George Woodcock says of Mordecai Richler, “The worlds he creates are not autonomous entities re-made each time. Rather, they belong to a fictional continuum that perpetually overlaps the world in which Richler himself lives and feels, thinks and writes.” The reader receives a distinct impression of the primacy of memory over imagination in Richler’s work. Most of his stories and novels deal with the characters and situations of the Montreal ghetto of his early years; the stories in his collection The Street and the scenes of many of the novels examine with compassion and realism the lives of Canadian and immigrant Jews in this restricted and variegated environment. Most of the author’s work functions within this frame of reference, with only an occasional change of focus. A peripheral character in one story comes under more thorough scrutiny in another. Often a new character will be introduced to interact with the established ones. The reader is given a continuity of the values and traditions of the old world as they evolve in the setting of their new Canadian world. There seems to be, then, no clear distinction between the fictional and the autobiographical elements of Richler’s narrative. In fact, The Street, his only episodic collection that can be considered to comprise stories, has been more accurately described as “a lightly fictionalized memoir.”
The importance of Richler’s work, consequently, is the analysis of age-old human problems found in familiar situations. He saw things with little sentimentality; life is filled with illusions, poverty, despair, and selfishness. Richler reacted positively in spite of these negative aspects, despite showing how limiting they are. This view is emphasized by a keen sense of the ridiculous which sharpens our perceptions and evaluations. Absurd as his characters sometimes are, however, Richler still had a tender attitude toward them. Despite their moral and social blindness, they are human beings, desperately trying to control their own lives, and the author wanted the reader to understand them rather than love them. Although their environment is a Jewish neighborhood with its own laws, legends, and language, these characters speak to all readers; in fact, they become even more authentic by belonging to a particular social setting. The external circumstances only show more clearly that their reactions are human and universal.
“The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die”
The story “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die” is perhaps Richler’s best. Here the author forces the reader to confront lingering death and its implications for a family. The story is graphically realistic. Since life must go on, even in tragedy, the reader is shown the absurd black comedy of ordinary existence. As are all the stories in The Street, this one is in the format of a recollection by old Malka’s grandson, Jake Hersh. Dr. Katzman discovers that Malka has gangrene, and he says she will not last a month; he says the same thing the second, third, and fourth months. She remains bedridden for seven years; hers is a common story of the courageous person with an incredible will to live. The grotesque nature of the situation is dramatized very quickly when Jake says, “When we sat down to eat we could smell her.” While Mr. and Mrs. Hersh wait for her to die, saying it will be for the best, the neighborhood children wait to peek up the nurse’s dress. The grotesque and the ridiculous are simply integral parts of life—and death.
Malka, the widow of Zaddik, one of the Righteous, is described as beautiful, patient, shrewd, and resourceful. When she was married to Zaddik, these qualities were necessary since he often gave his money away to rabbinical students, immigrants, and widows. As Jake says, this “made him as unreliable a provider as a drinker.” Their sons are prominent men, a rabbi, a lawyer, and an actor, but it is left to Jake’s mother to take care of Malka. No one, it seems, wants the old woman despite all that she has done for them; she becomes an inconvenience, “a condition in the house, something beyond hope or reproach, like a leaky ice-box.” Jake can no longer kiss her without a feeling of revulsion, and he wonders if she knows that he covets her room. The shock of the tragic illness over a period of time gives way to resignation. Malka becomes only a presence, no longer recognizable as a human being. Instead of love being engendered by the grandmother’s plight, there is resentment.
After the fourth year of her illness the strain begins to show. Mrs. Hersh is openly scornful of her husband and finds fault with her two children; she also takes to falling asleep directly after supper. Hersh seeks escape more often to Tansky’s Cigar and Soda, and people tell him that he might as well be a bachelor. Malka’s children finally take her, against her will, to the Jewish Old People’s Home. With the reminder of death gone from the home, family relationships improve. Mrs. Hersh no longer needs the comfort of her bed, her cheeks glow with health, and she even jokes with her children. Mr. Hersh begins to come home early, no longer finding it necessary to go to Tansky’s. Malka is seldom mentioned.
When Jake asks if he can move back to his room, however, his mother’s caring instinct returns, and she decides to bring Malka home. The cycle of despair starts again, and the family returns to their habits of escape. Mr. Hersh says, “I knew it, I was born with all the luck.” For two more years there is no change in Malka’s condition; she seems to gain her strength at the expense of the family. The tension is almost unbearable for the Hershes. The fatigue and morbidity are most noticeable in Mrs. Hersh, but they are also evident in each member of the household.
Finally, in the seventh summer, Malka dies. When...
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