Romancing the Remains

Romancing the Remains

A tubercular Surrealist describes his convalescence. What could go right?


Of all possible worlds, here is one to be chided by: Each roomful of furniture, each chance run-in with persons and things, amounts to a dense, punishing state of affairs. In this narrowed place, whatever is least remarkable, and most perishable, about a human life becomes a continuous incurable malady, in monstrous proportions. One outcome of this mental Calvary is the hoisting-up of a special sort of literary temperament, usually thought to be antirational and antimoral, nihilistic and unpropitious—that is, anti-literature. But to convert literature into its opposite requires a reserve of energy that few of us are qualified, or willing, to administer fully to ourselves. It means giving up the old inhibitions about what counts as an aesthetically eligible form or feeling, and discrediting a well-worn arsenal of techniques that have traditionally been used to pacify and neutralize works of art.

The 15 chapters that make up Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, published in Romania in 1936 and appearing in a new English translation by Michael Henry Heim, are, taken together, the inventory of a flayed consciousness. They are also the parcels of a confessional report, dispatched by an ecstatic and tormented, sickly hero caught in various, often unrelieved fits of appetitiveness. Tormented because Blecher’s young narrator—a double, one can glean, of the tubercular 27-year-old author—is the appalled beneficiary of his own experiences (“I had nothing to separate me from the world: everything around me invaded from head to toe”); ecstatic because here is a voluptuary of the debauched and the delinquent, a precocious debility-hoarder piling up pleasures in repugnant company (“What could fill my heart with joy if not this pure, sublime mass of filth?”). This sympathetic arrangement of mixed feelings is the leading policy of Blecher the writer (and, as I’ll explain later, the author of Adventures in Immediate Irreality appears in at least two other incarnations, Blecher the moralist and Blecher the aesthete), an obsessive saboteur of the breach between two seemingly irreconcilable positions: revulsion and lust. But one can make pleasure and the execrable mutual companions only at great psychic cost: Pleasure, in Blecher’s imagination, involves a noxious, potentially injurious sense of world-weariness. Wandering through his village, presumably in Romania, giving us his memories and terrors, Blecher’s nameless narrator pores over the unexceptional props of a lamentable life—sewing machines, lamp shades, rotting produce, armchairs, gramophones—­with prurient intrigue, knowing well enough that every object implies either a recoverable personal memory or a demonic fantasy. He is a romancer of remains.

* * *

Blecher was born in 1909, to a Jewish family in Botosani in northern Romania. After a brief stint as a medical student in Paris, he was diagnosed, at 19, with spinal tuberculosis, a malady that incapacitated him and returned him to Romania, where he died in 1938. For English readers, the remaining details of his life are limited: There were trips to sanatoriums in Switzerland, France, and Romania; a short story (his first) published in 1930; correspondence with André Breton, André Gide, and Martin Heidegger; a volume of poetry put out in 1934, followed by two novels, only one of which ever received any critical attention during his lifetime; translations of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire and Richard Al­dington; and a kind of sickbed notebook, one can gather, published three decades after his death, called The Illuminated Burrow: Sanatorium Diary, which, along with innumerable essays and book reviews, has yet to appear in English.

It is hardly a fluke or an error of judgment to regard Blecher as a student of Breton’s, or to read Adventures in Immediate Irreality as the work of an aspirational Surrealist. Blecher had, in fact, contributed to Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, a short-lived, six-issue effort founded by Breton in 1929 on the heels of the defections in 1929 by Robert Desnos, Jacques Prévert, and Raymond Queneau from the Surrealist group. And there’s a barely concealed affinity between what Blecher terms the “tyranny of objects” and the forbidding, inescapable emergency of multiplying things we find in much of the literature of (and about) Surrealism, as when Louis Aragon writes in 1926: “In trying to free himself from matter he has become the prisoner of the properties of matter.” But the hallmarks of a Surrealist sensibility—a zeal for the automatic and the unconscious, for the illogic of two or more discontinuous feelings juxtaposed—are ultimately techniques of agitation, dispatched, in Breton’s words, “outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” and therefore alien to Blecher’s casebook of solitude, which, in being mainly about one man’s feverish subsistence upon the surface of the world, denies psychology any sustained claim on our attention.

One passage is characteristic. After despairing at the idea of being left alone in an unfamiliar room, Blecher’s narrator, remembering a “sweet but terrible swoon,” divulges the phases of a crisis:

I would peer around me wide-eyed, but things had lost their usual meaning: they were awash with their new existence. It was as if someone had removed the fine, transparent paper they had been wrapped in till then, and suddenly they looked new beyond words.

For all the words used up in the transcription of his experiences, our master of ceremonies is, improbably enough, trying to eke out a position beyond words. This is an arduous project for the novel, to be sure, or for the typical novelist to ever live up to. One can think of few first-rate practitioners: James Joyce and Samuel Beckett foremost, but also, to a lesser extent, the Wyndham Lewis of Tarr, Thomas Bernhard, even de Sade, a connoisseur of the furthest reaches of expression, with his inexhaustible supply of indulgent images, stretched out between sentences that corrupt all etiquette. Herta Müller is entirely right to comment, as she does in her introduction, on the novel’s connection to eroticism. “I had the vague feeling that nothing in the world can come to fruition,” Blecher writes, “that it is impossible to accomplish anything.” Like an unquenchable hero of pornographic fantasy, the narrator of Blecher’s book cannot bear the idea of an ending. Hence the narrative, with its casual plotting of memories and events—a work, one could easily presume, that never terminates.

I don’t mean to say that Blecher has written something on the same order as Beckett or Bernhard or de Sade, or that his is an undecipherable language game or an updated version of libertine literature. Nor is this a work impatient with all expression of psychology. A good deal of the pleasure and interest of Adventures in Immediate Irreality is in its delicate handling of a different sort of psychology, concocted in defiance of the usual oppositions (inner life and outer life, form and content, mind and body), as when Blecher writes, in a continuation of the passage cited above: “I felt powerful bonds linking me to [objects], invisible networks making me every bit as much of an object, a part of the room, as they were, the way an organ grafted onto a living organism goes through subtle physical metamorphoses until it becomes one with the body once foreign to it.”

It seems that Blecher’s narrator wants to pass through the world, although he cannot, since he is permanently stitched to it. His is the dilemma of a solitary struggling to gulp down silence in the face of abundance. And in a place with too much—too many objects, too many competing feelings—words alone are ­inadequate: “Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images.” Nothing is exempt from this wholesale shutting-down of language—­including, we learn, the narrator’s love interest: “Edda became one more object, a simple object whose existence beleaguered and tormented me like a word repeated many times, a word that becomes more and more unintelligible even as the need to understand it increases urgently.” Withdrawing into his head (which is also the world, his world), he inherits the codes of an anguished aristocracy of taste, one fueled by a raiding of the past that recovers from the most abysmal memories a lurking, unforeseen desire. “There exist other forms of hunger and thirst than the organic ones,” Blecher writes, “and something inside me was seeking relief in a simple, acute pain.” Or, in another passage: “Long before I reached the riverbank, my nostrils would fill with the odor of rotten husks. It would prepare me for the crisis like a brief period of incubation. It was an unpleasant smell, yet sweet. Like the crises.” Such pairings are typical in Blecher. An experience can simultaneously be sweet and terrible, thick with desire and chafed by despair, fine and grotesque, beautiful and lurid.

* * *

Blecher’s pages anticipate a writer like Genet, who, perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else, effectively furnished the full menagerie of a delirious, onanistic fantasy of filth that Blecher’s novel could only allude to. Our narrator, his mind clenched against the universe, flaunts a perspective on his own degraded situation with such relish, with such an exalted style of infelicitous thinking, that we are left with a winded (and wounded) aesthete of the abject. This is how Blecher has the narrator remember his visit to a swamp:

The wasteland stretching all around me was my true flesh—stripped of clothing, stripped of muscle, stripped to the mud. Its dank elasticity and crude odor reached deep into my innards because deep down I wholly belonged to them. Only some purely accidental external features—the few gestures I am capable of, for example, or the fine, gossamer-like hair on my head or my moist, glassy eyes—separated me from its primordial immobility. But they were little, precious and little, in the face of the immense majesty of muck.

Blecher writes as a cultivated partisan of the ignoble: The immense majesty of muck is appraised from without, by a mind sensitive to the achievements of each lowly encounter, as though the contemptible is answerable to its own special canon of taste. In the same way, Genet—when he covets, in The Thief’s Journal, “the reality of supreme happiness in despair: when one is suddenly alone, confronting one’s sudden ruin, when one witnesses the irremediable destruction of one’s work and self”; or when he tells us he writes “never because I wanted to relive my emotions or to communicate them, but rather because I hoped, by expressing them in a form that they themselves imposed, to construct an order (a moral order)”—gives us the fullest and most perverse expression of the aesthete as moralist, a position taken up so masterfully in these pages.

But it is difficult to escape the haunting sense of extinction implicit in Blecher’s extended prowl. Eventually, the memories dredged up by the aesthete concealed in his solitude will mean the end of everything, a great inward retreat that annuls the world. “Each memory, incomprehensible yet precise, demands my complete attention,” Blecher writes, raising precision and incomprehension to the level of a witless metaphysics. “Like a sharp pain it pushes all minor inconveniences…into the background.” Far from promising a reprieve, a studied miscomprehension may be the supreme terror on offer in Adventures in Immediate Irreality, the very title of which predicts a world deformed beyond all recognition. Romanian political history bears this out: the abdication of Carol II within two years of Blecher’s death, the coming of Antonescu and the Iron Guard, a country scorched by decades of Ceausescuism, and, in recent years, hounded by an ascendant, anxious nationalism. (A history, it should be added, well plundered by Romania’s contemporary writers and artists, as discoverable in novels by Herta Müller and Norman Manea and, in the last decade especially, in films by Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Cristian Mungiu.)

This is, in any case, a book deserving of new readers, by a writer whose remaining body of work I can only hope will finally appear in its entirety in this country. For Blecher’s torrential language—exhaustless or solemn or enraged—originates in a single catastrophic thought, enlarged and expanded into the world, knowable to many of us. Who could deny the dignity of dark thinking? And who could ever refuse Blecher the sad, very sad merit of his willful gesture of despair, in which the world, clenched to pieces, is tossed to the winds, and in which the remaining repertoire of all available expressions is reduced to an unanswered scream and a duplicitous smile?

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