Reading Between the Line: A lost scroll

Last month I wrote about Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, a hilarious and ribald dialogue between the author, his family, and the God who won't leave him alone.

foreskins lament book 8 (photo credit: )
foreskins lament book 8
(photo credit: )
Last month, in this space, I wrote about Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, a hilarious and ribald dialogue between the author, his family, and the God who won't leave him alone. The memoir is full of references to Jewish traditions and folkways, and though I enjoyed and appreciated the book, watching Auslander pillage the religion of his youth is like watching reality television: a guilty pleasure. So what does one do to repent for feeling such glee reading and writing about Auslander's Lament? I reached for a book by a man who could be described as "Bizarro" Auslander, an author steeped in Judaism and the struggle of the modern Jew, but on the opposite end of the high-low culture spectrum. The Canadian poet, essayist and fiction writer A.M. Klein died in 1972 at 63. After suffering some sort of mental breakdown, he didn't publish a word for the last 17 years of his life. But the works he did write are some of the great lost treasures of 20th-century Jewish literature. Klein was born in Ukraine, but his family moved to Montreal when he was a baby. His upbringing was rooted in traditional Jewish ritual and learning. Eventually, Klein became active in Jewish communal life in Montreal and was an ardent Zionist. But above all, he was a poet and one of Canada's leading modernists. All of these identities are on display in Klein's last book, The Second Scroll, a profound - if dense - novella that was published in 1951. The Second Scroll is narrated by a character much like Klein, a poet and Zionist, who traveled to the State of Israel soon after its founding. Klein's protagonist is searching for his mother's brother, a talmudic genius who reinvents himself to live many of the Russian/Eastern European Jewish identities of the first half of the 20th century: yeshiva bochur, Bolshevik, survivor, apostate, refugee and, finally, a Jew in the Jewish homeland. Klein does not believe in subtlety. The elusive uncle is named Melech Davidson, a messianic figure in a book full of redemptive undertones. The Second Scroll consists of five parts, named after the five books of the Torah. "Genesis" introduces us to the characters. "Exodus" sets the stage for the narrator's journey. "Leviticus" and "Numbers" take us on his wanderings through the world of Europe's exiled Jews and through the desert of information about Melech Davidson. "Deuteronomy" brings the narrator to the Holy Land and a teasing glimpse of salvation. Of course, in a work this thick with imagery, the search for Melech Davidson is not merely the search for a long-lost uncle. Klein's narrator is searching for the soul of contemporary Jewry, particularly the motley crew of Diaspora Jews who have been gathered to Israel. Not surprisingly, for Klein's protagonist, this is represented in his search for the poetic voice of Israel. "This situation, I confess, had stirred hopes in me of discovering the eldorado discovery: a completely underivative poet. To find the poet who knew not of books, bard without antecedents or influences." Yet while Klein's narrator is looking for purity, he finds that redemption is always elusive and always messy. Aside from the biblical, rabbinic and mystical references, The Second Scroll is structurally referential, as well. The story is followed by five "glosses," elucidations and commentaries on the fictional text, written in poetic and epistolatory form. This feature marks both the greatness and ingenuity of Klein's work, and highlights the unfortunate unfulfilled potential of his 17 years of silence. For Stephen Marche, an admirer of Klein and the author of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a novel that also breaks through narrative norms, Klein's reclusiveness finished off what could have been a fruitful genre: one that bridged the textual traditions of modernism and Judaism. In an e-mail, Marche remarked that, "Klein's breakdown ended an entire possible line of Jewish writing. The Second Scroll had the natural, even obvious, idea that the various forms of Jewish commentary and their inherently struggling voices (their desire to struggle amongst each other) represented a modernistic opportunity for literary form. I think he just barely figured out how to make this work before he tragically stopped." A tragedy, indeed. But lucky for us, The Second Scroll is available to be read - and reread. [email protected]