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.
flickr
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● 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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.