Adventures In Immediate Irreality

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“I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Max Blecher’s Adventures

This is a book that soothes without sentimentality. Blecher
chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of
nonexistence. He made that veil permeable: his words are vehicles traveling through
the opaque membrane that surrounds the seemingly solid world. These are the
“adventures” of the inside and the outside exchanging places, while being somehow
exactly the same in the light of Blecher’s extraordinary sensibility. Nobody knows
how to die. Max Blecher, because he was young and a genius, suggests a way that
investigates, rediscovers life, and radiates beauty from suffering.

“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.”

Max Blecher’s soul was a fearless journalist who reported what his hypersensitive
senses and immense intelligence uncovered about the world we think we know. “The
world as definitively constituted had lain waiting inside me forever and all I did
from day to day was to verify its obsolete contents.” After the discovery that this
is not the real world, he finds it to be the projection of a text that tells a story
which erases the world as it appears to be: “All at once the surfaces of things
surrounding me took to shimmering strangely or turning vaguely opaque like curtains,
which when lit from behind go from opaque to transparent and give a room a sudden
depth. But there was nothing to light these objects from behind, and they remained
sealed by their density, which only rarely dissipated enough to let their true
meaning shine through.”

This is not Surrealism, as critics sometime saw it, but hyper-realism. Blecher
corresponded with André Breton, and was chronologically situated in a string of
Jewish-Romanian geniuses: Tristan Tzara (b. 1886), Benjamin Fondane (b. 1898),
Victor Brauner (b. 1903), and Gherasim Luca (b. 1913). Each of those writers
launched a precocious revolution related to Surrealism, with an urgency prompted by
an imminent and cataclysmic future. Yet, unlike his peers, for Blecher the urgency
of Time unfolds with a rigorous diagnostic probity that will not yield to any
unreflecting words. The games of language so beloved by Surrealists are there only
to be disposed of.

Glossing the nonsense conversation he enjoys with a friend:

“What I found in that banter was more than the slightly cloying pleasure of plunging
into mediocrity; it was a vague sense of freedom: I could, for instance, vilify the
doctor to my heart’s content even though I knew—he lived in the
neighborhood—that he went to bed every night at nine . . . We would go on and
on about anything and everything, mixing truth and fancy, until the conversation
took on a kind of airborne independence, fluttering about the room like a curious
bird, and had the bird actually put in an appearance we’d have accepted it as easily
as we accepted the fact that our words had nothing to do with ourselves . . . Back
in the street, I would feel I had emerged from a deep sleep, yet I still seemed to
be dreaming. I was amazed to find people talking seriously to one another. Didn’t
they realize one could talk seriously about anything? Anything and everything?”

This is the “nothing” that is acquiring mass and is already heading for the world
that Blecher feels becoming nothing but the mere traces of a once “serious” life. In
the unfolding researches of his childhood, he has time to uncover in dusty attics
the faded remains of gone worlds: letters, photographs, and paintings more
substantial than the present, which evanesces as he writes, “like a scene viewed
through the wrong side of a binocular, perfect in every detail but tiny and far
off.”

There is an inverted nostalgia here, a nostalgia for the present that has already
taken hold of the writer who is composing both his own and his decade’s epitaph.
Blecher, like Proust, endows places and objects from the past with the ability to
project an independent existence more real than the present. This world hides
another, open only to the genius of child-wonder and adolescent desire.
Adventures in Immediate Irreality
is not a memoir, a novel, or a poem,
though it has been called all those names, and compared rightly with the works of
Proust and Kafka. Blecher belongs in that company for the density and lyrical force
of his writing, but he is also a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth
century had not yet fully birthed, but the twenty-first is honoring in the highest
degree.

The place of these “adventures” is probably Roman, the provincial Romanian city where
he was born in 1909, a place small enough to explore, and conventional enough to
grasp. The time is childhood and adolescence in the still new twentieth century. The
probing instrument is his body rushing to work for as long as the liberty of his age
and his vitality allow. Blecher didn’t outlive his unfettered genius. In 1928, while
still in medical school in Paris, he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. He was
treated at sanatoriums in Berck-sur-Mer in France, Leysin in Switzerland, and
Techirghiol in Romania. For the last ten years of his life, he was confined to bed,
immobilized by the disease. Despite his condition, he wrote and published his first
piece in 1930, a short story called “Herrant” in Tudor Arghezi’s literary magazine
Bilete de papagal
, contributed to André Breton’s literary review
Le
Surréalisme au service de la révolution
and corresponded with Breton, André
Gide, Martin Heidegger, Ilarie Voronca, Geo Bogza, and Mihail Sebastian. In 1934, he
published
Corp transparent
, a volume of poetry. In 1935, he was moved to a
house on the outskirts of Roman where he wrote and published his major works,
Întâmplări în irealitate imediată
(Adventures in Immediate Irreality)
and
Inimi cicatrizate
(Scarred Hearts), as well as short prose pieces,
articles, and translations. In 1938 he died, at the age of twenty-eight.

Blecher’s genius is also the genius of his disease, and the timing of his death: “I
envied the people around me who are hermetically sealed inside their secrets and
isolated from the tyranny of objects. They may live out their lives as prisoners of
their overcoats, but nothing external can terrorize or overcome them, nothing can
penetrate their marvelous prisons. I had nothing to separate me from the world:
everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a
sieve. The attention I paid to my surroundings, nebulous though it was, was not
simply an act of will: the world, as is its nature, sank its tentacles into me; I
was penetrated by the hydra’s myriad arms. Exasperating as it was, I was forced to
admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing for it.” Those
“hermetically sealed” people, in their healthy bodies and apparently fortunate
longevity, were going to go on living in the coming decade. Max Blecher, whom
nothing separated from the world, had the good luck to die in 1938, freed into the
“outside” before the 1940s.

Vizuina luminată: Jurnal de sanatoriu
(The
Lit-Up Burrow: Sanatorium Journal) was published posthumously in part in 1947 and in
full in 1971. Beginning in the mid-1970s his books were translated into French,
German, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, Polish, and English. The
twenty-first century is even more wildly receptive to Max Blecher.

“For a moment I had the feeling of existing only in the photograph.” Max Blecher
wrote this sentence while Roman Vishniac was capturing a multitude whose members
ceased to exist soon after he photographed them. Those images of people, whose
provincialism was nearly absolute, later toured the world. This sentence by Blecher
resonated for Walter Benjamin, himself in the grip of reproductive
extinction—what the twentieth century already had inscribed in its DNA. It is
a fountain-sentence, a
boca de leone
from which reality spews the bile of
immediate irreality. The magnificent paragraph that opens with that sentence, rests
on another photograph, a Victorian portrait taken at a fair, of the photographer’s
dead child, and concludes with the century’s epitaph: “At fairs, therefore, even
death took on sham, nostalgic-ridden backdrops, as if the fair were a world of its
own, its purpose being to illustrate the boundless melancholy of artificial
ornamentation from the beginning of a life to its end as exemplified by the pallid
lives lived in the waxworks’ sifted light or in the otherworldly beauty of the
photographer’s infinite panoramas. Thus for me the fair was a desert island awash in
sad haloes similar to the nebulous yet limpid world into which my childhood crises
plunged me.”

Blecher foresaw the irreality of the “real” world and the substance of “irreality,”
now main quandaries of our time as we struggle between the “real” and the “virtual.”

“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. Cries of ‘Fire! Fire!’ broke
out all over the room like revolver shots. In no time there was such a racket that
the audience, until then seated quietly in the dark, seemed to have been storing up
great wailing and ululation, like batteries, silent and inoffensive unless suddenly
overcharged and then explosive.”

When hyper-realist ultra-hearing is so acutely accurate it becomes a timeless
metaphor: “And suddenly a clicking noise rang out. It was neither the grate of sheet
metal nor the far-off jangle of a bunch of keys nor the rasp of a motor; it was the
click—easily discernable amidst the myriad everyday sounds—of the wheel
of fortune.”

Like the fair, Blecher’s world is still a world in good order, loosely tethered to
the nineteenth century’s long fin-de-siecle with its tendencies to dematerialize,
slip away, and turn illegible. The educated classes of his time, who thought that
“being illegible” was the greatest threat facing the human race, had no idea what a
colossal loss of order was around the corner: the world and its humans would soon
become illegible, unintelligible, irreparable. But Blecher’s senses saw far. He
grasped the incoming scrambled text of matter, tuned to the disintegration of his
body. The “adventures” of his evanescence are suspenseful, like those in a novel,
beautiful like passages from a European, pessimistic Whitman, a Whitman
à
rebours
, who is not Baudelaire, and these adventures are also news, our
news.

There is no trace of God. But there is an ecstasy in knowing mud. And wonder at the
fact that the world is
full
: “I was surrounded by hard, fixed matter on all
sides—here in the form of balls and sculptures, outside in the form of trees,
houses, and stone. Vast and willful, it held me in its thrall from head to foot. No
matter where my thoughts led me, I was surrounded by matter, from my clothes to
streams in the woods running through walls, rocks, glass . . . I met hay carts and,
now and then, extraordinary things, like a man in the rain carrying a chandelier
with crystal ornaments that sounded like a symphony of hand bells on his back while
heavy drops of rain dripped down the shiny facets. It made me wonder what
constitutes the gravity of the world.”

It is the question that Michael Henry Heim—the great translator who brought
into English some of Central Europe’s finest writers—heard in his own body.
Heim was himself ill when he translated Blecher, for the sake of whom he learned
Romanian. This translation is a special event in the complex geography of
literature: it represents the meeting of a young Romanian genius racing the imminent
destruction of his body, with Michael Heim, a master of the superb English sentence.
Heim’s translation of Blecher’s
Adventures in Irreality
vibrates in tune
with the mysterious filaments of death connecting them in this text. This is why,
despite two decent previous translations into English, Heim’s
Adventures in
Immediate Irreality
is definitive.

ANDREI CODRESCU

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