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.

Chronicler of sensation: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher

“Brute matter – in the deep, heavy masses of earth, stone, sky or water, or in its least understood forms: mirrors, paper flowers, painted statues, glass marbles with their enigmatic internal spirals – has always kept me a prisoner bumping painfully against its walls, yet spurred me on to share in the strange and senseless adventure of being human.”

Confined to bed for the last decade of his short life, Max Blecher’s masterful Adventures in Immediate Irreality is nothing short of an intimate exploration of the ineffable question of what it means to exist in, and of, the world of matter and emotion. The boundaries between body and spirit are, for Blecher and his unnamed young protagonist, unfixed, shifting, and nebulous – sometimes seemingly just out of reach, sometimes oppressively sharp and painful. This is a luminous, original work that slips between the acutely hyper-real and the hallucinatory surreal, leaving in its wake a trail of vivid, sensuous imagery.

And that, superlatives notwithstanding, is the simple description. As the narrator himself would admit: “Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.”

irrealityBorn in 1909 into a Romanian Jewish family, Blecher grew up in the town of Roman. In 1928, shortly after moving to Paris to study medicine, he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and would spend the rest of his life in sanatoria, virtually immobilized in body, if not in spirit. During these years he would produce two novels, a book of poetry, and a number of articles and translations before he finally succumbed to his illness in 1938, when he was 28 years-old. His work has been variously compared to that of Proust, Kafka, Bruno Schultz and others, but to pigeonhole him would be to do a disservice to his singular vision which, in no small part, might be thought to be unique to his youth, his circumstances, and his acute sensitivity and innate ability to capture the most essential elements of being alive – his memory heightened by the harsh reality of being captive to a painful, disabling disease. It is not a work of surrealism, although there are dreams, visions, and elements of fantasy; but these aspects are set against the very real passion, anxiety, and disillusionment of adolescence.

So, with death an abiding presence in his own life, Blecher sets out to chronicle, with precision and attention to detail, in the flood of real and unreal experiences that his young protagonist encounters in his various “adventures” at home and around town. Beset from an early age by episodes, or “crises” as he call them, our narrator begins with an account of the way his perception of his surroundings and his sense of self within them – his identity – periodically dissipates and then resolves again. He emerges from these episodes with a recharged clarity, but he worries it won’t last.

“The feeling of distance and solitude during the moments when my everyday person has dissolved into amorphousness differs from all other feelings. When it persists, it turns into a fear, a dread of never finding myself again. A vague silhouette of myself surrounded by a large luminous halo looms somewhere in the distance like an object lost in fog.

Then the terrible question of who I actually am comes alive in me like a totally new body with unfamiliar skin and organs.”

This “terrible question” is what he sets out to try to answer by recounting, with an immediate, almost confessional tone, experiences that he hopes will lead to a clearer understanding of himself. Not surprisingly, his emerging sexual attractions direct much of his energies. He recalls his first intimate experiences with Clara in the back room of the sewing machine shop she runs with her brother. Later he will obsess and fantasize about Edda, the wife of the son of a family he regularly visits. In each circumstance, he agonizes over his insecurity, his inability to express himself with the confidence and grace he assumes that everyone else posses without question. In some respects, he is likely no different than most other adolescent boys exploring the dark and mysterious depths of sexuality, but he is so painfully introspective that he can’t help dissecting his physical and emotional reactions at the microscopic level, and the closer he looks, the more uncertain he feels.

Blecher’s protagonist acknowledges that he exists in a porous, sensuous relationship with the world of nature and matter. The moments of crisis that haunt his early years, the instances when the thin veil of reality is pulled aside, have formed and defined his relationship to the world of objects. Perception is eroticized, as Herta Müller describes in her introduction, leading to the “constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other.” Consequently his descriptions lean toward the vivid, often extreme and grotesque, as in his early morning observation of men unloading a delivery in the marketplace “their arms laden with sides of red meat and purple beasts glistening with blood, as tall and proud as dead princesses”. Lined up along the wall of the butcher shop, the carcasses are described:

“…like scarlet sculptures carved from the most diverse and delicate material. They had the watery, iridescent shimmer of silk and the murky limpidity of gelatin. The gaping stomachs were edged with the lace of muscles and the weighty necklaces of beads of fat. The butchers stuck their red hands in and extracted the precious innards – round, rubbery gobbets of hot flesh – which they spread out on a table. The fresh meat had the velvety sheen of a monstrous, hypertrophic rose.”

Coming of age in the 1920‘s, our hero is also fascinated with the technologically facilitated representations of life that were becoming ever more prominent in the still new 20th century. It is as if, one step removed, the world can be contained, engaged with in a way that seems to be more real than reality itself. Thus he is drawn to mirrors, to photographs, to cinema and, most passionately, to wax museums. He describes the tendency to lose himself in his imagination and slip vicariously into the worlds he sees portrayed or reflected. Even when the image he confronts is, in truth his own, as he once chances to find in a display outside a photographer’s booth at the fair grounds. The encounter triggers his existential musings:

“I would suddenly find my own life, the life of the person standing in flesh and blood outside the display case, indifferent and insignificant, just as the living person inside the display case regarded the travels of his photographic self from town to town as absurd. And just as my picture traveled from place to place contemplating new vistas through the dirty, dust-laden glass, so I myself went from one place to the next, constantly seeing new things, yet never understanding them. The fact that I could move, that I was alive, was merely a matter of chance, a senseless adventure, because just as I existed inside the display case I could exist outside it and with the same pale cheeks, the same eyes, the same lackluster hair that made such a sketchy, bizarre, unfathomable image in the mirror.”

Always hyper-aware and self-conscious, Blecher’s protagonist recognizes and makes note of his own oddness, his ritualistic behaviours and paranoias, and his compulsion to engage in what he knows is unseemly (at least with respect to the constraints of his “proper” upbringing). He takes, for example, to following women on the street and one evening, once the unaware object of his pursuit has disappeared into her home, he decides to open her gate and take up a position kneeling in her front yard. Another time, on the edge of town, he cannot resist losing himself to the sensual and tactile sensations of a field of mud and manure, an adventure that nearly has very dire consequences.

The matter-of fact delivery that carries this remarkable novel, is one of its most devastating qualities. Our narrator is attentive to detail – sights and sounds, scents, textures and tastes – but he is so completely self-focused that he observes and interprets the actions of others with a naive and curious absence of empathy. Or maybe he feels too much. He senses the world imposing itself upon his very being in a way that makes it difficult for him to comfortably negotiate his way in a material space and, as such, he seems to inhabit a plane of existence just off the axis of that which other people and things inhabit. That dissonance, more than any of his surreal dreams or startling descriptions, creates the measure of irreality that is sustained throughout, culminating with the narrator’s last desperate pleas, and leaving the reader with a unique, indelible experience that is not easily forgotten.

Blecher_MOriginally published in 1936 as Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată, Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality initially garnered little attention. Translations began to emerge in the 1970s, but again, the world was not quite ready. This new translation by the late Michael Henry Heim, was prepared when Heim himself was critically ill. He even learned Romanian in order to dedicate himself to the task. Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu remarks, in his preface, on the “mysterious filmanets of death” connecting the author and his translator that truly set this translation apart from other previous fine efforts. Released in February 2015 by New Directions, Adventures in Immediate Reality comes complete with a preface by Codrescu and a translation of Herta Müller’s introduction from the German edition.