The Second Scroll

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The Second Scroll is a 1951 novel by the Jewish-Canadian writer A. M. Klein. Klein's only novel was written after his pilgrimage to the newly founded nation of Israel in 1949. It concerns the quest for meaning in the post-Holocaust world, as an unnamed narrator, a Montreal journalist and editor, searches for his long-lost uncle, Melech Davidson, a Holocaust survivor, in post-war Italy, Morocco, and Israel.

Klein's novel parallels the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the modern Jewish immigration to Israel after the war being compared to the original Exodus story. It is arranged in "books" (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), with each book loosely based on its equivalent from the Torah, and in the Jewish Talmudic tradition, several glosses further the ideas of each book at the end of the novel.

The Second Scroll is a celebration of plurality in content and form, of ideas and art. Thematically, Klein underscored man’s worth as made in the image of God and deserving of respect, a distinctly humanistic and religious perspective in an increasingly secular post-war world. Klein placed himself via his characters squarely amidst the Jewish Diaspora and 20th century Zionist coalescence—the author as character seeking exploration, experience, and identity. His writing style celebrated multiplicity by drawing on multiple genres, and within these again by discussing poetry, art, literature, and language. He employed various poetic forms; his prose included such sub-genres as the epistolary, the autobiographical journal style, and the philosophical treatise; he even used drama and imitative prayers to express his themes. Through genre crossing Klein showcased his considerable talent with ponderous but richly evocative language reflective of his own readings.

The Second Scroll is divided into halves in both form and characterization, containing five chapters with Biblical titles and five “Glosses” based on the Pentateuch. Klein’s chapters follow a developmentally thematic sequence; his “Glosses” “repeat in minor the major themes . . . and they weave elaboration . . . without impeding the action” . The book is thus an inundation of ideas variously expressed by different genres nonetheless held strictly apart; postmodern experimentalism, ars gratia artis, was clearly not Klein’s goal. His style, however, is ultimately poetic; Klein’s voice in frames of narration through his unnamed narrator and the narrator’s Uncle Melech Davidson makes prose, drama, and prayer lyrical and reflexive. These two principal characters are, moreover, representative halves of their creator: the academic youth and the messianic prophet, both restless, questing, poetical, yet apparently differing in approach and experience. Poetry appears in The Second Scroll in several forms. Klein inserted poems directly into his prose text; his poetic forms surface directly and indirectly in the “Glosses” at the end of the book; his narrator discusses poetry during his travels; and the line between Klein’s poetry and prose is thin. Poetry indeed ruled Klein’s attempts to celebrate yet delineate the genres.

In “Deuteronomy” Klein placed short poems directly into his text. “The splendour and richesse of alle Spain // Y-wis it is a small thing in mine eyn” —the first two lines of a short poem which takes Chaucerian medieval English as its starting point—is a salute to poetic history. A few pages later, the narrator hears a boatman in Tiberias singing a song. The song links his uncle’s elusiveness as symbolic of the narrator’s own attempts to discover and affix himself to the Zionist experience: “Were you, indeed? or did I dream a dream?” . Here as elsewhere the song inserted as poetry within a prose text is a sub-genre with thematic and autobiographical elements.

Klein also included poems in the “Glosses” as separate from the main text. “Gloss Aleph” and “Gloss Beth” are written in different styles, ostensibly by the narrator, yet Klein wrote both. As Seymour Mayne suggests in the novel’s Afterword, Klein was a “writer who put poems and prose passages first published under his own name into the mouths, so to speak, of his two key characters” . Each poem depicts different events in the lives of those figures. “Gloss Aleph”, for instance, is openly autobiographical and “Gloss Beth” is an elegy to the memory of the narrator’s uncle Melech. In the former Klein’s voice as his narrator, both hailing from Montreal, is nostalgic, a call to happy boyhood as “a Jewboy // Dreamed pavement into pleasant Bible-land” . Klein’s consistency is remarkable in his use of the poetic genre to highlight and unite such themes as a yearning for the larger Jewish experience and the tolerance at the heart of religious humanity—all intertwined with memories of his father. “Gloss Aleph’s” short lines resonate with visual urban vividness in its celebration of the “barber shop, bright-bottled, green, blue, red; // And fruit-stall piled, exotic, // And the big synagogue door, with letters of gold.”

“Gloss Beth”, however, exposes a more adult voice of mourning, a direct and protracted cry. Here Klein via his narrator ties the loss of one to the loss of many, his narrator’s uncle’s eventual passing to the millions dead in Nazi death camps as a sin against God and humanity. With lines such as, “The faces are my face! that lie in lime” Klein thus relates himself to the Jewish unborn. Even his choice of words is intra-generic, intra-textual; the “lime” used by the Nazis to cover the murdered bodies in the mass graves appears again in both of Melech’s letters.

“Gloss Beth” is also a kind of prayer, a further form of genre crossing or even blending. Each stanza begins with an address to God as one with the persecuted, with those who recognize and teach that a crime against humanity is akin to “deicide”, that “nefas”, or “moral wrong” in Latin. “Vengeance is thine, O Lord”, cries Klein as narrator. Klein combines prayer and poetry again in “Gloss Hai’s” incantations, often employing such poetic devices as repetition, alliteration, and rhyme: “To praise Thee for the poisons Thou has brayed, // To thank Thee for pollens venomous, the fatal gum, // The banes that bless, the multifarious herbs arrayed” . Thus Klein’s poetry directly and indirectly inserted at the end of the book in the “Glosses” is a showcasing of his own creative efforts via several genres. In “Gloss Aleph” and “Gloss Beth” the consistency with which he highlights his themes through the changing voices of his own character’s development over the years is remarkable.

During his travels Klein’s narrator discourses on poetry. The discussion is Klein’s own, gleaned from his journals; beyond its revisionist content, its inclusion in a work of fiction represents a kind of postmodern metafiction reflecting literature upon itself. Klein’s goal via his character is to make an “eldorado discovery: a completely underivative poet” who would enunciate the new Zionist experience in raw, truthful, experiential terms. The narrator meets a man in Tiberias who describes a new way of seeing poetry that is ultimately participatory. “The destination [of a poem] is determined by the reader,” says this bard. “The poet’s function is but to point direction” . There is a sense that these terms should be ascetic, not sensuous—a recurring theme in Klein’s work—and this is reflected by the economy of the one-liners held up as examples: “Pity emetic and the enema, Terror” . These are more closely allied with such sub-genres of poetry as aphorism or haiku. Klein’s narrator, the journalist in a journalist’s journal-turned-novel, explored poetry directly and indirectly.

The line between Klein’s poetry and prose is often thin; his “Gloss Gimel” is really an extended prose poem, or at the very least a form of poetic prose. Chris Baldick defines a prose poem as “a short composition employing the rhythmic cadences and other devices of free verse . . . but printed wholly or partly in the format of prose . . . a self-contained work usually similar to a lyric, whereas poetic prose may occur intermittently within a longer prose work” . Certainly “Gloss Gimel”— Melech’s letter depicting his vision of the Sistine Chapel—qualifies as one or both of these. The lines cascade with alliterative cadences: Lies on the ground the body of Adam anticipative. It has its due limbs, its due members, its quantum of blood in the veins . . . Its length is extended and curved, its arm is fixed outright, its hand hippocratic in hue hangs limp. Awaits its completion, languid, a hemisphere; awaits and encircled by spheres and cycles of potency, robed in the draped whirlwind, the future under His cloak and all possibles in His ambience . . . . Melech’s depiction of Adam about to be sparked into humanity by God’s touch is really Klein’s, a poetic reminder of humankind’s divine origin. Klein frames the entire passage as a letter written by Melech. It is both a celebration of art and also a philosophically religious tract. The narrator in turn compliments the letter’s “midrashic ingenuity” . Thus Klein via his character celebrates his own writing in its crossing of the poetic, prosaic, and epistolary genres in his own distinct terms.

The poetic voices of Klein’s two key characters sometimes echo one another as his own. As Seymour Mayne argues, the narrator’s depictions of the Casablanca markets are similar in style to Melech’s “Gloss Gimel” as “two telltale passages that reveal Klein’s rhetorical pitch . . . in the mouths of both the pursuing nephew and the pursued uncle” . Klein places his fantasized Melech half-self as a “survivor of the Ark” squarely amidst the Jewish plight in both religious and historical terms, and his real youthful traveller-self amidst the turbulent cities of the Diaspora. Writing through his characters—the narrator commenting literally on his uncle’s writing and symbolically on his photographic image as “a double, a multiple exposure” —Klein occasionally exposes his own singular poetic voice bilaterally. His poetry and prose reinforce his message, sometimes blending them in highly colourful, complimentary ways.

Klein’s poetics aside, his prose style as straight exposition, epistolary form, autobiographical journal entry, or philosophical debate is redolent with ponderous language. “Genesis”, for instance, contains many obscure words and phrases. Klein uses these in all of his prose sub-genres and also in his metafictional asides. As a youth the narrator comments on an early Bolshevik essay written by his uncle (as “Comrade Krul”), an example of “what happens when the Talmudic discipline is applied either to a belletristic or revolutionary praxis: Krul’s . . . argument was like nothing so much as like the subtilized airy transcendent pilpul of Talmud-commentary commentators” . Certainly this heavily academic language is not that of a youth but a mature writer steeped in such concerns and narrated from a future perspective. It reveals Klein’s preoccupation with the application of Jewish philosophy, and marks here as elsewhere a reflective discourse on letters within literature as Klein’s own style.

Klein employs the epistolary prose sub-genre in The Second Scroll. The two letters written by Melech—one in a direct prosaic address to his nephew and the other in the poetic prose of “Gloss Gimel”—are of the same voice as (for the most part) distinct from the narrator’s. Klein’s narrator even refers to “the epistolary style of [Melech’s] Talmudic days” . The letter contains a riveting first-hand depiction of a Holocaust mass murder, a tale doubtless borrowed from personal accounts in Klein’s past. But Melech’s relief at having been incredibly spared the fate of the Kamenets Jewish ghetto is abrogated by his uneasy conscience, a “wish for the centigrade furnace and the cyanide flood” . In both Melech and his nephew—the idealized and practical aspects of Klein himself—resides the sympathetic suggestion that only through religious persecution and even death can one attain that closeness to God that Klein implies lies at the heart of the Jewish martyrdom and Zionism’s subsequent borders.

Klein’s prose also includes the journal-style sub-genre. As Mayne points out, the material for it derives directly from the author’s own “personal odyssey and the events encountered by the literary traveller” when seeking Israel, and is thus innately autobiographical. In “Leviticus” Klein’s narrator ties the Biblical title’s semantics to his own technologically enhanced experience; while flying from Canada to Rome, his “very levitation seemed a miracle in harmony with the wonder of [his] time” . Klein uses the journalistic genre to season his character’s experiences via anecdotal interaction with others, including both the picaresque and philosophical as Klein’s narrator meets several disparate figures with whom he discourses philosophically. In Rome Monsignor Piersanti smugly claims that only through Catholicism can one climb “ever upward”, an exclusive approach opposing Klein’s inherent inclusiveness. Settano, labeling Klein’s narrator as a “typical emissary of the new religion, a sound, orthodox Cocacolian” —despite the narrator’s assertions about what it is to retain his faith in a distinct and secular Canada—robs him of his uncle’s letter in the decadent setting of old-world classicism.

Later, seeking a guide into Casablanca’s squalid “mellah” district, the narrator meets Dauphin, “at once autobiographical, historical, critical, geographical, and wise” . Dauphin may not merely reflect individuals Klein once knew but also symbolize the value of plurality as comprising the whole, Klein’s ideal as genre crosser embodied in one character. Finally, en route to Israel the narrator meets an armchair Jewish philosopher who blames international Jewry for having “turned inward” into a passive, or passé, state of existence; Klein’s narrator takes pains to differentiate himself from this perspective, but its inclusion in the novel criticizes criticism itself, and the critic. These picaresque experiences reflect Klein’s own, the problems faced by an idealistic young academic searching an increasingly cynical post-war world for religious experience and epiphany. The journal sub-genre is just another dimension of Klein’s prose style. In “Numbers” Klein unleashes a series of dazzling descriptions that leap from journalistic prose to the prosaically poetic: “Neskhi, the calligraphy of growing things, pattern of shoot and tendril and climbing vine: a virtuosity it was of curlecue and flourish curving gracefully . . . . Such exuberant prose goes on for pages, chronicling what is for the author—Klein and his character—grotesque and sublime in Casablanca. The descriptions are fascinating in themselves, but Klein uses them to heighten his thematic purposes. Annoyed by Casablanca’s French-Arab dualities and prejudices and by his uncle’s elusiveness the narrator finally flees that city “where the word Jew was a term of pornography . . . the teated domes and the phalloi of minarets” . Klein as his narrator uses language as an ironic snarl, depicting a hypocritical city in physically pornographic terms.

Klein’s prose is full of old-world language—Latinisms and Jewish words and phrases. Straight Latin passages appear in “Gloss Gimel” and indirectly through Klein’s use of Latin-English derivatives. “Gloss Gimel” opens with a Latin quote which translated means, “And I lifted mine eyes: and I saw, Behold the Man! and in his hands the thin ropes of the Measurers” . The quote neatly summarizes Klein’s theme; the sub-theme of artistry itself; and Klein’s own exuberant voice. Interestingly, he chooses not to include translations. The Latin is in post-Renaissance ecclesiastical style rather than the purely classical; Klein cited his quotations from Old Testament Biblical passages. His ends are therefore didactic; the reader must know Latin, know the Bible, or be willing to gain enlightenment by consulting it. Steeped in the classics, Klein also makes heavy use of Latin derivatives. Staring upward at the Sistine vault Melech describes himself as a “homunculus”, which in Latin means “little silly man”, or insignificant compared to both his own godly depictions and Michelangelo’s god-gifted artistry. The “myriad bodies” he sees are variously “ambulant” and “volant”—walking and flying respectively—who “make of the ceiling the weighted animate corpus of humanity”, “corpus” in Latin meaning “body” in neuter, an idea made physical, in art. Thus Klein’s use of Latinisms heightens his themes and includes a discussion of art within a letter’s poetic prose.

Klein’s prose includes many Yiddish and Hebrew Jewish religious terms. In “Deuteronomy” his narrator discusses Jewishisms as a return to such ancient words and phrases as “Sneh”, “Bashan”, “Kesheth”, “Tishbi yetaraitz kushioth v’abayoth” . These words are both didactic and revivifying in their ends and usages; Klein employs them to educate his readers in Jewish culture and to celebrate their rebirth in everyday Israeli life. The narrator’s discussion on their semantics—as with poetry, literature, and art—is yet another metafictional aside in Klein’s exposition. The employment of words old and derivative represents Klein’s own comprehensive education, and their use throughout the novel marks his style as distinctive. Klein salutes modern languages, too, as a function of tolerance and unity, opposing the negative connotations of “Babel”. In Rome the dissonant, confusing voices of the many languages his narrator hears—including the eight phrases quoted—are actually a cause for celebration; the narrator hopes that “someone here would surely know of Uncle Melech” . But Klein’s larger message is that the babble (or Babel) represents the disparate voices of Jews unifying after millennia in Diaspora.

Drama is yet another genre in The Second Scroll. The narrator notes that he “was given the manuscript of a one-act play” ; Klein again uses narrative frames—a character affixing a work of another genre ostensibly written by another character, all contrived by Klein. The play itself, “The Three Judgments” (in “Gloss Dalid”), is both poetic and messianic, a combination of form and content, art and theme. The “Cadi’s” judgments may be just and wise, but the Cadi’s Islamic cultural perception of Jews as untouchables is a form of blindness. Klein unites his artistry and design in his “Jew” character’s climactic soliloquy: “What is it stands between us? Not disbelief! // We worship all the same great sovereign Lord; // In gesture and genuflection differ, // . . . In all other respects we do not differ” . Klein’s aims are thematic, but the play’s dialogue is also highly stylized, even Shakespearian. In the stage directions calling for a thunderstorm that signals God’s apparent accord, Klein’s poetic voice via the Jew achieves Divine righteousness, reinforcing his themes. The multi-framed genres unite the dramatic, poetic, and religious similarly.

Finally, Klein’s book contains prayers, another sub-genre, imitating the incantations of the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, and Cabbala. In his early Zionist zeal the narrator makes “A game; I say . . . to myself in language Biblic” of them, repeating God’s promise to the Jews of a Promised Land. Later, like a solemn “candle flickering in a mysterious room”, “Gloss Hai” resonates with prayer after prayer in poetic form, pleas for universal accord and a Jewish have. Klein’s subjunctives and imperatives thus plead for tolerance and love: “Make us of Thy love a sanctuary, an altar where the heart may cease from fear” . Moreover, Klein’s use of the sub-genres of drama and prayer unites the poetic, historical, and religious in form and content, a masterpiece of genre crossing. That “Gloss Dalid” and “Gloss Hai”, like the other “Glosses”, exist separate from the rest of the book is a function of Klein’s figurative and literal separation of the genres. Yet their inclusion represents inclusiveness itself—a combined approach to emphasizing various themes in various ways. A.M. Klein’s form of genre crossing in The Second Scroll was also genre blending; he makes his lyrical voice heard in all the genres. But far from trying to de-limit them for purely experimental reasons Klein reveled in his ability to exploit them all. He used many frames of narration, participatory and reflexive, to emphasize his own talents and thematic ends. His various poetic, prosaic, and dramatic forms included sub-genres all intertwined, and moreover included metafictional asides on poetry, literature, semantics, and art—the art of writing and even of art itself. Klein’s ponderous but charged language and poetic force was highly distinctive, passionate, prophetic. He took on fundamental themes, placing himself at the same time amidst them; through his characters and narrations and genres he united form and content, art and ideas, in a distinctly “second” scroll—a guidebook for the humanities.