Mordecai Richler was born in a Jewish section of Montreal. His education at Jewish parochial schools reinforced his Jewish identity, and the French language that he spoke identified him as French Canadian. Richler would embrace neither identity comfortably.
He began writing seriously when he was fourteen. At about the same time, he rejected the family expectation that he become a rabbi and ceased his religious training. After high school, Richler attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal for two years, then grew restive and left for Paris in 1951 to join such other aspiring writers as Mavis Gallant and Terry Southern. The separation from his beginnings helped to sharpen the perspective on his heritage. He knew that escape from the past is impossible and even undesirable. After two years, an invitation to become writer-in-residence at his alma mater attracted him back to Montreal.
The Acrobats introduced concerns that would recur in much of Richler’s later fiction: the place of Jews in contemporary society, the need for values, and the exercise of personal responsibility. Deciding that he would make his living solely by writing, Richler moved to England, where his next six novels were published. Most of these novels revealed their author as a severe, often shocking critic of the Jewish ghetto (Son of a Smaller Hero), of Jewish greed and ruthlessness (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), of Canadian nationalism (The Incomparable Atuk), and of the North American entertainment industry (Cocksure). The writing often reflects a certain degree of ambivalence about the author’s ethnic identity, with the need to reject dominating the inclination to affirm.
When Richler returned to Canada—to “the roots of his discontent”—in 1972, his many years of “exile” in Europe had heightened his own sense of self as a Jewish Canadian writer. Richler did not always see himself as others saw him: abrasive, arrogant, and perverse. Richler has been described as an anti-Canadian Canadian and an anti-Semitic Jew. Richler saw himself as a moralist who wrote out of a sense of “disgust with things as they are,” who debunked the bankrupt values that characterize his culture and his ethnic community. His later books established him as a more evenhanded critic of Jewish and Canadian identity, one who affirmed the need for the bonds of family and community in an unstable, corrupt world.