“This extraordinary personal diary, describing, day by day, the ‘huge anti-Semitic factory’ that was Romania in the late 1930s and early 1940s, deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank’s Diary and to find as huge a readership. Sebastian is no child, however — his is a sophisticated literary mind observing in horror, and then portraying with a fluent, lucid pungency, the cruelty, cowardice, and stupidity of his worldly Gentile friends in Bucharest’s urban cultural elite as they voluntarily transform themselves into intellectual criminals and, allied with the Nazis, participate with fanatical conviction in an anti-Semitic delirium that nothing can stop.”
— Philip Roth
Mihail Sebastian’s remarkable diary of the fascist years in Romania, written half a century ago, was at last published only recently, and is here translated into English for the first time. Sebastian was a promising young Jewish writer in prewar Bucharest — a novelist, playwright, poet, and journalist who counted among his friends the leading intellectuals and social luminaries of a sophisticated eastern European culture. Because of Romania’s opportunistic treatment of Jews, he survived the war and the Holocaust, only to be killed in early 1945 in an automobile accident.
Sebastian’s Journal is the product of an elegant stylist who moves from theme to theme with admirable ease. It is compelling reading. The book offers not only a chronicle of the dark years of Nazism but a lucid and finely shaded analysis of erotic and social life, a Jew’s diary, a reader’s notebook, and a music lover’s journal. Above all, it is a measured but blistering account of the “rhinocerization” of major Romanian intellectuals who were Sebastian’s 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 and memorable sequences, Sebastian touches on the progression of the machinery of brutalization and on the historical context that lay behind it.
Journal is a much greater literary achievement than similar diaries from the Nazi period. Sebastian vividly captures the now-vanished world of prewar Bucharest, known affectionately at the time as “little Paris.” Under 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 intelligence.
When Journal was first published in Romania in 1996, it aroused a fury in Eastern Europe, where appraisals of the Nazi period have been frozen in the clichés of old Communist regimes. The book has generated an explosive debate about the nature of Romanian anti-Semitism and Romania’s role in the Holocaust — which the country’s leading intellectuals continue to downplay. But Sebastian’s writing transcends this debate. It stands as one of the most important human and literary documents to survive from a singular era of terror and despair. From the book jacket.
SERIALIZED IN THE NEW YORKER
SHORTLISTED FOR THE PEN/BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB TRANSLATION PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR THE WINGATE LITERARY PRIZE
“Like all great works, Mihail Sebastian’s Journal generates its own actuality. Discovering and reading it today, more than a half a century after it was written, is a shattering and overwhelming experience....What is particularly admirable in this diary is Mihail Sebastian himself: he cannot help remembering that these fascists have been his former friends during their common youth, and he is able to feel sorrow when one of them dies. Even when he is himself marked and hunted, even when his own life is at stake, even when the horror culminates in the massacre at Jassy, even when he is beyond disgust and revulsion, he never loses his sense of justice, nor his humanity. He remains through and through a Just.”
— Claude Lanzmann
“Sebastian’s Journal proves to be one of the most important testimonies of the Jewish tragedy during that period, comparable to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or the diary of Anne Frank. Unlike Levi and Frank, who write from inside Hell, portraying life in the concentration camps or in hiding, Sebastian writes with honesty and analytic acuity from the purgatory of his own room in Bucharest, where he lives with the impending danger of deportation and death, questioning the moments of ease that his provisional freedom allows him: the enjoyment of music, of love affairs, of reading books, writing, or learning English.”
— New Yorker
“This book is alive, a human soul lives in it, along with the unfolding ghastliness of the last century, which passed an inch away from Sebastian’s nose. His prose is like something Chekov might have written—the same modesty, candor, and subtleness of observation. Here is a life, and an absurd death, whose spell will last a long time.”
— Arthur Miller
“Unforgettable....I read...with a gripped attentiveness....Compelling....Mihail Sebastian's hell is unique, even among European Jewish intellectuals because danger comes at him first...from his closest friends and colleagues....It is precisely his capacity to remain in touch with men and women who should have been his enemies that makes Sebastian an unparalleled diarist. [His] is a profoundly intelligent literary voice in the midst of political disempowerment, corruption, and carnage.”
— Alice Kaplan, New York Times Book Review
“An extraordinary testimonial....The sickening coziness of artistic and political worlds in fascist Romania is caught in the very process of ‘rhinocerization,’ to use Eugen Ionesco’s famous coinage....Sebastian’s Journal is an uncomfortable and convincing reminder that the Romanian, indeed European, intellectual milieu still has something morally rotten at its core. This book rises from the debris of pre-war verbiage like a man from a pile of corpses.”
— Andrei Codrescu
“Remarkable...a greater literary achievement than Klemperer’s. Today, more than a century after it was written, Sebastian’s Journal stands as one of the most important human and literary documents of the pre-Holocaust climate in Romania and Eastern Europe, of the conditions in which the Judeocide could be unleashed.”
— Norman Manea
“This humane masterpiece deserves to be ranked alongside the diaries of Victor Klemperer for its quiet, and indeed humorous, insights into the nature of wickedness.”
— Times Literary Supplement
“A brilliantly haunting account of the rise of antisemitism and fascism. At times it gives so intimate a feeling of fear that it is painful to read.”
— BBC History
“Moving, perceptive and sharply observed...the journal is a valuable addition not just to the canon of wartime and Holocaust literature, but to that of all humanity.”
— Literary Review
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.