Study Guide

Mordecai Richler

Mordecai Richler Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201658-Richler.jpgMordecai Richler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mordecai Richler (RIHK-lur) was a major Canadian novelist who treated contemporary mores with a mixture of amusement and censure. One of two sons of Moses Isaac Richler and Lily (Rosenberg) Richler, he grew up in the area around St. Urbain’s Street, a milieu he frequently re-created in his novels and especially in his collection of stories, The Street. After loafing through Baron Byng High School (depicted as Fletcher’s Field in his fiction), he attended Sir George Williams College but withdrew in 1951. He spent most of the next twenty years abroad, at first living squalidly in Paris and then settling in London. Visits to Spain produced a fascination with that country that is manifested in several of his books. He was married twice, the first marriage ending in divorce and the second, in 1960, lasting until his death and producing five children.

His first novel, The Acrobats, is set in Valencia in April, 1951. This melodramatic novel, in places blatantly reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s novels about Spain, incorporates several motifs that recur in Richler’s work: alienated Jews, a sinister German, and a protagonist who feels trapped between the older generation, with its traditional values, and younger, iconoclastic rebels. Surprised at its success, Richler subsequently expressed a dislike for the book, though he continued to explore the themes he broached in it.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is Richler’s best-known novel, and it was made into a successful film. After rendering life miserable for the teachers at Fletcher’s Field High School, Duddy lands a hotel job at a summer resort area north of Montreal (as Richler did). A sympathetic chambermaid, Yvette, shows him an unspoiled lake which, following his grandfather’s dictum that a man without land is nothing, Duddy vows to own, in spite of the anti-Semitism of the surrounding French Canadian farmers. His despicable treatment of the innocent epileptic who is driving a truck for him so disgusts Yvette that she ceases to help him and reveals his dishonesty to his grandfather. Thus, when Duddy shows his family the lake he has finally acquired, his grandfather is not impressed and Duddy’s triumph is diminished. Moral ambiguity is central to Duddy’s character. On one hand, he brazenly and ruthlessly exploits and betrays those who help him; on the other hand, he does rescue his brother from a dire predicament and gives compassionate help to a dying uncle. Similarly, Richler satirizes both Jews and Gentiles, often in amusing episodes.

Humor was to become increasingly prominent in Richler’s work in the 1960’s. Apparently inspired by the author’s temporary return to and dealings with the Canadian media, The Incomparable Atuk uses the rise and spectacular fall of an Eskimo poet-turned-entrepreneur to satirize all kinds of current fads and phenomena. Richler especially mocks the kind of Canadian nationalism that expresses itself in strident anti-Americanism and the kinds of Jewishness that either proclaim the superiority of all things Jewish or...

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Mordecai Richler Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mordecai Richler was born on January 27, 1931, in the Jewish ghetto of east Montreal. His parents Moses and Lily made sure their son received a solid Jewish education first at United Talmud Torah and then at Baron Byng High School in Montreal. He attended Sir George Williams University from 1949 to 1951 but left school to work as a writer in London, England, and later worked briefly as a news editor for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. For almost twenty years he resided in London, publishing much of his work there. In 1972, Richler returned to Montreal, where he settled with his wife and children. For ten years Richler was a member of the editorial board of the Book-of-the-Month Club. After his return to Canada, he published works whose spiritual center was still Montreal, though their scope is broader. Otherwise, his writing was devoted to essays, articles, and reviews; many of these—funny, biting, and wearily resigned—were collected in his book Broadsides (1990). Richler died in Montreal on July 3, 2001

Mordecai Richler Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mordecai Richler was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1931, in the heart of the Jewish ghetto. His father was a junk dealer and his mother was a housewife (in later years, she wrote a book about her life). Her father was a rabbi whose influence ensured an Orthodox household. By turning away from Orthodoxy at a young age, however, Richler ran into trouble at home, which perhaps accounts for some of his perceptive but acerbic reflections on family life. Further compounding his problems as a youth, his parents divorced when he was thirteen years old. As a response to the breakdown at home, Richler joined a Zionist labor group called Habonim and dreamed of settling in Palestine. Only later did he go to Israel as a journalist.

In his adolescent years, Richler attended Baron Byng High School, a predominantly Jewish school even though it was part of the Protestant school system. In his stories and novels it is transformed into Fletcher’s Field High School and peopled with characters known to Richler in his youth. After high school, Richler attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal (now Concordia University) because his high school grades were not good enough to gain him admittance to McGill University. Although he later returned to Sir George as writer-in-residence, the academic life did not appeal to him. He once remarked that “academe, like girls, whiskey, and literature, promised better than it paid.” Rejecting a life of scholarship, Richler...

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Mordecai Richler Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201658-Richler.jpgMordecai Richler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mordecai Richler was born in a Jewish section of Montreal. His education at Jewish parochial schools reinforced his Jewish identity, and the French language that he spoke identified him as French Canadian. Richler would embrace neither identity comfortably.

He began writing seriously when he was fourteen. At about the same time, he rejected the family expectation that he become a rabbi and ceased his religious training. After high school, Richler attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal for two years, then grew restive and left for Paris in 1951 to join such other aspiring writers as Mavis Gallant and Terry Southern. The separation from his beginnings helped to sharpen the perspective on his heritage. He knew that escape from the past is impossible and even undesirable. After two years, an invitation to become writer-in-residence at his alma mater attracted him back to Montreal.

The Acrobats introduced concerns that would recur in much of Richler’s later fiction: the place of Jews in contemporary society, the need for values, and the exercise of personal responsibility. Deciding that he would make his living solely by writing, Richler moved to England, where his next six novels were published. Most of these novels revealed their author as a severe, often shocking critic of the Jewish ghetto (Son of a Smaller Hero), of Jewish greed and ruthlessness (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), of Canadian nationalism (The Incomparable Atuk), and of the North American entertainment industry (Cocksure). The writing often reflects a certain degree of ambivalence about the author’s ethnic identity, with the need to reject dominating the inclination to affirm.

When Richler returned to Canada—to “the roots of his discontent”—in 1972, his many years of “exile” in Europe had heightened his own sense of self as a Jewish Canadian writer. Richler did not always see himself as others saw him: abrasive, arrogant, and perverse. Richler has been described as an anti-Canadian Canadian and an anti-Semitic Jew. Richler saw himself as a moralist who wrote out of a sense of “disgust with things as they are,” who debunked the bankrupt values that characterize his culture and his ethnic community. His later books established him as a more evenhanded critic of Jewish and Canadian identity, one who affirmed the need for the bonds of family and community in an unstable, corrupt world.

Mordecai Richler Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201658-Richler.jpgMordecai Richler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mordecai Richler (RIHCH-lur) was born on January 27, 1931, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the son of Moses Isaac and Lily Rosenberg Richler. His Polish grandfather, whose name, Reichler, was misspelled by an immigration officer, came to Canada in 1904 to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe accompanying the Russo-Japanese War and settled with other Jewish immigrants in the east end of Montreal. Richler’s grandfather was a peddler, and his father operated a junkyard.

Richler grew up in a narrow, self-contained Jewish society that feared both French-and English-Canadians. He attended Jewish parochial school, studying the Talmud and modern Hebrew, and was expected to become a Hasidic rabbi like his maternal grandfather....

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Mordecai Richler Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mordecai Richler’s novels are satirical attacks upon the sins of his times, but his approach to his fiction denies his readers any sense of moral superiority, rubbing their noses in the excesses of the twentieth century. Richler is an unusual novelist because he is moralistic without being didactic or sentimental. He has no pretensions to having any answers to life’s dilemmas, content merely to pose the questions. Richler’s fiction is as notable for its compassion as much as its anger. Making rogues such as Duddy Kravitz and Harry Stein sympathetic is typical of his greatest talent: his skill at vivid characterization.

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