Nationality: Canadian. Born: Montreal, 27 January 1931. Education: Attended Sir George Williams University, 1949-51. Family: Married Florence Wood in 1960; three sons, two daughters. Career: Freelance writer in Paris, France, 1952-53, London, England, 1954-72, and Montreal, 1972—; writer-in-residence, Sir George Williams University, 1968-69; visiting professor of English, Carleton University, 1972-74; member of editorial board, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1972—. Awards: President's medal for nonfiction (University of Western Ontario), 1959; Paris Review humor prize, 1967; Governor-General's literary award (Canada Council), 1968, 1971; London Jewish Chronicle literature award, 1972; Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, 1974; Screenwriters Guild of America award, 1974; ACTRA Award for best television writer—drama (Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television), 1975; Book of the Year for Children award (Canadian Library Association), 1976; Ruth Schwartz Children's Book award, (Ontario Arts Council), 1976; London Jewish Chronicle H. H. Wingate award for fiction, 1981; Commonwealth Writers prize (Book Trust), 1990; Giller award, 1997; Stephen Leacock Award for Humor, 1998. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A. Address: 1321 Sherbrooke Street West, Apartment 80C, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3G 1J4.
The Acrobats. New York, Putnam, 1954; published as Wicked We Love. New York, Popular Library, 1955.
Son of a Smaller Hero, Toronto, Collins, 1955.
A Choice of Enemies. Toronto, Collins, 1957.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Boston, Little, Brown, 1959.
The Incompatible Atuk. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1963; published as Stick Your Neck Out. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1963.
Cocksure. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1968.
St. Urbain's Horseman. New York, Knopf, 1971.
Joshua Then and Now. New York, Knopf, 1980.
Solomon Gursky Was Here. New York, Viking, 1989.
Barney's Version. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Fiction (for children)
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, illustrated by Fritz Wegner. New York, Knopf, 1975.
Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, illustrated by Norman Eyolfson. New York, Knopf, 1987.
Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case, illustrated by Michael Chesworth. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1997.
The Street: Stories. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1969.
Duddy. Edmonton, Alberta, Citadel Theatre, 1984.
The Acrobats (based on his novel of the same title), Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), 1956; Benny, the War in Europe, and Myerson's Daughter Bella, Toronto, CBC, 1958; The Spare Room, Toronto, CBC, 1961; Q for Quest (excerpts from his fiction), Toronto, CBC, 1963; It's Harder to Be Anybody, Toronto, CBC, 1965; Such Was St. Urbain Street, Toronto, CBC, 1966; The Wordsmith (based on a short story), Toronto, CBC, 1979
No Love for Johnnie (with Nicholas Phipps), Embassy, 1962; Tiara Tahiti (with Geoffrey Cotterell and Ivan Foxwell), Rank, 1962; The Wild and the Willing (with Nicholas Phipps), Rank, 1962, released in the United States as Young and Willing, Universal, 1965; Life at the Top, Royal International, 1965; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Paramount, 1974; Fun with Dick and Jane (with David Giler and Jerry Belson), Bart/Palevsky, 1977; Joshua Then and Now (adapted from his novel of the same title), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1985.
Friend of the People, Toronto, CBC, 1957; Paid in Full, London, ATV, 1958; The Trouble with Benny (based on a short story), London, ABC, 1959; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (based on his novel of the same title), Toronto, CBC, 1960; The Fall of Mendel Krick, London, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1963.
Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports. Toronto, McClelland& Stewart, 1969.
Shoveling Trouble (essays). Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1973.
Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (essays). New York, Knopf, 1974.
Creativity and the University (with Andre Fortier and Rollo May).Toronto, York University, 1975.
The Suit (animated filmstrip). National Film Board of Canada, 1976.
Images of Spain (text), photographs by Peter Christopher. New York, Norton, 1977.
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. Toronto, McClelland& Stewart, 1978.
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays). New York, Knopf, 1984, published as Home Sweet Home, New York, Penguin, 1985.
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions. New York, Viking, 1990.
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. New York, Knopf, 1992.
The Language of Signs. New York, McKay, 1992.
This Year in Jerusalem. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions. Toronto, KnopfCanada, 1998.
Editor, Canadian Writing Today. Magnolia, Manitoba, Peter Smith, 1970.
Editor, The Best of Modern Humor. New York, Knopf, 1984.
Editor, Writers on World War II: An Anthology. New York, Knopf, 1991.
Contributor, A Climate Changed, edited by B. W. Powe. New York, Mosaic Press, 1984.
Introduction, The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.*
University of Calgary Library, Calgary, Alberta.
Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl F. Klinck, et al. University of Toronto Press, 1965; Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports by Mordecai Richler, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1969; Mordecai Richler by George Woodcock, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1970; Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps, New York, McGraw Hill/Ryerson, 1971; Articulating West by W. H. New, New Press, 1972; The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction by Margot Northey, University of Toronto Press, 1976; Mordecai Richler by Victor J. Ramraj, Boston, Twayne, 1983; Mordecai Richler by Arnold E. Davidson, New York, F. Ungar, 1983; Perspectives on Mordecai Richler, edited by Michael Darling, Toronto, ECW Press, 1986; Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions by Mordecai Richler, New York, Viking, 1990; Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions by Mordecai Richler, Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1998.* * *
In Canada Mordecai Richler is as well known for his acerbic ornery persona and his biting columns on the state of Quebec politics as he is for his numerous popular and critically acclaimed novels. Born to a second-generation Jewish family in Montreal, and raised in the working-class Jewish neighborhood associated with St. Urbain Street, Richler briefly attended Sir George Williams College before relocating to Paris, then England to work as a freelance journalist and scriptwriter. While he did not return to Montreal until 1972, the city and its people nevertheless retained pride of place in his imagination and writing, particularly those who populated his former neighborhood. Many of his novels trace the development of St. Urbain's inhabitants and former inhabitants as they negotiate the later half of the twentieth century facing rising and falling fortunes, shifting politics, the realities of aging, disillusionment, and betrayal. At the center of Richler's writing is usually a protagonist whose lapses in morals or conduct are nevertheless matched by the character's own sense of what is right, and his passionate howls of injustice at the world, even in the face of his own failings. Fiercely moral in his criticisms of the modern world and never afraid to ridicule that which he disdains or disapproves of, Richler's novels are often darkly humorous revelings in, and satirizations of, the less flattering side of human nature.
Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, was published to mixed reviews, though most acknowledged its power and intensity. At its center is André Bennett, a Montreal gentile who has fled to Spain to escape the guilt associated with his Jewish girlfriend's accidental death following an abortion gone awry. Carnivalesque in both style and setting, it foregrounds Richler's vicious satire, his flawed self-absorbed characters and their tendency to flee relationships and countries, and his preoccupation with relations between Jews and gentiles. Occurring during the festival of Saint Joseph, earthly father of Christ, the novel also foregrounds Richler's invocation of biblical sub-texts throughout his fiction. His second novel, Son of a Smaller Hero, continues these themes with its depiction of Noah Adler's merciless desire to escape the Montreal ghetto of his youth and what he perceives as its sanctimonious hypocrisy and claustrophobic insularity. In a critical dissection of the community he knows so well, Richler exposes the kinds of lies families and communities willfully propagate as a means of concealing their imperfections, insecurities, and petty jealousies. This dissection resulted in his being castigated by some as anti-Semitic, but time has proven that Richler's intensely moral criticism is not limited to a single caste or creed. In his next novel, A Choice of Enemies, Richler demonstrated this in his construction of a protagonist, Norman Price, whose latent anti-Semitism is indicative of his inability to discriminate between individuals as such, rather than as representatives of ideas or ideals. In a plot that can only be described as possessing the strained coincidence of Greek tragedies, Price discovers that the man whom he has befriended has not only cuckolded him but also killed his brother in a bar brawl. However, these characters are all revealed to be acting out their pre-ordained fates as determined by their character, just as unable to alter or retrieve past possibilities as they are incapable of altering their essential being. In Richler, God alone is not to blame for this proscriptive fate; modern society is also implicated as morally tenuous and fundamentally unreliable. Brutally unflinching in his depiction of his characters' defects, Richler also characteristically does not ignore their darkly comic possibilities.
Despite the recognition accorded his first three novels, it was not until the 1959 publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz that Richler cemented his literary reputation. Both the plot and the irrepressible, morally bankrupt title character are maniacal forces with which to be reckoned. A classic anti-hero, Kravitz sacrifices his childhood to ambition and his personal relationships to commercial greed and exploitation. In Kravitz, Richler created one of his most believable and sustaining characters, a man obsessed with his grand-father's cliché, "a man without land is nothing." The frenetic energy of the novel is sustained by astute characterization, exceptionally well-written dialogue, outrageous yet believable plot turns, and most of all a compelling depiction of place and community in its Montreal setting. It is not, however, enough to say that Montreal is the setting of this novel; as in much of Richler's work the city is a character in its own right.
Richler's next two novels, The Incomparable Atuk and Cock-sure, shared the fast-paced outrageous energy and fantastical plot twists of Duddy Kravitz while also critiquing the mores of the modern world. Atuk features an Inuit poet whose critical success and popular reception results in his relocation to Toronto, where he exploits his fame and the urban fascination with his ethnic otherness for personal gain. Atuk soon abandons literature, importing relatives from Baffin Bay and setting up a sweatshop for the production of "authentic" Inuit sculpture. Rampant capitalism, racism, and greed abound in the world Atuk enters and quickly adopts. Deliciously satirical, The Incomparable Atuk caricatures the romantic pretensions of 1960s Canadian nationalism and its attempts to articulate an independent national identity. Still, critics did not warm to Atuk, reserving their praise for Cocksure, which received Canada's coveted Governor General's award. Set in urban London, England, the novel chronicles the take over of an established publishing firm by a reclusive Howard Hughes-like character via his henchmen. Canadian Mortimer Griffin must cope with the imposition of eccentric policies while surrounded by fantastical plots and people, all of which violate his own understanding of the world. While Griffin provides the moral core of the novel, he is not without flaws, and in his responses to events and individuals reveals the superficiality and hypocrisy of the 1960s sexual liberalism and racial integration that Richler pillories throughout the novel.
Both Atuk and Cocksure were written during creative breaks from Richler's composition of an ambitious, exceptionally complex work, St. Urbain's Horseman, nominated for the Booker prize and recipient of the Governor General's award. Richler not only returns to the Montreal of his childhood in this novel, he revisits aspects of his own life in imagining the internal life of an introspective protagonist, even going so far as to recycle portions of his published reminiscences. However, St. Urbain's Horseman is very much the story of Jake Hersh and the past he retreats to as a means of escaping his difficult present, which includes criminal charges of sexual misconduct. Central to Hersh's recollections is his legendary cousin, Joey, whose adventures in the Spanish Civil War and as a Nazi hunter transform him in Hersh's imagination into a personal Horseman who will avenge him. While ostensibly it is Hersh who is on trial, via his imagination he tries and punishes mankind at large for its crimes, ranging from Nazi activities to the trivialization of history. Ultimately he must recognize his image of the elusive Joey and become his own Horseman, yet Richler is clear to demonstrate that vengeance is not an uncomplicated moral act, nor are those who enact it necessarily heroic figures. The similarities between Hersh and the structure and protagonist of Richler's next novel, Joshua Then and Now, have not gone unnoted. Structurally dependent upon flashbacks, a technique crucial to Richler's fiction as of St. Urbain's Horsemen, the book addresses the toll of time, mortality, and the irretrievability of a past that continues to signify on the present. The Joshua in the title is a version of Jake Hersh ten years later, having returned to Montreal from living abroad. Equally preoccupied with history, its injustices, and the injustices done to historical fact by those seeking to alternately sanitize, mythologize, and popularize versions of it, Joshua seeks meaning in the chaos of history just as he seeks coherence in the tragicomic chaos of his daily life.
After almost a decade without publishing a novel, Richler returned to the forefront with the 1989 publication of surely his most outrageous work to date, Solomon Gursky Was Here. A subversive, irreverent send-up of Canadian history and the mythologies communities create about selves—Jewish or goyim—the titular character epitomizes Richler's playful attitude towards the likeable scoundrels and scalawags who populate his fiction. Solomon Gursky is a character by now familiar in Richler's fiction, the elusive figure who may or may not be dead, but whose presence continues to haunt and taunt those left behind. The descendent of another evasive figure, Ephraim Gursky, the lone survivor of the famed nineteenth-century shipwreck of the Erebus, both are equally mythologized by outsiders and themselves, and blur the line between fact and fiction. Richler further complicates this blurring, taking giddy liberties with the history and personalities of an actual Montreal Jewish family whose transformation from ruthless bootleggers to respectable liquor barons parallels that of the Gursky family. Given these entanglements, it is no coincidence that the image of the raven is central to this novel, as both a trickster figure in Canadian First Nations cultures, and a bird that feeds on the flesh of others. At the center of the novel is Moses Berger, who is alone in his understanding of the Gursky history, but unbelieved with his tales of impossible histories and filial and paternal betrayal and cannibalism. Nominated for the Booker prize, Solomon Gursky attests to Richler's ability to make improbable plots believable and irascible characters redeemable, all the while pondering the fate of a "lost generation" in a fragmentary immoral world.
It is in Barney's Version, though, that the "lost generation" with which so much of Richler's writing has been concerned assumes its final poignancy. Barney Panofsky, trivialized and misrepresented in the recently published memoirs of a former friend, is motivated to write his own version of his life in a final attempt to set the record straight. A thoroughly unreliable narrator from the beginning, Panofsky's veracity is finally challenged by his mental deterioration due to Alzheimer's. Panofsky progresses from having "lost" his purpose as a youth to having finally lost his grasp on his own life and history (if he indeed ever had it) as an adult. The culmination of over forty years of novel writing, Barney's Version revisits all of Richler's favorite themes—a now fading Montreal, Jewish-gentile relations, the search for values in a hostile world, generational tensions, biblical subtexts, national identity, elusive truths, mysterious characters, etc.—in a comic, touching, but never maudlin reflection on the life of one man.
Over the past two decades, in between the publications of his novels, Richler has put his chronically cantankerous self to work as a commentator on Quebec politics and the issue of separatism. In a political forum renowned for opinionated cranks, Richler has distinguished himself in his application of his moral vision and satirical tongue to critiquing the ridiculousness of the political situation. Still, in all of his comments, his longstanding love of and investment in Montreal remains evident. Recently, in an attempt to stave off the demise of English-language newspapers, Richler has expressed interest in buying the newspaper in the township where he spends his summer. As an accomplished novelist, writer of memoirs, children's author, and political and cultural commentator, the hat of publisher does not seem out of the realm of possibilities for Richler.
BORN: 1931, Montreal, Canada
DIED: 2001, Montreal, Canada
GENRE: Drama, fiction
Son of a Smaller Hero (1955)
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)
The Incomparable Atuk (1963)
Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989)
Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case (1995)
Among the most prominent figures in contemporary Canadian literature, Richler is best known for the darkly humorous novels in which he examines such topics as Canadian society, Jewish culture, the adverse effects of materialism, and relationships between individuals of different backgrounds. Richler left Canada at the age of twenty and lived in Europe for more than twenty years; he usually set his fiction in the Jewish section of Montreal where he was raised, or in European locales. And indeed, it is surely no mistake that in a Europe longing to be reminded of the world before the massive cultural and physical trauma of the Holocaust and of World War II, Richler felt himself compelled to look back to his Jewish roots in Montreal. Although Richler is sometimes faulted for excessive vulgarity and for being overly judgmental of both Canadian nationalism and Jewish culture, he is widely praised for his sense of humor and his skill at blending realism and satire.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Jewish Montreal and Cosmopolitan Europe Mordecai Richler was born in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal to a religious family of Russian émigrés in 1931. After a stint at a 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, and later moved to London (in 1954), where he worked as a news correspondent.
Finding a Voice In the same year he moved to London, Richler published his first novel, The Acrobats, a book he later characterized as “more political than anything I've done since, and humorless.” Richler himself characterized the novel as somewhat derivative. He found his own voice soon after, with novels like Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), A Choice of Enemies (1957), and The Incomparable Atuk (1963).
Praise for Novels that Draw on Montreal Roots Richler gained critical acclaim with three of his best-known titles, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), and Joshua, Then and Now (1980). These books share a common theme—that of a Jewish-Canadian protagonist at odds with society, a theme based loosely on Richler's own life—and all three novels revolve around the way greed can taint success. The novels also reveal Richler's flair for dark humor and racy content. Richler's screenplay adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz won him an Academy Award nomination in 1975.
A Successful Comeback Novel After Joshua, Then and Now, nine years would pass before Richler published another novel (although he was a widely published journalist throughout that period). 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. In these years—between 1970 and the late 1990s—Richler also conducted a long-running sort of feud with Québécois nationalists, activists in favor of Québéc's secession from Canada and often in favor of Franco-phone-oriented language laws. Richler has described various Québécois stances as anti-Semitic, with predictably outraged reactions from a number of Québécois commentators and pundits.
Children's Books and Final Novel Richler introduced his children's book hero Jacob Two-Two (so called because, as the youngest of five children, he has to say everything twice to be heard) in 1975 with Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur appeared in 1987, and Richler rounded out this much-loved trilogy with Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case in 1995. Jacob was based on Richler's own youngest son Jacob Richler. Two years later he published his last novel for adults: Barney's Version. The book won that year's Giller Prize. Richler died in 2001 of complications resulting from cancer.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Richler's famous contemporaries include:
Gaston Suarez (1929–1984): A Bolivian novelist and dramatist.
Philip Roth (1933–): An American novelist whose work has both been highly praised and condemned as anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Roth himself is Jewish.
Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007): The first president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russia), Yeltsin served from 1991 until 1999.
Margaret Thatcher (1925–): The first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, Thatcher served in office from 1979 until 1990.
Martin Luther King Jr . (1929–1968): An American civil rights leader whose efforts were critical in helping the United States begin to overcome its institutionalized racism, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
Works in Literary Context
Full Tilt Toward Satire Two tendencies dominate Richler's fiction: realism and satire. The first three novels, The Acrobats (1954), Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), and A Choice of Enemies (1957), are realistic, their plots basically traditional in form, their settings accurately detailed, and their characters motivated in psychologically familiar ways. Even in these works, as George Woodcock has noted, there is at times a drift toward satiric caricature. At the other extreme, The Incomparable Atuk (1963) and Cocksure (1968) are pure satiric fantasy along the lines of Voltaire's long-celebrated Candide, or Optimism (1759), their concessions to realism slight. In them Richler indulges the strong comic vein in his writing as he attacks Canadian provincialism and the spurious gratifications of the entertainment media. Beginning with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and continuing in St. Urbain's Horseman (1971) and in Joshua, Then and Now (1980), the two strands of realism and fantasy-satire come together, and this distinctive blend becomes Richler's greatest narrative strength.
Works in Critical Context
Although Richler's early work received mixed critical responses—particularly his works of satire—his later work has received almost universal acclaim. Both the early and the late fiction tend to revolve around protagonists on moral quests of one sort or another. As G. David Sheps has observed, Richler's heroes “insist that salvation lies only in the adoption of personal values, but they are not sure which personal values to hold.” Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here is largely considered a deft balance between satire and realism, and the result is a highly readable and enjoyable text that does not lose any of the wit and cynicism of earlier Richler works. Nonetheless, Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz remains his best-known and most highly regarded work.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Comparing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to such other coming-of-age stories 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, finds 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 weighed 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 describes 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 the author, Ower continues, “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.”
Solomon Gursky Was Here 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, who came from 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 the novel's present, Richler “manages to suggest a thousand-page family chronicle in not much more than 400 pages,” observes Bruce Cook for Chicago's Tribune Books. The critic lauds 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 the New York Times Book Review nonetheless found the book somewhat marred by predictable or flat characters. Other critics have suggested that there was too much going on in the novel, and that some its humor seemed a bit too black.Village Voice writer Joel Yanofsky applauds 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.” And Jonathan Kirsch, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, calls it “a worthy addition” to Richler's canon, the work “of a storyteller at the height of his powers.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
One of the primary targets of Richler's satire was the entertainment industry. Here is a selection of other works that take aim at the entertainment world:
For Your Consideration (2006), a film directed by Christopher Guest. In this “mockumentary” film—a satirical, scripted film that is made to look like a documentary—the cast of the film Home for Purim is nominated for several awards. Ultimately, viewers understand how scheming and selfish the characters are.
The Truman Show (1998), a film directed by Peter Weir. The protagonist of this film, Truman, is a man whose whole life from the time of his conception onward has been the center of a reality television show. But Truman is unaware that he is being filmed and that his friends and family are actors in the drama.
Network (1976), a film directed by Sidney Lumet. This highly acclaimed satire demonstrates the depths to which a fictional network will sink in order to improve ratings. The film won four Academy Awards.
Responses to Literature
- Read Cocksure and watch the film American Dreamz. Nearly forty years passed between the publication of Cocksure and the release of AmericanDreamz, yet their topics are very similar. In a short essay, compare the satire of each. What is each making fun of? Why? How do you react to these critiques? In what ways do they seem accurate, and in what ways do they seem exaggerated?
- Read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This novel is considered a “coming-of-age” novel. Generally, in coming-of-age texts, the protagonist must battle through adversity to grow into a mature, well-balanced human being. In what ways does The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fit this mold—for example, what adversities must be overcome? In what ways does it defy conventions?
- After having read Cocksure and The Incomparable Atuk, you should have a good sense of how satire works. Now, write a short story or short film that is a satire of a topic on which you have a strong opinion.
- Solomon Gursky Was Here is considered a kind of family saga. Writing a novel in which all the members of a family seem real—not flat and uninteresting—is very difficult. Some have argued that Richler was unsuccessful in having done that. What do you think? To what extent are his characters in the novel realistic? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of the text.
Darling, Michael, ed. Perspectives on Mordecai Richler. Downsview, Ont.: ECW, 1985.
Gibson, Graeme. Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Anansi, 1973.
Klinck, Carl F., et al., eds. Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965.
New, W. H. Articulating West. Toronto: New Press, 1972.
Northey, Margot. The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Ramraj, Victor J. Mordecai Richler. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Sheps, G. David, ed. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971.
Woodcock, George. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970.
One of Canada's most accomplished writers, Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) produced screenplays, novels, children's literature, and essays. At the time of his death, he was acknowledged as Canada's leading curmudgeon for his witty insights on topics such as the Canadian personality and the foibles of Quebec separatism.
Mordecai Richler was a prominent figure on the Canadian literary landscape for more than 40 years after the 1959 publication of his breakthrough novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Richler was much more than just a popular novelist, however; as a prolific contributor to magazines, movies, and children's literature, Richler probably reached a broader audience than any contemporary Canadian writer. His blunt words on Canadian political affairs also made Richler a household name throughout the country, particularly for his unsparing criticism of the ongoing battles over Quebec sovereignty. His description of the conflict as "Canada's longest running opera bouffe, a far from life-and-death struggle over the size of English lettering and outdoor commercial signs in Montreal," in a 1999 Stanley Knowles Lecture at the University of Waterloo was just a sampling of Richler's disdain for the separatist forces in his native province.
St. Urbain Street Childhood
Richler's grandfather, a rabbinical scholar, emigrated to Montreal in 1904 from Galicia, a region then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today split between Poland and the Ukraine. Establishing a scrapyard, the elder Richler gradually built the concern into a successful business that employed some of his fourteen children. Moses Isaac Richler, the eldest of the Richler sons, followed his father into the family business; however, unlike his younger brother, Solly, he was never made a full partner. Moses Richler's failure to achieve as much as his siblings was later explored in the writings of his son, Mordecai Richler, who was born on January 27, 1931.
A family of devout Orthodox Jews, the Richlers lived in the Jewish enclave in Montreal centered around St. Urbain Street; at one time, three generations of the family lived across the street from one another. Richler later immortalized the area in his novel St. Urbain's Horseman as a lively, nurturing place despite the economic hardships that many of the residents faced. At home, however, the young Richler was witness to his parents' increasingly unhappy marriage, which he attributed to his father's passive nature. In 1943, his mother, Lily Richler, had the marriage annulled on the grounds that she had been an underage bride and had married without her parents' consent; although Richler and his older brother were then adolescents, the annulment was granted.
Richler was encouraged in his religious studies at a Jewish parochial school; his parents hoped that he might become a rabbi. After entering Baron Byng High School, however, Richler began to develop a more secular identity. Even though Richler's Jewish roots remained central to his identity for the rest of his life, he abandoned most of the Orthodox practices that he had been taught. His greatest rebellion, however, occurred when he abandoned his course work at Sir George Williams College (today known as Concordia University) after his second year. Richler was uninspired by his studies and longed to break free of his provincial life and pursue a career as a writer.
In 1949, after a brief stint on the staff of the Montreal Herald, Richler began traveling in Europe and eventually spent an extended time in Paris, where he published his first piece of fiction, "Shades of Darkness (Three Impressions)" in the literary magazine Points. Encouraged by this early success, Richler also worked on the manuscript for a novel, The Acrobats, about a wandering Canadian idealist inspired by the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War.
With his pockets empty, Richler returned to Montreal in 1951 while his first manuscript made the rounds of several European publishing houses. He worked as both a salesman and as a radio editor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while he revised The Acrobats following its conditional acceptance by a British publisher. In 1954, the book finally was published. It received fairly good reviews, but sold only about 900 copies in its first few years in print in Canada. As Richler recalled in his debut essay in 1958 (reprinted in commemoration of his death in 2001) in Maclean's, a Canadian news magazine, "My last royalty statement from New York cost me a good deal of sleep. It covered the last six months in 1956, and in that period two copies of The Acrobats had been sold. One domestic and the other Orient. For nights, I was kept awake thinking, 'Who in the hell do I know in the Orient? Would it be possible to trace the buyer? Shouldn't we correspond? Or did he, perhaps, buy the book in error?"'
Richler returned to Europe to take up life as an expatriate writer in London. An early marriage ended in divorce, but his second marriage in 1960, to onetime couture fashion model Florence Wood, lasted until his death; they had three sons and two daughters.
After two more novels that received fairly positive critical notices, yet disappointing sales figures—Son of a Smaller Hero in 1955 and A Choice of Enemies in 1957—Richler published a breakthrough work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in 1959. Set in Montreal, the novel explored the rise of an ambitious young Jewish man determined to be successful; praised by critics, the book eventually became part of the modern canon of Canadian literature. Richler also established his reputation as a screenwriter for television and film during this period; perhaps his best-known early contribution was his uncredited work on the classic British film on class conflict, Room at the Top and his acknowledged work on its sequel, Life at the Top.
Demonstrating his versatility as a novelist, Richler published two works of humorous fiction, The Incomparable Atuk (distributed in the United States as Stick Your Neck Out) in 1963 and Cocksure in 1968. Both works used fish-out-of-water protagonists to illuminate larger observations about contemporary society, particularly the pretensions of the academic and artistic elites. Together with a collection of essays, Hunting Tigers Under Glass, Cocksure received the Governor General's Award in 1968, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Canadian government. Richler continued his string of successes with the 1971 publication of St. Urbain's Horsemen, which again received the Governor General's Award. A novel that included more autobiographical elements than any of his other fictional works, St. Urbain's Horsemen followed the life of an expatriate Canadian living in London as he made sense of his life in middle age.
Canada's Leading Curmudgeon
In 1972, Richler returned to Montreal with his family. He remained a resident of the city—which he claimed was the most culturally sophisticated in Canada—for the rest of his life. Over the next decade, his output as a writer remained as varied as ever. In addition to various projects for television, Richler wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1975. That year, Richler also published a novel for children, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, about the travails of a young boy who had to repeat everything he said twice for adults to understand him. The novel won the first Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award in 1976.
In 1980, Richler reemerged as a novelist with the publication of Joshua Then and Now. Another work that incorporated some autobiographical elements, the novel explored the life of a Jewish-Canadian writer coming to terms with the past; the book was made into a film in 1985, with Richler as screenwriter. In 1990, Richler touched off controversy when he published Solomon Gursky Was Here, a novel inspired by the real-life history of Canada's Bronfman family. The country's wealthiest family, the Bronfmans made their fortune from their Seagram's Whiskey business and later built a wide-ranging entertainment empire including large holdings in Universal Studios and Time-Warner; one member of the family, Edgar Bronfman, also served as the head of the Jewish World Congress. Richler's last novel, Barney's Version, appeared in 1998.
Although he enjoyed uninterrupted success after The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler became far better known as a humorist and social commentator in the last decade of his career. In addition to his regular essays in Maclean's, Richler published humorous and nostalgic pieces in magazines and journals ranging from Playboy to Atlantic to the New York Times Book Review. A lengthy piece he published in the New Yorker, however, gained Richler the most attention with its examination of the attempts to restrict the use of the English language in public places in Quebec. Richler eventually published an entire book devoted to the subject of Quebec separatism, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, in 1992. Richler's defiance of Quebec separatist demands made him a reviled figure in some quarters, and death threats were made against him after the book was published. Richler fought the separatists with satire and humor. As he told an audience at the University of Waterloo in 1999, "I manned the barricades, so to speak, for the legal right to munch unilingually labeled kosher matzos in Quebec for more than sixty days a year. I also protested the right of a pet shop parrot to be unilingually English. As a consequence, nice people still stop me on the street and thank me for taking a stand. It's embarrassing, for my stand, such as it is, hardly qualifies me as a latter-day Spartacus or Tom Paine or Rosa Luxemburg."
In declining health for some time, perhaps due to his favored pastimes of drinking malt whiskey and smoking, Richler had his kidney removed in a 1998 operation. A recurrence of cancer led to more treatment, but Richler died on July 3, 2001. He was one of the most respected literary figures in Canada by the time of his death.
Colleagues and friends memorialized Richler as a writer who was not overawed by his own success. His readers mourned the loss of one of the first internationally renowned Canadian writers. Indeed, Richler's ability to describe the Canadian perspective was one of his greatest contributions to the country's culture. Speaking at the University of Waterloo in 1999, he said: "One of our most attractive qualities, I think, is that we are a self-deprecating people. Had Babe Ruth, for instance, been born a Canadian rather than an American, he would not be celebrated as the Sultan of Swat, the man who hit 714 home runs. Instead he would be deprecated as that notorious flunk who struck out 1330 times."
Richler, Mordecai, Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Richler, Mordecai, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Maclean's, July 16, 2001.
Toronto Star, July 5, 2001.
"The Apprenticeship of Mordecai Richler," CBC News,http://www.cbc.ca/news/indepth/richler/ (October 24, 2001).
"Canadian Conundrums," University of Waterloo,http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/ECON/needhdata/richler.html (October 24, 2001).
"Mordecai Richler," Internet Movie Database,http://us.imdb.com/Name?Richler,+Mordecai (October 24, 2001).
"Mordecai Richler Biocritical Essay," University of Calgary Library,http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/SpecColl/richlerbioc.htm (October 24, 2001). □
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Montreal, Quebec, 27 January 1931. Education: Sir George Williams University, 1949-51. Family: Married Florence Wood in 1960; three sons and two daughters. Career: Freelance writer, Paris, 1952-53, London, 1954-72, and Montreal, 1972-2001. Writer-in-residence, Sir George Williams University, 1968-69; visiting professor of English, Carleton University, 1972-74. Member of editorial board, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1972-2001. Awards: President's medal for nonfiction, University of Western Ontario, 1959; junior art fellowships, 1959 and 1960, and senior arts fellowship, 1967, Canadian Council; 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 awards, 1972, for St. Urbain's Horseman; Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, Academy Award nomination, and Screenwriters Guild of America award, all 1974, for the 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.Died: 3 July 2001.
The Acrobats. 1954; as Wicked We Love, 1955.
Son of a Smaller Hero. 1955.
A Choice of Enemies. 1957.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. 1959.
The Incompatible Atuk. As Stick Your Neck Out, 1963.
St. Urbain's Horseman. 1971.
Joshua Then and Now. 1980.
Solomon Gursky Was Here. 1989.
Barney's Version. 1997.
Novels (for children)
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. 1975.
Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur. 1987.
Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case. 1997.
The Street: Stories. 1969.
Duddy, adaptation of his The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (produced Edmonton, Alberta, 1984).
No Love for Johnnie, with Nicholas Phipps, 1962; Tiara Tahiti, with Geoffrey Cotterell and Ivan Foxwell, 1962; The Wild and the Willing, with Phipps (Young and Willing, 1965), 1962; Life at the Top, 1965; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974; Fun with Dick and Jane, with David Giler and Jerry Belson, 1977; Joshua Then and Now, 1985.
The Acrobats, 1957; Friend of the People, 1957; Paid in Full, 1958; The Trouble with Benny, 1959; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1960; The Fall of Mendel Krick, 1963.
The Acrobats, 1956; Benny, the War in Europe, and Myerson's Daughter Bella, 1958; The Spare Room, 1961; Q for Quest, 1963; It's Harder to Be Anybody, 1965; Such Was St. Urbain Street, 1966; The Wordsmith, 1979.
Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports. 1969.
Shoveling Trouble (essays). 1973.
Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (essays). 1974.
Images of Spain. 1977.
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. 1978.
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays). 1984; as Home Sweet Home, 1985.
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions. 1990.
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. 1992.
The Language of Signs. 1992.
This Year in Jerusalem: An Israeli Journal. 1994.
Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions. 1998.
On Snooker. 2001.
Editor, Canadian Writing Today. 1970.
Editor, The Best of Modern Humor. 1984.
Editor, Writers on World War II: An Anthology. 1991.*
The Acrobats, 1957; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1960, 1974; Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, 1977; Joshua Then and Now, 1985.
University of Calgary, Alberta.
Mordecai Richler by George Woodcock, 1970; Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps, 1971; "Mordecai Richler and the Jewish-Canadian Novel" by F. M. Birbalsingh, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, June 1972, pp. 76-82; "Revaluing Mordecai Richler" by Kerry McSweeney, in Studies in Canadian Literature, 4(2), Summer 1979, pp. 120-31; Mordecai Richler by Victor J. Ramraj, 1983; "A. M. Klein and Mordecai Richler: Canadian Responses to the Holocaust" by Rachel Feldhay Brenner, in Journal of Canadian Studies, 24(2), Summer 1989, pp. 65-77; "Canada Wry" by Pearl K. Bell, in New Republic, 202 (19), 7 May 1990, pp. 42-44; "Mordecai Richler Was Here" by Kenneth McNaught, in Journal of Canadian Studies, 26(4), Winter 1991-92, pp. 141-43.* * *
Mordecai Richler was one of North America's most prolific, talented, and controversial Jewish authors, whose works explore themes ranging from Jewish identity and self-image and Holocaust-related guilt to the dilemma of how to live in a secular Canadian society where humanistic values have largely failed. Richler grew up in the Jewish community of Montreal, Quebec Province, Canada, in the 1930s and 1940s, a period during which his secondhand knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust overseas combined with his immediate experience of anti-Semitism and Quebec's own Fascist movement. A stay in Europe in the early 1950s put him into direct contact with expatriate existentialist ideas (in the style of Ernest Hemingway) and the disillusionment of the Beat generation. These two major historical and literary trends have found unique expression throughout Richler's fiction.
Although Richler's first novel-length work of fiction, The Acrobats (1954), focused primarily on the angst of an expatriate Canadian painter-rebel without a cause rather than on Jewish issues, Richler found his voice and expressed his greatest comic and literary talent in exploring Jewish topics closer to home. Much as William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its inhabitants became the basis for exploring twentieth-century themes in a microcosm, Jewish Montreal and particularly the area around St. Urbain Street became Richler's laboratory of character development for his protagonists. Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) concerns young Noah Adler's efforts to break free of a rigid and strict Orthodox Jewish family at the same time that he deals with the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Canadian Gentiles in the world outside his family. Several years later Richler expanded his use of irony and satire to denounce hypocrisy and cruelty in all layers of Canadian society in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). This novel indirectly reflects the Holocaust experience in its portrayal of social hierarchies, victims, and exploiters. Although the Jews and Gentiles in this novel are removed from the immediate atrocities of the Holocaust concentration camps, the precarious position of Jews in Montreal society impels Jews such as young Duddy Kravitz, Mr. Cohen, and Jerry Dingleman to become ruthless hustlers and exploiters in business so that they can avoid becoming victims themselves. At the same time, people such as Simcha Kravitz, Duddy's grandfather, are helpless and ineffective in their efforts to uphold traditional Jewish values against the onslaught of exploiters.
Two other novels by Richler that confront the shadow of the Holocaust through the eyes of Jews from St. Urbain Street are St. Urbain's Horseman (1971) and Joshua Then and Now (1980). In St. Urbain's Horseman, Jacob Hersh is a famous and successful writer with a fair amount of financial security, but he cannot escape the fears of anti-Semitic persecution that dominated his childhood in Montreal. Jacob Hersh finds personal meaning and identification with the victims of the Holocaust. He travels to continental Europe and Israel in search of his cousin Joey, who was supposedly an avenger of the Holocaust and a type of mythical messiah for him, but his search proves fruitless. Joshua Shapiro, the protagonist of Joshua Then and Now, also has to deal with issues of guilt and moral crises. His father, Reuben, was an exploitative and ruthless businessman like Duddy Kravitz, and Joshua, a prominent sportswriter, feels guilty for his own success and his marriage to a Gentile woman, as well as for his family's history. During a trip to Spain he tries to find truth and morality in identifying with the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. He recognizes, however, that the history of even his most beloved Spain is rife with anti-Semitism, and he is humiliated by an ex-Nazi whom he meets. In short neither Jacob Hersh nor Joshua Shapiro can find the equality, brotherhood, or moral resolution that he seeks inside or outside his own community.
Some works of Richler's journalism and nonfiction, such as This Year in Jerusalem: An Israeli Journal (1994) and the essay "The Holocaust and After," also demonstrate Richler's complex attitude toward the Jewish state and his view of Jews in the role of victim or oppressor. Richler continued to assert his claim that the writer is an advocate of the oppressed. And while he stood for a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, he also sympathized with the sufferings of the Palestinians. Richler's most important contributions to the literature of the Holocaust, however, are his works of fiction that portray North American Jews' responses to the anti-Semitism around them and to the Holocaust. The modern crises of Jews' identities in multicultural societies and in the face of a long and difficult history crystallize with incisive humor and satire in Richler's fiction, which illustrates the persistent barriers and prejudices that both Jews and non-Jews still must understand and overcome.
—Alisa Gayle Mayor
See the essay on The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
RICHLER, MORDECAI (1931–2001), Canadian author. Richler's satiric portrayal of Montreal's Jewish Main gained both prominence and notoriety in 1955 with the publication of his second novel, Son of a Smaller Hero. Published in Britain, this slim, young man's novel of leaving one's community caused a stir in Canada, with its depiction of working-class Jews coming to terms with the breakdown of tradition and the speed with which a prosperous postwar Canada allowed middle-class Jews to assimilate and suburbanize themselves. These themes recur – more fully fleshed out and with greater humor – in Richler's breakthrough 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Richler's career would prove to be a writing away from and back to his childhood experiences in the neighborhood around Montreal's St Lawrence Boulevard, which existed as a Jewish enclave, with English Montreal to the west and French Montreal to the east. Between the middle 1950s and the early 1970s Richler made his home in London, England, raising a family and supporting himself by writing screenplays. Upon returning to Montreal to stay, Richler told friends that he worried that being too long away from his home turf might weaken his relationship with his richest material. The major novels that best reflect his ability to weave Montreal Jewish themes into a larger fictional tableau are St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980), and Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989). In the first of the three, Montreal plays the slightest role, and Richler addresses the Holocaust with deft, dark humor and moral outrage. Joshua Then and Now presents a loving portrait of a St. Urbain Street childhood. And in Solomon Gursky Was Here, Richler's most ambitious book, he takes liberties with the Bronfman liquor dynasty, the role of Jewish wealth and power in Canada, alongside a fanciful consideration of Jews in the Arctic. These major books confirmed Richler's place at the forefront of Canadian letters.
Richler's output also included three children's books featuring a character named Jacob Two-Two, as well as an excellent memoiristic collection, The Street (1969). Among his many literary awards are two Governor General's Awards, the Giller Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Alongside his fiction and memoir, Richler embraced freelance journalism and published regularly in Canada and abroad on subjects as varied as Israel and the sporting life. His willingness to editorialize aggressively and acerbically placed him at the center of the political and cultural debate concerning Quebec's national aspirations. Richler dismissed the indépendantiste movement as destructive, incoherent, and self-serving, insisting that its roots could be found in the xenophobic right-wing ideologies of 1940s Quebec. His influential, as well as provocative contributions to this discussion include a long essay, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1991, and his full-scale study and memoir Oh Canada! Oh Quebec: Requiem for a Divided Country (1992). With the latter's publication Richler found the Montreal Jewish community fully behind him – possibly for the first time in his career – as they applauded his criticism of Quebec nationalism. In the French-speaking community, Richler solidified his position as the Anglophone bête noir of French cultural life in the province.
In his last years, Richler was elevated to the role of cultural icon in Canada, a development that propelled his final novel, Barney's Version (1997), to bestseller status. The novel also became an unlikely success in Italy, where readers embraced Richler's characteristic brand of political incorrectness.
J. Yanofsky, Mordecai … Me: An Appreciation of a Kind (2003).
[Norman Ravvin (2nd ed.)]