Joshua Then and Now by Mordecai Richler

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The only son of Reuben, a former boxer who works for a gangster, and Esther, an exotic dancer performing as Esty Blossom, Joshua Shapiro has a chip on his shoulder about being Jewish, Canadian, and poor. Obsessed with the Spanish Civil War, the subject of his first book, Joshua feels he has been left out of life’s great adventures, its noble causes, and strives to make up for this lack by becoming rich and famous as a journalist and television personality in England and Canada. More than in most of his fiction, Richler presents a nonlinear narrative as forty-seven-year-old Joshua, hospitalized with multiple fractures, looks back at his life and the choices he and those close to him have made. The novel constantly jumps back and forth in time and place (Montreal, London, Paris, Hollywood, Spain) to suggest the chaotic, peripatetic nature of its protagonist’s life.

As a young man, Joshua falls desperately in love with Pauline Hornby, the well-to-do daughter of a Canadian senator. A few years later in London, he begins an affair with the married Pauline and eventually marries her. Marriage, fatherhood, and a successful career fail to provide the happiness Joshua desires. He never feels worthy of Pauline, always placing obstacles between them, and constantly fears losing her. He is ambivalent about everything in his life, especially his celebrity because he dislikes television and those who shine in the medium.

Joshua also dislikes Jack Trimble, a successful investor who pretends to be English, and resists the advances of Jack’s sexy wife, Jane, Pauline’s best friend. He also feels jealous of Pauline’s flamboyant, athletic, ne’er-do-well brother, Kevin, with whom she appears to have an almost incestuous relationship. Jack’s hiring Kevin creates even more tension in Joshua’s life.

There are repeated flashbacks to Joshua’s visit to Ibiza in the early 1950’s, as he seeks the remains of the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War and finds much more than he expected in the arms of a beautiful, libidinous French tourist. A return to the same spot years later finds the place, like Joshua, much changed, without its seedy glamour.

For the friends with whom he grows up in the St. Urbain neighborhood, Joshua is never a famous, influential personality but the boy whose mother performed a striptease at the party following his Bar Mitzvah. Joshua and his friends, who hold a boisterous annual reunion, remain united by their Jewishness and their amused tolerance for the eccentricities of their fellow Canadians.

Joshua’s best friend, from his London days in the 1950’s, is the English novelist Sidney Murdoch. As a prank when they are young men, they compose letters to each other posing as homosexual lovers. When these letters come to light after Murdoch’s death, Joshua’s...

(The entire section is 673 words.)