Klezmer Musician's Death Plunges Author Into Exploration of Madness and Grief

Sarah Manguso's 'Guardians' Is an Elegy For Her Late Friend

Klezmer Elegy: Harris J. Wulfson, a klezmer musician, threw himself in front of a New York City train in 2008. HIs suicide forms the basis of Sarah Manguso’s mournful memoir.
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Klezmer Elegy: Harris J. Wulfson, a klezmer musician, threw himself in front of a New York City train in 2008. HIs suicide forms the basis of Sarah Manguso’s mournful memoir.

By Susan Comninos

Published July 10, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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● The Guardians: An Elegy
By Sarah Manguso
Picador, 104 pages, $20.

American Jewish author Sarah Manguso’s “The Guardians: An Elegy” is a strip map of a memoir about Manguso’s grief at the suicide of a close friend, a klezmer musician who suffered from recurring psychosis. Lean, elliptical and beautifully written, her book, recently released in paperback, warrants a second look, as it shows the pinpoint manifestations of personal grief — even as it leaves maddening swathes of Manguso and her friend’s biographies unexplored.

The book takes its title from — to the author’s mind — the negligent staff on the locked psychiatric ward at the New York City hospital where her friend, Harris J. Wulfson, 33, was a patient. Hours after being let out, he threw himself under a subway train. Manguso, 39, indicts herself, too, as a player in Wulfson’s fate, but in a way that is less articulated. Still, her guilt allows her to ally herself with a cadre of intimates and others who have, over the course of her life, killed themselves.

Her circle makes for macabre company, and an unfortunate “Me, too” tenor marks this book. Sometime after Wulfson’s death, a poet, whom Manguso slightly knew, put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. “Afterward,” she writes, “I felt an echo of that old feeling — that the line was moving, that I was now one death closer to the threshold — but it was a faint echo. I’ve felt insulated from my death since I began taking this new medicine. I am no longer moved to write poetry, but I traded poetry for a longer life. I knew I was doing it.”

Her moribund statement won’t make sense to those new to her work. But fans of Manguso, who in 2007 won the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, already know her backstory. While missing from this memoir, it’s supplied in her earlier work, which includes two poetry collections, “The Captain Lands in Paradise” (2002) and Siste Viator” (2006). Following them is the microfiction series “Hard To Admit and Harder To Escape” (2007), as well as her debut memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay” (2008), an exploration of her dealing with depression and a diagnosis with a rare and serious autoimmune disorder in her 20s.

Given Manguso’s history, a compassionate reader might ask, doesn’t it make sense that she can sound both acquisitive and overly expert about death, even as she writes so movingly about it?

Perhaps. But reading too much of her own experience into Wulfson’s weakens her logic. Given her individual reaction to prescribed drugs, including antipsychotics, Manguso seems to think she knows something definitive about their side effects. As a result, she’s preoccupied by her armchair diagnosis that drug-related akathisia, or uncontrollable restlessness, made Wulfson jump to his death.


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