Mordecai Richler (RIHK-lur) was a major Canadian novelist who treated contemporary mores with a mixture of amusement and censure. One of two sons of Moses Isaac Richler and Lily (Rosenberg) Richler, he grew up in the area around St. Urbain’s Street, a milieu he frequently re-created in his novels and especially in his collection of stories, The Street. After loafing through Baron Byng High School (depicted as Fletcher’s Field in his fiction), he attended Sir George Williams College but withdrew in 1951. He spent most of the next twenty years abroad, at first living squalidly in Paris and then settling in London. Visits to Spain produced a fascination with that country that is manifested in several of his books. He was married twice, the first marriage ending in divorce and the second, in 1960, lasting until his death and producing five children.
His first novel, The Acrobats, is set in Valencia in April, 1951. This melodramatic novel, in places blatantly reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s novels about Spain, incorporates several motifs that recur in Richler’s work: alienated Jews, a sinister German, and a protagonist who feels trapped between the older generation, with its traditional values, and younger, iconoclastic rebels. Surprised at its success, Richler subsequently expressed a dislike for the book, though he continued to explore the themes he broached in it.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is Richler’s best-known novel, and it was made into a successful film. After rendering life miserable for the teachers at Fletcher’s Field High School, Duddy lands a hotel job at a summer resort area north of Montreal (as Richler did). A sympathetic chambermaid, Yvette, shows him an unspoiled lake which, following his grandfather’s dictum that a man without land is nothing, Duddy vows to own, in spite of the anti-Semitism of the surrounding French Canadian farmers. His despicable treatment of the innocent epileptic who is driving a truck for him so disgusts Yvette that she ceases to help him and reveals his dishonesty to his grandfather. Thus, when Duddy shows his family the lake he has finally acquired, his grandfather is not impressed and Duddy’s triumph is diminished. Moral ambiguity is central to Duddy’s character. On one hand, he brazenly and ruthlessly exploits and betrays those who help him; on the other hand, he does rescue his brother from a dire predicament and gives compassionate help to a dying uncle. Similarly, Richler satirizes both Jews and Gentiles, often in amusing episodes.
Humor was to become increasingly prominent in Richler’s work in the 1960’s. Apparently inspired by the author’s temporary return to and dealings with the Canadian media, The Incomparable Atuk uses the rise and spectacular fall of an Eskimo poet-turned-entrepreneur to satirize all kinds of current fads and phenomena. Richler especially mocks the kind of Canadian nationalism that expresses itself in strident anti-Americanism and the kinds of Jewishness that either proclaim the superiority of all things Jewish or ostentatiously pursue assimilation into the Gentile world. Satire and exaggeration are taken even further in Cocksure. Its protagonist is Mortimer Griffin, a Canadian blueblood who won the Victoria Cross during World War II. The novel contains several brilliant and hilarious episodes satirizing progressive education, the sadism of egocentric television interviewers, and the duplicity of documentary filmmakers. Praised by Anthony Burgess and other judicious critics, the novel was criticized by some for its hero, who embodies no positive alternatives to the evils he attacks. It nevertheless won Canada’s coveted Governor-General’s Award, as did St. Urbain’s Horseman a few years later.
Having returned in 1971 to Montreal, Richler produced a large and varied body of work, writing for television, film (his adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz won an Academy Award nomination in 1975), humor, social criticism, and...
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