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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263

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...

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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 children’s fiction; in 1976 he won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, for Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. In 1980, his first novel in nearly a decade, Joshua Then and Now appeared, featuring another protagonist who bears a strong resemblance to his author: Born in 1931 in a Jewish area of Montreal, Joshua learns more on the street than in Fletcher’s Field High School. He makes his living as a journalist in England, has adventures in Spain in 1952, marries a Canadian Gentile (with whom he has several children), and, resettled in Montreal, strives to preserve his domestic stability. While struggling to keep their home functioning while his wife is in the hospital with a nervous breakdown, Joshua takes to breaking into the homes of his now-affluent former schoolmates and conducting ingenious acts of revenge. The novel reflects the panic in Canada among rich English-speaking Montrealers following the sensational victory of the separatist party in the Quebec provincial election of 1976.

In the controversial Solomon Gursky Was Here, inspired by Canada’s wealthy Bronfman family, owners of Seagram’s, Richler developed a clever synthesis of Jewish, Canadian, and Eskimo myths to tell the tale of the dissolution of the Gursky family’s distillery fortune. The novel anticipated Richler’s increasing interest during his last decade in social and political commentary. Richler would become known for his vociferous stance against separatism and the movement to limit the use of English in public places in such books as Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, the publication of which elicited death threats against Richler. Always an avid traveler, Richler wrote many articles observing the evolving political problems of Great Britain, the United States, South Africa, and Israel as well as his native Canada. This Year in Jerusalem provides one of his least comic and most optimistic political observations. Here, Richler recalls his time in a Jewish youth organization, tracing the lives of several of his friends who emigrated to Israel and fought in various Israeli wars. Quoting one of his friends, Richler writes, “‘I will tell you openly, they have a right to a homeland as much as we do. I am for a Palestinian state. The only way to solve the problem.’”

Although Richler was a prolific writer of essays, screenplays, and reviews, he sought to make a lasting mark through his novels. The four he wrote in the 1950’s, culminating with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, depict a world in which acquisitiveness and expediency regularly succeed at the expense of affection and honesty. Nevertheless, their heroes maintain some integrity, flawed though it is, in Duddy particularly. Later, in The Incomparable Atuk and Cocksure, even more destructive forces are at work, but their depressing implications are modified by Richler’s comic inventiveness and satiric energy. Joshua Then and Now presents decent protagonists beset by contemporary decadence but emerging with confidence and hope renewed. Biting and wide-ranging in their satire, Richler’s major novels escape total pessimism by virtue of his humor. His final novel, Barney’s Version, exhibits Richler’s satire, with thinly veiled references to the Canadian social-political milieu, but with the emphasis on self-examination: First-person narrator Barney Panofsky, head of the television company Totally Useless Productions, contemplates his past life, his wives, his indulgences in wine and women, his deteorating sixty-seven-year-old body, and his mental lapses (footnotes set the reader straight along the way)—all while being accused of murder. Although characteristically outspoken, poignantly amusing, and at times hilariously entertaining, this final novel is anchored in a richly and subtly drawn character study—a fitting cap to Richler’s body of fiction. At his death in 2001, after a long bout with cancer, Richler was lionized as one of Canada’s first internationally recognized writers who expressed a Canadian voice and helped establish a distinctly Canadian identity.

Biography

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 164

Mordecai Richler was born on January 27, 1931, in the Jewish ghetto of east Montreal. His parents Moses and Lily made sure their son received a solid Jewish education first at United Talmud Torah and then at Baron Byng High School in Montreal. He attended Sir George Williams University from 1949 to 1951 but left school to work as a writer in London, England, and later worked briefly as a news editor for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. For almost twenty years he resided in London, publishing much of his work there. In 1972, Richler returned to Montreal, where he settled with his wife and children. For ten years Richler was a member of the editorial board of the Book-of-the-Month Club. After his return to Canada, he published works whose spiritual center was still Montreal, though their scope is broader. Otherwise, his writing was devoted to essays, articles, and reviews; many of these—funny, biting, and wearily resigned—were collected in his book Broadsides (1990). Richler died in Montreal on July 3, 2001

Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Mordecai Richler was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1931, in the heart of the Jewish ghetto. His father was a junk dealer and his mother was a housewife (in later years, she wrote a book about her life). Her father was a rabbi whose influence ensured an Orthodox household. By turning away from Orthodoxy at a young age, however, Richler ran into trouble at home, which perhaps accounts for some of his perceptive but acerbic reflections on family life. Further compounding his problems as a youth, his parents divorced when he was thirteen years old. As a response to the breakdown at home, Richler joined a Zionist labor group called Habonim and dreamed of settling in Palestine. Only later did he go to Israel as a journalist.

In his adolescent years, Richler attended Baron Byng High School, a predominantly Jewish school even though it was part of the Protestant school system. In his stories and novels it is transformed into Fletcher’s Field High School and peopled with characters known to Richler in his youth. After high school, Richler attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal (now Concordia University) because his high school grades were not good enough to gain him admittance to McGill University. Although he later returned to Sir George as writer-in-residence, the academic life did not appeal to him. He once remarked that “academe, like girls, whiskey, and literature, promised better than it paid.” Rejecting a life of scholarship, Richler decided on the uncertain life of a freelance writer in Europe, where he could develop his own style and not merely put a stamp of approval on someone else’s.

After living in Paris for two years, where he published his first story in a magazine called Points and got his first taste of expatriate life, Richler returned to Montreal. There he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Company for a short time, earning enough money to complete his first novel, The Acrobats. The novel aroused more attention in England than in Canada, which perhaps convinced him that the richer literary heritage there would fuel his talents. For the best part of twenty years, then, Richler lived in England, producing many novels, short stories, and film scripts.

Although Richler needed this geographical and cultural change to gain an ironic and critical distance in his work, he used his Canadian experience as the basis of his fiction; he once said that the first twenty years of a writer’s life determine the character of his writing and inform his imaginative vision. Even after many years in England, Richler never felt sufficiently integrated into English society to capture the essence of that particular culture. Feeling himself an outsider in England and cut off from the social context of Canada, Richler returned in 1972 to settle with his wife and five children in Montreal. He died there on July 3, 2001.

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