Although primarily a novelist, Mordecai Richler wrote in many forms, including essays, articles, screenplays, journalism, television plays, and children’s literature. Two of his novels, Cocksure: A Novel (1968) and St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), have won Canada’s foremost literary prize, the Governor-General’s Award. In 1997, he published the novel Barney’s Version.
Mordecai Richler’s achievements over the course of his writing career were considerable. He was awarded both a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in creative writing and a Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship. His literary awards include the President’s Medal for Nonfiction from the University of Western Ontario (1959), a humor prize from the Paris Review (1967), two Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction (1969 and 1972), the London Jewish Chronicle literature award (1972), a Book of the Year for Children Award from the Canadian Library Association and a Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award (both 1976), an H. H. Wingate award for fiction from the London Jewish Chronicle (1981), a Commonwealth Writers Prize (1990), the Giller Prize (1997), a Hugh MacLanna Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Prize (both 1998). The screenplay based on his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) earned him a Screenwriters Guild of America Award in 1974; the film itself garnered a Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1974.
After his return to Canada in 1972, after twenty years in England and continental Europe, his journalistic writing on Canada, widely published both in Canada and in the United States, has chronicled his crotchety love and growing sadness for the fate of Canada, his home and native land. His subjective, often savagely funny and derisive depictions of Canadian political and cultural life have made Americans in particular aware of a Canada they had never known or contemplated: his adroit skewering of Canadian pretensions has both entertained and enraged his Canadian readers. His later essays, which appeared regularly in major American and Canadian periodicals, concentrated with increasing vitriol on Quebec’s nationalist aspirations.
Perhaps his major achievement was the group of fictional works that explores so thoroughly and captures so vividly the lives and fractious spirit of Jewish-Canadian immigrants in a Montreal community now largely dispersed. As Richler said, “That was my time and my place, and I have elected myself to get it exactly right.”
As a professional writer, spurning academic life for wider creative possibilities, Mordecai Richler (RIHCH-lur) was known for producing short stories, essays, articles, film scripts, television plays, and children’s literature. Much of his work first appeared in prestigious magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, New Statesman, and Encounter. Some of his individual stories, many of which became chapters in his novels, have been collected in The Street: Stories (1969). A children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975), and two novels, Joshua Then and Now and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, have been adapted into motion pictures. The film version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, directed by Ted Kotcheff, received the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1974; in addition, Richler’s screenplay for the film was nominated for an Academy Award, and it won a Screenwriters Guild of America Award. The motion-picture adaptation of Joshua Then and Now, also directed by Kotcheff from a screenplay by Richler, was released in 1985.
Forsaking Canada for the more exciting atmosphere of Paris, Mordecai Richler struggled with his work and lived in poor circumstances, publishing very few stories. Here, however, he met some significant figures of the new literary set who reacted favorably to his work; among them were Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Gold, and Terry Southern. After returning to Canada for a short while, Richler finished his first novel, The Acrobats. As is often the case with Canadian writers, Richler preferred to publish outside his own country, where he felt more appreciated. His first effort was accepted by André Deutsch in London. In later years, with his reputation secure, he decided to publish with the Canadian publishing house McClelland & Stewart.
In order to make a living exclusively as a writer, Richler left Canada again. Still using his Canadian experience as the substance of his work, Richler was very productive in England, publishing stories and novels that met with much acclaim. Even his film scripts for No Love for Johnnie (1961), Young and Willing (1964), and Life at the Top (1965), which Richler considered inferior work for an often superficial medium, were positively reviewed. Richler twice won Canada’s foremost literary prize, the Governor-General’s Award, for Cocksure and St. Urbain’s Horseman. Although he achieved a certain notoriety for his searing portraits of Canadian life, he finally gained acceptance as one of Canada’s most distinguished novelists. In 2001, not long before his death, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
What is distinctively Canadian about Mordecai Richler’s fiction?
Richler’s Canadian characters often live in exile, usually in England. How do their exiles affect their views of themselves and their native country?
Many of Richler’s novels are about growing up. What does he seem to be saying about the pains and joys of adolescence?
Friendship is one of Richler’s most consistent themes. Compare how he examines friendship in two or more novels.
Like many male writers of his generation, Richler has been accused of failing to create completely realized female characters. Is this charge justified?
Many of Richler’s protagonists, Duddy Kravitz in particular, are not particularly likable. Why does Richler deliberately make it difficult to identify with such characters?
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, and Joshua Then and Now are said to form a trilogy, though they involve different characters. How are they alike thematically?
Arsenault, Michel. “Mordecai Richler Was Here.” World Press Review 37 (June, 1990): 74-75. A brief biographical sketch, noting how Richler satirized the experiences of the French, the Canadians, Jews, and women; contends that although Richler is often accused of presenting an extremely critical view of Canada, he believes it his right to do so.
Benson, Eugene, and William Toye, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998. Useful not only for general information on Richler but also for context, with a solid cross-index to related writers and literary movements in Canada.
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler’s Writings. New York: P. Lang, 1989. Examines the role of Jewishness in Richler’s writing and his portrayal of the Holocaust. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Came, Barry. “A Magical Craftsman.” Maclean’s 103 (December 31, 1990): 18-19. Discusses the universal appeal of Richler’s fiction; provides a biographical sketch, emphasizing his most famous works.
Craniford, Ada. Fiction and Fact in Mordecai Richler’s Novels. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 1992. A good study of Richler’s Jewishness and his identity as a Canadian. Includes a...
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