.”
Elsewhere, Sebastian is reading Conrad’s letters, Jane Austen’s Emma (“Graceful, simple, full of humor, but rather slow and too detailed—like a Dutch painting”), De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Jules Renard, Proust, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, La Fontaine and his beloved Balzac. Between August and October 1941 he is reading Sterne: “I finished Tristram Shandy this evening, after a long time spent slowly (too slowly) reading it. Anyway, it is all too long, too uniform, too loose. After the first hundred pages there was nothing more to be learned. And there are still four hundred to go. Pleasant nevertheless. Peaceful reading for a long untroubled winter.”
One of the saddest, most ominous passages in the Journal is not explicitly literary, though it reminds me of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939. This is dated Sept. 25, 1942:
“Yesterday I was in a group with Leni at the Jewish theatre, to see Stroe’s revue. Everything there—stage, actors, theatre, audience—seemed completely crazy. Death is breathing down our necks and we have a Jewish theatre, with girls in low-cut dresses, jazz, verse songs, gags, and knock-about sketches. Where is reality? The specter of the trains heading for Transistria haunts me all the time.”