I’d like to introduce you to a book, an impressive book that no one read when it first came out in Romania in 1936 or later when it was reissued in 1970: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by M. Blecher. And when the first German edition appeared, which wasn’t until 1990 in a translation by Ernest Wichner, no one read that either, even though few books published in Germany since 1990 could compare with Blecher’s novel for sheer literary intensity. But perhaps that’s why the book never attracted a wider audience?
In order to convince you, I’d like to let the book speak for itself.
‘The crowds, making the rounds, would pass from zone to zone, bright lights to darkness, like the moon in my geography book’ is how Blecher describes people visiting a fair. And no other sentence better describes his own text. The external plot isn’t easy to describe – it’s really the ongoing reflection of an interior narrative, a manic inner monologue written in the first person, in which the narrator’s striving for self-assurance becomes a confession. This narrator is a nameless adolescent roaming through the summer heat of a small town. He has no goal whatsoever, he is searching, as Blecher says, for the correspondence between himself and the waxwork panopticon of places, people, and objects set in the world. The search produces emotional upheavals that he calls crises, which all come from the ‘terrible question of who I actually am’ – a question whose answer ‘requires a lucidity more basic and profound than that of the brain’. In the words of Blecher’s narrator: ‘And I have returned implacably to the surface of things. … Never, under no other circumstances, have I felt so clearly as in moments like these when every object must occupy the place it occupies and I must be the person I am.’
Places, persons, objects – and this vagabond narrator that speaks of himself so perplexingly and so intriguingly that it goes far beyond being ‘a complete stranger’ to himself. Because what this person says about himself goes beyond what even a person might say who feels split into two persons. And his powers of observation are so ruthless it’s as though one person of flesh and blood were peering outside his body, along with a second person in his head, and along with a third or fifth person passing in and out of his own skin at will. Blecher’s protagonist turns the ‘crises’ into a kind of equilibrium: ‘I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the “city centre.”’ And about a suicide attempt with over thirty white tablets he says: ‘Since nothing could go on as before, I had to make a clean break.’ And: ‘It was as if it were an everyday task I needed to do. All I could find were things of no use to me: buttons, string, thread of various colours, notebooks – all strongly redolent of naphthalene and none capable of causing a man’s death.’
In the end, the happiness being sought culminates in catastrophe, which unfolds with drafting-table clarity but has obscure, inscrutable consequences. The lifeless material of objects and the vegetative matter of plants stimulate the nerves to the point of breaking. The ‘boundless melancholy’ of the objects remains outside, while the brain is flooded with hallucinatory images:
I dreamed I was walking through a town steeped in dust but very sunny and full of white houses, an oriental town perhaps. There was a woman at my side, a woman in black, in mourning, her face veiled. Oddly enough, the woman had no head. The veils were tastefully arranged where the head should have been, but she had only a gaping hole there instead, an empty sphere running down to the nape of the neck. We were both in a hurry, following a cart with red crosses on the sides: it was carrying the corpse of the woman’s husband.
I realised there was a war going on, and in fact we soon came to a station. … Suddenly a man came out of a first class compartment; he was portly and well dressed, had a decoration in his buttonhole, and was wearing a monocle and white shoes. His bald spot was poorly hidden by several strands of silver hair. In his arms he held a white Pekinese, its eyes like two agate marbles in oil.
For a while he paraded up and down the platform looking for something. Finally he found it: a flower-girl. He chose several bouquets of red carnations from her basket and paid her for them, taking the money out of an elegant wallet of soft leather with a silver monogram. Then he went back to the train and I could see him putting the Pekinese on the table by the window and feeding it the red carnations one by one. The animal ingested them with obvious relish.
Blecher threads his observations into every page of this book just as densely and accurately. The details go clicking by. Tiny filaments of hair, little balls of agate, small tables, miniature dogs, petite bouquets – within the sweet substance of the diminutive, the details head into the monstrous.
Blecher – in letters he sometimes wrote Max or Marcel, but as an author he only appeared with the anonymising initial M. – was a Romanian Jew, born in 1909 in Botoşani in the north-eastern part of the country. His family owned a small ceramic factory on the edge of town and a ceramics and porcelain shop in the centre. He travelled to Paris to study medicine. When he was 19 he contracted osteal tuberculosis, and spent the rest of his short life in sanatoria. When his parents ran out of money for his treatment abroad, he had to return to Romania, where he died at the age of 28.
When you read his books it’s hard to believe your eyes. The author of this masterpiece was a 25-year-old already weakened by disease.
Romanian literati lived in fear of Eugène Ionesco’s scathing reviews. But when Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality appeared in a limited edition in 1936, he praised the book. Unfortunately it never achieved commercial success. And then came the years of fascism. And in 1945, after the annihilation of the Jews, came Stalinism. And after that came the home-grown variety of socialism, which entrenched itself behind a fraudulent ideology, never faced up to its own connivance in the barbarity, and even had anti-Semitism built into the system as a matter of course. Until the collapse of the dictatorship, national provincialism made it impossible for a Romanian Jew to be recognised as one of the best Romanian authors. And after 1989 the anti-Semites felt even more empowered, and anti-Semitism, having hatched out of socialism, is now allowed the same blatant free expression, and the same language, as in the fascist era. Once again the so-called intelligentsia is busy picking up the pieces and hammering them into a narrow-minded ‘national remembrance’, a little plywood box where someone like Blecher doesn’t fit. Most likely they’re afraid of this book, because it addresses a nightmarish truth and couldn’t care less for ‘national remembrance’.
‘The certitudes I lived by were separated from the world of incertitudes by only the flimsiest of membranes,’ says Blecher’s protagonist. What makes the author’s view so radical is the eroticism that lurks in every ordinary object, waiting to ensnare a person. The narrator interacts with objects in a way one can really only interact with people. His observations charge his surroundings with an eroticism otherwise only possible between skin and skin. His flesh seems to creep into the substance of the things, there’s a kind of promiscuity with inanimate ornaments. And the substance responds with a similar promiscuity, coupling with the flesh of its observer. Something forbidden pulsates between the person and the object, something that smacks of incest, of overindulgence, of pleasure, and of sinful intensity. Time and again, the search for the self ends in an exaggeration of identity. Time and again it is driven to a new extreme until it is suddenly called off as though too spooked to continue. The objects themselves, their features, become surrogates. They offer no answer, yet they usurp the place of everything the narrator wants to discover about himself.
Here is a description of a gypsy’s ring: ‘The extraordinary embellishments used by birds, animals, or flowers for purposes of sexual attraction … the hysterical lace of petunia petals. … It was made of marvellous tin – fine, grotesque, and hideous. Yes, hideous more than anything. It got at love in its deepest, darkest regions.’ In an office with leather chairs and subdued lighting, ‘the screen of an enormous pewter spittoon in the shape of a cat stood gleaming in a dark corner.’ ‘The glass windowpanes wobbled a bit in their frames like loose teeth.’ And inside the crystal coffin of a wax figure cabinet is ‘a woman with a pale, yet luminescent face, lying in a glass box and sheathed in black lace, a striking red rose between her breasts, her blond wig coming undone at the forehead, the rouge in her nostrils aquiver. … It remained lodged inside me, still vague, like a word I wished to recall.’
The adolescent vagabond falls for the objects, because he’s fallen for the eroticism of sensory perception. And as the things themselves become increasingly transparent through his close observation, he becomes less and less transparent to himself. Particular details inflame or cool his ardour: his body is now attracted, now repelled by the things. His flesh is a magnet. His organs alone are insufficient, they need something else, and they lie in wait for the objects, which are likewise in need. Their features entice the body, wresting away its feeling which they then consume. The internal and the external engage in mutual indecent assault, and in the end it’s impossible to say which side instigated the voracious encounter – whether the person assailed the object to the point of breakdown, or vice versa. The paths beneath the feet are constantly hoisted into the head. And roaming through the space that exists between feet and mind inevitably leads to lonely realisations. The differences between the beautiful and the ugly, the anguished and the elated, are no longer possible in this book. The intensity of perception climbs right through the skull, the ‘melancholy of existence’ and the ‘normally organised torture’ render all the usual registries unfit. Here only extremes combine to form completely new properties. To be sure, the objects retain their familiar names, but their looks and features get reinvented. The newly perceived sweeps away the familiar. And there’s no use opposing it, because in the act of reading, the shrewdness of every observation acquires greater validity than anything you might recall from your own observations of the familiar objects. In the words of Blecher’s protagonist: ‘I had the vague feeling that nothing in the world can come to fruition.’ Nothing is ever completed. And this narrator is concerned with much more than completion.
Blecher’s eroticism of perception requires the constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other. In this eroticised world things venture into the outrageous: ‘When I got to the marketplace, I found men unloading meat for the butcher shops, their arms laden with sides of red and purple beasts glistening with blood, as tall and proud as dead princesses. … They were lined up along the porcelain-white walls like scarlet sculptures carved from the most diverse and delicate material. They had the watery, iridescent shimmer of silk and the murky limpidity of gelatine.’ Or: ‘There were always nuts in a bowl, and Samuel Weber, who was especially fond of them, would swallow them slowly, peacefully, bit by bit, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down like a puppet on a rubber band.’ And Samuel Weber’s son Ozy has ‘flute-like arms.’ Or: ‘I felt the silence in me smiling calmly, as if someone were blowing soap bubbles there.’ While taking a temperature ‘the slender glass lizard of a thermometer’ glides under the arm. And of the doctor who is treating the malaria stricken protagonist, Blecher writes: ‘His small velvet eyes, fitful gestures, and thrust-forward mouth made him look like a mouse. The impression was so immediate and so strong that I thought it perfectly natural that he should give his r’s a long and sonorous roll as if he were munching something in secret as he spoke. The quinine he gave me only increased my conviction there was something mouse-like about him.’ Behind the sewing machine shop was a small room referred to as ‘the green room’ – when no customer is around the ailing protagonist hastily makes love with Clara. On one such occasion he spots a mouse out of the corner of his eye, perched on Clara’s powder compact:
It had paused next to the mirror on the edge of the trunk and was staring at me with its tiny black eyes. The lamplight had given them two gleaming golden spots, which pierced me deeply and peered into my own eyes for several seconds with such intensity that they seemed to penetrate my brain. Perhaps the creature was searching for a curse to call down on me or perhaps for a mere reproach … I was certain the doctor had come to spy on me.
This supposition was confirmed that very evening as I took my quinine. … I found it perfectly acceptable: the quinine was bitter. The doctor had seen the pleasure Clara could give me in the back room and to get even he had prescribed the nastiest medicine on earth. …
A few months after he first treated me, he was found dead in his attic: he had put a bullet through his brain.
The first thing I asked myself when I heard the gruesome news was, “Were there mice in the attic?” I needed to know. Because if the doctor was well and truly dead, a band of mice would have to set upon his corpse and extract all the mouse matter he had borrowed during his lifetime to be able to carry on his illegal human existence.
‘All imitations make an analogous impression on me,’ says the narrator. From the incest with the things, we learn from Blecher that the objects owe their existence to the imitation of themselves, that they need nothing apart from the ready, knowing material in order to make us totally besotted. And we are by no means spared by the fact that they are imitation, ‘artificial ornamentation,’ filled with ‘boundless melancholy’. Because precisely therein lies their guile. The place where they reside and the time in which we behold them make us vulnerable. The things have ‘a perfidious sign of furtiveness and complicity’. And in the moment of the confrontation we have no choice but to adapt, the external world is thrust under our skin, we must bear its inert or lasciviously vegetating material, even though we’re not made for that. The world’s imitation of itself is a trap set to ensnare its own intricate originality. The things have the advantage, because unlike us, they don’t need to protect their flesh when they spring the trap. ‘It was what was most humdrum and familiar in the objects that disturbed me most. The habit of being seen so many times must have worn out their thin skins, and they sometimes looked flayed and bloody to me – and alive, ineffably alive.’
One rainy day the vagabond hero wanders to the edge of town, where he succumbs to the glistening mire of the wasteland. He steps into the slime, plunges his hands into the muck, smears mud in his hair, on his face, with no care for his clothes. It’s an intoxicating rush but that soon becomes a bitter disgrace when the glistening dries on his body as mere cold filth. The usual disgrace when, after the act of incest, the things quit the body so abruptly and return to themselves. ‘Such is what I had to struggle with, what implacably opposed me: the ordinary look of things.’ And ‘the world was so limited by its petty passion for precision.’
In Blecher’s book the word Knowledge appears in italics. And this Knowledge is not achieved by reason, but by Sensation. It is thought by means of the flesh. For Blecher, Knowledge is a trace left by the body. What’s astounding about Blecher’s language is the mixture of words laden with feelings and phrases so technical they sound like machines. Every sequence is infected by a form of mechanisation. The emotional upheavals are stretched across a geometric frame. Reading the book we get the impression that Blecher’s words don’t merely describe the objects – they dig their talons into the things and hoist them high, straight into the sentences. About the suitability of a particular word, Blecher has his protagonist say: ‘It would have to contain something of the stupefaction I feel watching a person in reality and then following his gestures in a mirror, of the instability accompanying the falls I have in my dreams and the subsequent unforgettable moment of fear whistling through my spinal cord, or of the transparent mist inhabited by the bizarre decors of crystal balls I have known.’
There are three times in this book where relationships to women are compared with the effect of words. With Clara from the sewing machine shop the act of vice ‘involves a complicity more profound and immediate than any verbal communication’. The second woman is the dead woman mentioned above, lying in the glass coffin of the wax figure gallery, whose image ‘remained lodged inside me, still vague, like a word I wished to recall’. And the third woman is Edda. Newly married to the Webers’ rakish son, she moves into the family’s house. Because the narrator has been visiting there for years, and knows every nook and cranny, Edda becomes ‘one more object, a simple object whose existence beleaguered and tormented me like a word repeated many times’. The sexual arousal that she stirs inside the narrator intimidates him, while on the outside it petrifies his body like wood.
Precisely because words are elevated to the rank of love for women, the dialogues in this book are so tight they couldn’t be any shorter. The tone is gruff. All the conversations have a hint of reluctance, because the talking comes too late. Either the words sat too long on the tongue, or else they were swallowed too often. Speech comes as a last resort, long after the reason for speaking in the first place has passed. For every person in the book, sentences shrink whenever feelings take the upper hand. Communication follows this rule: the more feverish the feeling, the colder the word. This reduction condenses the dialogues to their most rudimentary, giving them the pithiness of sayings, aphorisms that pepper the entire text. The author can leave out the dialogues because they are repeated unwritten throughout the text, and constantly enter the mind of the reader.
Blecher’s question ‘Who am I’ leads to a world eroticised by inner chafing. Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a study in observation. And it takes the reader where one generally arrives when one looks at things impartially – to a place of calm and composed resignation. In his words: ‘All things and all men were hemmed in by their petty, pathetic obligation to be precise, nothing more than precise.’ ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me.’
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Philip Boehm has translated numerous works from German and Polish by writers including Ingeborg Bachmann, Franz Kafka, Stefan Chwin and Herta Müller. For the theatre he has written plays such as Mixtitlan, The Death of Atahualpa, and Return of the Bedbug. He has received awards from the American Translators Association, the UK Society of Authors, the NEA, PEN America, the Austrian Ministry of Culture, the Mexican-American Fund for Culture, and the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in St. Louis, where he is the artistic director of Upstream Theater.