Adventures in Immediate Irreality: No, not a shorthand for my recent trip to Las Vegas—though that is where I read Romanian writer Max Blecher’s 1936 novel, recently reissued by New Directions (trans. Michael Henry Heim). Heralded as the “masterwork” of “the Romanian Kafka,” Blecher’s book seems at home in the weird and wonderful catalogue of New Directions, stationing him among the ranks of César Aira, Clarice Lispector, and László Krasznahorkai. Over the course of only 116 pages, Blecher’s unnamed narrator offers us what is basically a coming of age story: innocent pranks, endearing misconceptions about the adult world, self-conscious lust. In short, “the tedious wait to ‘grow up.’” But what at a glance seems familiar territory proves up close to be quite alien.
The narrator’s eponymous “adventures,” for example, are less Tom and Huck than, well, Gregor Samsa. And as in Kafka—or Lydia Davis or Nicholson Baker or Ben Lerner—the “adventure” here is personal and internal. It’s the pleasure of exploring a unique consciousness, of viewing the world through a unique pair of eyes. Blecher’s narrator experiences what he describes as “crises.” Triggered often by “cursed spaces”—a desolate town park, a riverbank by a sunflower seed oil factory—in these episodes he undergoes a temporary removal from “reality”:
“At such times, I experience the loss of my identity from a distance: I feel for a moment that I have become a complete stranger, this abstract personage and my real self vying for authenticity with equal strength.
“In the following moment my identity returns.”
Blecher pulls these abstract “adventures” off by grounding them in the tangible, by fastidiously framing them for reference in the world of objects. When during a “crisis” the narrator returns to himself, he finds his surroundings “extraordinarily dense in terms of matter”: “in the moments of lucidity that return immediately after I resurface I see the world in the curious atmosphere of futility and obsolescence that forms about me when my hallucinatory trances cast me down.”
What this means is that on every page Blecher’s protagonist has access to a startlingly sensitive, inventive, and elevated perception, a perception capable of defamiliarizing the world we know so that we, too, can see it anew. Consider for instance how he describes the “cursed” riverbank:
“The workers would throw the discarded seed husks into the section of the bank that had caved in, and over time, the pile grew so high that it formed a slope of dry husks extending from the top of the bank to the water’s edge.
“My playmates and I would descend to the water along that slope, cautiously, holding one another by the hand, sinking their feet deep into the carpet of rotten matter. The walls of the high bank on either side of the slope were steep and full of outlandish irregularities—long, fine channels sculpted by the rain, arabesque-like but as hideous as poorly healed scars, veritable tatters of the clay’s flesh, horrible gaping wounds. It was between these walls, which made such an impression on me, that I too climbed down to the water.”
That image, those similes! In fact, Blecher turns so constantly to comparisons in order to illuminate the strange world he finds himself in that I soon grew tired of circling every “like” and “as if” I encountered. But these metaphors are crucial to our ability to inhabit this narrator’s mind because it’s marrying the strange and familiar in this way that allows us not only to see what he sees but also to re-see what we see. Near the end of the first chapter he comments on this descriptive habit:
“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul. Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images. The magic word that might convey their essence would have to borrow from the essences of other aspects of life, distill a new scent from a judicious combination of them.”
It’s no coincidence that the metaphors Blecher uses to describe the riverbank above “borrow from” the corporeal, the human. The narrator’s relationship to the objects around him is in many ways richer (though not to say more interesting) than his relationship to other people. For him, objects seem to have inner lives and points of view, if not agency. “The habit of being seen so many times must have worn out their thin skins,” he says of familiar objects, “and they sometimes looked flayed and bloody to me—and alive, ineffably alive.” In a room that “retained a vague memory of … catastrophe like the smell of sulfur after an explosion,” he continues:
“Gazing at the bound books behind the bookshelf glass, I somehow took their immobility for a perfidious sign of furtiveness and complicity: the objects around me never gave up the secretive attitude fiercely guarded by their impassivity.”
In contrast, our hero’s interactions with other people, especially women, fall flat. Near the end of the novel he laments that it has been “impossible for me to conceive of another’s sufferings or even another’s existence. The people I saw around me were purely decorative, ephemeral, and as material as any object, as houses or trees.” Yet it’s “the tyranny of objects”—“brute matter”—that reaches him: “I had nothing to separate me from the world: everything around me invaded me from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve.”
It’s tempting and perhaps rewarding, but certainly not necessary, to read this book in light of Max Blecher’s biography. Diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis in 1928, he spent his last years writing in sanatoriums in France, Switzerland, and his native Romania. He died in 1938 at the age of 28, two years after publishing Adventures in Immediate Irreality. Should we be surprised that a person reckoning with his own impending immateriality sees people and things—the animate and inanimate—differently than others do? Again and again Blecher’s narrator refers to a sense of “futility” and asserts the artificiality of the world around him. So near to death, the author’s fading life might resemble the image his narrator sees in a shop mirror, “so old that the polish had completely worn off in places and actual objects showed here and there through the back of the mirror, merging with the reflected images as in a double exposure.”
But against all this artificiality, uncertainty, futility, and ephemerality, almost 80 years later the novel itself is a vital and reliable source of wonder and insight. As Blecher, or at least his narrator, would have wanted:
“When my hand attempts to write these strange and incompressible simple truths, then for an instant, like a man condemned to death who unlike everyone surrounding him has a quick glimpse of the death in store for him (and hopes that his struggle is unlike any other in the world and will lead to his release), I feel that one day an authentic new truth will emerge from all this, a truth warm and intimate, capable of summarizing me clearly, like a name, and striking an entirely new, unique note in me, and it will be the meaning of my life…”