A.M. Klein: From law student to Canadian literary giant

Abraham Moses Klein

Abraham Moses Klein

Credit: Garcia Studios / Library and Archives Canada, PA-125749

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Abraham Moses Klein (1909–1972) was one of Canada’s greatest poets. But few people know that in the 1930s he also studied law at Université de Montréal.

“Roll empty away, wheelchairs, / and crutches, without armpits, hop away!” wrote A.M. Klein in his poem “The Cripples”, referring to the procession of people miraculously cured of their ailments at Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. "And I who in my own faith once had faith like this, / but have not now, am crippled more than they.”


These lines evoke themes that were important to Klein, who was born in Ukraine in 1909 and came to Canada with his family the following year. Now widely known as the founding father of Jewish-Canadian literature, Klein wrote with cordial irony, intense curiosity about religion and a fascination with French-Canadian culture.


“He was certainly one of Canada’s leading writers, but he's largely unknown amongst (francophone) Quebecers,” said Robert Melançon, professor emeritus of literature at Université de Montréal. With his wife, Charlotte, Melançon translated Klein’s only novel, The Second Scroll, into French; published as Le second rouleau by Les Éditions du Boréal in 1990, it won the Governor General’s Award for English-to-French translation.      


Klein was not only a poet and novelist, but also an essayist, journalist, columnist and short story writer. A member of Montreal’s Jewish community, he was strongly influenced by his people's cultural traditions but did not share the faith of the rabbis.


“Klein perfectly incarnates Montreal’s three solitudes: an English-speaking Jew who had a deep love for the francophone community,” said historian Pierre Anctil, a University of Ottawa professor and author of several works on Klein, including a biography in 2004.     


“In his poetry, Klein shows his interest in traditional Quebec life and the sounds of Canadian French, specifically its lexical and syntactic elements and rhythms – his work is infused with it,” added Robert Schwartzwald, chair of UdeM's Jewish Studies program.     

A poem about UdeM

In 1948, Klein’s Quebec poems were compiled in The Rocking Chair (much later, for her master's thesis supervised by Melançon, Marie Frankland did the French translation, published as La chaise berçante). Besides his ode to miracle seekers at Saint Joseph’s Oratory, the book includeds texts with titles such as “Frigidaire,” “The Snowshoers,” The Sugaring,” “Lookout: Mount Royal” and “Filling Station.”


There's even a three-stanza piece on the Faculty of Law at Université de Montréal, where Klein did his degree. “Flaunting their canes, their jaunty berets, the students throng / slick serpentine the street and streamer the air / with ribbons of ribaldry and bunting song,” the poet wrote, evoking the students’ last youthful follies before they “warp and wrinkle into avocats” (a play on words; in French, avocat can mean both lawyer and avocado).      

A dedicated francophile

As a francophile, Klein was quick to defend French Canadians against the kinds of verbal attacks they faced in the first half of the 20th century, also a time of rampant anti-semitism. “He expressed an openness to human diversity that was exceptional for the time,” said Anctil. “Klein felt close to French Canadians. They had a lot in common with the Jewish people, including a steadfast defence of their language and religion.”      


Initially a student at McGill University, where he took courses in science and economics, Klein moved on in 1930 to Université de Montréal, which “unlike McGill didn’t have a quota system for Jewish students,” said Schwartzwald.      


Called to the bar in the mid-30s, Klein decided to practice law in Rouyn, a mining town in the remote region of Abitibi in Quebec's northwest. “It was probably in Abitibi that he learned about rural French Canada, which led to his writing The Rocking Chair," said Schwartzwald. "With this collection, in 1949 he became the first Jew to win the Governor General's Award."

Final years in seclusion

After the Second World War, Klein’s life took a dark turn when he sank into a deep depression. “It’s always difficult to diagnose the long-deceased, but he seems to have suffered a severe personal crisis," said Anctil. "His law practice wasn’t doing well, so he found work writing speeches for (Distillers Corporation founder) Samuel Bronfman, which was far from gratifying.”


Like many doomed poets before him, A.M. Klein spent his final years in isolation. He was treated for psychiatric problems in 1951 and had stopped writing altogether by 1955. As Melançon wrote in his preface of Le Second rouleau, “at the age of only 44, Klein closed himself off from the world and lived the rest of his life as a recluse, refusing to see even his closest friends. He eventually died in 1972.”   

A legacy worth discovering

It was only through sheer luck that Melançon discovered the works of A.M. Klein. “I was reading poetry in my yard in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce when my neighbour, Sandor Klein, told me that his father was a poet," the professor recalled. "I agreed to have a look, mostly just to be polite. It was a revelation!”   


Melançon retired from the Department of French Literature in 2007, but he never gave up the idea of finishing the translations he had started in the 1980s. “Klein’s work is cherished in English Canada and the North American and European Jewish diasporas," he said. "But he’s hardly read at all here in Quebec." Less than 20 per cent of Klein’s work has come out in French; his political essays, among other things, merit translation, Melançon said. 


In December 2017, Parks Canada unveiled a plaque honouring Klein on Hutchison Street in Montreal. This is the neighbourhood, it reads, “where he lived most of his life, and mirrored the struggles and aspirations of a generation that witnessed both the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel." 

  • A.M. Klein (right) presents Monroe Abbey, future president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, with a copy of his book, The Second Scroll, circa 1951.

    Credit: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives

Université de Montréal (1948)

Faculté de Droit

Flaunting their canes, their jaunty berets, the students throng

slick serpentine the street and streamer the air

with ribbons of ribaldry and bunting song.

Their faces, shadowed seminary-pale,

open, flash red, announce their epaulettes,

escape from Xenophone and old Virgile.

Gaily they wind and stagger towards their own

and through the maze already see themselves

silken and serious, a gownèd guild

a portait painter will one day make traditional

beneath the Sign of the Code Napoléon.


This, then, their last permitted juvenal mood

kicked up by adolescence before it dons

the crown and dignity of adulthood.

Today, the grinning circle on the Place d'Armes,

mock trial, thumbdown'd verdict, and, singsong,

the joyous sentence of death; tomorrow, the

good of the state, the law, the dean

parting deliberate his beard

silvered and sabled with rampant right and wrong.


Thus will they note in notebooks, and will con

the numbers and their truths, and from green raw

celebrants of the Latin Quarter, duly

warp and wrinkle into avocats.

The solid men. Now innocence and fun.

O let them have their day, it soon will go!

Soon are begun

for haggler and schemer and electioneer –

the wizened one who is a library key,

the fat one plumped upon the status quo

the fees and fetters of career.

Soon they enter

their twenty diaries, clocked and elaborate,

and soon, too soon, begin to live to leave

en bon père de famille, – a sound estate.


(A.M. Klein: Complete Poems: Part II: Original Poems 1937-1955 and Poetry Translations; University of Toronto Press, 1990)

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