Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, newly reissued, 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.
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 hyperrealism. 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, 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.
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 France, Switzerland, and 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, Întâmpl ̆ari în irealitate imediat ̆a (Adventures in Immediate Irreality) and Inimi cicatrizate (Scarred Hearts), as well as short prose pieces, articles, and translations. He died in 1938, 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.
“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. Blecher’s sentence resonated for Walter Benjamin, himself in the grip of extinction. It is a fountain-sentence 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 the 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 hyperrealist ultrahearing 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 discernible 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 siècle with its tendencies to dematerialize, to slip away, to 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 would soon become illegible, unintelligible, irreparable. But Blecher grasped the incoming scrambled text, tuned to the disintegration of his body. The “adventures” of his evanescence are suspenseful, like those in a novel; they’re beautiful, like passages from a European, pessimistic Whitman, a Whitman à rebours; and they’re news, our news.
There is no trace of God in this book, 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. His translation 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’s most recent book is Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes).