Sunday, October 17, 2021
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Klein, A.M.: The Second Scroll, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969 Introduction by M.W. Steinberg, pp vii – x



Klein, A.M.:  The Second Scroll, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1969 Introduction by M.W. Steinberg, pp vii – x


A.M. Klein, one of Canada’s distinguished poets, has in The Second Scroll created a unique work of literature.  Though cast in the form of a novel, The Second Scroll has appended to it a number of poems and brief scenes of verse drama which expound and extend the theme.  Indeed, the very texture of the story itself reveals the qualities that distinguish Klein’s poetry.  His love of words, their sounds and associations, and his mastery over them are evident on every page as he daringly twists and shapes them to serve his purposes.  His familiarity with the English and classical literary traditions, as well as with Hebraic culture, enables him to draw upon them at will for metaphor or allusion, and indeed there is a wealth of meaningful allusion in Klein’s writing. 

His rhetorical power, seen in The Hitleriad and in a quieter way in his proud, dignified apologia for the Jew’s existence in the poem, “In Re Solomon Warshawer,” rises to new heights in his remarkable description of the Sistine chapel in The Second Scroll.  In the vigour of his language, his fondness for compounding and telescoping words to create a startling and desirable effect is, as well as in the richness of allusion, Klein reveals that he has assimilated successfully some of the technical achievements of James Joyce, an author has long studied and admired.

In his novel, as in the greatest part of his poetry, Klein is largely concerned with the Jewish scene, both historical and contemporary.  His preoccupation with this material stems from his background.  Klein was born in Montreal, one of the most intensely Jewish communities in North America and experienced directly the grimness and the glories of the relatively self-contained Jewish immigrant community in the Montreal “ghetto.”  His Jewish studies at the Montreal Talmud Torah were richly supplemented by his private studies in later years.  At one time he intended studying for the rabbinate, but he allowed himself to be drawn into the study of a different kind of law.  After McGill and the Universite de Montreal, he graduated in law and has been in practice since.  He has not followed his profession with a single-hearted devotion, however, as he has also lectured in poetry at McGill, edited various Anglo-Jewish periodicals and, of course, worked at his poetic craft.  In an autobiographical poem, Klein indicates his awareness of the continuing tradition which shaped him and found expression through his writings,

Not sole was I born, but entire genesis:

For to the fathers that begat me, this

Body in residence.  Corpuscular,

They dwell in my veins, they eavesdrop at my ear,

The circle, as with Torahs, round my skull,

In exit and in entrance all day pull

The latches of my heart, descend, and rise –

And there look generations through my eyes.

(Poems, Psalm XXXVI: “A Psalm Touching Genealogy”)

The historical context in which the story takes place is the period between 1917, when pogroms in Russia terrorized the Jewish population, and 1949, a year following the establishment of the state of Israel.  It contains, therefore, an account of the sufferings of the Jews in exile, the exodus from Europe, the land of their enslavement, and the return to the Promised Land.  It parallels in this respect, the first scroll, the Old Testament, as the history of the Jewish people.  The parallel, which is obviously indicated by the title of the book and by the chapter headings, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, is carried further as Klein sees in contemporary events, in the achievements of the Jewish people, the working out of their destiny – a working out that is for him explicable only in religious terms.  

And further, just as the Torah comprises not merely the Bible, but also the commentaries on it – the Talmud, for example – which expand upon the events in the Five Books and explain them, completing the message, so too in Klein’s The Second Scroll there are five glosses which elaborate upon or which help us interpret events in the story.  The parallel so obviously indicated in the structure suggests more than actually obtains in the material.  There is little or no direct connection, for instance, between the Book of Leviticus and the chapter Leviticus in the novel, or between the rabbinical discussions in the Talmud and Klein’s glosses.  The Pentateuchal form of The Second Scroll with the Biblical labels may be justified, however, by the major thematic parallels of the two scrolls.  

The central theme of the story is established at the outset.  Melech Davidson, a pious scholar, appalled by the atrocities which he witnessed in Russia in 1917, renounced his faith and sundered himself from his people because he could not reconcile his belief in a loving and just God with the unspeakable depravities which He permitted.  No longer able to depend on God for justice, he joined the Communist Party to help bring it about, and he devoted his zeal and dialectical skill, acquired in the study of the Talmud, to the service of his new master.  The German-Soviet pact of 1939, which resulted in the handing over of three and a half million Jews in eastern Europe to the Nazis, made him believe that his Marxist ideology had been “a saying of grace before poison” and he abandoned this faith too.

Thus, spiritually isolated and bewildered he existed until rounded up with the rest of the Jews of Kamenets for extermination.  Finding himself, by accident or miracle, the sole survivor of the massacre at Kamenets, he felt the need to identify himself completely with the martyred Jews and to express their lives through his own. In a letter which his nephew received just before his departure for Israel, Uncle Melech wrote, “At times I feel – so bewildered and burdened in my gratitude – that the numbered dead run through my veins their plasma, that I must live their unexpired six million circuits, and that my body must be the bed of each of their nightmares.”

Through incident and symbol, Klein goes on to suggest that more than an individual re-affirmation is involved.  Uncle Melech, we learn, delayed his departure for Israel.  Like his Biblical forebears who, according to the commentaries, had to wander for forty years in the desert to be cleansed of their slave mentality, to be welded into one and to be purified before ascending into the Promised Land, he, too, who had “not yet got the goluth [exile] out of his system.” Had to purge himself of his ambivalent attitude toward his former life, his loving and hating it at the same time.  For this he had to experience the suffering of the goluth to the full, “to feel in is own person,” as his friend Krongold said, “and upon his own neck the full weight of the yoke of exile,” and in so doing achieve a sense of oneness with all, even the most wretched.  With this in mind, Uncle Melech, the European Jew, went off to Casablanca where he mingled and merged with the humblest of all Jews, the inhabitants of the mellah.  

At this point Klein indicates the changing role of Uncle Melech through the symbol of a photograph.  When the nephew, who has not yet seen the face of his uncle or its photographic image, is shown Uncle Melech’s picture in Casablanca, he discovers it to be “a double, a multiple exposure.”  He describes his flight over the Mediterranean to Israel as “an ascension, a going forward in which I was drawn on and on by the multiple-imaged appearing and disappearing figure of Uncle Melech.”  

Then in Israel, where the nephew traces Uncle Melech, the identification of the Uncle with all Jewry is complete, for wherever the nephew looks, the stances, the faces, even the names of people, all evoke in him possibilities of his Uncle.  When the process of the Uncle’s merging into the people of Israel is complete, the individual disappears from the scene, murdered by Arab marauders.  It is clear that Uncle Melech is to be taken as the Jew in exile, and his experiences, his divagations from the faith – his enticements to other ways and beliefs – are those of his people, as are his sufferings, the burden of the galuth, and his eternal quest for truth and justice, and his final ascendance to the Promised Land.

As the role of the Uncle undergoes change, the meaning of the nephew’s search, its purpose, becomes clearer.  The thread of narrative is the journey of a Jewish-Canadian journalist to the new state of Israel to discover for his publishers the poetry of the reborn people.  A second and more important strand of narrative grows out of this as the nephew determines to track down his Uncle while in Europe, a search that takes him to three continents.  The subtly suggested shift from the literal to the symbolic in the presentation of Uncle Melech shapes and gives new levels of meaning to the external framework.  The young Canadian Jew, it is suggested, separated from his European relations, is not sufficiently involved in their fate.  Following his Uncle’s trail through Europe, North Africa, and Israel, led him, however to an understanding of his Uncle’s life, past, present, and future:  for the Uncle during the course of the search, had become the symbol of the Jewish people.  

With this understanding came a sense of belonging, of kinship with all Jews.  His journey and search for the Uncle became a successful search for identification. Now that he was in rapport with the spirit of his people, he was able to fulfil his original mission, which was to find and evaluate the poetry of the reborn people.  He discovered it not so much in the formal writings of the poets, in the sentimental pastoral lyrics of the kibbutz-dwellers, the stirring songs of the nationalists, the nostalgic, plaintive hymns of the religious, or the cryptic utterances of the mystics, but rather in the poetic imagination of the people as a whole, which was most clearly revealed for him in their actions, and in the process of vocabulary-building necessary for  the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a medium of daily intercourse.

Klein develops his theme further, still in accord with Jewish tradition.  In the restrained speeches at the funeral of Uncle Melech, the Israeli mention not only “how he had become a kind of mirror, an aspaklaria, of the events of our time,” but also “he had throughout the sheer force of his existence again in our life naturalized the miracle.”  

At the same time that Uncle Melech was becoming increasingly the symbol of the Jewish people he symbolized the Messiah concept.  He literally rose from the dead in the mass grave at Kamenets, and taking on himself the burden of his people, he figuratively brought the dead to life through his own life, actions traditionally ascribed to the Messiah who is to come.  The symbolic gesture at Casablanca where Uncle Melech joined the lame and blind beggars may well have been suggested by a story in the Talmud concerning the Messiah. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in his search for the Messiah was directed by Elijah the Prophet to the market-place in Rome, where the Messiah would be sitting among the blind beggars and cripples, attending to their wounds.  

Furthermore, Uncle Melech’s name clearly establishes his Messianic role:  Melech (King) Davidson (David’s son) is none other than Messiah, who is commonly referred to as Messiah ben David (David’s son) or simply as “Son of David.”  There is no contradiction or confusion I the fact that Uncle Melech seems to act in a dual symbolic capacity suggesting to the reader both the Jewish people and the Messiah.  A traditional Jewish view, set forth by Maimonides, tends to identify Messiah with the people in a purified state, in which might be termed a Messianic condition.  The people contain within themselves the Messiah idea.  To this extent and in this way is the miracle naturalized.

Though the naturalizing of the miracle through Uncle Melech is a sound literary device and a not unsound Judaic doctrine, the author is not content with a simply secular explanation of the miracle; rather, he makes explicit the intervention of the divine.  Not only does Uncle Melech say, “I bless the Heavenly One for my rescue,” but he nephew too, in seeking an explanation of the historical events, the exodus and the return, rejects the theories of a companion on the flight to Tel-Aviv, though intrigued intellectually by them.  At the end of their discussion he asks, “And what role does Providence play in your scheme?  You have forgotten, in your thesis, to place God.”  

And later in his sojournings in Israel the nephew becomes fully convinced of God’s part in the redemption of the Jewish people.  “And now in Israel, “he remarks, “the phenomenon was being made everywhere explicit.  The fixed epithet wherewith I might designate Israel’s poetry, the poetry of the recaptured time, was not evident.  The password was heard everywhere – the miracle!  I had found the key image.”

This religious interpretation of events raises amore profound religious question, one that runs through the entire novel and constitutes its central and most moving motif:  the question of good and even, a question which involves the nature of the relation between God and man.

At the beginning of the story, Uncle Melech, the devout Talmudic scholar, appalled by the inexplicable vile acts perpetrated during the Russian pogroms, raised the outcry not infrequently heard in the course of a long history of persecution: “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked proper?” 

But in the past such questioning was less of a challenge to God’s authority than an agonized plea for understanding.  Uncle Melech, the modern Jew, finding no answer, unable to reconcile the prevalence of evil with belief in an all living and omnipotent God, forsook his religion. The act of evil, regarded as an isolated event, was not understood, and could not be justified; only if one can see the whole.  Klein suggests, can one judge the part.  But this full vision, this G-d’s eye view, is not vouchsafed to man, who none the less feels compelled to judge, and in judging, too frequently errs.  Because his view is limited or because he is overwhelmed by the immediate tragedy, he fails to see that out of evil can come good, out of death, life.  For such an awareness, faith is then rightness of God’s acts is essential.  The centrality of this theme in the novel is indicated by an extract from John Milton’s Areopagitica which Klein inserted in the title page of The Second Scroll:

“… And ask a Talmudist what ails the modesty of his marginal Keri that Moses and all the prophets cannot persuade him to pronounce the textual Chetiv.”

Milton, in the passage form which this extract is taken, criticizes those who would change words in the oral reading of the Torah in accordance with the Talmudic precept “that all words which in the law are written obscenely, must be changed to more civil words.”  This injunction, invoked for modesty’s sake, angered Milton, as he remarked, “fools, who would teach men to read more decently than God thought fit to write.”  Klein finds this remark a fitting prelude to his story, saying in effect that those who presume to judge the rightness of God’s acts are guilty of folly.  He reinforces this theme, the need for accepting God’s will, by adding a second prefatory comment in the form of an extract from Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s song which challenges without denying God’s justice, but which ends in praise of Is all-encompassing love.

Through meaningful Biblical allusions and symbols in the text of the novel, Klein suggests the reconciliation of good and evil, necessary for the acceptance of God.  At the end of chapter Genesis in The Second Scroll Klein writes that the great smoke that billowed over the Jews of Europe for the six years following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the smoke of war and from the gas chambers and funeral pyres, became their cloud by date, their pillar of fire by night.  

This allusion to the instruments by which God guided and protected the Jews wile in the desert following the exodus from Egypt suggests symbolically, in Klein’s seemingly ironic use of it, the theme of good out of evil.  Again, at the end of Exodus in The Second Scroll, immediately after the horrifying description of the massacre at Kamenets, comes the lyric outburst of the note of hope, symbolized by the Israeli ships come to collect the remnant for a new life.  The startling juxtaposition of the events and their moods clearly suggests a close relationship, a kinship of good and evil.  Uncle Melech at this moment ponders the miracle of redemption, the Messianic nature of the events.  And he concludes:

“When the years were ripened, and the years fulfilled, then was there fashioned Aught from Naught.  Out of the furnace there issued smoke, out of the smoke a people descended.  The desert swirled, the capitals hissed:  Sambation raged, but Sambation was crossed …”

Later in Israel the nephew finds the answer to the question that he put to his companion on the aeroplane, “And what role does Providence play in your scheme?  You have forgotten, in your thesis, to place God.”  The obsessive theme of the discovered poetry is the miraculous, and the key image necessary to explain the remarkable vitality, the rebirth evidenced in every aspect of life, is the miracle.  

With this increasing awareness, the nephew realizes suddenly the significance of his own experience earlier at the Arch of Titus in Rome, an arch that commemorates the destruction of the Jewish state and the dispersion of its people.  His sense of humiliation was transformed to triumph, and the stone of the Arch disappeared at the moment he recalled his Uncle’s words, which express the essence of faith: “When the years were ripened, and the years fulfilled, then was there fashioned Aught from Naught.”  And the fifth gloss, the final statement in the entire book restates in exalted tones this theme.

When at last he learns of his Uncle’s abode it is too late, for the Uncle has been murdered.  But with the new conception of evil and death, which is rooted deep in the Jewish religion, he is not overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy. Evil and death are not things in themselves; they have their place in God’s scheme and therefore are not to be vilified or unduly lamented.  

The novel ends with the recital by the nephew of the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer which, significantly enough, does not even mention death once.  It is not a lament, but on the contrary, a Magnificat, an exalting of God and an acceptance of His Ways.

Klein, in this novel, accepts the traditional Jewish position, an optimistic view which does not regard reason or will as fixed and final, but as a dynamic force capable of expansion to the point where man, by his efforts, aided by Divine Law and the occasional intervention of a loving God, approaches a Messianic condition.  Klein’s novel is based on this assumption, and so despite the cataloging of horrors, it ends on an exultant note.

The Second Scroll is concerned fundamentally with religious themes, in that contemporary Jewish history is interpreted in terms of religion as the coming together again of God, the Jewish people, and the Holy Land.  The events, seen as miraculous, reveal the involvement of God’s will. The Second Scroll, however, is a religious novel in an even more fundamental and universal sense.  The universality of Klein’s religious theme is made evident by his indicating the essential oneness of the three major western religions:  Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism.  In the third parable of Gloss Dalid, he insists that it is immaterial whether the agent of the lamp manufacturer (the light creator) is Mahmad or Iban Amram (Moses) or Ibn Yousuf (Jesus); what matters is the quality of the light itself.  

And just as the Bible tells not only the history of the Jews, but, more important, recounts the unfolding of man’s awareness of God largely through God’s revelation of Himself through deeds, so too A. M. Klein here develops as his central theme the drama of man losing and finding God.  This religious theme is, of course, in this story inseparable from the national theme, for the miraculous return to Israel is seen as part of God’s plan, and is the happy fulfilment that furnishes the optimism basic to a renewed faith that alone enables him to resolve the old dilemma faced by religious thinkers, the problem of evil and its bearing on God’s relation to man.

M.W. Steinberg

University of British Columbia

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