Apr 112015
 

19Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. —Eric Foley

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Adventures in Immediate Irreality
Max Blecher
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
New Directions, 2015
112 pages ($14.95)
ISBN 9780811217606

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In his Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years, Mihail Sebastian recounts a visit he paid to his fellow Romanian writer Max Blecher in September of 1936, the same year Blecher’s first book, Adventures in Immediate Irreality (Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată), was published:

I left overpowered and exhausted. He lives in intimacy with death. Not with the abstract, unclear, long-term death. It’s his death, precise, defined, known in every detail, just as an object . . . I wanted to burst into tears a few times when looking  at him. At night I heard him moaning and screaming in his room, and I felt that there was another person at home with us, maybe death or faith—I don’t know who.

At the time of Sebastian’s visit, Blecher had just turned twenty-seven. He had less than two years left to live.

Born in 1909 in Botoşani and raised in the town of Roman, Max Blecher belongs to a remarkable group of Romanian writers who came of age in the 1930s—a generation that included, among others, Mircea Eliade (b. 1907), Mihail Sebastian (b. 1907), Eugene Ionesco (b. 1909) and Emil Cioran (b. 1911). Like his friend Sebastian, Blecher was born a Romanian Jew, yet neither man was fated to die from the fascist exterminations that demolished nearly half of Romania’s more than 700,000 Jews during World War II. Sebastian survived amidst increasing persecution only to be hit by a truck mere weeks after the Nazis surrendered, dying on May 29, 1945, while Blecher succumbed to spinal tuberculosis at age twenty-eight on May 31, 1938. Blecher had contracted the disease nearly a decade earlier while studying medicine in Paris. Thereafter, he spent his adult life confined to various European sanatoria, and finally to his parents’ estate outside of Roman. His condition required him to wear a painful body cast; the majority of his work was completed while reclining in a state of partial paralysis.

blecher2Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. It’s the kind of place that gives the unnamed narrator “the vague feeling that nothing in the world can come to fruition,” and a time in his life when he has nothing to do “but saunter through parks, through dusty clearings burnt by the sun, desolate and wild.” Although they coincide with the onset of adolescence, the narrator’s crises have little to do with the usual growing pains. Rather, they stem from a profound confusion between his internal and external worlds. The crises arise particularly through the young man’s interaction with objects, what Blecher refers to as brute matter. “I had nothing to separate me from the world,” the narrator tells us, “everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve.”

Eugene Ionesco referred to Blecher as “the Romanian Kafka,” while others have compared his work to that of Bruno Schulz, Marcel Proust, and the French Surrealists (Blecher corresponded with André Breton, not to mention André Gide and Martin Heidegger). Adventures in Immediate Irreality reads like a searing combination of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (a book Blecher could not possibly have read), yet Blecher also possesses a great deal of originality as a writer. His use of similes, for example, brings an unexpected depth to his images. As Herta Muller points out in her introduction, “Blecher’s eroticism of perception requires the constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other.” You know you’re reading an unusual work of literature when the narrator doesn’t bother to describe his appearance until the book is more than half over:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

The simile here—arms that hang like newly skinned animals—is visually appropriate, in keeping with Blecher’s death-haunted prose, while simultaneously conjuring the image of a boy who feels he has been violently thrust into adolescence. The simile also evokes the narrator’s extreme sensitivity: this is a young man who lacks the ordinary layer of protection between himself and the world that others possess. Earlier in the novel, he tells us: “It was what was most humdrum and familiar in the objects that disturbed me most. The habit of being seen so many times must have worn out their thin skins, and they sometimes looked flayed and bloody to me—and alive, ineffably alive.” If the narrator’s arms are like flayed animals, so are the objects that surround him. Both are skinned yet “ineffably alive,” forced beyond their comprehension to participate in this thing we call life. Nearly all of the objects the main character perceives so intensely come from the human world. Even the landscapes he interacts with have been shaped by people:

There was another cursed place at the other end of town on the high, loose banks   of the river where my friends and I would go to bathe. At one point the bank had caved in. Just above it there was a factory that made oil from sunflower seeds. The workers would throw the discarded seed husks into the section of the bank that had caved in, and over time, the pile grew so high that it formed a slope of dry husks extending from the top of the bank to the water’s edge.

My playmates would descend to the water along that slope, cautiously, holding one another by the hand, sinking their feet deep into the carpet of rotten matter. The walls of the high bank on either side of the slope were steep and full of outlandish irregularities—long, fine channels sculpted by the rain, arabesque-like but as hideous as poorly healed scars, veritable tatters of the clay’s flesh, horrible gaping wounds. It was between these walls, which made such an impression on me, that I too climbed down to the water.

One of Blecher’s great themes is the intensity of perception, particularly as regards the faculty of sight. His prose wrestles with the call and the challenge of the visible world: “Such is what I had to struggle with, what implacably opposed me: the ordinary look of things.” An individual of the narrator’s uncommon sensitivity might have encountered such crises in any era, but Blecher came of age in the 1920s, and his book is awash with reference to the technologies, old and new, that proliferated at that time; photography, cinema, chemical experiments, mirrors, and waxworks all provide the narrator with reflections of the unreality that surrounds and inhabits him. They also provide him with the opportunity to repeatedly, playfully, interrogate the process of mimesis. Blecher’s narrator sees imitations as paradoxically more “real” than life itself: “The bullet-riddled, blood-stained uniform of a sad, sallow Austrian archduke”, he tells us, “was infinitely more tragic that any real death.”

Early on, in what could stand as a central trope of the book, the narrator watches a young woman apply her make-up. “The mirror was so old that the polish had completely worn off in places and actual objects showed here and there through the back of the mirror, merging with the reflected images as in a double exposure.” This is only one of numerous occasions where Blecher presents us with an image of a world that consistently breaks through the attempt to represent it. Blecher’s acute awareness of such crises of perception and representation, as well as his articulation of the necessity of searching for new means to express them, is one of the hallmarks of modernism:

Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul. Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images. The magic word that might convey their essence would have to borrow from the essences of other aspects of life, distill a new scent from a judicious combination of them.

Throughout the book, Blecher blurs the line between representation and what is represented, calling into question both the act of perception and the act of rendering what one perceives in language. In the context of this interrogation of mimesis, it is perhaps worth remembering that 1936, when Adventures in Immediate Irreality was published, was also the year Erich Auerbach began teaching at the Turkish State University in Istanbul, where he would eventually write his epic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. For Blecher, mimesis is always deliciously bound up in materiality. Here is how the narrator describes a movie-going experience in his hometown:

One day the cinema caught fire. The film tore and immediately went up in flames, which for several seconds raged on the screen like a filmed warning that the place was on fire as well as a logical continuation of the medium’s mission to give the news, which mission it was now carrying out to perfection by reporting the latest and most exciting event in town: its own combustion.

Scenes like this have led Andrei Codrescu, rightly, to call Max Blecher “a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed”.

Blecher’s episodes flow not according to chronology, but via the associative logic of memory. By the end of the book, the narrator has even undergone a change of sorts, thus satisfying the requirements of a conventional narrative, yet this is hardly the point of the book. The real pleasure of Adventures in Immediate Irreality lies in how miraculously and minutely Blecher conjures a series of vanished surfaces—bringing an idiosyncratic collection of people, places, and objects to life while remaining focused on the question that Beckett’s Molloy asks: And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again? The “seeing again,” of course, refers to the process of memory.

If the provincial town the narrator inhabits seems at times excessively strange, perhaps many places were once so, before globalization. Indeed, one of many reasons to read this book is for a glorious reminder of just how unusual our planet once was. Blecher excels, in particular, at portraying how one layer of reality can quickly give way to another:

Once, as a child, I was present at the exhumation of a corpse, a woman who had died young and had been buried in her wedding gown. The silk bodice was a mess of long filthy rags, and what remained of the embroidery had mixed with the soil. Her face was more or less intact, however, and one could make out nearly all her features even if the head had turned purple and seemed modeled out of cardboard that had been soaked in water.

Someone ran his hand over the face as the coffin was being raised out of the ground. All present were in for a terrible surprise: what we had taken for a well-preserved face was nothing but a layer of mold about two inches thick. The mold had replaced its skin and flesh down to the bones, thus reproducing its form.  There was nothing but the bare skeleton underneath.

This is a world that will never come again, a world that may never even fully have existed except inside of one young man, but the beauty of literature is that it has been preserved for us, so that we may partake of it repeatedly, in all its strange melancholy.

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One further reason to read the newest edition of Adventures in Immediate Irreality is to witness a literary translator at the height of his powers. This was one of the last projects Michael Henry Heim completed before his death in 2012. In order to demonstrate the degree to which Heim has succeeded in breathing new life into this English version, I’d like to take a closer look at the passage from Blecher’s original where the narrator finally gives a physical account of himself:

Eram un băiat înalt, slab, palid, cu gâtul subțire ieșind din gulerul prea larg al tunicei. Mâinile lungi atârnau dincolo de haină ca niște animale proaspăt jupuite. Buzunarele plezneau de hârtii și obiecte. Cu greu găseam în fundul lor batista pentru a-mi șterge ghetele de praf, când veneam în străzile din „centru”.

Here is Alistair Ian Blyth’s respectful, highly competent translation, published as Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality by University of Plymouth Press in 2009:

I was a tall, thin, pale boy, with a slender throat poking from the overly large collar of my tunic. My long hands dangled below my jacket like freshly flayed animals. My pockets bulged with objects and bits of paper. I used to have a hard time retrieving a handkerchief from the bottom of these pockets to wipe the dust off my boots, when I reached the streets of the ‘centre.’

And here, once more, is Heim’s version:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My  long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

As we can see, Blyth is much more faithful than Heim to the syntax of the original, following Blecher almost word-for-word. In Blecher’s second sentence, for example, the Romanian word “Mâinile” unquestionably means “hands”, while “proaspăt” would indeed most commonly be translated as “fresh.” Heim inserts a period in the first sentence where Blecher employs a comma, and he omits the word “boy” (băiat) altogether. Interestingly, Heim turns Blecher’s final two sentences into one long one, thus retaining the same number of sentences (4) in the paragraph. Yet in taking such liberties, Heim arrives at a version that reads more crisply and elegantly in English. I would also argue that he succeeds more fully in transmitting the intensity and idiosyncrasy of Blecher’s prose.

“My struggles with uncertainty no longer have a name”; the narrator of Adventures in Immediate Irreality tells us; “all that remains is the simple regret that I found nothing in their depths.” Indeed, life often is sad. We don’t know why we’re alive, or for how long. One goes out for a walk in the street and feels baffled by each thing one sees. Yet sometimes, reading marks left by others on a page or screen, it’s possible to be lifted cleanly away from one’s confusion. Sometimes, if the vision is intense enough, we feel ourselves become more fully alive, our faculties of perception realigned. In such moments the act of existing even acquires a kind of momentary meaning. At the end Adventures in Immediate Irreality, I found myself looking up from the page like Blecher’s narrator:

I would peer around me wide-eyed, but things had lost their usual meaning: they were awash with their new existence. It was as if someone had removed the fine, transparent paper they had been wrapped in till then, and suddenly they looked new beyond words. They seemed destined to be put to new, superior, fantastic uses  beyond my power to divine.

The miracle of Blecher’s writing is the miracle of literature itself: that strange human endeavor that always must occur in “the immediate irreality.”

—Eric Foley

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eric foley2

Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He was a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award and the Hart House Literary Contest, also winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. You can see his work at Numéro Cinq and InfluencySalon.ca. He divides his time between Toronto and Eastern Europe.

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