Mordecai Richler was a complicated guy. The celebrated author of ten novels, the creator of such memorable characters as Duddy Kravitz, Jake Hersch, Joshua Shapiro, Solomon Gursky and Barney Panofsky, he was also an astute and often hilarious political and cultural essayist. Publicly acerbic, yet quick to feel slighted and even quicker to retaliate, he was a passionate protector of his family and his friends, the satirical voice of gritty, striving post-war Jewish urban life, an inveterate prankster and the sharpest, stealthiest debunker of pretension and gobbledygook in this or any other country.
A few weeks before he died in a Montreal hospital on July 3, 2001, of complications from metastasized bladder cancer, he changed his will. In addition to his wife, Florence, he added his son Noah and his Canadian agent, the entertainment lawyer Michael Levine, as literary executors of his estate. Richler was canny enough to know that the wily Levine—about whom it is said “no conflict, no interest”—would not hesitate to put The Acrobats, Richler’s first published novel, back into print.
Had Richler changed his mind about the merits of his 1954 novel, the book he had always refused to reissue because he considered it jejune and flawed? Probably not. More likely he was thinking beyond his own mortal vanity and envisioning ways to keep on providing for his wife and family after his death, as he had always done in life, and he realized that The Acrobats was part of the deal. He knew he could not cheat the grim reaper, but he could leave his loved ones an expandable financial cushion as well as a literary legacy. And that is what has happened.
At least partly because of Mr. Levine’s efforts to keep the name of his famous client alive, there is a small industry of biographers rereading Richler’s oeuvre, digging through his fonds at the University of Calgary and begging interviews from family and friends. These books, either published or in the works, guarantee an ongoing interest in Richler’s life and work.
Leaving St. Urbain, by Reinhold Kramer, an English literature professor at Brandon University, is only one of the posthumous biographies. At least two others are in the works: a short impressionistic study by novelist M.J. Vassanji in the Extraordinary Canadians series and a longer work by journalist and novelist Charles Foran. They will join others on the shelf of early critical works by Arnold Davidson, Victor Ramraj and George Woodcock, as well as a memoir, Mordecai and Me, by Montreal journalist Joel Yanofsky and an oral biography, The Last Honest Man, by journalist Michael Posner, both of which appeared after Richler’s death.
The facts of Richler’s life are well known. Born in the east end of Montreal in 1931 on the precipice of the Depression, the second of two sons of a scrap dealer, he attended Baron Byng High School, where he did not distinguish himself academically, and then went for a couple of years to Sir George Williams University, now Concordia. He was born into economic disaster and prejudice and grew up too young to fight against fascism in World War Two and too old to be part of the protest generation in the Vietnam war era. He came of age in the 1950s as an angry young man seeking an outlet in the printed word for his frustration and his rage, and he continued to seethe for decades thereafter. His novels chart his cultural, social and psychological growth—sort of a satirist’s progress.
He fled Montreal for Paris, London and Spain, determined to become a writer. He was married for a time to Cathy Boudreau before divorcing her and marrying Florence Wood and adopting her son, Daniel. The Richlers had four more children. After living in London for nearly 20 years, where he made a living as a screenwriter, journalist and novelist, he and his family returned to Canada—his source material—in the mid 1970s, the years when the separatist movement was in its ascendancy in Quebec. He was one of the first, and is still among the few, serious Canadian novelists able to make a good living from his writing—a fact that has aroused resentment among those who claim he recycled his material and among others who felt that a true artiste would not sully his fingers with commercial work.
So far as I know, Richler agreed to cooperate with only one putative biographer during his lifetime—Michael Coren, the British-born writer and television open-line host. Coren, who was friendly principally with Richler’s eldest son, Daniel, did several interviews with his subject in the 1990s before abandoning the project. These tapes, which are variously described as barely audible and cluttered with background noise, are among the very few examples of Richler willingly submitting himself to direct questioning about his life and work. Not surprisingly, his first two posthumous biographers used them as source material.
Posner’s book, which combines a rich trove of interviews with family and friends, illuminates the private man, captures the depth and passion of Richler’s love for Florence, uncovers fascinating sentimental twists in Richler’s complicated relationships with his family of origin, but ignores a thematic or critical discussion of his books. That is where Professor Kramer, the literary scholar, picks up the traces. He has worked assiduously, some might say doggedly, in the Richler archives and he has interviewed various family members and friends.
Generally, Kramer is a good reader of the novels, especially Son of a Smaller Hero, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Solomon Gursky Was Here. However, he often misses the joke, as with his prissy reading of Cocksure, an outrageous spoof on film making, the permissive 1960s and swinging London. Barney Panofsky is a nuanced character, as Kramer says, but I think Kramer should have made more of his epiphany—what else could a dying Richlerian character conclude but that life is absurd? Having read Kramer, I reread Barney’s Version, the novel Richler wrote after being diagnosed with cancer, and I was struck by how preoccupied it is with death—the death of Barney’s memory, the death of his relationship with Miriam, the third Mrs. Panofsky, the death of friends, the end of family life as he knew it when the children leave home. Kramer quotes interviews in which Florence Richler says her husband did not talk about his own approaching death. Of course he didn’t talk about it: he was writing about it in Barney’s Version, a novel in which Richler imagines life for Miriam and his children after Barney’s demise.
Distressingly, Kramer insists on reading the novels for facts, determined to identify real-life characters with their putative fictional counterparts, rather than reading them for attitudes, issues and themes. With Richler, it is always important, I think, to view his fiction and his journalism as opposite sides of the same creative intelligence. Read the journalism for facts and the fiction for ideas and an assessment of Richler’s own psychic development, not the other way around. All fiction writers draw on their life experience—and it can be an amusing game to try to figure out who is who—but ultimately the unmasking is futile. What matters is how writers use their material to make sense of the world they have created and the impact it makes on our imaginations and our own lives as readers.
Kramer does not write like a natural biographer, for he seems less interested in understanding his subject, the books he wrote, the time in which he lived and the relationships among them than he is in scoring pedantic points about the meaning of lines.
He does not have an overarching theory about Richler. He has titled his book Leaving St. Urbain, but he does not really explain what he means by that, other than to say at the end of the book that Richler is buried “high on Mount Royal, overlooking not paradise but St. Urbain Street.”
Technically, of course Richler did leave the Jewish ghetto of his youth, but he never let his characters forget where they and he had come from. Kramer calls Richler “an unequaled poet of the colloquial,” the first “ethnic” writer to be read widely in Canada, and says that his work is key for scholars wanting to understand Canada at mid century. Richler’s overall achievement, according to Kramer, is that he found “the fault lines where politics, race, faith, and, above all, language ran through individual lives.” There is little to quarrel with in that assessment, but also little to exclaim about as new or thought-provoking or even deep. Indeed, the comment that Kramer makes about Richler—“He had no theory, but a wonderful pudding of detail”—is a good summation of his own efforts.
Some of his details are telling. Kramer is particularly good at giving explicit evidence about Richler’s mother’s affair with her boarder when Mordecai was a young teenager and how, on at least one occasion, he was supposedly asleep in the same bedroom when she and her lover had sexual intercourse. Not the way most parents wish to introduce their children to the mysteries of physical love. He also uncovers convincing letters to support the theory that Richler’s own sexual initiation occurred when one of his teachers seduced him—information (like his mother’s infidelity) that is contained in the Posner book, but not in as much detail. Kramer is less good at developing arguments for Richler’s black-and-white, whore-and-goddess attitudes to his female characters, based on these revelations.
Certainly, Kramer does not make enough of the centrality of Richler’s relationship with Florence. She is his lover, his muse, the mother of his children, his companion, his chatelaine, and his first and perhaps most significant editor. A friend of mine was dining with her husband in a Montreal restaurant years ago and noticed the Richlers at a table across the room. Observing them, she realized what was missing from her own marriage—intimacy, passion and trust—and dates that moment as the precipitating incident in her eventual decision to divorce her spouse.
As for Florence, her reasons for falling for Richler, sticking with him and giving up her own career as a model and actress seem to have eluded Kramer. Florence, who grew up poor and neglected in Lachine, Quebec, gave Kramer a telling interview in which she described the effect the young Mordecai had on her and their friends in London in the early 1950s, saying that she had never met anyone with his intensity and that he behaved as though “the physical world were a malevolent force arrayed against him.” He was repelled by small talk, he “would speak the truth” at parties “with a bluntness that made people quail,” and he “judged the lives around him, and found them wanting.” And then, having paraphrased her, Kramer lets her speak directly to us. “One would wish,” Florence says, “that he would leave very soon, so that we could all be our foolish and ordinary selves.” It seems clear to me that what Florence saw in Richler—and this was before the publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the novel that made his name as a writer—was a chance to escape the ordinary and the quotidian. I wonder if Kramer agrees with that assessment.
Some of his details are tantalizing. Kramer relates an incident told to him by Jack Rabinovitch, the real estate developer, founder of the Giller Prize, and a Richler pal and fellow student at Baron Byng High School. Apparently, Richler was alone, having his customary late-afternoon drinks in the bar of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal, when he spied his enemy, the ultra Quebec nationalist Bernard Landry, former Parti Québécois premier, at a nearby table. Salvation, or at least solace, appeared when Rabinovitch happened by. “Landry is in the room and they’re staring at me, and there’s no fucking way they are going to push me out of the Ritz,” a twitchy Richler told Rabinovitch, beseeching him to have a drink. To keep Rabinovitch by his side, Richler—so fearless in print but quaking at the prospect of a face-to-face confrontation with his foe Landry—entertained Rabinovitch with stories that he had never heard, including the time that “Isaac Bashevis Singer had made a pass at Florence.” Kramer drops that tidbit into the manuscript without elaboration, corroboration or context. Is the story true? Or was Richler so desperate for protection that he was spinning lubricious tales? And if so, what does that tell us about Richler? The biographer’s task in selecting anecdotes and incidents is to use them to illuminate the subject’s character or behaviour, not to leave the reader dangling.
Finally, some of his details are presented in an irritatingly obscure manner. Kramer takes exception to an exchange he has unearthed in the Richler archive between the novelist and a translator working on Solomon Gursky Was Here. The translator is unnamed and unidentified as to language or country, details that might help a reader understand the passage that follows—is he Japanese or a francophone from Quebec? It consists of a series of questions put to Richler by the translator, including queries about the meaning of “the Corgi,” to which Richler replies “Woof, woof, woof!,” the location of Vail, to which Richler says “Look it up,” and a complaint that the expression “a wet T-shirt girl’s basketball league in which he held the rights to the Miami Jigglers” could just as well “be Chinese.” An exasperated Richler retorts “I’m afraid, deeply afraid—too much seems like Chinese to you—think harder.” My sympathies are with the author, but Kramer uses this exchange to chide Richler for “the difficulties” that his work posed for translators. On the contrary, I think he expected them to work as hard and as professionally at their craft as he did at his.
What we have here is a book that works through Richler’s life and writing, accumulating facts and marshalling interpretations. It is a good beginning, but it is not the final word. Read Kramer for facts, but the novels themselves are still the best source for understanding Mordecai Richler.
Sandra Martin is a writer and journalist living in Toronto.