A.M. Klein: Poet and Prophet

by Edward Baxter
133 pages,
ISBN: 0968816665

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Brief Reviews
by Michael Greenstein


Nanm Kattan's biography of A.M. Klein, Poet and Prophet, first appeared in French in 1994 and has now been translated into English by Edward Baxter (XYZ Publishing, $15.95, 133, pages, paper, ISBN: 0968816665). Kattan's name means "small" in Hebrew, while Klein means the same in Yiddish, so it is fitting that both authors appear side by side in this slim monograph, even though both have had prolific careers. After Usher Caplan's more detailed biography of Klein, Like One That Dreamed (1982), and after the publication of several scholarly volumes of Klein's poetry and prose by the University of Toronto Press, this biography should be read as an introduction to the poet, a fanciful primer in which the creative Kattan invents dialogue between Klein and those closest to him. The book's subtitle, Poet and Prophet, takes us back to Leonard Cohen's 1964 lecture at Montreal's Jewish Public Library when he discussed the question of Klein's seventeen silent years at the end of his life. Indeed, Klein's final silence has become as much a topic of discussion as his creative writing.

Klein's breakdown from 1955 until his death in 1972 has been attributed to personal and financial problems, lack of recognition as a poet, the suffering of his fellow Jews during the Holocaust, and his disappointment with the newly established State of Israel for its rejection of Diaspora history. Cohen's lecture, "Loneliness and History", argues that Klein administered too much to the Jewish community in the role of priest, whereas the true poet needs to distance himself from community in the role of prophet. Cohen and Irving Layton (Klein's student and friend) have adopted this prophetic stance in criticizing their community, as if giving voice to their mentor's silence.

Kattan, on the other hand, sees Klein as both poet and prophet, and in an earlier essay on Klein, he suggests that Klein is a universal Jew, embracing Orient and Occident, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry. Kattan's biography opens on a fairy-tale note, and the tone of a child's story permeates much of this biography: "His full name was Abraham Moses Klein, but at home they called him by his nickname ű Abe. When he was a child, his mother always lulled him to sleep with her songs. One night he was feverish and sleep would not come."

Klein was born in Ratno, Ukraine, and arrived in Montreal at the age of one. Like Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, and many other children of Jewish immigrants, Klein attended Baron Byng High School¨ immortalized as Fletcher's Field in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He became friends with David Lewis, and the two of them became debating partners at McGill. Klein was fluent in French, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, the many languages making their way into his poetry, and attracting him to James Joyce's multilingual creativity.

After graduating from McGill, Klein studied law at the UniversitT de MontrTal and went on to practice law, but struggled to earn a living to support his wife and three children. He became editor of The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, ran unsuccessfully for political office, and despite his leftist political leanings, worked as a speechwriter for Samuel Bronfman at Seagram's. His early poetry deals for the most part with Jewish subjects, but his last volume of poems, The Rocking Chair (1948), turns to French-Canadian subjects, and won the Governor General's award. In 1951 he published his short but complex novel, The Second Scroll, based on his trip to Europe, Israel, and North Africa. Having chronicled the suffering of his fellow Jews, he finally succumbed to silence in 1955.

Almost every major Canadian-Jewish writer has paid tribute to the father of Canadian-Jewish literature. At the end of his book Kattan appends a chronology of "Klein and His Times". The final entry for 1976 nods in the direction of the biographer: it cites Adieu Babylone, Kattan's first novel published in that year. Since then, Kattan has written prolifically and, like Klein, deserves to be better known. ˛


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