Review: Scarred Hearts

The rediscovery of a 70-year-old novel by a doomed and disabled author invites comparison with great fiction writers.

By Clive Sinclair, December 4, 2008
The author prone: Marcel “Max” Blecher in his wheeled box, with his mother at the sea shore

The author prone: Marcel “Max” Blecher in his wheeled box, with his mother at the sea shore

By Max Blecher (Trans: Henry Howard)
Old Street Publishing, £14.99

In his notebooks, Paul Klee wrote the following: “To stand despite all possibilities to fall.” He was referring to a tree, but he could equally well have been thinking about the human race, each member of which lives life balanced upon an invisible tight-rope.

The characters in Max Blecher’s newly resurrected novel (translated with great sensitivity by Henry Howard) have already fallen, but are not yet dead. Mortally damaged, they exist in some intermediary stage.

And yet life in the vertical is still life. They may be the living dead, their hearts may be scarred, but those hearts are still beating, and remain full of amorous intentions and ambitions. This may sound like some sort of literary conceit, a metaphor for the folly of a race destined for the grave, but for Max Blecher it was reality.

Next year will be the centenary of Marcel “Max” Blecher’s birth. He was born in Botosani (unlike neighbouring Czernowitz, still in Romania), the scion of a well-to-do Jewish family. His father owned a factory that fashioned fragile objects out of porcelain. The pity was that his son — the most precious of his creations — turned out to be the most fragile.

At the age of 19, Blecher Jr moved to Paris to study medicine, but before long it became clear that his destiny was to be a patient rather than a doctor. Indeed, he spent the following decade (the remainder of his short life) in hospitals and sanatoria, where he was treated for what ailed and assailed him: Pott’s Disease, or tuberculosis of the spine.

The state-of-the-art treatment was to encase the sufferer in a corset of plaster — in effect, an external backbone — and lay him flat in a wheeled box. One of the places Blecher went for treatment was Berck-sur-Mer (only a couple of resorts south of Le Touquet, but a world apart). This is the setting for Scarred Hearts (after a brief diagnostic prelude in Paris).

In the book, Max becomes Emanuel, which of course means “blessed of God” in the holy tongue. This is, as it were, a buried irony. But one that is finally exposed by a fellow patient named Quitonce. Not encased in plaster like the others, Quitonce progresses by means of two canes and by “flinging his legs around”.

This clown-like appearance is contradicted by his pitiless intellect. He points out to the blessed Emanuel that in the space of a year “an invalid expends exactly the same amount of energy and willpower one would need to conquer an empire… except only that he consumes it in pure loss”. Every one of us, he says to Emanuel, is the “one who wasn’t Caesar”. To be possessed of all the component elements of a Caesar and yet to be an invalid, concludes Quitonce, is a “supremely ironic form of heroism”.

Even so, he is able to show his new friend photographic (not to say pornographic) evidence of his heroic virility. In fact, most of the invalids (including Emanuel) remain sexually active; practising courtship, feeling jealousy, and even making love in their wooden caskets.

But, alas, the splendour of Quitonce’s virility cannot survive his final operation. Last seen, his manhood is a shrivelled thing. And the anti-hero himself dies in fits of convulsive laughter: “Truly the laughter of a tormented clown, a bitter hilarity that brought an agonising constriction of the heart.”

This, Emanuel knows, is also his promised end. These horrors, however, are depicted with the lightest of touches, and are leavened anyway with numerous comic moments.

Because Blecher suffered from tuberculosis, and wrote about men on their backs, he has been compared to the author of Metamorphosis. But I think he is closer in tone to Aharon Appelfeld (born 11 years later in Czernowitz), whose Badenheim 1939 also describes a resort in which people live their lives according to the philosophy of As If — as if death were not just around the corner, either in the shape of mortal illness or the Nazis.

Both books end in trains, with the passengers being carried to fates only the reader knows. Compare it to what you will, Scarred Hearts is a revelation, and a great book.

Clive Sinclair’s ‘True Tales of the Wild West’ is published by Picador

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011