Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 18)
Richler, Mordecai 1931–
Richler, a Canadian novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and children's book author, employs in his fiction a Swiftian blend of burlesque, satire, and vulgarity. "To be a Jew and a Canadian," Richler says, "is to emerge from the ghetto twice, for self-conscious Canadians, like some touchy Jews, tend to contemplate the world through a wrongended telescope." His most successful novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, chronicles the protagonist's attempt to escape the physical and psychological Jewish ghetto in Montreal. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68).
Mordecai Richler's novel, Cocksure, illustrates [a] satiric double focus on grotesque fantasy and morality. In attempting analysis, one can usefully distinguish between the two levels of satire in the novel—the first a gentle, humorous level dealing with the foibles of man, and the second a more biting, shocking level which attacks gross evils. These two levels in turn involve two different types of the grotesque.
The first level of satire involves the people and activities which touch Mortimer Griffin in his daily life as husband and father and in his part-time position as public lecturer. Griffin himself fits into the common role of ingénue evident in many satirical works from Swift to Evelyn Waugh…. Mortimer Griffin [drifts] through life, but if his educated brain allows him some superior moments of perception, his neurotic personality makes something of a grotesque of him. Griffin worries constantly about himself and about the impression he creates on others. This exaggerated self-concern is ridiculous in itself, as when he agonizes over the racist implications of picking up or not picking up the glove of the coloured girl standing ahead of him in line. Gradually his fears and anxieties become obsessive, a condition which we have seen to be typical of much grotesque fiction. The culmination of neurotic worry about his sexual adequacy is his sexual impotence.
Griffin's follies are sometimes an...
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[We] don't mind in the least that all [the tantalizing mysteries of "Joshua Then and Now"] are dangled before us without resolution until we have zigzagged all the way across Mr. Richler's teeming canvas. For he has crammed into his book so much in the way of gags, social satire, suspense, stinging dialogue, sports and political trivia … that the resolutions to these comic-pathetic mysteries are so much icing on a very rich cake.
What I admire especially about "Joshua Then and Now" is that Mr. Richler never permits his comic shticks to run away with his story. This not only establishes him as superior member of a certain class of contemporary Jewish novelists … who is so burdened by the weight of his past experience and the vulnerability of being human, that only the most outrageous clowning will serve to keep the pain at bay. It also enables Mr. Richler to keep in precarious balance the sort of outlandish situation comedy that explains why Joshua is wearing those lace panties at the beginning, and the tragic family situation that has caused his wife to have a nervous breakdown.
How does Mr. Richler manage this balance? Simply by scrambling Joshua's past into so many brief scenes that no single mood or character (except Joshua, of course) is ever permitted to dominate the novel. Yet the dozens of scenes skipping back and forth in time are so skillfully interlocked that a reader never loses track or interest. (pp....
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Mordecai Richler's latest novel, Joshua Then and Now, is, in spite of the vengeance, meanness, envy, hatred, mindless japery and cruelty that trouble its pages, a love story—often oxygen-deprived, harsh, battering, but, nevertheless, a love story, even, in a way, a happy-ending fairy tale…. (p. 58)
Jack Ludwig, "Keeping a Sheet on Everybody: The New Richler Novel" (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 95, No. 5, June, 1980, pp. 58-9.
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[Joshua Then and Now] is a very funny and often wrenching book,… [a] clamorous, bumpily comic chronicle….
Richler crowds his hero's long voyage with as many colorful folk as on any ship of fools…. [He depicts] a world's worth of people who spend their passions raking at each other with the sharpened claws of class and religion and race even as they grapple to get into each other's pants.
Joshua would seem to have made good in all this welter. Look at his faithful but still full-blooded marriage, his solidly successful career. Look at how every five pages he's telling someone off to his or her face. Look how well scornful Joshua knows the score…. (p. 36)
So why, then, does the book open in the present with this 47-year-old Joshua a rumple of fractures in a hospital bed, his name unfairly linked to a scandalous faggotry, his wife doped groggy in a nuthouse and he himself being watched over by his two elderly fathers, not Mr. Cocksure anymore at all?
The reason, as Joshua Then and Now fleshes out, is Time. That cruelest of fathers is committing physical violence on Joshua's dearest friends (and crucial enemies) and performing such devious mental assaults as transforming the land of the Spanish Civil War (life-long symbol for Joshua of old-fashioned, manhood-making right and wrong) into a tourist schlockarama, where Communist functionaries sit leafing through...
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The first time Joshua Shapiro [of Joshua Then and Now] and his prospective father-in-law, Senator Stephen Andrew Hornby, meet, neither wastes time on preliminaries. (p. 30)
In this contentious encounter between Joshua and the senator you have the book's major themes in miniature: Jewish cheek pitted against Anglo-Canadian snobbery; the special asperity that passes between two cultures that recognize and fear in each other the stubbornness and drive that they cherish in themselves; and the refusal of the modern Jew, who is no longer deterred by pogroms and legal disabilities, to knuckle under. (pp. 30-1)
What is not yet apparent in this fierce testing of wills is that it is the first step toward the eventual reconciliation of both men on grounds entirely congenial to both. Joshua's marriage to Pauline Hornby fulfills not only St. Urbain Street's dream of the mansions of Outremont, but also Anglo Canada's dream of the ghetto Jew….
As Richler portrays the social drama of Jewish enterprise and success, the Jew muscles in or marries in (the daughter being the soft spot in Anglo cultural armor) only to learn that, not only was it easy, but the conquered province is not so strange a place: its inner values—striving, achievement, competitive superiority—are much like his own, if not so desperately enacted, while its visible cultural practices—the golf, the drinking, the snobbery—are readily...
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Joshua Shapiro [of Joshua Then and Now] is Mordecai Richler's irresistible incarnation of the Wandering Jew, returned to Canada after two decades of scouring the planet for his inheritance, "any inheritance, weightier than the construction of a transcontinental railway, a reputation for honest trading, good skiing conditions." A TV celebrity and sportswriter whose fame inspires envy and anger in many of his overachieving buddies from the shtetl of St. Urbain Street in Montreal, Shapiro is nonetheless up against it. He's in the hospital with multiple fractures, his wonderful goyisheh wife is on the lam, his "homosexual" correspondence has been leaked to the press, and he is being hounded by reporters anxious to show that this media heavy is light in the loafers. Shapiro is a familiar Jewish type, a man in the vanguard of suffering. Oy vay, does he have problems. But give him 435 pages and all will be explained.
Joshua then, and now, has an appetite for vindictive triumph. Richler never writes better than when Joshua, in his role as Jewish avenger, is allowed to "glow with ill will." Life has betrayed his early political idealism; the only great cause left is getting his tuchis off the table….
Richler writes funny. Laughter, not chicken soup, is the real Jewish penicillin, doing shtick while waiting for the coronary. Richler's characters enter as philosophers and exit as stand-up...
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Thomas R. Edwards
In a volume of his essays, Mordecai Richler once quoted with relish a question he was asked after lecturing to a Jewish audience in his native Canada: "Why is it that everybody loved Sholem Aleichem, but we all hate you?" He went on to suggest that his writing infuriates not only Jews but Canadians of all races and creeds because he writes with "a certain skepticism, a tendency to deflate," exactly what's needed, he felt, to discipline those given to anxious special pleading.
Another explanation would be that Mordecai Richler loves to be hated, that he's a temperamentally ill-natured writer whose art, as essayist or novelist, consists of being as offensive as possible to everyone who comes his way. In this view, he was doubly lucky in his birth, having been given both Canadians and Jews, with their richly varied sensitivities, to push around.
Mr. Richler's new novel, "Joshua Then and Now," will win him few new friends, gentile or Jew, north of the border, and it will sound familiar to readers of his other fiction, where the figure of a humbly-born Jewish-Canadian with creative talents or aspirations and a hearty contempt for both his natal cultures, is more or less standard….
Mr. Richler's imagination seems not to be strongly engaged by the upper-class melodrama Joshua disapprovingly but helplessly witnesses—Fitzgerald and even O'Hara did this sort of thing so much better, long ago. "Joshua Then...
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We must separate the writer from his or her fictional hero. This is a first rule of literary judgment. Joshua Shapiro is the hero. He is a writer….
Joshua did become famous as a star of personality on Canadian television, for which he had contempt. "Anybody good on camera was an abomination to him, yet he owed his reputation to television."
Mordecai Richler, on the other hand, according to his publisher, "is generally considered Canada's most important writer…." All right, now I am clear that Joshua Shapiro cannot be Richler, and I am glad. Here is a book in which viewpoint is so perfectly rendered, so exquisitely pure, that the author successfully places himself at an invisible distance.
This leaves Joshua exposed, and the trouble may be that it's Joshua I don't like. I find it difficult to root for him. I don't like him. He is one of those people who reviews books to slam writers—"scabrous reviews, outbidding everybody in invective."…
Writers like Joshua lose their moral grasp. The pranks of boyhood are crimes when men commit them. Joshua instructs his friend Murdoch how to live on nonexistent credit. The passage is amusing if you find it so, and there are others, for Richler at his best is sprightly, crisp, crackling, good at cataloguing things.
When the pranks of boyhood bear consequences in the mature (anyhow later) years I become sick inside watching...
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[Joshua Then and Now] is intermittently wonderful but it is told in such a way that it is occasionally short-circuited. Between the beginning, where he is recuperating from an accident—"You're lucky to be alive," says the doctor. "I'll be the judge of that," thinks Joshua—to the reasonably hopeful ending, he contemplates his entire life, but not sequentially. The nervous bits and pieces collide to constitute too intricate and deliberate a puzzle. The freewheeling energy that is Mordecai Richler's style and the overplotting—particularly in the Ibiza sections—are at odds with each other. (p. 22)
Nora Magid, "What Happened to Everybody?" in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 1, July 5, 1980, pp. 22-4.
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Of course, Joshua's [racist] outbursts can be explained away as the spasms of a mind twisted with jealous rage, but they're still coarse, particularly in a novel which prides itself on its heart-bruised Jewish sensitivity. Besides: even in calmer moments, Joshua acts as if all blacks make their homes in the trees….
A slapstick farce, Joshua Then and Now shuttles back and forth in time, tracing Joshua's bunged-up life from his boy-hood in a St. Urbain cold-water flat to his misadventures in London bedsitting rooms and Hollywood bungalows. It's a book full of pranks, excursions, roguish couplings, and smutty wisecracks, but the look!-we've-come-through exuberance of Richler's earlier work is sadly missing. As Joshua rattles from decade to decade the novel turns into a male-menopausal moan, a lament for lost energy and idealism in a tone of intellectual condescension and racist rancor. Richler scores easily (too easily) off New Statesman radicals and Hollywood liberals, scattering these pseuds like pins into the gutter. Swept into the gutter with them are the objects of radical-chic agitation: Third World blacks….
The comedy of Richler's previous novels is based on a cunning understanding of the sneaky motives of flunkies and upstarts. Perhaps his most brilliant set-piece is the chapter in St. Urbain's Horseman describing a Sunday morning softball game on London's Hampstead Heath, played by a...
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