Early in 1935, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian—journalist, playwright, novelist, literary critic—decided to start a diary. He was twenty-eight. The first entry, dated February 12, hints at the events that preoccupied him.
10 PM. 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 [his brother Pierre, a doctor living in France], I listened to the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto from Lyons—for the first time with extremely clear reception—and 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 [novel] For Two Thousand Years, which he has not read himself. He has heard a lot of people cursing me. I realize that [my attempt to defend my work] has really been lost. [My article] How I Became a Hooligan is not reaching the circles where I am cursed even by “hearsay.”
On Sunday at Tîrgovisåüte, where I had gone for a lecture, Samy Hersåücovici 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.”
Here Sebastian mentions most of his principal concerns: music; his novel; the recent attack on it, and on him, for being Jewish, and his defense of it in his pamphlet How I Became a Hooligan. He continued making entries on this “affair” and other subjects in his journal until the end of 1944, half a year before he died in May 1945.
“Mihail Sebastian” was the adopted name of Iosif Hechter, who was born in 1907 in the port town of Braila to an assimilated Jewish family and without denying his Jewish origins considered himself fully Romanian. He had been involved in the Bucharest artistic and literary world since his youth. Though not particularly pious, he occasionally attended synagogue services, which seemed to him aesthetic failures.
His novel For Two Thousand Years, published in 1934, was a roman à clef whose Jewish narrator explores the various choices—assimilation, Zionism, communism, and traditionalism—open to Romanian Jews faced with the country’s pervasive anti-Semitism.Among the recognizable characters in the novel was Nae Ionescu, Sebastian’s teacher, a charismatic professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest. Ionescu’s enormous influence, which spread far beyond academic circles, depended not on his published work—he wrote little—but on his lectures, in which he preached a mystical nationalism and a vision …