Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 185)
Mordecai Richler 1931-2001
Canadian novelist, essayist, critic, screenwriter, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Richler's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 5, 9, 13, 18, 46, and 70.
One of the most prominent figures in contemporary Canadian literature, Richler was best known for his darkly humorous novels in which he examines such diverse topics as Canadian society, Jewish culture, Quebec nationalism, the adverse effects of materialism, and relationships between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds. A skilled and unrelenting satirist, Richler left Canada at the age of twenty, living as an expatriate in Europe for more than twenty years. However, a large majority of his fiction is set within the Jewish section of Montreal where he was raised, exploring the characteristics that define Jewish and Canadian self-identity. The typical Richler protagonist is an alienated, morally disillusioned individual who finds stability and inner-knowledge difficult to attain. Though known primarily for his novels, in his later years, Richler's critical works attracted considerable attention—his essay collection Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country (1992) inspired a virulent national debate in Canada regarding the self-sovereignty of Quebec.
Richler was born in Montreal, Quebec, on January 27, 1931. He was raised in a community dominated by the first large wave of Jewish immigrants to settle in Canada, those who fled from Russia during the massacres that followed the Russo-Japanese War. Though he received a traditional Jewish upbringing, Richler abandoned his family's orthodox customs in his teens. Richler entered Sir George Williams University in 1949, but dropped out two years later, citing the belief that academia would distort and exhaust his creativity. In 1951 Richler left Canada and sailed to Liverpool, England. He worked as a freelance writer in Paris from 1952 to 1953, returning briefly to Montreal in 1952. After the publication of his first novel, The Acrobats (1954), Richler settled in England, where he would live until 1972. During this period, Richler continued to compose essays and novels which focused largely on his Jewish and Canadian heritage. In 1960 he married Florence Wood, with whom he had five children. He returned to Sir George Williams University to serve as a writer-in-residence from 1968 to 1979 and edited an anthology of Canadian fiction, Canadian Writing Today, in 1970. In 1972 Richler moved back to Montreal permanently, writing extensively about Canadian politics and culture, particularly the Quebec separatist movement during the 1990s. His vocal criticism of often-taboo political issues made Richler a Canadian national celebrity, frequently appearing in magazines and on television. Throughout his career, Richler has been awarded numerous honors, including the Governor General's Literary Award for Cocksure (1968), Hunting Tiger under Glass: Essays and Reports (1969), and St. Urbain's Horseman (1971). He was nominated for an Academy Award and the Screenwriters Guild of America award for his screenplay adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for his children's book Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975). Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) received the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1990, and Barney's Version (1997) was awarded the Giller Prize in 1997. Richler died of complications from cancer on July 3, 2001, in Montreal.
Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, is devoid of the humor prevalent throughout his later works. Set in post-World War II Spain, the book recounts the experiences of André Bennett, a young Canadian expatriate trying to overcome his guilt caused by the suicide of his pregnant Jewish girlfriend in Montreal. Richler's next two novels, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) and A Choice of Enemies (1957), evidence a progression toward a more satirically humorous tone. In Son of a Smaller Hero, Richler recreates the Jewish community of his childhood, chronicling Noah Adler's attempts to liberate himself from the religious, economic, and familial pressures of his past. As the novel ends, Noah departs for Europe, still searching for a sense of personal identity. Richler's stark, unsympathetic depiction of Jewish culture in the novel drew charges of anti-Semitism, a reaction provoked by several of his subsequent works. A Choice of Enemies focuses on Norman Price, who, like many of Richler's protagonists, is faced with a moral dilemma. Living in London with a group of American and Canadian expatriate artists, Norman must ally himself either with his bohemian friends or with a young communist whom the expatriates ostracize. Norman eventually realizes that both options are undesirable.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz established Richler as a major literary figure and internationally recognized humorist. Frequently compared in theme and plot to Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, the novel chronicles Duddy Kravitz's rise from Montreal ghetto-dweller to prominent landowner. Although Duddy is driven by greed and his means of acquiring land are ruthless and exploitative, Richler depicts the surrounding Montreal society as equally immoral. Richler followed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with two caustic satires—The Incomparable Atuk (1963) and Cocksure. In The Incomparable Atuk, Richler derides the materialistic values of contemporary society through the experiences of an Innuit poet who achieves wealth and popularity when his work appears in a series of Canadian advertisements. Cocksure, a black comedy that ridicules popular culture and the entertainment industry, details an unscrupulous movie mogul's takeover of a British publishing company. Several Canadian and British booksellers refused to carry Cocksure, claiming that certain passages were overly graphic and offensive. In St. Urbain's Horseman, Richler returns to the less trenchant humor of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, detailing the life of Jake Hersh, an affluent man who believes that his success is largely unmerited. To relieve his sense of disillusionment and remorse, Jake fantasizes that his cousin Joey is the Horseman, a fictional heroic figure committed to fighting Jewish oppression. Richler's next novel, Joshua Then and Now (1980), is composed of extensive flashbacks describing the prominent events and personal crises in the life of Joshua Shapiro, a prominent Jewish-Canadian author. By depicting Joshua's marriage to an upper-class Gentile, Richler explores problems inherent in relationships between individuals of different upbringings and social positions. Reuben Shapiro, Joshua's smooth-talking father, is regarded as one of Richler's finest comic creations.
The winner of the 1990 Commonwealth Prize, Solomon Gursky Was Here chronicles more than one hundred years of Canadian history, documenting the Gursky family's rise to power and wealth. Utilizing flashbacks and a shifting narrative, Richler traces the Gursky lineage from Ephraim, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who was the only surviving member of an expedition searching for the Northwest Passage, to Bernard, the president of a liquor dynasty in modern Montreal. The narrator of the novel, Moses Berger, is a self-appointed biographer who becomes obsessed with the Gurskys and attempts to discredit their reputation as respectable community leaders. After investigating the mysterious disappearance of Solomon, one of Ephraim's sons, Berger becomes convinced that Solomon is still alive and has secretly participated in such monumental political schemes as the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, the Watergate burglary, and the Israeli raid on Entebbe. Berger, however, eventually abandons his work when he realizes his discoveries make him sound like a lunatic. Although Solomon Gursky Was Here is often viewed as a parody of the historical saga genre due to the mythic quality of its eccentric characters, the novel also explores the repercussions of greed, revenge, and betrayal. Richler's last novel, Barney's Version, is a fictional memoir of Barney Parnofsky, a Jewish writer living in Montreal. Narrated in the first person, Barney describes his three marriages, the founding of his television company (Totally Useless Productions), and his best friend's mysterious death, which Barney may have inadvertently caused. As the memoir progresses, the reader begins to recognize Barney as an unreliable narrator after he admits that he is prone to embellishments and may be developing Alzheimer's disease.
Among Richler's nonfiction works, a majority focus on his native country and his identity as a Canadian—though each book serves a distinctly different thematic purpose. Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (1984), for example, explores the defining elements of Canadian culture, addressing subjects from Canadian patriotism to ice hockey. In Richler's most controversial polemic work, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, Richler turns his attention to the problem of Quebec separatism, a delicate political issue in Canada. Richler's essays condemn the province of Quebec for rampant nationalism and a history of anti-Semitism. In response, the Quebec government denounced Richler as a racist and some government officials suggested banning the book. This Year in Jerusalem (1994) is primarily concerned with examining Richler's identity as a Canadian Jew—a theme also present in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! The essays in This Year in Jerusalem blend Richler's remembrances of growing up in the Montreal Jewish community with descriptions of his visits to Israel, where he questions some Western Jews' decision to emigrate to the Zionist state. Richler's final two essay collections, Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2001) and On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It (2001) recount the author's reflections on such sports as ice hockey, fishing, bodybuilding, and pocket billiards.
Though sometimes faulted for excessive vulgarity, throughout his career, Richler has developed a reputation as one of the most skilled humorists of twentieth-century fiction. Critics have consistently lauded Richler's ability to create comedy within family situations and his barbed satiric perspective on modern culture. However, several members of the Canadian-Jewish community—frequent targets of Richler's comedic vision—have condemned the author's works as degrading and anti-Semitic. Commentators have debated these assertions with some arguing that it is impossible for Richler to be truly anti-Semitic—being that he is Jewish himself—and noting that Richler's parodies are inspired by his personal life rather than a critical agenda. Rachel Feldhay Brenner has commented that his biting social commentary polarizes audiences, noting that “Richler's vacillations and his ambivalent world picture point to his inability to establish a true bond with either Jewish community or the Gentile society.” Out of Richler's collections of essays and criticism, none have attracted the attention of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, which has both been praised and reviled in Richler's native Canada. While a number of reviewers have viewed the work as a frank and engaging look at the history of Quebec politics, others have lambasted Richler's essays as prejudiced, bigoted, and inflammatory. Some critics who agreed with the dominant themes in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! have argued that the collection's bitter and rancorous tone makes it difficult to support the author's admittedly intelligent insights. Overall, despite the controversy surrounding his work, scholars have continued to regard Richler as one of the defining Canadian authors of the past century.
The Acrobats (novel) 1954
Son of a Smaller Hero (novel) 1955
A Choice of Enemies (novel) 1957
Insomnia Is Good for You [with Lewis Greifer] (screenplay) 1957
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (novel) 1959
The Incomparable Atuk (novel) 1963; also published as Stick Your Neck Out, 1963
Cocksure (novel) 1968
Hunting Tiger under Glass: Essays and Reports (essays) 1969
The Street: Stories (short stories) 1969
Canadian Writing Today [editor] (short stories) 1970
St. Urbain's Horseman (novel) 1971
Shovelling Trouble (essays) 1972
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [with Lionel Chetwynd] (screenplay) 1974
Notes on Endangered Species and Others (essays) 1974
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang [illustrations by Fritz Wegner] (juvenilia) 1975
Fun with Dick and Jane [with David Giler and Jerry Belson] (screenplay) 1977
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays (essays) 1978
Joshua Then and Now (novel) 1980
Duddy (play) 1984
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays) 1984...
(The entire section is 223 words.)
SOURCE: Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. “Mordecai Richler in the Context of Canadian Jewish Writers' Response to the Holocaust: A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Adele Wiseman.” In Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler's Writing, pp. 167-205. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
[In the following essay, Brenner compares Richler's dualistic representation of the Jewish response to the Holocaust in his fiction and nonfiction with the works of A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Adele Wiseman.]
Mordecai Richler's representation of the Jewish response to the Holocaust in his fiction and his direct response in his non-novelistic writing vacillate between two opposing points of view. The Jewish individual moves between an obsessive aspiration to be assimilated into the Gentile world and a powerful need to confront the Gentile world with a straightforward accusation of terrible injustice committed against Jews. Paradoxically, he wishes to obliterate his Jewish identity by embracing the ideals of liberal humanism and, at the same time, experiences a powerful urge to assert his Jewishness and expose the hypocrisy of liberal ideals.
The dualism in the self-contradictory attitude of the North American Jew towards the Gentile world as depicted in Richler's work is by no means an isolated phenomenon in Canadian Jewish literature. On the contrary,...
(The entire section is 16690 words.)
SOURCE: Fulford, Robert. “Canada, From Inside and Out.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 June 1992): 3, 9.
[In the following review, Fulford evaluates the controversy resulting from Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, calling the book “disorganized and rambling.”]
There are more French Canadians alive now than ever before, and they possess more wealth and power than at any point in the past; yet their politics is based on the profoundly held belief that they are in danger of disappearing into the fog of history like some preliterate tribe of the Amazon. They see themselves, all 6.2 million of them, succumbing to the demographic pressure of North America and slowly assimilating into the English-speaking majority.
This fearful view of the future animates Quebec separatism, which has kept Canada in a state of more or less permanent crisis for a generation and has made constitution-writing the county's major intellectual industry for as long as most young people can remember. The province of Quebec, where most French Canadians live, wants a new constitutional arrangement, one that will give much of the power now held by the Canadian government to the Quebec government, so that Quebec can do what is necessary to prevent French Canada from disappearing off the face of the earth.
The first rule of Canadian politics is that this issue must be...
(The entire section is 1410 words.)
SOURCE: Marin, Rick. “Maple Leaf Rag.” National Review 44, no. 13 (6 July 1992): 52-4.
[In the following review, Marin commends Richler's wit and cynicism in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country.]
I met my first Québecois language Nazi at a French immersion course in Cap Rouge, a hamlet outside Quebec City occupied that summer by high-school students from Canada's Anglophone provinces. Guy was the fascist Francophone's name, and whenever he heard one of us utter un mot anglais, he barked a rebuke and issued a demerit. Later, in 1980, I was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, “the Paris of Canada.” My French was as good as it had ever been, but there was one problem: every time I addressed a native in French, I was rebuffed in English, frequently pidgin, in return. It was a perverse game, all the more so given the recent outlawing of English on public signs, so that STOP became ARRET and stores such as Steinberg's were forced to shed their apostrophes. The Orwellian folly of Quebec's language laws was well under way.
Mordecai Richler—the Canadian novelist, sometime journalist, and full-time provocateur—has now joined in these linguistic civil wars. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country caused a garment-rending controversy in Canada and will, like so much news from the Great White North, be politely noted, then...
(The entire section is 789 words.)
SOURCE: Waller, Harold M. “The Folly of Independence.” New Leader 75, no. 9 (13 July 1992): 18-19.
[In the following favorable review, Waller provides a critical reading of the controversial subject matter of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, focusing on Richler's charges of anti-Semitism.]
Despite its proximity, Canada tends to be neglected in the United States. Of the Americans who do know it, probably few regard it as a funny place (although it has produced a fair share of comic talent). Mordecai Richler's highly controversial book, the subject of an abundance of newspaper articles and anguished outpourings in his native land, should go some distance toward changing the Canadian image. His observations brim with rich and biting wit. But the true humor of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! is intrinsic to the situation it describes: the evolution of nationalism since the election of the secessionist Parti Québécois in 1976.
One of Canada's premier writers, Richler points his sharp pen at Quebec's language laws, concentrating on the sillier aspects designed to ensure that the province's public face will be unmistakably French. He argues, essentially, that practices accepted today in Quebec, and even in other parts of Canada, would be deemed ridiculous by foreigners. His combination of anecdote and long essay is really a cri de coeur, an effort to...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)
SOURCE: Delany, Paul. “Vivre Comme Chien et Chat.” London Review of Books 14, no. 16 (20 August 1992): 12.
[In the following review, Delany contends that Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country presents several important insights but notes that “the case for Quebec nationalism needs to be answered more seriously and scrupulously than Richler cares to do.”]
The population of Québec is about seven million, all of them minorities. The Jews, for whom Mordecai Richler makes his complaint (though not only for them), are outnumbered by 11 to one in the English-speaking community. The English are outnumbered five to one by the French, but the French are outnumbered by three to one in Canada as a whole. In North America, finally, the Americans have Canadians outnumbered by a factor of ten.
Québec is thus a place where everyone can feel that they have a legitimate grievance, and even the same grievance as their opponents; and this is an endlessly irritable, though often amusing book that serves up every ethnic squabble of the past thirty years in Québec, in no particular order and with minimum energy wasted on possible solutions. Richler seems entirely comfortable with his own grumpiness, and the occasion it gives him to berate his French-speaking fellow citizens. At the end of his tirade, he vows that he loves Québec in spite of all, and intends to stay where he...
(The entire section is 2471 words.)
SOURCE: Linklater, Andro. “Your Tongue Shall Be Split.” Spectator 269, no. 8568 (26 September 1992): 44.
[In the following review, Linklater compliments Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country as an “impassioned” critique of Quebec's history and politics.]
Perched on top of stridently excitable Americans and shrilly excitable Mexicans, and heaven knows what other excitements below the belt in South America, Canada has always conjured up the sort of cerebral kindliness you associate with Anglican vicars. Perhaps it lacked a certain definition—Air Canada, after all, promises to fly you to ‘A Land of Possibilities’ rather than one of actualities—but you couldn't deny its goodness. There the Canadians were, keeping the peace in the blue bonnets of the United Nations, accepting refugees that others turned away, and tolerantly talking to each other in English and French. A model citizen among the nations of the earth, you would say.
The reality, according to Mordecai Richler [in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!,] is that Canada suffers from profound schizophrenia. Its public benignity is that of the vicar who topped Miss Scarlett in the conservatory with the lead pipe, and masks a rancorous self-hatred which may shortly destroy it. The division concerns language. On the one hand, there are the likes of the paranoid J. V. Andrews who termed the country's...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, Barry. Review of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, by Mordecai Richler. American Spectator 25, no. 12 (December 1992): 71-2.
[In the following review, Cooper argues that Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! is a useful study of Quebec nationalism and recent Canadian politics, commenting that Richler's criticisms are the “only appropriate response of a concerned citizen in a democracy.”]
Canadians are prey to many myths, but the most important of them is that what makes us truly, uniquely, profoundly etc. Canadian is Quebec. Two peoples, working in two languages, together, building on the northern half of the continent a more tolerant, more caring, more just nation than the U.S. Without Quebec, sing the full-throated chorus of Canadian intellectuals, we would simply be poor, cold, rust-belt Americans with a deep appreciation of hockey.
When the novelist Mordecai Richler attacked many of the underpinnings of that myth in an article in the New Yorker in September 1991, it was greeted in Canada—and especially in Quebec—with a tumult of incoherent anger. Richler drew attention to two dirty little secrets: the repressive language laws of Quebec and its history of anti-Semitism. Last spring he published it all over again as Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!—with footnotes, a bibliography, and a host of new details that have only increased the rage...
(The entire section is 973 words.)
SOURCE: Craniford, Ada. “Solomon Gursky Was Here: Fiction or Fact?” In Fiction and Fact in Mordecai Richler's Novels, pp. 115-35. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Craniford surveys the critical reaction to Solomon Gursky Was Here and investigates Richler's inspirations for the Gursky family. Craniford notes that the “most compelling quality of Richler's novel is the fact that it is based on and made out of other works of fact and fiction.”]
In Mordecai Richler's ninth novel [Solomon Gursky Was Here], the Gurskys are here there and everywhere. The book celebrates and parodies not only the Jewish contribution to world civilization and the underworld of crime, but also the central role of the artist as embroiderer of history and mythologizer of mankind. In this story, for the first time in Richler's writing, the teller and the tale are one.
Of all the book's reviewers only the aptly named Francine Prose—writing in The New York Times Book Review (8 April 1990, 7)—comes close to this view of the book:
If the Gurskys weren't present at the Creation, they haven't missed a trick since. (The novel is at once an extended joke about, and a homage to, the amateur historian in every Jewish family who can prove Columbus was Jewish and who knows what Abraham Lincoln and F. D. R....
(The entire section is 8027 words.)
SOURCE: Rieff, David. “A Special Relationship.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 44 (30 October 1994): 11.
[In the following review, Rieff commends Richler's complex and poignant characterizations in This Year in Jerusalem but faults the work for its excessive political commentary and cursory travel narrative.]
It seems that for the young Mordecai Richler, growing up Canadian and Jewish in Montreal in the 1940s, the three great consuming passions were baseball, girls and Zionism. He was raised, he writes, “in homes where the pushke, the blue-and-white coin-collection boxes for the Jewish National Fund to buy land in … Israel, squatted on the kitchen table.” But outside the closed immigrant world of his St. Urbain neighborhood, of Hebrew school and Yiddishkeit, another world beckoned—the secular, cosmopolitan one in which the adult Richler would choose to make his home and pursue the life of a writer.
But, as Richler makes clear in his appealing but curiously disjointed memoir cum polemic, This Year in Jerusalem, the Zionism of his youth remains alive in him still. If, unlike some of his boyhood friends, Richler chose not to emigrate to Israel, it is clear that he still wonders about the rightness of that decision. In a sense, This Year in Jerusalem is Richler's attempt to come to terms with what happened—not only to himself and to his...
(The entire section is 820 words.)
SOURCE: Kelly, J. B. “Holy Lands.” National Review 46, no. 24 (19 December 1994): 56-7.
[In the following review, Kelly criticizes the incoherent and disjointed structure of This Year in Jerusalem, labelling the book as “an exercise in self-justification.”]
It was only when I was halfway through reading Mordecai Richler's book [This Year in Jerusalem] that I began to understand why I was so uncomfortable with it: why its structure is all over the place, why its constituent parts hang so awkwardly together, and why the whole seems pervaded by an air of maudlin introspection. It is because in large measure it is an expiatory work, an exercise in self-justification. Mr. Richler has made two visits to Israel, the first in 1962, the second thirty years later, and he has been stung on both occasions by the contempt expressed by many of the Israelis he encountered for the Jews of the Diaspora, especially those of North America, for not having made aliyah (literally “going up,” i.e., migration) to Israel. Still smarting from the hurt, he has set out to demonstrate that one can be a good Jew, like himself, even though living outside Israel, as well as a stout upholder of Zionist ideals.
He begins his apologia pro vita sua with a lengthy reminiscence of his boyhood in Montreal during and after the Second World War, an account heavily embroidered with tales...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
SOURCE: Alexander, Edward. “Bad Trip.” Commentary 99, no. 1 (January 1995): 82-5.
[In the following review, Alexander offers a negative assessment of Richler's “lazy” intellectual tone in This Year in Jerusalem.]
Mordecai Richler first came to prominence by virtue of two novels set among the Jews of Montreal. The first, Son of a Smaller Hero (1959), recounts the struggle of its hero, Noah Adler, to free himself from the prejudices and limitations of the Jewish community; the second, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), later made into a movie, is a rags-to-riches story, formulaic but also satiric (it was reviled in some parts of the Jewish community). Since then Richler has written seven more novels, numerous screenplays, and, in 1992, a book (Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country) severely critical of the Quebec separatist movement.
As we learn from his latest book [This Year in Jerusalem], which is in part a memoir, Richler grew up in a Hasidic family in Montreal. He attended a traditional religious school but also became involved in the Labor Zionist youth movement called Habonim, not out of strong commitment to Zionism but, as he freely admits, in order to spite his pious grandfather and lay hands on girls broken loose from the bonds of piety. But those “hallelujah days of Habonim” (as he calls them here) were also a time...
(The entire section is 2050 words.)
SOURCE: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “Lingering Questions.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 January 1995): 4, 7.
[In the following review, Wheatcroft compares This Year in Jerusalem with Glenn Frankel's Beyond the Promised Land, calling them both “complementary and absorbing” books.]
Just 100 years ago, in late 1894, a French army officer of Jewish extraction was arrested, tried and falsely convicted of treason. The trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and his formal degradation on a barracks square in front of a mob that shouted “Death to the Jews!” was witnessed by the Paris correspondent of a Vienna newspaper. Months later, Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, his clarion call for resolving the apparently irresolvable “Jewish problem”: the misery of the poor Jews living in Eastern Europe under the czar, but also the false and humiliating—and, as the Dreyfus Affair suggested, precarious—position of supposedly emancipated Jews in the West.
Did Herzl really believe it would happen: that within little more than half a century—though only after the Jewish people had endured their most terrible catastrophe—a Jewish state really would be established on the ancient Land of Israel? It did happen, and by any standard, it was a most astonishing achievement. But, as the Greeks teach us, history is ironic, and consequences of events are unexpected and...
(The entire section is 1923 words.)
SOURCE: Ravvin, Norman. “What I'm Doing Here.” Canadian Literature 151 (winter 1996): 191-93.
[In the following review, Ravvin contrasts the portrayals of Jerusalem in This Year in Jerusalem and Bronwyn Drainie's My Jerusalem, commenting that Drainie's work is the more journalistic and objective of the two.]
Amos Oz has written of the “Jerusalem stillness which can be heard, if you listen for it, even in the noisiest street.” Like the famous Jerusalem light, it may take very sensitive instruments to pick up such sublime sensations. To most of us, Jerusalem is a fascinating enigma—constantly in the news, beloved of Jews, Arabs, evangelists and tourists—a daunting topic for any writer who struggles to record the city's daily life. In recent years, the pace of political change has rendered local wisdom obsolete with startling suddenness. “Wars and victories, inflation and censorship,” writes Oz, “Likud and Labor, Eurovision and the Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball team. El Al and the Histadrut are all like shifting sands. Here today and gone tomorrow. …”
Mordecai Richler and Bronwyn Drainie both made visits to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and produced very different accounts of what they saw. Like typical Canadians abroad they managed to cross paths halfway around the world. In This Year in Jerusalem, Richler describes a visit he and his wife paid to...
(The entire section is 1194 words.)
SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Larger than Life.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4927 (5 September 1997): 21.
[In the following review, Enright discusses Richler's characterization in Barney's Version and compliments the novel's lean narrative pace.]
[In Barney's Version] Terry McIver, a former friend and fellow Montrealer, is about to expose Barney Panofsky as a wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap and probably a murderer. In reply, and notwithstanding his lawyer's opinion that McIver isn't far wrong, Barney resolves to set out the true story of his “wasted life”. His entrepreneurial beginnings were humble: importing French cheese and olive oil into Canada, running an agency for Vespa scooters and flogging ancient Egyptian artefacts stolen from the Valley of the Kings. “I have my principles. I have never handled arms, drugs, or health foods.” When we meet him, he is sixty-seven, “reeking of decay and dashed hopes”, though living high on Totally Unnecessary Productions, a company making television series “sufficiently shlocky” to be syndicated all over.
Barney has had three wives. The first, nutty Clara, author of The Virago's Verse Book, killed herself (which wasn't really Barney's fault), and became a feminist icon; the next, invariably referred to as The Second Mrs Panofsky, is a bitch of barely believable proportions (to which he...
(The entire section is 819 words.)
SOURCE: King, Francis. “A Highly Amusing Shambles.” Spectator 279, no. 8827 (4 October 1997): 47-8.
[In the following review, King offers a mixed assessment of Barney's Version, arguing that “for all its defects, this unruly book about a thoroughly unruly life contains not a page without its laugh and not a paragraph without its smile.”]
The Canadian, Jewish narrator of this fictional memoir [Barney's Version], Barney Carnofsky, writing when he is beginning to show the first insidious symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, is, as he himself puts it, ‘a shrinking man with a cock that trickles’. A cynic, philanderer, boozer, adulterer, and possibly a murderer, he would be a totally odious character were it not for the sharpness of his intelligence, the breadth of his culture, and the cathartic ferocity of his hatred of pretension and humbug.
As a young man, in 1950, Barney withdrew from his Montreal bank the modest stash of money which he had earned as a waiter, and set off for Paris. Once there, he became, for a brief, exciting period, the friend of a number of expatriate writers and artists destined, unlike himself, for eventual fame. It is one of these writers who, by producing some 45 years later a scurrilous memoir, goads Barney—‘Terry's the spur, the splinter under my fingernail’—into embarking ‘on this shambles that is the true story of my wasted...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “‘Do Not Go Gently. …’” Maclean's 110, no. 41 (13 October 1997): 76.
[In the following positive review, Bemrose regards Richler's “bitter, ironic sense of mortality” as the central theme of Barney's Version.]
Across the land, Mordecai Richler's face is almost as famous as his books. The longish hair, usually collapsing around his ears. The sad-sack eyes. The big schnoz. The older he gets, the more he resembles Golda Meir. His readers love him, hate him, and often do both—not a bad measure of success for a satirist. He has poked fun at everything from vegetarians to Quebec's language police, and in one notorious magazine article he undertook to explain Canadians to Americans in terms that were less than flattering. He is also, of course, one of the country's leading novelists, the author of such books as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and St. Urbain's Horseman (1971). It is now eight years since the publication of his last novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here, long enough for his fans to think he might be preparing something really special. They will not be disappointed. Barney's Version, nominated for this year's Giller Prize, is a feast of nonstop storytelling, and arguably his funniest book yet.
Because of his prominent international profile—his books sell well abroad, he writes for Hollywood, and he spends...
(The entire section is 909 words.)
SOURCE: Schechner, Mark. “Commissar of the Contrary.” New Leader 80, no. 19 (29 December 1997): 30-1.
[In the following review, Schechner praises Richler for creating “a delectable, side-splitting comedy of humiliation” in Barney's Version.]
At his wedding—his second—Barney Panofsky confides to a friend, “I'm in love. For the first time in my life I am truly, seriously, irretrievably in love.” His wife of less than an hour overhears this and embraces him, “And so am I honey, and so am I.” But he was not speaking of her. He was speaking of a woman he had met minutes ago and is about to flee the wedding party to pursue—to persuade her that she, and not the Second Mrs. Panofsky, is the one who holds the key to his heart.
It is an extraordinary moment in one of the weirdest wedding scenes on literary record. Barney is marrying the Second Mrs. Panofsky—whom he never gives a name—out of a transient impulse toward respectability that he will sabotage with every waking breath. Even as he goes through the ceremony he is wishing he were at the Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens hockey team is playing for the Stanley Cup against Toronto. (It is 1959, and “les habitants” will go on to victory.) When Barney and his bride are pronounced man and wife, he kisses her “and made straight for the bar. ‘What's the score?’”
As a comic novelist with a...
(The entire section is 1797 words.)
SOURCE: McSweeney, Kerry. “Endgame Tap-Dancing.” Canadian Literature 159 (winter 1998): 188-90.
[In the following review, McSweeney offers a stylistic and thematic examination of Barney's Version.]
If old age is a shipwreck, as Charles de Gaulle claimed, then Barney Panofsky, the sixty-seven year old narrator of Mordecai Richler's latest novel, is already on the rocks. A successful producer of schlock (Canadian-financed films and Canadian television series), Barney's mid-1990s life consists of too much single-malt scotch and too many cigars, bar talk, channel surfing, health worries, and sour reflections on his wife of thirty years having left him, on the decline of Montreal and its hockey team, on friends and enemies, and on himself. Although not a writer, he is prompted by the mendacious memoir of a contemporary to set down his “version” of his adult life. The result is a rambling and digressive narrative—at one point he even calls it a “shambles”—that moves back and forth between past and present and is loosely divided into three parts, each named after one of his wives: the self-destructive poet Clara, one of Barney's expatriate circle in Paris in the early 1950s, who died of an overdose; his second wife, “an exemplar of that much-maligned phenomenon, the Jewish-American Princess,” who is much-maligned in Barney's recollections; and the lovely Miriam, the mother of his...
(The entire section is 912 words.)
SOURCE: Lichtenstein, Gene. “Memory Loss.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 6.
[In the following review, Lichtenstein discusses Richler's body of work and asserts that only the final section of Barney's Version lives up to the legacy of the author's oeuvre.]
When Mordecai Richler burst on the literary scene in 1960 with his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, there were cheers and hosannas from critics who had “discovered” him. No less a figure than Alfred Kazin pronounced: “It comes off brilliantly.”
Actually Duddy Kravitz was Richler's fourth novel, but the unknown Jewish writer from Montreal was still under 30. His occasional excesses—character spinning into caricature, farcical set pieces turning into digression—tended to be forgiven or ignored. The point was that he was funny in the biting, subversive manner of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth.
His outrageous comedic talent was directed primarily at middle-class and establishment Jews, perhaps not surprising given his own Jewish working-class background in Montreal. However, this created an extra-literary problem for some Jewish readers. In 1960, many North American Jews still felt the immediacy of the Holocaust. Their sense of guilt at having, had it so easy, while European Jewry was savaged and destroyed, made satire at their expense unacceptable....
(The entire section is 1107 words.)
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Boy Meets Girl in Montreal.” New Criterion 16, no. 6 (February 1998): 67.
[In the following review of Barney's Version, Steyn lauds Richler's caustic wit and vivid depiction of Montreal.]
The first time I met Mordecai Richler was through his son Noah, a BBC producer with whom I've worked a couple of times. Richler fils had invited me over to the family home in Quebec's Eastern Townships on the day after Christmas, when Richler père presides over a vast snooker tournament of family, friends, and locals. As things turned out, I could only manage the lowest score it's possible to get on a snooker table. But then most of the other fellows present were the sort who'd been loafing around pool halls since they were eight: carpenters, plumbers, snowplow operators …
In Britain and the Commonwealth, December 26 is known as Boxing Day, so called because it was the day when people would give Christmas boxes of small gifts and gratuities to their servants, local tradesmen, the deserving poor of the parish, etc. Because of the date, I vaguely assumed that Richler was filling his home with blue-collar types and ruddy peasants as some exquisitely condescending act of seasonal seigniorial munificence. After all, one of the most tiresome aspects of literary London is the way writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie—authors whose work is chiefly...
(The entire section is 2344 words.)
SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Pulling Down the Temple.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 4 (5 March 1998): 40-1.
[In the following review, Edwards explores the role of memory and truth in Barney's Version.]
“I dislike most people I have ever met,” says the leading character of the latest of Mordecai Richler's tales about smart, ambitious Jewish-Canadian men at war with their culture. Barney's Version is wildly comic, but as with most good satire those who make fun of others also mock themselves. Richler's anti-heroes suffer from a kind of Samson complex, as if compelled to pull down the temple even though they are inside it at the time. Barney's Version. Richler's tenth novel, is as usual almost universally offensive—to both French-and Anglo-Canadians, assimilated Jews, feminists, black activists, liberals, right-wingers, the ignorant young and their querulous elders, politicians, writers, and anyone else claiming special consideration, but it also contains some surprises.
Barney Panofsky calls his autobiographical narrative “the true story of my wasted life.” Now (like Richler) in his late sixties. Barney has plenty of money and the usual worries about heart, memory, and the urinary tract. He eats unwisely, indulges in too many malt whiskies and Cuban cigars, and despises not only the nameless multitudes whose folly outrages him but most of his acquaintances...
(The entire section is 2987 words.)
SOURCE: Dellandrea, Meredith. “Stumbling on Pride.” Essays on Canadian Writing 65 (fall 1998): 187-92.
[In the following review, Dellandrea regards Barney's Version as an unreliable memoir, praising Richler's examination of the “authority of autobiography and the reliability of academic truths.”]
With characteristic wit, Mordecai Richler explores the limits of knowing in Barney's Version. The novel is written as a memoir. It is Barney Panofsky's version of the truth, Barney says, “about me, my three wives, … the nature of my friendship with Boogie, and, of course, the scandal I will carry to my grave like a humpback” (1). However, as he recounts the details of his past and digresses into his opinions about hockey and Canadian politics, the unreliability of his memoir is foregrounded. Barney is a flawed and troubled man who desperately desires forgiveness from and reconciliation with his loved ones, but his stubbornness and dishonesty prevent it. His attempt to “come clean” with his family and friends is mired in deliberate edits, memory lapses, embellishments, and possibly even plagiarism. In Barney's Version, knowledge of the truth about one's self and one's past cannot be reached through autobiography. Pride inevitably gets in the way.
Barney's Version is structured as a memoir, but it is also part mystery novel. The scandal that Barney...
(The entire section is 2204 words.)
SOURCE: Richler, Mordecai, and Robyn Gillam. “Versions of the Truth.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists, edited by Beverley Daurio, pp. 141-52. Toronto, Ont.: Mercury Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Richler discusses Canadian politics and culture, the differences between Toronto and Montreal, and the main thematic concerns of Barney's Version.]
[Gillam]: Barney's Version plunges right in, in medias res, and there's this character who starts off with a diatribe against an enemy of his, and this is why he's writing the book, and then there's this incredible stream of reminiscences and all these tiresome little footnotes, and then the narrative starts, and he complains how everyone hates him and is trying to get even, and he doesn't seem like a very sympathetic character, but as we go through all the flashbacks and digressions and practical jokes, I felt that Barney was a very sympathetic character, and you begin to feel outrage that people think that Barney is a terrible person, and then I thought of the title and I thought, wait a minute, it's Barney's version, maybe he's making this up and he's really the awful person people say he is. Is this book about textual truth? Are you talking about a text as a truthful thing or a text as just somebody's version? Are you trying to make people think about truth?
[Richler]: That's a very...
(The entire section is 3292 words.)
SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 104-05.
[In the following review, Brzezinski offers a laudatory assessment of Barney's Version, noting Richler's “savage wit and precisely delivered irony.”]
Known in this country principally for the coming-of-age novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler is one of Canada's most prolific and best-known writers. This new novel [Barney's Version], brimming with savage wit and precisely delivered irony, can only add to his already established reputation as a master of serio-comic fiction. Barney Panofsky, now 67, his memory failing, sets out to correct what he regards as the mistakes, idiocies, and failings of friends, ex-wives, children, lovers, and everyone else he has ever encountered, by writing his own “version” of his life and its principal events. This “purging” would be merely tedious or bilious in the hands of a lesser writer, but Richler's wit, his impeccable sense of timing, and most of all Barney's essential decency and sophisticated intelligence make this an extraordinary and memorable book. Barney is in good company, joining Shakespeare's King Lear and Bellow's Moses Herzog in the panoply of unforgettably compelling men “raging against the dying of the light,” who spend their final days criticizing, ridiculing, and in general...
(The entire section is 312 words.)
SOURCE: Gorjup, Branko. Review of Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 149.
[In the following review, Gorjup contends that Barney's Version is “Richler's most remarkable accomplishment to date, the work of a great master who has come to understand the pitfalls of writing, the incompleteness of the text.”]
With the publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz almost four decades ago, Mordecai Richler created a new hero in Canadian literature. American critic Warren Tallman saw Richler's creation as a latter-day Huck Finn, possessing a consciousness begotten in the seedy jungles of North American cities on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. These cities—Montréal in Richler's case—were characterized by Tallman as demonic parodies of a peaceable kingdom, presided over by urban Calibans. It was perhaps for this reason that Duddy Kravitz, embodying the vulgarity, crudeness, and aggressiveness associated with the lonely, sharklike individualism that would not suffer any type of decorum or refinement, became for many Canadians synonymous with the American literary imagination, not the Canadian one. And yet most critics described his singularity not so much in terms of his rugged individualism but in terms of his extraordinary ability to see through the mask of pretense of other people as well as his own, to penetrate and...
(The entire section is 910 words.)
SOURCE: Robbeson, Angela. “Screening the Jury: Textual Strategy and Moral Response in Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman.” Critique 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 205-17.
[In the following essay, Robbeson analyzes the function of various textual strategies in St. Urbain's Horseman, contending that each strategy provokes a specific moral judgment.]
The theme of moral judgment that is implicit in Mordecai Richler's early novels is explicit in St. Urbain's Horseman. Unlike Noah Adler and Duddy Kravitz, Jake Hersh faces more than metaphorical conviction on figurative moral charges. He stands before judge and jury, family and friends, media and audience charged with indecent assault, possession of cannabis, and aiding and abetting sodomy. Significantly, readers are virtually excluded from the court proceedings: only on the last day of trial are they permitted unmediated access to the Old Bailey, and only at Jake's sentencing do they learn the specific charges laid against him. In contrast, readers are the silent jury to Jake's private inquiry into his life, an inner trial that unfolds in tandem with the official proceedings. Fragments of Jake's memory, knowledge, and imagination serve as documents and depositions admitted into evidence. Sifting through the testimony, readers are confounded by this defendant, who, as Arnold Davidson remarks, possess “discordant qualities—positive...
(The entire section is 6319 words.)
SOURCE: Wilson-Smith, Anthony. “Richler Remembered.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 18-19.
[In the following essay, Wilson-Smith offers a brief memorial overview of Richler's life and career.]
Say this, among many nice things, about Mordecai Richler: he knew how to have things both ways. Imagine how he might have portrayed, in one of his books, a wealthy, well-connected novelist with residences in the best part of Montreal's old Square Mile, a winter getaway around London's trendy Sloane Square and a summer refuge in that great wealthy Anglo-Quebec enclave, the Eastern Townships. Such a protagonist might have been a self-centred, utterly humourless WASP who made his living preying on others, or perhaps a tortured, self-mocking Jew, a parvenu amazed and uneasy at the success that had arrived at his door.
Instead, Richler lived just such a materially blessed life—and did so without any such apparent shortcomings or traumas. By the time he died last week at age 70 of complications from cancer, he had achieved success on the two fronts that, by any measure, matter most: he was an internationally acclaimed literary figure with 10 novels, three children's books and a vast collection of essays, journalistic reports and polemics behind him—and he had a happy home life with his wife of four decades, Florence, and his three sons and two daughters.
By his final...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)
SOURCE: Aubin, Benoit. “Mordecai Was Here.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 20-1.
[In the following essay, Aubin recounts his relationship with Richler and offers some reminiscences of Richler's life and career.]
Two different Mordecai Richlers passed away last week. CBC TV's The National opened its program on Tuesday with the death of a national icon and stayed with the story for several minutes; for Radio-Canada, the death of an important author came third in the lineup, after Slobodan Milosevic and Stockwell Day. The Montreal Gazette gave the news half of its front page, with a huge picture; La Presse mentioned the story on page 1, with just a few lines of text. The Prime Minister of Canada paid tribute to Richler; the premier of Quebec passed the buck to his culture minister.
English-Canadians had lost a hero; French-Canadians had lost a villain.
Richler's acerbic pen had gained him dedicated, and resentful, enemies the world over, of course, but, to this day, many Quebec francophones remain convinced Richler treated them viciously and unfairly.
Richler's relentless—and often hilarious—attacks on the pettiness and the narrow-mindedness of the province's hardline nationalists had two strikes against them. First, they were made in English and in influential international media such as The New Yorker, or...
(The entire section is 1216 words.)
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001.” New Criterion 20, no. 1 (September 2001): 123-28.
[In the following essay, Steyn characterizes Richler as a politically incorrect writer, placing him within the context of Canadian and Jewish authors.]
Mordecai Richler died on July 3, and within minutes of the announcement there was a stampede from the grand panjandrums of “CanLit” to conscript him posthumously into the ranks of “Canadian novelists.” Mordecai was a novelist who happened to be Canadian, which isn't quite the same thing, and he spent much of his life making gleeful digs about all the great writers who were, as he put it, “world famous in Canada.” Richler, by contrast, was world famous in, among other places, Italy, where his last novel, Barney's Version, is a best-seller in its seventh printing and hugely popular among a population not known as great novel-readers. The word “Richleriano” has become the accepted shorthand for “politically incorrect.”
Richler was certainly Richleriano. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, there's a scene set in the early Seventies in which one middle-aged character, forced to play host to a gay son and his lover, staggers drunk into the bathroom to check the pencil mark he's drawn on the jar of Vaseline. His wife is broken-hearted, he's filled with disgust. “It's not that I'm prejudiced against faggots, it's...
(The entire section is 3585 words.)
SOURCE: Bethune, Brian. “Sex and Contempt.” Maclean's 115, no. 25 (24 June 2002): 26.
[In the following review, Bethune debates the quality of Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, concluding that the work is “pretty good on its own merits and full of promise for the future.”]
In 1951 Mordecai Richler, 19 years old and burning with writerly ambition, left Montreal for a two-year stay in Paris and Spain. There he completed his first novel, The Acrobats, published in 1954 and long out of print. Now reissued by McClelland & Stewart, The Acrobats takes place in Valencia in 1951, during the Spanish city's famous spring fiesta. A large cast of characters somersault past—and into—one another: Jews and Gentiles, straights and gays, fascists and communists, impoverished Europeans and rich American tourists. In the midst of this madhouse—the Valencians are every bit as incendiary as the foreigners, nightly setting ablaze huge effigies stuffed with fireworks—is painter André Bennett. The scion of a wealthy Westmount family, he has fled abroad in search of expiation and something to believe in after the death of his Jewish lover during a botched abortion.
The Acrobats is very much a young man's novel, charged with sexuality, deliberately crafted to shock elders and full of withering contempt for their hypocritical world. That's never more clear than...
(The entire section is 548 words.)
Anderson, Jon. “Surveying Canada's Joys and Woes.” Chicago Tribune Books (7 June 1992): 4-5.
Anderson praises Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! and provides background on the political and cultural situation in Quebec.
Drabelle, Dennis. “Canada Now and Then.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 20 (17 May 1992): 9.
Drabelle asserts that Richler's insights in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! are “obscured by the rancor he vents.”
Hyde, Anthony. “Anatomy of Barney.” Canadian Forum 76, no. 866 (January-February 1998): 42-3.
Hyde regards the character of Barney Panofsky in Barney's Version as a gifted humorist.
Poliquin, Daniel. “St. Urbain's Prodigal Scold.” Maclean's 115, no. 25 (24 June 2002): 36-7.
Poliquin examines Richler's attitude towards Canada, particularly his hometown of Montreal.
Richler, Mordecai. “How I Became an Unknown with My First Novel.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 22-3.
Originally published in Maclean's in 1958, Richler details the difficulties he encountered while trying to publish and sell his first novel, The Acrobats.
Ritts, Morton. “Preoccupied with the Promised Land.” Maclean's 107, no. 37 (12 September...
(The entire section is 381 words.)