Richler, Mordecai 1931–2001
Richler, Mordecai 1931–2001
PERSONAL: Born January 27, 1931, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; died of cancer, July 3, 2001, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of Moses Isaac and Lily (Rosenberg) Richler; married Florence Wood, July 27, 1960; children: Daniel, Noah, Emma, Martha, Jacob. Education: Attended Sir George Williams University, 1949–51. Religion: "Jewish atheist."
CAREER: Writer. Freelance writer in Paris, France, 1952–53, London, England, 1954–72, and Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1972–2001. Sir George Williams University, writer-in-residence, 1968–69; Carleton University, visiting professor of English, 1972–74. Member of editorial board, Book-of-the-Month Club, beginning 1972.
MEMBER: Montreal Press Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: President's medal for nonfiction, University of Western Ontario, 1959; Canadian Council junior art fellowships, 1959 and 1960, senior arts fellowship, 1967; Guggenheim Foundation creative writing fellowship, 1961; Paris Review humor prize, 1967, for section from Cocksure and Hunting Tigers under Glass; Governor-General's Literary Award, Canada Council, 1968, for Cocksure and Hunting Tigers under Glass, and 1971, for St. Urbain's Horseman; London Jewish Chronicle literature award, 1972, for St. Urbain's Horseman; Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, Academy Award nomination, and Screenwriters Guild of America award, all 1974, all for screenplay The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; ACTRA Award for best television writer—drama, Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, 1975; Book of the Year for Children Award, Canadian Library Association, and Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award, Ontario Arts Council, both 1976, for Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang; London Jewish Chronicle H.H. Wingate award for fiction, 1981, for Joshua Then and Now; named a Literary Lion, New York Public Library, 1989; Commonwealth Writers Prize, Book Trust, 1990, for Solomon Gursky Was Here; Giller Prize, 1997, for Barney's Version; Richler typeface commissioned in memory of the author by Giller Prize committee and Random House of Canada, 2001.
The Acrobats, Putnam (New York, NY), 1954, published as Wicked We Love, Popular Library (New York, NY), 1955.
Son of a Smaller Hero, Collins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1955, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1965, new edition, with an introduction by George Woodcock, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1966.
A Choice of Enemies, Collins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1957, reprinted, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1977.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959.
The Incompatible Atuk, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), published as Stick Your Neck Out, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1963.
Cocksure, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1968.
St. Urbain's Horseman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
Joshua Then and Now, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
Solomon Gursky Was Here, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.
Barney's Version, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Bullseye Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
(Adapter) Insomnia Is Good for You (based on a story by Lewis Greifer), Associated British Pictures, 1957.
(With Nicholas Phipps) No Love for Johnnie, Embassy, 1962.
(With Geoffrey Cotterell and Ivan Foxwell) Tiara Tahiti, Rank, 1962.
(With Nicholas Phipps) The Wild and the Willing, Rank, 1962, released as Young and Willing, Universal, 1965.
Life at the Top, Royal International, 1965.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (adapted from his novel of the same title), Paramount, 1974.
(With David Giler and Jerry Belson) Fun with Dick and Jane, Bart/Palevsky, 1977.
Joshua Then and Now (adapted from his novel of the same title), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1985.
TELEVISION AND RADIO PLAYS
The Acrobats (based on his novel of the same title), Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC)-Radio, 1956, CBC-TV, 1957.
Friend of the People, CBC-TV, 1957.
Paid in Full, ATV (England), 1958.
Benny, the War in Europe, and Myerson's Daughter Bella, CBC-Radio, 1958.
The Trouble with Benny (based on a short story), ABC (England), 1959.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (based on his novel of the same title), CBC-TV, 1960.
The Spare Room, CBC-Radio, 1961.
Q for Quest (excerpts from his fiction), CBC-Radio, 1963.
The Fall of Mendel Krick, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC-TV), 1963.
It's Harder to Be Anybody, CBC-Radio, 1965.
Such Was St. Urbain Street, CBC-Radio, 1966.
The Wordsmith (based on a short story), CBC-Radio, 1979.
Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.
The Street: Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969, New Republic, 1975.
(Editor) Canadian Writing Today (anthology), Peter Smith (Magnolia, MA), 1970.
Shoveling Trouble (essays), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1972.
Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (essays), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
The Suit (animated filmstrip), National Film Board of Canada, 1976.
Images of Spain, photographs by Peter Christopher, Norton (New York, NY), 1977.
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978.
(Editor) The Best of Modern Humor, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984, published as Home Sweet Home, Penguin (New York, NY), 1985.
(Author of book) Duddy (play; based on his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,) first produced in Edmonton, Alberta, 1984.
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
(Editor) Writers on World War II: An Anthology, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The Language of Signs, McKay (New York, NY), 1992.
This Year in Jerusalem, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
On Snooker, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2001.
Dispatches from the Sporting Life, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2001.
Also author, with André Fortier and Rollo May, of Creativity and the University (1972 Frank Gerstein Lectures), York University, 1975. Contributor to Canadian, U.S., and British periodicals.
Richler's papers are collected at the University of Calgary Library in Alberta.
ADAPTATIONS: Richler's children's book Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang was filmed by Cinema Shares International and recorded by Christopher Plummer for Caedmon Records, both 1977; film rights were sold for both Stick Your Neck Out and Cocksure.
SIDELIGHTS: "To be a Canadian and a Jew," as Mordecai Richler wrote in his book Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports, "is to emerge from the ghetto twice." Richler referred to the double pressures of being in both a religious minority and the cultural enigma that was twentieth-century Canada. Yet in his decades as a novelist, screenwriter, and essayist, Richler established himself as one of the few representatives of Canadian Jewry known outside his native country. In fact, upon his unexpected death in 2001 at the age of seventy, his obituary ran on the first page of New York Times—making him the first Canadian to have that honor in nearly twenty years.
Richler's status as a double outsider gave him a unique perspective from which to satirize what Mark Steyn, in New Criterion, described as Canada's "grubby world of feeble evasions and genteel absurdities." Richler, as Steyn noted, delighted in poking fun at "the faintheartedness of a liberalism so defensive that, as he wrote in 1959, it couldn't bear to contemplate 'a Negro whore-monger, a contended adulterer, or a Jew who cheats on his income tax, buys a Jag with his ill-gotten gains, and is all the happier for it.'" What is particularly impressive, in Steyn's view, is how accurately Richler foresaw the "political correctness" that came to engulf North American society—and how gleefully the writer risked offending his various targets, whether they be Jews, Anglo-Canadians, or Quebec separatists.
That many of his fictional works feature Jewish-Canadian protagonists in general—most notably in his best-known book, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—and natives of Montreal in particular, attests to the author's strong attachment to his early years. Richler was born in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal to a religious family of Russian emigres. It was a neighborhood where, according to Chicago Tribune writer Ron Grossman, "Grinding poverty and lofty dreams sat side by side, as did unemployed Talmudic scholars and delicatessen philosophers. The local card players' hangout was owned by a communist freethinker who doubled as a bookie and vociferously rejected the biblical account of Creation." Finding himself at odds with his parents' religious focus, Richler abandoned Orthodox customs by his teens, "gradually becoming more interested both in a wider world and in writing," as R.H. Ramsey observed in Dictionary of Literary Biography. After a stint at Sir George Williams University, Richler cashed in an insurance policy and used the money to sail to Liverpool, England. Eventually he found his way to Paris, where he spent some years emulating such expatriate authors as Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, then moved on to London, where he worked as a news correspondent.
During those early years Richler produced his first novel, The Acrobats, a book he later characterized as "more political than anything I've done since, and humorless," as he told Walter Goodman in a New York Times interview, adding that the volume, published when he was age twenty-three, "was just a very young man's novel. Hopelessly derivative. Like some unfortunate collision of [Jean-Paul] Sartre and Hemingway and [Louis-Ferdinand] Celine, all unabsorbed and undigested. I wasn't writing in my own voice at all. I was imitating people." But Richler found his voice soon after, with novels like Son of a Smaller Hero, A Choice of Enemies, and The Incomparable Atuk. Ramsey found that from these efforts on, "two tendencies dominate Richler's fiction: realism and satire. [Many of the early stories are] realistic, their plots basically traditional in form, their settings accurately detailed, their characters motivated in psychologically familiar ways." At the other extreme, Ramsey continued, there is "pure satiric fantasy, [with] concessions to realism slight. In [such works] Richler indulges the strong comic vein in his writing as he attacks Canadian provincialism and the spurious gratifications of the entertainment medium."
Richler gained further notice with three of his best-known titles, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain's Horseman, and Joshua Then and Now. These books share a common theme—that of a Jewish-Canadian protagonist at odds with society—and all three novels revolve around the idea of the way greed can taint success. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz presents its eponymous hero as a ghetto-reared youth on a never-ending quest to make a name for himself in business. It is also "the first of Richler's novels to exhibit fully his considerable comic talents, a strain that includes much black humor and a racy, colloquial, ironic idiom that becomes a characteristic feature of Richler's subsequent style," according to Ramsey.
Comparing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to other such modern coming-of-age stories, such as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, A.R. Bevan, in a new introduction to Richler's novel, found that the book, "in spite of its superficial affinity with the two novels mentioned above, ends with [none of their] affirmation." The character of Duddy, "who has never weighted the consequences of his actions in any but material terms, is less alone in the physical sense than the earlier young men, but he is also much less of a man…. He is a modern 'anti-hero' (something like the protagonist in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange) who lives in a largely deterministic world, a world where decisions are not decisions and where choice is not really choice." In Modern Fiction Studies, John Ower saw The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as "a 'Jewish' novel [with] both a pungent ethnic flavor and the convincingness that arises when a writer deals with a milieu with which he is completely familiar." For Richler, Ower continued, "the destructive psychological effects of the ghetto mentality are equalled and to some extent paralleled by those of the Jewish family. Like the society from which it springs, this tends to be close and exclusive, clinging together in spite of its intense quarrels. The best aspect of such clannishness, the feeling of kinship which transcends all personal differences, is exemplified by Duddy. Although he is in varying degrees put down and rejected by all of his relatives except his grandfather, Duddy sticks up for them and protects them."
For all its success, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was still categorized by most scholars as among Richler's early works. By the time St. Urbain's Horseman was published in 1971, the author had all but sealed his reputation as a sharp cultural critic. In this work, a character named Jacob Hersh, a Canadian writer living in London, questions "not only how he rose to prominence but also the very nature and quality of success and why, having made it, [he] is dissatisfied," as Ramsey put it. Hersh's success as a writer "brings with it a guilt, a sense of responsibility, and an overwhelming paranoia, a belief that his good fortune is largely undeserved and that sooner or later he will be called to account," Ramsey added. In his guilt-based fantasies, Hersh dreams that he is a figure of vengeance protecting the downtrodden, a character based on the Horseman, a shadowy figure from Hersh's past. "Richler prefaces St. Urbain's Horseman with a quotation from [British poet W. H.] Auden which suggests that he does not wish to be read as a mere entertainer, a fanciful farceur," noted David Myers in Ariel. "What is there in Horseman that would justify us as regarding it as such a[n affirming] flame? Certainly the despair that we find there is serious enough; the world around Jake Hersh is sordid and vile." The author accords sympathy "to only two characters in his novel, Jake and his wife Nancy," Myers said. "They are shown to feel a very deep love for one another and the loyalty of this love under duress provides the ethical counterbalance to the sordid-ness, instability, lack of integrity, injustice, and grasping materialism that Richler is satirizing in this book."
In the opinion of Kerry McSweeney, writing in Studies in Canadian Literature, the novel "gives evidence everywhere of technical maturity and full stylistic control, and combines the subjects, themes and modes of Richler's earlier novels in ways that suggest—as does the high seriousness of its epigraph—that Richler was attempting a cumulative fictional statement of his view on the mores and values of contemporary man. But while St. Urbain's Horseman is a solid success on the level of superior fictional entertainment, on the level of serious fiction it must be reckoned a considerable disappointment. It doesn't deliver the goods and simply does not merit the kind of detailed exegesis it has been given by some Canadian critics." Elaborating on this thesis, McSweeney added that everything in the novel "depends on the presentation of Jake, especially of his mental life and the deeper reaches of his character, and on the intensity of the reader's sympathetic involvement with him. Unfortunately, Jake is characterized rather too superficially. One is told, for example, but never shown, that he is charged with contradictions concerning his professional life; and for all the time devoted to what is going on in his head he doesn't really seem to have much of a mental life. Despite the big issues he is said to be struggling with, St. Urbain's Horseman can hardly claim serious attention as a novel of ideas."
Robert Fulford offered a different view. In his Saturday Night article, Fulford lauded St. Urbain's Horseman as "the triumphant and miraculous bringing-together of all those varied Mordecai Richlers who have so densely populated our literary landscape for so many years. From this perspective it becomes clear that all those Richlers have a clear purpose in mind—they've all been waiting out there, working separately, honing their talents, waiting for the moment when they could arrive at the same place and join up in the creation of a magnificent tour de force, the best Canadian book in a long time."
The third of Richler's later novels, Joshua Then and Now, again explores a Jewish-Canadian's moral crises. Joshua Shapiro, a prominent author married to a gentile daughter of a senator, veers between religious and social classes and withstands family conflicts, especially as they concern his father Reuben. It is also a novel full of mysteries. Why, asked Village Voice critic Barry Yourgrau, "does the book open in the present with this 47-year-old Joshua a rumple of fractures in a hospital bed, his name unfairly linked to a scandalous faggotry, his wife doped groggy in a nuthouse and he himself being watched over by his two elderly fathers?" The reason, Yourgrau continued, "is Time. The cruelest of fathers is committing physical violence on Joshua's dearest friends (and crucial enemies)."
Joshua—sometimes shown in flashback as the son of the ever-on-the-make Reuben and his somewhat exhibitionist mother (she performed a striptease at Joshua's bar mitzvah)—"is another one of Richler's Jewish arrivistes, like Duddy Kravitz [and] Jacob Hersh," said New Republic critic Mark Shechner. After noting Joshua's unrepentant bragging, Shechner called the character "a fairly unpleasant fellow, and indeed, though his exploits are unfailingly vivid and engaging—even fun—they rarely elicit from us much enthusiasm for Joshua himself. He is as callow as he is clever, and, one suspects, Richler means him to be an anti-type, to stand against the more common brands of self-congratulation that are endemic to Jewish fiction. From Sholom Aleichem and his Tevye to [Saul] Bellow and [Bernard] Malamud,… Jewish fiction has repeatedly thrown up figures of wisdom and endurance, observance and rectitude…. Richler, by contrast, adheres to a tradition of dissent that runs from Isaac Babel's Odessa stories through Daniel Fuchs's Williamsburg Trilogy and Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, which finds more color, more life, and more fidelity to the facts of Jewish existence in the demimonde of hustlers, heavies, strong-arm types and men on the make than in the heroes of menschlichkeit," which is Yiddish slang for the quality of goodness.
Whatever message Joshua Then and Now might deliver, the lasting appeal of the novel, to John Lahr, is that "Richler writes funny. Laughter, not chicken soup, is the real Jewish penicillin…. Richler's characters enter as philosophers and exit as stand-up comics, firing zingers as they go," as Lahr explained in a New York article. On the other hand, New York Times Book Review writer Thomas R. Edwards, while acknowledging the novel's humor, found it "dangerously similar in theme, situation and personnel to a number of Mordecai Richler's other novels—'Son of a Smaller Hero,' 'The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,' 'Cocksure' and 'St. Urbain's Horseman.' It's as if a rich and unusual body of fictional material had become a kind of prison for a writer who is condemned to repeat himself ever more vehemently and inflexibly." Mark Harris, in Washington Post Book World, expressed similar criticism, finding the novel "resplendent with every imaginable failure of characterization, relevance, style or grammar." An Atlantic critic, on the other hand, saw the book as "good enough to last, perhaps Richler's best novel to date."
Nine years would pass before Richler published another novel. When he broke the silence in 1989 with Solomon Gursky Was Here, several reviewers welcomed the novel as worth the wait, and England's Book Trust honored it with a Commonwealth Writers Prize. The story focuses on Moses Berger, an alcoholic Jewish writer whose life's obsession is to write a biography of the legendary Solomon Gursky. Gursky, of a prominent Jewish-Canadian family of liquor distillers, may have died years ago in a plane crash, but Berger finds numerous clues that suggest he lived on in various guises, a trickster and meddler in international affairs. Jumping forward and backward in time, from events in the Gursky past to its present, Richler "manages to suggest a thousand-page family chronicle in not much more than 400 pages," observed Bruce Cook in Chicago's Tribune Books. The critic lauded the novel's humor and rich texture, concluding, "Page for page, there has not been a serious novel for years that can give as much pure pleasure as this one." Acknowledging the inventiveness of Richler's narrative, Francine Prose in New York Times Book Review nonetheless found the book somewhat marred by predictable or flat characters. Other critics suggested that there was too much going on in the novel, and for some its humor seemed a bit too black. Village Voice writer Joel Yanofsky affirmed the book despite its weaknesses: "If the structure of Richler's story is too elaborate at times, if the narrative loose ends aren't all pulled together, it's a small price to pay for a book this beguiling and rude, this serious, this fat and funny." Jonathan Kirsch, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, called it "a worthy addition" to Richler's canon, the work "of a storyteller at the height of his powers."
Richler returned to familiar themes in his final novel, Barney's Version. "Once again, we are introduced to a Jewish Montrealer who leaves behind his hardscrabble roots to achieve fortune and (a modicum of) fame," as Michiko Kakutani described it in New York Times. The reader learns about Barney's three marriages, his television company (Totally Useless Productions), and his best friend's mysterious death, which Barney may or may not have caused. "Barney's Version is crammed with larger-than-life characters," observed Times Literary Supplement contributor D.J. Enright. "There are no relaxed interstices in the narrative: every rift is loaded with ore, not always precious: a case, one may feel, of over-egged cake, or over-gefilte fish." Yet this energy, Enright added, is a significant merit in a novel about a character who is "hard to take." James Shapiro in New York Times Book Review found that "What saves this novel from being merely a recycling of Richler's stock material is its fascination with the unreliability of narrative and memory." Barney admits up front that he is prone to embellish a bit to improve the story, and partway through the book we learn that Barney is developing Alzheimer's, which makes it even harder for him to remember how things really happened. "This question of memory's reliability is an unexpected move on Rich-ler's part," Shapiro continued, "in large part because the satiric drift of his fiction ultimately rests on the conviction that it's possible to know what really happened, who was right and who was wrong."
In addition to his adult fiction, Richler also penned a series of popular books for younger readers. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang has become something of a children's classic in the author's native Canada, and after a space of ten years Richler produced two sequels: Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur and Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case. In Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, eight-year-old Jacob, who is constantly battling his sibling's barrage of teasing remarks, has moved with his family from England to Montreal. When his parents return from a safari in Kenya, they give Jacob a small green lizard, which they discovered near an ancient block of ice recently dislodged by an earthquake. He dubs his new pet Dippy, and Dippy becomes his best friend. Dippy also becomes larger, having a voracious appetite for food that Jacob can hardly satisfy. It soon becomes clear that Dippy is in fact a diplodocus, one of the larger varieties of vegetarian dinosaurs that inhabited the Earth during the Jurassic period. Jacob and Dippy's adventures truly begin when the Canadian government authorities realize that there is a dinosaur in their midst and attempt to combat it through the usual channels. "The range and bite of this novel's hilarity will come as no surprise to fans of Mordecai Richler's adult fiction," noted New York Times Book Review critic Francine Prose, adding that the novel is as entertaining to adults as it is to children. That conclusion was also made by Howard Engel, reviewing Richler's third children's book, Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case, for Books in Canada. Engel dubbed Jacob's attempt to outsmart local bully Loathsome Leo Louise and give his private school principal and nasty geography teacher their comeuppance a "wonderfully funny and cunning tale." "It is the trick of the clever writer of children's stories to engage both parent-reader and child-listener in his lines," Engel added. "The humour and the passion of the adventure are snapped up by the one, while the other catches the sly social comment and satire."
Among his nonfiction works, Richler's Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, This Year in Jerusalem, and Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions all drew attention. While these works focus on Richler's native country and his identity as a Canadian, they have distinctly different styles and purposes. Home Sweet Home, for example, focuses on Canadian culture, addressing subjects from nationalism to hockey, while in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Richler turns his considerable intellect and wit to the problem of Quebec separatism, and This Year in Jerusalem focuses more personally on Richler's identity as a Canadian Jew—a theme also present in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Broadsides focuses on both the writing life and modern literature. Richler's interest in early twentieth-century literature, in particular, resulted in his editorship of Writers on World War II, a compendium of war writing by some of North America and Europe's most eminent authors.
A Toronto Globe and Mail writer called Home Sweet Home "a different sort of book, but no less direct and pungent in its observations about what makes a society tick," and in another Globe and Mail article, Joy Fielding saw the book as "a cross-country tour like no other, penetrating the Eastern soul, the Western angst, and the French-Canadian spirit." Home Sweet Home drew admiring glances from American as well as Canadian critics. Peter Ross, of Detroit News, wrote, "Wit and warmth are constants and though Richler can temper his fondness with bursts of uncompromising acerbity, no reader can fail to perceive the depth of his feelings as well as the complexities of Canada." And Time's Stefan Kanfer observed that "even as he celebrates [Canada's] beauties, the author never loses sight of his country's insularity: when Playboy Films wanted to produce adult erotica in Toronto, he reports, officials wanted to know how much Canadian content there would be in the features. But Richler also knows that the very tugs and pulls of opposing cultures give the country its alternately appealing and discordant character."
It is precisely these tugs and pulls of opposing cultures that Richler exposes in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, a book that set off such a furor among Canadian politicians and press that one Canadian Member of Parliament even called for a banning of the book—to no avail. Anthony Wilson-Smith summed up the controversy in Maclean's: "The objection in each case: that Richler's view of Quebec and its nationalist movement is overly harsh and unfair—particularly his assertion that the province's history reflects a deep strain of anti-Semitism." While Richler's earlier works abound with wit and humour, in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, "his mood … hovers much closer to exasperation," wrote Wilson-Smith. Robin W. Winks, writing in New York Times Book Review, stated more bluntly: "He is, for the most part, simply angry."
Winks declared that in the book Richler is "concerned, above all, with the Condition of Canada," and called the book "an unsystematic but powerful examination of what Mr. Richler regards as the idiocy of the day"—the legislation and organizations that enforce and oversee the exclusive use of the French language on all public signage in the province of Quebec. But even more compelling is Richler's claim that many of Quebec's leading politicians and intellectuals have been anti-Semitic, and, as Winks reported, that this anti-Semitism is linked to the Quebec separatist movement through the figure of Abbe Lionel-Adolphe Groulx. As Wilson-Smith reported, Richler makes the damaging claim that Groulx's paper, Le Devoir, "'more closely resembled Der Sturmer [a German Nazi newspaper of the same period] than any other newspaper I can think of.'"
Still, as Wilson-Smith reported, Richler does evince affection for his native province: "'There is nowhere else in the country as interesting, or alive.'" And it is this sentiment—love for his native land and all of the contradictory impulses that make for a Canadian Jew—that haunts This Year in Jerusalem. Louis Simpson quotes Richler's account of his hybrid identity in his review of the volume for New York Times Book Review: Richler described himself as "'a Canadian, born and bred, brought up not only on Hillel, Rabbi Akiba and Rashi, but also on blizzards, Andrew Allan's CBC Radio "Stage" series, a crazed Maurice Richard skating in over the blue line … the Dieppe raid.'"
This Year in Jerusalem is a nonfiction account of a year Richler spent in Israel and is, according to Maclean's writer Morton Ritts, "less a study of the character of politics than the politics of character." What makes this a book not just about Israel, but about Canada and Richler as well, is that Richler connects his journey to Israel with his personal heritage as a young Zionist in Canada with a grandfather who was both a rabbi and a "celebrated Hasidic scholar," according to Louis Simpson in New York Times Book Review: "This Year in Jerusalem is history made personal."
By telling the tale of the spiritual journey whereby Richler became, in Ritts's words, "more rebel than rebbe (spiritual leader)," by giving his real-life young Zionist companions pseudonyms and tracing their stories over several decades, by talking to Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life, and by examining, as Ritts also put it, the "trouble between Jew and gentile, French and English, the Orthodox and secular, Arab and Israeli, hawk and dove, Israeli Jew and North American Jew," Richler infuses the book with his novelist's craft. Simpson called This Year in Jerusalem "lively reporting" and "interesting," while Ritts claimed that the work showed Richler "at the top of his own game."
Richler's On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It, completed shortly before his death in 2001, is a wide-ranging collection of essays on the game also known as pocket billiards. Books in Canada reviewer L.M. Morra appreciated the book's scope and humor, noting that Richler not only chronicles his own youthful exploits in the pool halls of Montreal's shadier neighborhoods, but adds "arch, broad vignettes" about various snooker "characters" and insightful and ironic observations about the game as "an analogy for the act of writing, for the artistry and monumental effort involved in any literary undertaking." Donald Trelford, in the London Observer, pointed out that several serious writers, including John Updike and Norman Mailer, have written with similar enthusiasm for sports, and added that the strength of Richler's book is the author's "rich exuberance." A final collection of essays, Dispatches from the Sporting Life, contains pieces on a wide range of sports from fishing and ice hockey to bodybuilding and wrestling, and includes descriptions of Richler's encounters with such athletes as Wayne Gretzky, Pete Rose, and Gordie Howe.
"Throughout his career Richler … spanned an intriguing gulf," concluded Ramsey in his Dictionary of Literary Biography piece. "While ridiculing popular tastes and never catering to popular appeal, he has nevertheless maintained a wide general audience. Though drawing constantly on his own experience, he rejects the writer as personality, wishing instead to find acceptance not because of some personal characteristic or because of the familiarity of his subject matter to a Cana-dian reading public but because he has something fresh to say about humanity and says it in a well-crafted form, which even with its comic exuberance, stands firmly in the tradition of moral and intellectual fiction."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 17, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 46, 1988, Volume 70, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53: Canadian Writers since 1960, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, third edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Klinck, Carl F., and others, editors, Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1965.
New, W. H., Articulating West, New Press, 1972.
Northey, Margot, The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1976.
Peck, David, editor, Identities and Issues in Literature, Salem Press (Pasadena, CA), 1997.
Ramraj, Victor J., Mordecai Richler, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1983.
Richler, Mordecai, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, introduction by A.R. Bevan, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.
Richler, Mordecai, Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.
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