File: Mihail Sebastian

In March 1935 (on Thursday, March 21st, more precisely), Sebastian was invited to hold a conference at the French Institute in Bucharest; the relationship between the writer and the president of the Institute, Alphonse Dupront, was one of mutual regard, as we find out from the writer's Diary. The proposed theme for the conference – "national specificity" – is, at that time, unexpectedly topical and particularly burning, due to its political implications. Unwillingly, Sebastian had contributed to the aggravation of antagonisms around this issue, with the publication of his novel For Two Thousand Years, accompanied by the much-controversial foreword written by Nae Ionescu. Only two months before the conference, the essay called How I Became a Hooligan had been published, an essay which, from his point of view, struck a (catastrophic) balance of the scandal and with which he intended to put a "definitive" end to the stormy debate. Nevertheless, in this very speech, Sebastian returns to the novel and the significance of the inflamed polemic, because the calm atmosphere of the Institute and the foreign audience, not emotionally involved in the debate, give him the opportunity to retrace the discussion in a non-passionate register, to place it in a historical background and in the larger context of intellectual confrontation on national specificity and "Romanian spirit", on tradition and modernity, with extensive cultural and literary implications. I suppose the original copy in French of Sebastian's speech is, or was, in the family's archives.[1] I recently came upon a Romanian translation of the text in a file from the archives of the RomanianJewsHistoryCenter at the Jewish University in Jerusalem. Mrs. Ditza Goshen, the coordinator of the Center, was kind enough to draw my attention to the manuscript and to allow for its publication. The author of the translation (containing a few tricky passages, which Sebastian would have certainly corrected) is likely to be S. Schafferman (1903-1991), a writer and journalist, a relative by marriage of Sebastian. He is the one who managed to take Sebastian's Diary to Israel in 1963, when he immigrated there with his family. A few years later, the Diary notebooks came in the possession of Beno Sebastian, the writer's younger brother. The paper on which the text was typed comes from Israel, which means that we are dealing with a late translation of the manuscript, written after the writer's relatives left Romania. In the days following the conference at the French Institute in Bucharest, Sebastian returns to some ideas expressed at that meeting in his topical commentary in Rampa (Footlights). Two days after the conference, he writes about the way in which Ion Trivale defines "the national spirit" ("A Voice from 1911", Rampa, XVIII, March 23, 1935, no 5159), reproducing almost exactly the same fragment on Trivale included in the conference. Two more days later, Sebastian publishes a comment, "An Evening at the French Institute" (Rampa, XVIII, March 25, 1035, no 5161), on the night spent at the French Institute, without mentioning, out of discretion, that he had been the speaker, but delightedly describing the elevated atmosphere, the communicative spirit, the heartiness of the polemics. An atmosphere which he now longed for, especially since he was still traumatized by the brutality of the attacks he had just been subjected to, following the publication of his novel. Finally, after two more days, in an article, "On a certain ruffian mentality" (Rampa, XVIII, March 27, 1935, no 5162), he zestfully ridicules those who over-politicize the world of ideas and that of culture, and who see a hidden "left or right" political layer in everything. He is particularly worried about the political color given to the world of ideas and of art, having sensed this in the devastating attacks to his novel, as well as in the evolution of his fellow generation colleagues. Apostrof 5/2001 (Cluj)
[1] After the publication of the Romanian version of Sebastian's conference, Prof. Irina Livezeanu was kind enough to put at my disposal a copy of the French original, for which I would like to thank her again. (Leon Volovici) 

by Leon Volovici (b. 1938)