To exist, and yet not be “fully alive”: Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher

In his short life, one defined by and confined by illness, Romanian author Max Blecher (1909 – 1938) published two novels, a collection of poetry, and a number of prose pieces and translations. A journal he kept was published posthumously. He also corresponded with some the most important writers and thinkers of his day. For a young man who spent the last decade of his twenty-eight years in various sanatoria with his torso immobilized in plaster, it is quite an achievement. Beginning in the 1970s, his work started to appear in translation in various languages including English, but the twenty-first century seems to be even more openly receptive to his work. The publication in 2015 of Michael Henry Heim’s new translation of Adventures in Immediate Irreality (which had been published in an earlier translation) brought his singular pained and distorted visions to an enthusiastic new audience, myself included.

Adventures in Immediate Reality is an existential sort of coming of age story in which the young narrator wanders through town engaging in “adventures,” many of which are sexual in nature. However, rather than becoming more confident and secure in his physical and emotional identity, he is increasingly aware of a nebulous, uncertain relationship between the tangible reality others appear to inhabit and the off-kilter space he navigates. Hallucinatory and surreal, haunted by questions of identity, bodily disconnect and discomfiting glimpses of a gloomy future, this work conjures a world not unlike those imagined by Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Dali. His other novel is quite a different beast.

Scarred Hearts is a much more conventional affair, a love story set in a sanitarium in the French seaside town of Berck where Blecher himself lived immediately following his diagnosis with spinal tuberculosis or Pott’s Disease. Like Blecher, the protagonist Emmanuel is a young man whose studies in Paris are cut short by the same devastating condition. The opening scenes wherein an x-ray and exam reveal that Emanuel’s spine is disintegrating, followed by the graphic description of the lancing of an abscess back home in his boarding house room are chilling. The shock he feels with his new understanding of the truth of his circumstances is vividly captured:

[E]verything seemed much sadder, more indifferent… A blighted Emmanuel walked this world, a man with an eroded vertebra, an unfortunate before whom the houses parted in fear. He stepped softly on the pavement, as if floating on the asphalt. In the interval spent shut inside the doctor’s office, the world had become strangely diluted. The boundaries of objects still existed, but merely as thin lines that, like in a drawing, surround a house in order to make it a house or stabilise the outline of a man; those contours that enclose things and people, trees and dogs, while barely possessing the strength to hold within their limits so much matter on the verge of collapse. It would be enough for someone to loosen that thin line around the edges of things for those imposing houses, their outlines suddenly wanting, to dissolve into a murky, homogenous grey sludge.

However, once he arrives at the sanitarium—a strange world unto itself, a hospital with the illusion of cultured society— the narrative that unfolds sheds most of its dream-like interiority and becomes remarkably standard and straightforward.

As Emmanuel settles into his new life, he learns to accept the peculiar atmosphere of the clinical hotel-like quality of the sanitarium and the resort town peopled largely with caretakers and former patients, at least in the off season. His perspective is now an essentially vertical one; he like so many of his fellow invalids he spends his time, day and night, on a trolley. In time, a plaster cast is constructed around his torso. Nonetheless, every day he is dressed as if still a man about town, wheeled down to a dining room for meals and allowed to travel about the town and countryside with horse and carriage. He makes friends with a cast of fascinating characters and soon he falls in love.

The object of his desire, Solange, is herself a former patient who stayed and now works in Berck. She accompanies Emmanuel about town in his carriage and visits him in his room, but in time his passion cools and his irritation with her grows. It is at this point that Emmanuel becomes an increasingly self-absorbed and selfish character but the motivations for this change are unclear and the novel seems to lose its steam. Although Blecher must be drawing on the experiences he himself had or observed in others, his unwillingness or inability to slip deep into the consciousness of his character as he did in Immediate Irreality, leaves a flat bitterness on the surface of a novel that started with such promise.

There is, of course, much to admire here. Blecher excels at evoking the smells and sensations, often revolting, of a world inhabited by the sick and dying, and laying bare the medical conditions of his era. At the same time, his descriptions of the flood of summer tourists who turn a quiet town dedicated to convalescence into a crowd of vacationing families and competing gramophones demonstrate how little has changed over the years, music plying devices aside. But the third person narrative creates an unfortunate distance. The title, Scarred Hearts, refers to the impact of severe illness on the ability to express emotion, but this tale seems to lose its soul as well.

Given its conventional form and general accessibility, Scarred Hearts was well received and has even been made into a movie. Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a much more daring work, so now that I have read this, I wonder if Blecher’s Sanitarium Journal will provide a context and some of the heart I felt was missing with this recent read. Last year two translations of the journal were finally published in English for the first time, along with his collection of poetry, so I will be able to find out.

Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher is translated from the Romanian by Henry Howard and published by Old Street Publishing.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

12 thoughts on “To exist, and yet not be “fully alive”: Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher”

  1. I liked this more than you and felt the third person narrative helped to show the almost out-of-body experience of the main character. But perhaps it helped that I read this first and Adventures afterwards.

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    1. That probably made a difference, plus I have a lovely hardbound edition of his Sanitarium Journal waiting for me and i got a little impatient with Emmanuel. It will be interesting now to read Blecher’s private reflections on his experiences.

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      1. I should say that in Romania ‘Vizuina luminata. Jurnal de sanatoriu’ was published and talked about as a novel rather than diaries. But I suppose it is comparable to Mihail Sebastian’s 2000 Years, which also reads at times like passages from his journal.

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      2. My understanding that in Romanian the journal was published in part in the 40s, I think, but not in full until the 70s. I suppose it would be impossible to know how Blecher intended it to be read, if he even expected others to read it at all.

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      3. It’s a novel; Blecher himself calls it that in letters to Mihail Sebastian, where he writes, “I’ve began to write a novel, but I am not keen on seeing it to the end. If I were to die…” It was published posthumously in 1971 by his friend and editor, Sașa Pană. The title contains indeed ‘ sanatorium journal’ but the wok itself is structured like a first person novel, it contains fiction, dreams… Knowing what we know of his life, it does of course read like a journal, a confession, and it does include real events, but so does Scarred Hearts. There are events and people and even turns of phrase that Blecher repeats even in his poetry; memories, motifs, which you find in all of his writings. He did want it published, though there are other writings he destroyed closer to death, 70 pages of another novel, essays. Often he speaks in his letters of the regret he carries at the thought of not being able to write and finish everything he wants to.

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      4. Thank you for clarifying that, Christina. I am eager to read this work (I apologize that I could not afford your translation and was unaware of Twisted Spoon’s edition until it arrived) because, even if it is fictionalized, I felt that the third person voice and what seems to be an effort to be more “conventional” causes Scarred Hearts to lose its connection to me as a reader. Of course, being a person with my own body disconnect issues, Adventures struck such a deep chord when I read it that it may be difficult to meet that standard again. I shall see.

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      5. No need to apologize, I’m happy that his work is getting attention and reaching more people. I think you’ll perhaps like it better than Scarred Hearts, but also, the latter reads differently once you’ve read them all. The film adaptation is quite moving—it’s an adaptation of all his writing, not just Scarred Hearts.

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  2. This made me think immediately of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain which (amongst a good deal more) conveys the sense of a self-contained community in a sanatorium dealing with the reality of their illness (also TB) in different and sometimes rather odd ways.

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    1. Yes, the residents are, of course, from well-to-do families and the effort to pretend to the elements of normal life, from the dining hall to the parties and romances, is striking.

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  3. Adventures sounds intriguing to me because it seems a little like what I’m currently reading, Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, an epistolary memoir of boldness and fearlessness, and much irritation but also understanding, of being nonhuman, of the bodily disconnect and other sense of irreality in being embodied as an ogbange(a black spirit deity). All the while attending an MFA program, getting publishing and becoming alienated, due to their fearlessness and naming themselves. Though somewhat self-centred, it’s a compelling read and an excellent follow up to Freshwater.

    Your review makes me wonder if this author though from a different culture had similar experiences, and like Emezi, dared to speak of and share them in lucid text. Society little tolerated such decentering, I find it illuminating to be given insight into their perspectives.

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    1. Adventures is a remarkable book and it differs, to me, from the surrealist and avant-garde literature of his day in that it seems to so deeply reflect the disembodied experience of being a passionate spirit in a body that was restricted and the source of so much pain. Blecher’s channeling of his own existential crisis and his observations in this book (Hearts) are very impressive, especially considering his young age and circumstances. I am really looking forward to reading his journal now for a perspective that is not fictionalized.

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