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.

Some memory I’ve got, eh, young ladies? Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal

“…yes, tragedy rules the world and writers always have something to write about…”

The passionate interlocutor who commandeers the pages of Bohumil Hrabal’s breathlessly intense monologue/novella, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is perhaps one of the most absurdly memorable narrators one could want to meet. For a little over 100 pages he entertains a group of sunbathing young women, engaging them with rapturous tales – the taller the better – peppered with endless asides, diversions and commentaries. Apart from commas and the occasional question or exclamation marks, there are no real sentence breaks; no full stops, not even at the very end of this glorious single sentence verbal escapade.

Dancing-Lessons-for-the-Advanced-in-Age_1024x1024The genesis of this early, experimental work lay in a series of texts Hrabal transcribed in 1949, at the elbow of his Uncle Pepin, an inveterate raconteur who will, himself, feature as character in his nephew’s later works. These tales were originally gathered as a collection titled The Sufferings of Old Werther which, as it turned out, was never published. But, as any decent storyteller in possession of a goldmine knows, no good tale dare go untold. So these stories were dismantled, literally cut and pasted, reworked, and recycled into the present novel which was originally released in 1964 – one of a number of diverse works that Hrabal would publish in the early 1960’s.

The narrator at the centre of Dancing Lessons, is what Hrabal called a pábitel (typically translated into English as “palaverer”), a dreamer caught up in his own world of memory, spilling forth an endless stream of anecdotes, tragic-comic observations, and beer hall philosophy. Here we have an old man who, without unnecessary delay, launches straight into an account of his past exploits as a soldier, cobbler, brewmaster and, in his own mind at least, legendary womanizer. His narrative spins off into so many diversions and asides that his audience has no option but to submit to the whirlwind:

“… here I am pushing seventy and having the time of my life with you like the emperor with that Schratt lady, promising you red leather pumps like the ones I made for Doctor Karafiát’s sister, who was a beauty, but had one glass eye, which is a problem, because you never know what it’s going to do next, a hatter from Prostějov once told me he took a woman with a glass eye to the pictures and she sneezed and it flew out and during the break they had to go crawling under the seats for it, but she found it wiped it off, pulled up her eyelid, and pop! in it went, by the way, baking is as much of an art as shoemaking, my brother Adolph was a trained baker…”

And on he goes. You get the idea. His asides are often as brutal as they are hilarious. With suitably ribald and absurd black humour, they are just as frequently both at once. Characters surface briefly, generally to either amorous or unfortunate ends, but, throughout the monologue, his banter does tend to revolve around themes – his experiences at the front during the war, the qualities of well fashioned footwear, the technical aspects of brewing beer, or the unlikelihood of achieving marital bliss. Eventually, in true beer hall fashion, the narrative becomes dominated by a series of pissing contests toward the end. After all, a lot of beer is consumed in the course of these tales, it has to go somewhere!

An admirer of the “European Renaissance”, his euphemism for sex, our hero is guided by the wisdom of two essential texts that resurface repeatedly throughout the course of his monologue and add to a sense of continuity. One is a handbook on sexual hygiene ascribed to a Mr. Batista who warns, for instance, “men against giving in to their passions, no more than three times an afternoon or four times for Catholics, to prevent sinful thoughts from taking shape”. The other guidebook from which he quotes regularly is Anna Nováková’s book of dreams that conveniently offers explanations – even handy excuses – to be gleaned from nocturnal imagery: “holding a dead man’s watch means a wedding and being locked in an insane asylum means a great fortune awaits you!” or how repeatedly dreaming about canaries in cages would mean one “would always long for freedom”.

When it comes to the ladies, our narrator has an insatiable appetite and no shortage of offers that tumble, often one into another, in his recollections. Even in the hospital recovering from surgery, while his rugged blacksmith roommate succumbs to pneumonia, he confesses that :

“… I was the only one who came out on top, a pretty nurse served me pheasant and asked me why I wasn’t married, why I let so fine a body go to waste, and for an answer I slipped out from under the covers and was about to give her a dancing lesson when they chased me back to bed because after a hernia operation they make you lie there like a corpse, a giant of a girl, but beautiful, once called to me from the Elbe, Come in to the water and I’ll give you a kiss, so in I went – neck deep, clothes and all – and got my prize, a hero once more, back on land I had to wring out more than my clothes, I’d just picked up my pay in ten-crown notes, and there I stood in my underpants, the women rushing down to the river to have a look at me, the whole town on its feet, yes…”

The ineffable character of Hrabal’s unstoppable narrator lends an infectious momentum to this novella. It also allows him to blend in a backhanded social and political commentary, often in the manner of an unreserved sentimentality for a bygone era. As Adam Thirlwell indicates in his introduction, Hrabal’s fiction simultaneously lingers on and evades what it is trying to say. One sentence can easily be contradicted by the that follows.

“But Hrabal’s technique is so moving, finally, because the world historical past is only an element of our universal nostalgia. For ‘in the days of the monarchy shoemaking was more chemistry than craft,’ laments our hero, ‘ today it’s all conveyor belts, I was a shoemaker, but I wore a pince-nez and carried a stick with a silver mounting because back then everyone wanted to look like a composer or a poet’…”  (Introduction)

In his joy for the “good old days”, there is a melancholy need to preserve proof of the trauma, not only of the past, but presumably of the present circumstances as well. Hrabal and his fellow artists were, at the time this book was published, working under the restrictions of the Communist government, a situation that would become more oppressive in the years to come.

But as his erstwhile rogue – at once grandiose, hysterical and fatalistic – wishes to remind the reader, worthwhile literature should cut sharply:

“… which must be why Bondy the poet says that real poetry must hurt, as if you’d forgotten you wrapped a razor blade in your handkerchief and you blow your nose, no book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out…”

Oh yes.

* Translated by Michael Henry Heim, with an introduction by Adam Thirlwell, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is available from NYRB Classics.