Translated from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim
(New York, NY: New Directions, 2015)
The narrator of Max Blecher’s semi-autobiographical novel, Adventures in Immediate Irreality, is a tree.
Understandably, he is desperate for his love interest, Edda, to understand. It is sap that flows through his veins, and branches that extend from his torso. He is, himself, struck by this realization quite suddenly. To win Edda’s favor, he deduces in a rare moment of clarity, he must be firm and resolute, just like a tree. With that one thought, his humanity transforms. He is not like a tree; he is a tree. And so resolved, he marches off to see Edda.
This is but one scene from Blecher’s novel, and it proceeds from there in a similar fashion to the others. The narrator’s certainty is gradually undermined by his interactions with the world around him, until he bitterly renounces his treeness and accepts that he is doomed to continue on as a middling, confused human being. One of the great strengths of the novel is that by the time the tree revelation occurs, about three-quarters of the way through, I was more than willing to concede that he might as well be a tree, after all.
This is because Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a novel that fundamentally takes nothing for granted. Every object and interaction that the narrator casts his eye upon is muddy with doubt and uncertainty; this extends even to his own humanity. While characters like Edda are living fairly normal lives and going about their daily routines, the narrator is falling into fits and fevers of delirium in which the most basic elements of life—objects, locations, natural forces—appear to him as being in flux, and yet over time are revealed as eternally resigned to a single, unchanging state. His world is porous and mutable, yet rigidly fixed in place, and in such an environment, his experience of being a tree seems just as real as that of being a human.
He is, in other words, mentally ill. His illness shows him a world in which everything is interchangeable, but then dashes the illusion with reality’s unflinching precision.
At Edda’s, he notices a bouquet of fresh flowers on a windowsill, only to be informed that there are no flowers, and what he saw is actually a scarf. He looks again and sees the scarf, then plunges into despair over this disconnect between his own perceptions and actual reality. “What good did it do me to see a vase full of dahlias when the only thing there was a scarf?” he wonders. “Buttons, thread, string—this is what the world contained at the most tragic of moments.”
Such tragedies—and there are many—reveal, by degrees, the schizophrenic chasm between the world he perceives and the one that actually exists. Why shouldn’t he be a tree? Why wouldn’t a scarf also be a bouquet of flowers? It is this uncertainty, this inability to separate what is true from what is conceivable, that fuels the novel’s hallucinogenic “crises.” The narrator is disgusted by the precision of the universe, by the gloomily deterministic idea that any one thing can be only that one thing and nothing else. Again and again, he tries to impose a level of transience onto his surroundings but is always brought back to reality by the world’s unwillingness to play along.
In one memorable crisis, he visits a doctor who he describes as being mouselike because he draws out the r’s in his speech “as if he were munching something in secret as he spoke.” Later, upon hearing news of the doctor’s death, he once more conflates simile with reality:
The first thing I asked myself when I heard the gruesome news was, “Were there any 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.
In another crisis, he sees a photograph of himself and is momentarily unable to determine which of the two is his real state: the man looking at the photo, or the image of that same man gazing back. The realities of both states are equal. “The fact that I could move, that I was alive,” he thinks, “was merely a matter of chance, a senseless adventure.” Though it seems paradoxical, his humanity itself is a prime example of that arbitrary-precision of the world that so infuriates him; with nothing inherently meaningful about human life, he may as well be reduced to a single, static photograph.
The objects that can set off a new crisis seem limitless, and Blecher pulls no punches when it comes to his narrator’s thoughtful intellectualism. As a result, reading Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a demanding experience. Like the similarly unnamed narrators in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Blecher’s protagonist is interested in the people, places, and events around him only insofar as they reveal glimpses of larger metaphysical truths. As such, there is little that resembles a traditional plot or narrative arc. Instead, the tension and intrigue come from the constant ebb and flow of the narrator’s psychological well-being, and the diverse ways in which his internal and external realities butt up against one another. It is a difficult, dense, and fascinating treatise on how a human being comes to terms with all those things that life can never be.
It is also sneakily fun. When the narrator confronts Edda, ready at last to reveal to her his true nature as a tree, he is rendered unable to speak, and becomes almost literally rooted to his spot:
What made the blood pound in my head was that Edda could not be other than a woman with well-groomed hair, violet-blue eyes, and a smile at the corners of her lips. What could I do with a precision so severe? How, for instance could I make her understand that I am a tree? I would have had to send its giant, magnificent crown with all its branches and leaves through the air using immaterial, formless words. How might I have done that?
There are many words and few answers within Blecher’s work, but one does emerge from its pages with an enhanced skepticism of that which had previously been taken at face value. Such a transformation in the reader is perhaps fleeting, but its very arrival and subsequent dispersal lends an authoritative relevance to the novel’s questions regarding human nature.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.