Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, July 4, 2001)

Mordecai Richler's death yesterday at the age of 70 took from our midst the great shining star of his Canadian literary generation, an abrasive but enthralling author who won an audience and a great success on precisely his own terms. In nearly five decades as novelist, essayist, journalist and screenwriter, Richler moved from the unruly margins of Canadian culture to its respectable centre. In many ways, he was a pivotal figure in our history. His books reflected this country's increasing sophistication and helped make that sophistication possible. He played a major role in Canada's emergence in world literature and in Jewish Canada's transformation from a society of outsiders to part of the nation's core.

To the end of his days Richler still found a multitude of good reasons to satirize his native land, his native province of Quebec, and his fellow Jews. He once called a book of his essays Shovelling Trouble, and in a sense he was always in trouble -- the glorious trouble of an author who tried to tell the truth whether it bothered his readers or not, and like every good writer enjoyed annoying as well as pleasing the public.

His ability as novelist or polemicist was such that those who disliked what he said couldn't afford to ignore him. A lesser writer might have made the same points without attracting enmity but Richler remained a focus of argument because he combined an acerbic tone with undeniable talent -- and comic talent above all.

He encountered his first trouble within the Jewish community, years before most non-Jews knew his name. In the 1950s and early 1960s many of his articles and two of his novels portrayed Jews unfavourably as well as favourably -- but it was the unfavourable part that everyone remembered. Like all born satirists, he made fun of what he knew best, in this case the Montreal Jews he grew up with and their narrowness, as he saw it. That approach was already familiar to readers of American Jewish writing but was shockingly new in Canada. As both a Jew and a Canadian, Richler was considered by rabbis and other community leaders as doubly "one of our own," and therefore doubly treasonous. They did not see the joke, whatever it happened to be, and for years Richler was treated with the greatest suspicion when he spoke at a synagogue.

Eventually, however, as the Jewish community grew more secure and more tolerant, Richler became one of its favourite sons, the toast of the Jewish book fairs. He never mellowed, but the community did. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz created a scandal when it appeared as a novel in 1959 because Duddy, the young hero, is a far from perfect human being -- his own uncle calls him "a little Jew-boy on the make." Richler's own attitude to Duddy was unpredictable and ambivalent, which created much of the tension in the story. In fact, Richler's adamant refusal to judge his characters, and condemn them, helped to make his books intensely interesting, at the time he wrote Duddy and later. He once said a novelist should be "the loser's advocate," able to stand up for all those the rest of the world considers trash. Duddy fell in that category.

The response to the novel was complicated by the fact that some men who had gone to Baron Byng High School with Richler in the 1940s thought he was borrowing their lives and making fun of them, which was true in both cases. But Richler, unintentionally conducting a one-man course in literature, taught some of his worst critics the meaning of satire -- and taught them to love it even if they were the object. By 1974, when the movie version of Duddy Kravitz was made, with Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy and Richler as scriptwriter (he was nominated for an Academy Award), some eminent middle-aged Montrealers were eager to assert with pride that their own apprenticeship was spent right there in the old district, alongside Duddy or his real-life equivalent.

Duddy Kravitz was Richler's fourth novel and the one in which, at age 28, he found his voice, his tone. He had written earlier of the Montreal ghetto around St. Urbain Street, but now he discovered for the first time that his boyhood experience was firmly fixed at that place in the mind where the co-ordinates of memory and imagination cross. St. Urbain Street provided essential background, and often foreground as well, in four more novels (St. Urbain's Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here, and Barney's Version), as well as The Street, a collection of stories.

Even when Richler lived for about two decades in England, a part of him still walked the pavements he knew as a child, and somewhere in his mental baggage he carried his growing and changing cast of characters, all of them at least distantly based on neighbours, relatives, and friends from the old days. As he wrote in 1970, "No matter how long I continue to live abroad, I do feel forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right." He kept on getting it right, in book after book, and when he returned to live in Montreal he was able to learn what had happened to all those boys -- and then put that knowledge into his later novels.

The commitment to St. Urbain Street was not the most obvious decision in the 1950s. When others were looking for more universal backgrounds, Richler was choosing an intensely local scene -- "parochial" was the negative term in common use. And when Canadian literature in English was produced mostly by descendants of the British and the Irish, Richler was announcing not only that he was a Jew but that both he and his novels were tied permanently to the life of the Jews, a tiny minority within Canada. There were those who thought this foolish, but it turned out that Richler was nicely ahead of his time. Canada later began to appreciate distinct local settings in everything from painting to theatre. Long before Richler died, he and his characters and his novels were all swimming in the mainstream of Canadian life.

As every writer would hope to do, Richler ended his career as a novelist with what may be his best book, Barney's Version. Certainly it shows him at the top of his form. It begins as a kind of farewell tour, in which the narrator, Barney Panofsky, telling us "the true story of my wasted life," revisits old Richlerian settings and material, describes the poor boys who grew up to be prosperous, the hustlers on the edge of show business, and the ageing father's puzzled difficulty with his children. The story sails along as a light-hearted comic novel for a while, and then darkens into a murder mystery (not solved till the closing page) and finally an imaginative account, at once funny and wrenching, of what Alzheimer's may feel like from the inside.

On his best days Richler wrote with verve, animation, and a joyful sense of the ridiculous -- Cocksure, his satire of sexuality in swinging London of the 1960s, remains a dazzling tour de force. He grounded his work in an urgent moral sense, like all satirists, and yet never fell into the pit of solemnity that curses so much of Canadian culture. Sometimes his comedy wasn't altogether appreciated. In the 1970s, as nationalism became a growing force among writers and publishers, he set up shop as the loyal opposition and began depicting Toronto literary nationalists as grant-grabbing whiners, something he had anticipated in The Incomparable Atuk, a satiric novel published in 1963. He found himself assailed simultaneously by official Jewry and high-culture Anglo-Saxons. In 1972 he defended himself: "I am not an anti-Canadian or a Jew-baiter. I do, however, deplore many things Jewish and Canadian. Special pleading, whether by Canadian sports writers, kibbutzniks in Galilee, or proliferating Canada culture boosters, never fails to move me to mockery."

Special pleading, of course, was becoming the main form of discourse in English Canada, and Richler was doing his best to remind us there were other ways to write about controversial issues. Eventually he discovered a subject that so deeply infuriated him he began to write less about the Jews and pretty well forgot about English-Canadian literary nationalism. What Richler discovered (his anger obviously mixed with joy over finding a topic new to him) was Quebec nationalism, the anti-Semitic side of Quebec history, and, above all, the language laws aimed at making French the dominant language in every corner of the province.

Most Canadians, to our shame, looked with benign indifference on the madness of the language laws, hoping they would eventually go away on their own. In the early days Richler himself paid little attention to them. But after this subject attracted his attention, he became the most outspoken enemy of Quebec nationalists and all their ways. They considered his writing on this subject unforgivable -- first, because he recalled ugly history they did not want to remember; second, because he took it outside the country and wrote about it for foreigners in a famous New Yorker article as well as in an internationally published book, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country; and third, most irritating of all, because he absolutely refused to take the language laws seriously for even one minute and insisted on condemning them for the clownish nonsense they were.

Richler was by a long way the most versatile and prolific Canadian writer of his time. One reason was that he and Florence had five children to raise. Another was that his tastes were expensive. A third, perhaps most important, was that he loved to experiment with different forms of writing -- movie scripts, essays in intellectual magazines like Encounter and Commentary, newspaper columns for the National Post, magazine columns for Saturday Night. In the 1950s, he proved himself an expert fixer of other people's movie scripts, such as Life at the Top, and wrote one of the best movies Peter Finch ever made, No Love for Johnnie, about a corrupt Labour politician. He always retained his interest in writing movies, and adapted Joshua Then and Now as a movie and a TV series.

One world in which no one expected to see his name was juvenile literature, but he did as well there as anywhere else -- and, once again, by disregarding all the rules. He produced his own version of a children's story, the kind he might have liked to read when he was a boy. In his three children's books, beginning in 1975 with Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, he deftly combined observation of his own children with comic-book memories from his childhood and wrote as if a child's view of the world was as significant as an adult's. The result was wonderfully readable, totally free of piety, and remarkably successful.

For many years, a nervous shyness made life in public uncomfortable for Richler. He found interviews a torture (so did the interviewers) and appearances before crowds even worse. But in middle age much of that shyness vanished, he learned how to state his views clearly in an interview, and before a good-sized crowd of the right kind he could suddenly turn into a performer. A few years ago, at a benefit for literacy before a huge audience in Toronto, he was easily the funniest, most effective, and most lovingly applauded act on the bill; furthermore, he managed this coup by reading a book review about Jewish athletes that he had written three decades earlier for Commentary magazine. Richler was always the king of the recyclers, and that night he somehow turned an old book review into a small work of comic genius.

Watching him, I realized how much he had enriched our literary life and how much of an ornament he had become in old age. But what struck me most forcibly is that in his deadpan comedy and his enjoyment of the incongruous and the unintentionally funny, he was still precisely the same person he was when he first appeared on the scene in the 1950s -- except older, smarter, and far happier. It was as if finally he was precisely where he had hoped to be all along.

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