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from the May 2015 issue

Max Blecher’s “Adventures in Immediate Irreality”

Reviewed by Dustin Illingworth

It would appear that to write about Blecher is, in some sense, to write about a broad swath of European modernists in a game of contextual one-upmanship.

It seems to me unfortunate that the critical reaction to Max Blecher’s incandescent Adventures in Immediate Irreality has been, if largely adulatory, also hampered by a certain name-the-influence conceit, as if the mere act of situating the Romanian writer’s work could somehow unlock its textual enigmas or mitigate its astonishing power. Indeed, it would appear that to write about Blecher is, in some sense, to write about a broad swath of European modernists in a game of contextual one-upmanship. And while the incessant comparisons to Kafka and Shulz and the Surrealists are not entirely without merit, to use Blecher as a tool for such crude juxtaposition is to almost certainly overlook his startlingly original literary gifts, not the least of which is his vivid, uniquely translucent prose style, wonderfully rendered here in an immaculate translation by Michael Henry Heim. It boils and spills across the page in a molten gush, returning a strangeness to even the most prosaic manifestations of reality. In her gorgeous introduction, Herta Müller locates the provocative power of this shimmering, shivering language in Blecher’s sensual dialectic between substance and ornament, word and thing: “the eroticism that lurks in every ordinary object, waiting to ensnare a person.” It is in this “eroticism of perception” that one recognizes the sui generis nature of Blecher’s work, whose Adventures both reveal and revoke our relation to being.

As difficult to classify now as it was eighty years ago, Adventures is equal parts novel and memoir, poem and requiem, dream and hallucination. Its plot, such as it is, follows several vaguely disorienting episodes in the life of a young provincial Romanian. These episodes—or crises, as the nameless narrator calls them—are products of the particular intensity of adolescence; indeed, early sexual experience, the intimation of death, and social frustration are all marshaled here as incidences of a budding awareness. But far from the edifying education of the modernist bildungsroman, our narrator is instead initiated into Blecher’s deeply felt ontological nightmare: the unbearable porousness of reality, its opacity such that objects “only rarely dissipated enough to let their true meaning shine through.” Blecher, who died at the age of twenty-eight of spinal tuberculosis after wasting away for ten years, discovered a parallel evanescence in the realm of the inanimate, articulating the intricacies of metaphysical collapse with the terrible eloquence of a seasoned connoisseur. In this way, Adventures feels deeply personal, while also managing to hold itself at arm’s length: a harrowing intimacy as seen through a pane of clouded glass.

This sense of distance, too, may be attributed to the book’s setting and sensibility, a thoroughly vanished bourgeois world in which the burgeoning conspicuousness of industrialization has begun to form a rudimentary mass culture. The venues for our narrator’s internal crises—waxworks, luminescent fairgrounds, abandoned theaters—become telling examples in and of themselves of the growing irreality of modernity, wherein moving images and the garishness of popular entertainment suffuse reality with a grotesque sheen Blecher keenly understands. In one particularly memorable scene, a cinema goes up in flames “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”—that news being, of course, “its own combustion.” In Blecher’s world of roiling pre-war cultural phantasmagoria, not even the representations of representations of reality are safe from conflagration.

If our narrator does meet and converse with flesh and blood humanity in these surreal locales—a motley collection of absurd old men, silent women, manipulative boys, and promiscuous shopgirls—Adventures remains, fundamentally, a conversation with, and about, things. They surround the narrator wherever he ventures, enforcing a kind of material paralysis: “everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve.” This dissolution of the barriers between interiority and the external world precipitates a despair born of a vulnerability to phenomena: “I was surrounded by hard, fixed matter on all sides...Vast and willful, it held me in its thrall...No matter where my thoughts led me, I was surrounded by matter…” In this bleakly mechanistic world, crude and physical, God and the soul are notably absent; the closest thing the text provides to a transcendent experience is the narrator sinking into a field of tepid, gurgling mud, a sort of inverted baptism in filth. But no moment of transcendence or enlightenment is forthcoming, barring the young man’s weary revelation that “people and things came forth from the very dung and urine into which I had sunk my very concrete shoes.”

Perhaps necessarily, there is a blurriness in these descriptions that sketches the limits of literary endeavor; moreover, much of the text’s tension can be located in the struggle to articulate the aforementioned “tyranny of objects,” as even prose of Blecher’s caliber falls short of its considerable challenge. And yet what literary pleasure is gained in the attempt! Blecher’s similes and metaphors are consistently startling, refreshing one’s eyes with a beautiful, and often violent, efficacy: arms hang from sleeves “like newly skinned animals”; a Pekinese’s eyes are “like two agate marbles in oil”; shadows appear “skimming the sea, shadows unstable and aqueous, brief intimations of sadness, here now, then gone, racing the foam.” The text achieves a kind of aesthetic buoyancy despite its profoundly pessimistic suppositions solely by virtue of Blecher’s miraculous, revivifying language. Rarely has disintegration been described in such stunningly gorgeous detail.

There is a line at the very beginning of Adventures that continues to return to me, easily lost in the lavishness of the prose surrounding it, but one that grows in complexity with each rereading: “Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing for it.” This seems to me to cast resignation as its own form of aestheticism, a transmutation of perceptual crisis into high literary art. It is also a summation not only of his own brief life but of the twentieth-century’s horrors, speaking to Blecher’s not inconsiderable prophetic power. The world of crude matter seethes around us, inchoate, unintelligible. Yet Adventures in Immediate Irreality grants us the opportunity to live vicariously, even sensually, between a prismatic language and an eroticism of objects, a place where it can be said, truly, that “ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.” Blecher never wrote an ordinary word—and this is his masterpiece.

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