The Illuminated Burrow

A Sanatorium Journal

Max Blecher
Translated by Gabi Reigh
Twisted Spoon Press ($23)

by Rick Henry            

The heart of reality is so unfathomable and of such great magnitude and grandiose diversity that our imagination is only able to extract a tiny fraction, enough to glean a few lights and interpretations to weave its “thread of life.”
—Max Blecher, The Illuminated Burrow

Max Blecher was born in Moldavia, raised in Romania, and began studying medicine in Paris until, at eighteen, he developed spinal tuberculosis. For the ten years that followed, he published fiction and poetry (much of it written from various institutional beds where his condition was treated) and corresponded with writers ranging from André Breton to Martin Heidegger. His two published novels, which have been translated into English as Adventures in Immediate Irreality and Scarred Hearts, secured his international reputation.

This biographical sketch, of course, says little about the “thread of life” Blecher sorted through in his writing; to address that, we now have an English version of his sanitorium journal Vizuina luminată, here translated from the Romanian by Gabi Reigh as The Illuminated Burrow. The book is a meditation on the nature of significant moments, written as Blecher approached his own death in 1938 at the age of twenty-eight. In the afterword, Gabriela Glăvan suggests that this final prose work and Blecher’s two novels “comprise a vast narrative of physical suffering.” Yes—but his work covers so much more of the world as he navigates his suffering, his body, and his imagination.

In one particularly striking moment, a man is dying in the adjacent room while Blecher, post-surgery, is desperate for a sip of water that is forbidden and just out of reach. Death and thirst: “Every minute the momentous and the banal happen simultaneously,” he writes. This disconnection reappears in a moment of excruciating pain as his bandages are changed; the doctor is amazed that he didn’t “scream the whole sanatorium down.” Blecher could have, but he had been conducting an experiment based upon the observation that “while one particular nerve is assailed by pain, the rest of the body, including the brain, continues to function normally.” However excruciating it might be, pain is a highly localized “nuisance,” but ignoring it only makes the suffering worse. To attain even the semblance of control, pain must be given “unadulterated ‘attention’.”

The beauty of Blecher’s prose and the focus of his observations often pull the reader away from the depth of suffering, as does the variety of events he experiences as he grapples with the unfathomable. Some appear to be ordinary—he dines with other patients and goes to the cinema—but in the end, his experience is foreign and isolating. The dining hall is “where the patients ate their meals while lying on gurneys wheeled to the table by porters in this vast and seemingly ordinary room.” In the cinema, a row of gurneys occupied by patients lines the back wall. Amid these experiences are descriptions of hanging dogs, a “petite Parisian girl” smoking “a cork-tipped Craven A cigarette,” a gentleman checking his watch on his daily walk, and how what he sees morphs into light and shapes, colors and planes, such that “such episodes deeply shook my faith in a stable, coherent reality . . . as well as revealing the essential dreamlike quality of all our everyday actions.” Other moments examine those dream states, thoughts, reveries, and memories.

Blecher’s situation is also marked by dissociation: language, images, story, and ‘reality’ have little to which they can affix themselves. Unlike the surrealist project of making the world strange, Blecher finds the world is strange. At best, we are in a state of irreality: “we create our lives each moment through our imagination, and in that instant life makes sense, but only in that moment and only in the way our imagination contrives it.”

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