Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): Like One That Dreamed

Montreal Poet

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan, is published a decade after Abraham Moses Klein’s death at the age of 63. When you make attempts to write about such a multi-dimensional man, you find that you are not writing about someone who can be easily described, easily delineated. Such is the case of Abraham Moses Klein [1909–1972], the Montreal writer and poet, a lawyer, a dreamer, a worker for Jewish causes, an admirer of James Joyce [1882–1941] and in particular his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses (1922).

This is about a man who believed in the virtues of intelligence and decency, as part of his noble and moral vision of the world. When you carry the names of two of Judaism’s leading visionaries (Abraham and Moses), your path is probably set out for you at an early age. Even so, when he viewed his fight for justice as not achievable, as his poetic voice no longer heard, in his forties he not only stopped writing, but, equally important, stopped communicating with the outside world, which is what this biographer says filled Klein’s last 20 years.

In the book’s Foreword, Leon Edel [1907–1997], a contemporary of Klein and part of the Montreal Group or McGill Group, writes: “And so bit by bit the will to achieve was eroded” (11). True, one can achieve only when the will to do so is present and active, when the Self believes that this will lead to an artistic achievement. In view of the sparsity of facts of this period of silence on the part of Klein, the biographer fills the lacunae with mostly fact and some speculation, doing so with a determined detachment that has become the de rigueur for biographies.

No doubt, he does a commendable and worthy job in presenting Klein’s words, both public and private, and we have a better understanding of Klein the man. Yet, I am left with a gnawing feeling that there must be more to know, especially what took place the last decade of his life. What were his thoughts? That what this biography presents cannot be all of the facts? Perhaps it is, and there is no more to know; the story has been written.

So, we read about Klein’s descent into “irrational suspicions and unprovoked bouts of anger” (205), his subsequent electroshock treatments at both the Douglas Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital, and then a deepening withdrawal from public life and a continuing silence. Today, he would likely be diagnosed as having some form of depression, and treated by some anti-depressant and cognitive-based therapy. The outcome might have been better or worse. We can’t really say.

Yet, allow me to add an addendum, a postscript, another thought based on my personal observations. After all, what else can a man of dignity, a man of depth, a man of decency, who was humiliated by defeats of the soul, do? What happens when your work is not understood or sufficiently appreciated? Klein wanted to be known as a poet, and in keeping with his knowledge of the Bible, as a poet of righteousness; everything else that he did was secondary to his primary desire. Poets, like prophets, are rarely acknowledged in their lifetimes.

Not everyone can easily shrug off such indignities. It is true that all dreamers suffer, because dreamers are made of finer feelings, which the world tends to ignore. Klein’s behaviour, including his increasing insularity and his “vow of silence” makes perfect sense to me; and I don’t think I have yet descended the “stairs of madness.” There is no denying, given my sensibilities, that one day I might.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 25, 2017

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