Study Guide

Mordecai Richler

Mordecai Richler Essay - Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 13)

Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 13)


Richler, Mordecai 1931–

Richler is a Canadian novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and children's book author who combines humor and satire with a strong moral and historical sense to create his interpretation of Jewish and Canadian experience; George Woodcock calls him "the essential Canadian." Richler is best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the story of a Montreal boy's attempt to outfox society. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

[Hunting Tigers Under Glass is a collection of] a bundle of essays, reports and reviews on a variety of topics not immediately likely to fit together: Canada and sport, various forms of pop literature and art, Jewish-American writing, and Israel. The focus is Mordecai Richler himself. "After all, I'm a Jewish writer from Canada," he says. But so is Saul Bellow [sic]; and the book, on internal evidence alone, is not by him. The pieces, bitter-sweet and often very funny, form a kind of instant biography of reminiscence, observation and opinion: even when writing a fictional review of Malamud or Mailer, Mr. Richler usually turns the occasion into one for idiosyncrasy and recollection.

Moreover, they are written from a number of wry angles, some of them coming from Mr. Richler's intelligently common sense radical view of two forms of provincialism he knows very well indeed, the Jewish and the Canadian: and some from the fact that for a Jewish novelist he has taken the unpredictable tack of finding his cosmopolis not in New York but in London. More still come from the fact that the pieces address heterodox reading-publics…. (p. 117)

It all seems to go to show that it is, as they say, hard to know who one is nowadays: but actually Mr. Richler knows very well. He is a confessed product of the 1940s, when one was interested in pop not because it was camp but because it was what there was, just as he says as a student he and his friends had sex in the afternoon not because they were radical or alienated but because they were horny…. [With] confident opinionation he cuts through the glossy romanticisms and belaboured intellectual worries in the interests of establishing the real feel of the thing.

The three essays on Canada and Canadianism here (while not as good as his brilliant treatment of the same thing in his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) have some of the best insights into provincial cosmopolitanism, mainly because Mr. Richler observes, collects and remembers the essential data with at once an ironic and a sympathetic vision. The basic tactic of compassion and irony is very funny and it brings him right into the middle of the enclaves of kitsch. (p. 118)

The targets are never too easy since Mr. Richler is fully involved—as the Canadian-Jewish good-bad boy of the 1940s who himself went through both the bourgeois and the intellectual apprenticeship…. The kids on the block and what became of them through the past twenty years of complex history really form the theme that runs behind these pieces. The time is one in which it became easier to be a Jew (and Mr. Richler is excellent on the inept touchiness of hard-core Jewish culture, which he has constantly offended). (pp. 118-19)

But easier can be harder. Mr. Richler is a writer of ironies, detachment, and comic involvements rather than a voice of exile or anomaly; but one can see in his writings why the Jewish writer or intellectual might have gone a good deal deeper into self-doubt. In a critically sharp review of Malamud's The Fixer, he points out the way in which the Jewish writer tends, his modern experience being now pretty well on file in the Jewish-American efflorescence of the 1950s, to hark back to origins, to the shtetl or the archetypal pogrom. Mr. Richler himself holds to the fascination of ordinary origins, and comes out as a grand supra-provincial….

This is a lively book, the more illuminating if you consider Mordecai Richler, and he goes on giving us more and more grounds for thinking so, an important novelist. And it is a usefully oblique insight into a body of experience that the Jewish-American novelists have gone through with more tension and bravura, but with a good deal less irony and humour. (p. 119)

"On the Block," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 23, 1969 (and reprinted in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps, McGraw-Hill Company, 1971, pp. 117-19).

G. David Sheps

In their themes and motifs, Mordecai Richler's novels return regularly to a constant set of preoccupations. Despite this consistency, however, his career as a novelist has undergone some interesting alterations in terms of his moral attitudes towards his favourite preoccupations. This change of outlook has naturally been accompanied by a change in style and genre. It would have been difficult, on the basis of his early naturalistic novels, to anticipate the satirist and caricaturist who emerged with The Incomparable Atuk and Cocksure…. Occasional satirical elements are utilized by most novelists. It is another matter altogether to step from a dominant narrative mode of realistic characterization, verisimilitude of action and psychological plausibility to a dominant mode of conscious caricature in characterization, purposeful implausibility of action and fantasy in events. For a novelist to alter his style and narrative mode so decisively, a deliberate change in moral outlook must have occurred…. One of the theses of this interpretation is that, philosophically, Richler has moved from a tentative Romanticism to a kind of Classicism. (pp. ix-x)

In Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, we can already see most of the materials that recur in his later work: power, egoism, self-realization, struggle for survival, the conflict of generations and youthful rebelliousness, the need to escape from a confining environment, the sense of moral disillusionment and the fear of failure. The form of his first novel (and of all his naturalistic novels) is that most traditional of fictional structures: the attempted progress of the sensitive young man … in escaping the fetters of an inhibiting situation and in advancing towards a form of independence, realization of what he takes to be his inherent potentialities or worldly success and recognition. In other words Richler's theme is that of the attempted rise from rags to riches, on several moral and aesthetic levels. (p. x)

This configuration, of course, is not surprising in a novelist. It is a truism that the novel is the bourgeois literary form. Theorists of the novel, like Ian Watt, have emphasized that the novel is specifically the literary form which is structured by the sense of time and movement as progressive, qualitative change, i.e. the notion that time must not be wasted and that the measurement of time should also measure changes in the person's status or situation…. Naturally it reflects a society where social mobility and the idea of self-development are both possible and social and psychological imperatives. The novel, therefore, is the form which best expresses romantic individualism…. Richler's novels are located in bourgeois time. His young men in a hurry or on the make (whether the hustler, Duddy Kravitz; the impatient aesthete, André Bennett; or the mixture of the two, Noah Adler) are the distant cousins, not only of Paul Morel, Stephen Dedalus and Sammy Glick, but also of Raskolnikov, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler. Like these nineteenth century heroes and heroines, they are manic depressive (the characteristic bourgeois psychosis, if we can believe the evidence of Ibsen and Flaubert). They urgently need to succeed and are haunted by the fear of failure; they alternate between delusions of triumph and a suicidal sense of utter emptiness.

Richler's novels differ, however, in that they are obviously of the middle of the twentieth century and lack much of the partial optimism current in the previous century. His characters are acutely aware that they come after the disillusionment with several twentieth-century revolutions and causes…. Richler's characters, for all their ambition and energy, really know from the beginning that either they are defeated or their outcomes will be much drearier than their apparent victories might indicate. Duddy Kravitz, for example, appears successful in achieving his ambition. But there is every indication that he has been metamorphosed into something very like his antagonist, the odious Jerry Dingleman.

A further problem for Richler's protagonists (and it is a problem, often, with the novels themselves) is that they do not know what it is they are seeking…. They insist that salvation lies only in the adoption of personal values, but they are not sure which personal values to hold. The statement, in fact, becomes a mechanical formula with which they try to persuade themselves of something, rather than any passionately held and confident sense of personal identity. This becomes a problem for the reader as well as for the fictional character and represents the greatest weakness in Richler's writings. I don't mean to suggest that Richler ought to supply his characters with a facile affirmation. The problem is a genuine one. (This, I suppose, is why some people have referred to Richler's "existentialism." But this kind of comment, besides betraying a lack of understanding of existentialism as a philosophical standpoint, is itself a facile evasion of a problem and a retreat into a mechanistic formula.)

To be frank, it gets rather boring to be told repeatedly that all the good old causes are dead, that one knows what one dislikes but not what one likes, and then to be expected to be deeply concerned with the activities and fate of a very self-serving and self-pitying character. (pp. x-xii)

For myself, I am always rather puzzled by critics … who take at face value the moral posturings of many of Richler's main characters. After all, if we look at them with a cold eye, we often get a picture in which they appear something like this: they are egocentric and insensitive to others; they are ruthless and are basically indifferent even to those they sometimes claim to love; they will exploit or misuse their closest friends and relatives often on not much more than a whim; their claims to their own moral sensitivity and dilemmas are generally self-serving; they are usually contemptuous of the causes served by others at great personal risk; and they give little evidence of possessing either the kind of intelligence or knowledge which would be required to sustain the complexities and subtleties of the moral consciousness to which they pretend. Indeed, most of Richler's youthful rebels and idealistic questers share many characteristics with the hypocritical older generation, or the corrupt society, or the oppressors against whom they appear to be in revolt. (p. xiii)

[Nevertheless, Richler makes] claims on the reader to view with sympathy and concern the problems of his heroes. As many critics have pointed out, the author is often emotionally engaged himself with his heroes. This clear call for sympathy with these figures, many of whom objectively have unsympathetic or dull personalities, has divided Richler's readers. These are those who find the novels almost wholly objectionable because of the repugnant qualities of so many of the characters. Others are taken in by the postures adopted by his sensitive or lonely young men and thus uncritically proceed to sentimentalize these figures as courageous knights who assault the unrelieved evil of a corrupt society…. (p. xiv)

There is another possible approach to the reading of Richler's novels. One of the most interesting facts about these novels is that the ostensible heroes and the ostensible villains share many qualities. It is entirely possible to regard the apparent heroes unsympathetically and to respond even to the most malevolent figures, like the Nazi Kraus, Melech Adler, or Karp, sympathetically. Indeed, Richler's ability to make his characters sufficiently complex and humanly ambiguous, in a perfectly plausible manner, and to supply enough information so that we understand how they got to be the way they are is one of his most striking achievements. Some critics may fail to see the humanity in an apparently monstrous figure or naively may be taken in by a putatively sympathetic figure, but Richler the novelist does not make these mistakes.

Others have noted that Richler's characters are often "survivors" and that much of their energy is consumed by the strategies of survival in a competitive and hostile world. This is true enough. The Richler characters often have the wary, suspicious, necessarily egoistic psychology of the survivor. They move through life like tacticians, are survivors of concentration camps; various forms of persecution, war, or poverty; or simply painfully traumatic personal experiences and shattered dreams and ideals. They are frequently the floating debris of the wreckage of the...

(The entire section is 3533 words.)

F. M. Birbalsingh

[Canadianism and Jewishness] jointly form the main theme of [Richler's] fiction and the chief concern of all his writing. His novels deal, in general, with the large national problem of assimilating a Canadian identity out of disparate racial and cultural elements and, in particular, with the process of assimilating Jewish elements into an integrated Canadian culture.

Richler's first full-length work of fiction, The Acrobats, may be regarded as a beginner's novel. Its chief technique is to string together some of the author's most worrying dissatisfactions into a pastiche that is only mildly satirical. The satire is not completely effective because the writing is too derivative, relying more...

(The entire section is 2086 words.)