A Portrait of A.M. Klein

Usher Caplan, Like One That Dreamed, Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982, 224 pp.

A glance at the chapter headings of Usher Caplan's recent biography of A.M. Klein, Like One That Dreamed, signals the tragic rise and fall of a Canadian poet. From his vivid account of "The Jargoning City" of Montreal, where Klein's Russian parents arrived in 1910 and where they helped shape the bourgeoning Jewish community into a facsimile of Old World life, to his elegiac description of Klein as a near-mythical "Nth Adam" poet in death, after almost two decades of lonely reclusiveness, Caplan traces both a personal life and the special Canadian environment in which such a life lived. The skeletal facts of Klein's life and career may be commonly known but the wealth of detail that informs each chapter sheds considerable light on stale information.

     The biography measures the milestones in the life of a man whose own growth and development paralleled the emergence of a self-conscious Canadian literature: Klein's rich early education nourished "Out of the Ghetto Streets"; his young adult experiences with the group of "Green Celebrants," the committed intellectuals who would later be immortalized as the McGill School of poets; his angry response to the "Tumultuous Night" of World War II as spokesman for a devastated race; his achievement of "Fame, the Adrenalin" in the 'forties; and his eventual lonely confrontation with madness and death "In That Drowning Instant." The title of the biography is borrowed from Klein's own pen, as are the chapter headings. Caplan, in such a gesture, acknowledges that he prefers to let Klein speak for himself as much as possible. The titles read like headlines in a life which, ironically or prophetically, the poet wrote for himself.

     Indeed, the tone of Like One That Dreamed is appropriately respectful of its subject. Caplan chooses to illuminate by documentation, rather than to impose any obvious personal interpretation on the facts. Such an approach cleverly disguises in the casual dress of reportage the years of rigorous research that went into this work. Almost off-handedly, Caplan notes, for instance, that Klein reported "deficiency of gall" as the reason in the only written mention anywhere of his exemption" from service in World War II; elsewhere, it is stated that Klein "turned down the suggestion" to start a course in Canadian Literature at McGill in 1947 because ''the subject of Canadian Literature did not stir his enthusiasm. Such nonchalantly strewn observations are provocative points of departure for the avid Kleinophile; Caplan's well-considered restraint allows the reader room to indulge in his own speculations.

     This is not to say that the biography lacks a point of view. As the reader absorbs the facts of Klein's struggles to achieve a respectible niche for himself in the international arena, one salient feature emerges. The sheer number of setbacks which Klein endured in his efforts to publish his creative work in Canada in the 'thirties and 'forties add up to a glaring indictment against an unappreciative public audience. The later chapters of Like One That Dreamed chronicle the humiliating rejections and dismissive editors' comments like so much weighty evidence in a familiar case of the Canadian poet versus the uninterested public. In addition to this, the two substantial projects for which Klein unsuccessfully applied to the Guggenheim Foundation in the 'forties, a translation of the Hebrew poet Bialik and a critical study of Joyce, were never realized. It is not as if we were unaware of the miserable opportunities facing Canadian writers in the earlier decades of the twentieth century but that we are sobered into considering the degree to which such limited conditions might have been responsible for Klein's eroded spirit and personal suffering.

     The theme of the conflict between a personal dream of recognized achievement and the reality of public indifference haunts nearly every page of this work. Klein managed to cultivate an astonishingly high profile in the public gaze, juggling with skill his diverse responsibilities as a lawyer, as the editor of the prestigious Canadian Jewish Chronicle, as a speech writer and a promotional advisor to Sam Bronfman, as a McGill visiting lecturer, and as a CCF political candidate. Ostensibly, though, he saw himself as a victim of the poet's time-worn fate of neglect and anonymity. That he both refused to surrender to such an ignoble role and that he was half in love with its romantic trappings is a contradiction of temper and sensibility to which Caplan's work steers us without resolution, since none is really possible.

     In his commitment to permit the man to speak on his own behalf, Caplan also offers various selections of hitherto uncollected and unpublished material. These passages serve to amplify the narrative of the events in Klein's life and also to provide the reader with intimations of the strong autobiographical impulse in Klein's writings. For example, a passage from one of Klein's unfinished novels, Stranger and Afraid, offers an internal debate by a speaker in the throes of considering his responsibility to himself, to his Jewish people, and to mankind. Hamlet-like, the narrator takes stock of his motives, as if out of some need to fuel his own hesitant decision to don a social conscience lest he fall into the unflattering posture of cowardice. In the context of the biographical text, such a passage re-enforces the reader's impression that Klein saw himself as a lonely pioneer of truth and honour walking upright in a country of "hunchbacks."

     The inclusion of excerpts, such as the passage from Stranger and Afraid, places Like One That Dreamed outside the definition of "straight" biography. The book is, in fact, a collection of documents which comprise a portrait. In addition to both Caplan's narrative and Klein's own writings, are photographs of the poet, his family and friends, and of Montreal, campaign posters, cartoons, sketches, and newspaper clippings. The photographic entries, edited by David Kaufman (who here displays the same sensitive eye as he did in his film, A.M. Klein: The Poet as Landscape) are especially welcome. One can linger over the aristocratic-looking profile of a young Louis Dudek or the calm straight-forward manner of John Sutherland, men with whom Klein shared ideas and encouragement in the days of First Statement. The remarkable photograph of Klein which introduces Leon Edel's moving Foreword is strangely disturbing; here, Klein, the McGill undergraduate, stares almost lewdly into the camera lens in a mockish half sneer. Perhaps most illuminating and disturbing at once is the 1958 candid shot of Klein dancing with his wife Bessie at their elder son's wedding reception. In stark contrast to the preceding photographs which display either the energetic confidence of the public speaker or the calm pride of the family man, this entry reveals a much older-looking Klein, whose glazed eyes stare out of a haggard countenance into ambiguous space. The nakedness of that frozen moment is unsettling.

     Indeed, Caplan's work delivers, for the first time, some curious details of the last unhappy decades of Klein's life. It is hoped that such information will not only help to cut through so much of the smoke that has clouded Klein studies in the years since his death, but will also send readers back to his creative work. Choice anecdotes and some astonishing facts concerning Klein's reclusive period and his near-catatonic manner are brought to light. His illness surprised his family, and, most of all, his friends, but with the hindsight that this biographical overview affords, new perspectives may come into play. It is tempting to consider, for example, that Klein's fastiduous attention to daily shaving habits and to regular haircuts during this time in some way reflects his late, if superficial, efforts to maintain a grip on order; certainly Klein's working habits and, indeed, the themes of his written work testify to a life consumed by, if not obsessed with, a quest for ordered systems of behaviour.

     That Like One That Dreamed is published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson marks a line of continuity in Klein studies, for in 1974 the company published Klein's collected poems (ed. Miriam Waddington). Caplan's text is set in the same clear type as the poetry volume and is as handsomely bound. Unfortunately, the publishers, perhaps in their desire to produce a contemporary cut-up biographical pastiche, create obstacles in the design of the book which interfere with and confuse Caplan's engaging narrative thread. Most often, selections from Klein's own work are appended to the end of each chapter, but occasionally a passage is inserted smack in the middle of one. The reader might be in the middle of a sentence when he is confronted by such an interruption from a CCF campaign or a Seagrams Meeting speech. The effect is frustrating, needlessly obtrusive, and constitutes a disservice to the text. It is also true that Caplan acknowledges in his preface that Like One That Dreamed "was not intended as an academic book" so it therefore lacks footnotes and a bibliography. Anyone interested in the source of the numerous quotations from friends and acquaintances, or from Klein's own work, is on his own and will have to consult either Caplan's thesis bibliography or the Public Archives of Canada papers. Fair enough, yet one does want to avoid, perhaps, a plane trip to Ottawa. Something more accessible in the way of footnotes, at least for the reader keen on following through his reading of the work, would have been appreciated.

     The achievement of Like One That Dreamed should not, however, be under-estimated. As a nation of curious readers, we hunger for biographies such as this one. The men and women who have shaped the literature and art of the present remain figures shadowed by our obscure knowledge of our cultural history. We have been reading Canadian poetry long enough now to want to know of both the personal and the socio-historic circumstances which evolved such work. It is, perhaps, an indication of our nation's priorities that we publish biographies of Canadian politicians, which readers devour annually, but seldom offer portraits of our artists whose lives are no less fascinating or relevant to explore. Moreover, the publication of a biography of a poet serves to lend his creative work all the more dignity and attention. Like One That Dreamed announces that a man's life and work is worthy of such treatment.

     Finally, the publication of a Klein biography is nothing if not timely. The long-awaited volumes of uncollected and unpublished Klein material, including literary essays, editorials, short stories, and poetry, are about to issue from University of Toronto Press. Caplan has contributed his energies to much of this new series in his capacity as member of the Klein Research and Publication Committee (of which I am a new member); his biography will serve as a valuable companion piece to the Klein matter.

Noreen Golfman