Mordecai Richler Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 3) - Essay

Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richler, Mordecai 1931–

Richler, a Canadian novelist and journalist, employs in his fiction a Swiftian blend of burlesque, satire, and vulgarity.

People who have never before read a word by Mordecai Richler will no doubt discover in St. Urbain's Horseman a splendid novel; indeed, they may see it with a special clarity denied the rest of us. But only those who have followed Richler's work for a decade or more will be able to appreciate the achievement it is. For St. Urbain's Horseman is the triumphant and miraculous bringing-to-gether of all those varied Mordecai Richlers who have so densely populated our literary landscape for so many years. From this perspective it becomes clear that all those Richlers have had a clear purpose in mind—they've all been out there, working separately, honing their talents, waiting for the moment when they could arrive at the same place and join up in the creation of a magnificent tour de force, the best Canadian book in a long time.

Richler the satirist is here, of course, and so is Richler the traditional storytelling novelist, and of course Richler the journalist. And the various sub-Richlers—the self-doubting liberal, the Jew-who-dares-criticize-Jews, the Canadian who was never sure whether he loved Canada or hated it, the "loser's advocate" (Richler's phrase) who, a winner himself, felt he always had to present the other winners as villains and the losers as objects of comic sympathy. They are joined by some new Richlers—for instance, there is now a writer who can describe with unsentimental clarity something extremely rare in modern fiction, a happy marriage. And there is something even more important, a writer who can sharply define the madness-behind-the-blandness of us all, a writer who can turn private fantasies of guilt and retribution into a redeeming work of art….

All of Richler's work has autobiographical aspects, but St. Urbain's Horseman is close to being confession. Quite aside from the similarities in Jake's and Richler's life situations, there is the clear congruence of Jake's and Richler's views, their joint set of beliefs and anti-beliefs, their combined grievances. As Richler in his journalism has confessed to concern about growing old while simultaneously noticing the familiarly comic spectacle he thus presents, so Jake ruefully recognizes, with a shudder, approaching middle age and decay. As Richler, speaking for himself, has frequently confessed to both leftist views and an abhorrence for the rhetoric of the left, so Jake worries himself into a position which has been abandoned by all the most eloquent public spokesmen for everything: liberalism. He sees it partly as a problem of his generation, those [who] are around forty now….

But to suggest that St. Urbain's Horseman is no more than a presentation of Richler's personal world view, along with some of his more interesting experiences, would be to slight the book grievously. For this time Richler has pushed far beyond anecdote and opinion, into the denser, more rewarding world of fantasy rooted in experience. His book conveys memorably the physical and personal world of Jake's observable life, but more importantly it moves into his inner world; there it describes, unforgettably, some of the essence of what it is to be human at this moment in history.

Robert Fulford, "All the Mordecais, Together at Last," in Saturday Night, June, 1971, pp. 25-6.

For an older generation of writers in Canada, young Mordecai Richler must have seemed rather markedly a wild one in much the same way as the older Irving Layton and younger Leonard Cohen seemed also wild—then. And so he was—then. His brash, wrong-side-of-the-tracks writing rushes make the more considered styles of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callahan seem almost elegiac. But time plays funny tricks, and in our speeded-up world doesn't wait around very long before playing them. To a newer generation of writers it's doubtless Richler's prose that seems elegiac, inviting comparison, not forward to the much more open, freely improvisational modes in which they work, but back to modes they have all but abandoned. This isn't enmity, a new wave of artists who would like to see Richler's ship sink. Surely, no serious writer or reader can fail to appreciate the magnitude of his attempt to create a symphonic novel [St. Urbain's Horseman], the four movements, the many themes that weave congruently through the entire work, the animated writing with which he attempts to achieve a comic triumph of spirit over some grim modern realities. But respect it as they may, it will doubtless be precisely the imposed superstructure from which a good many younger artists will flinch as being an unnecessary burden for any writer to carry on his bent and straining back. Heavy, heavy often does hang over his typewriter….

Few readers are likely to object to bathroom humour per se—shades of Swift, Rabelais, Henry Miller, the human race generally, half the jokes we tell. Or to a demolition job on English uppah claws ridiculousness. In art there are always rooms to spare, including those furnished with hostility à la Freud insights into wit and laughter. Burlesque, by which the enemy is turned into a caricature of himself, has always been a favourite style for such furnishings. Richler's characteristic enemies are establishment people, the mad hatters at the top of the social heap, the insufferable ways in which they lord it shabbily over the rest of us. With lowlife vulgarity he is very much at ease. The true vulgar leads after all to the vulgate, that common tongue which the artist can then subtilize, humanize, liberate, a natural stamping ground for the comic spirit. But the highlife vulgarity of establishment people … destroys subtlety, humanity and freedom by revelling in the shoddy, the banal, the pretentious. So the hostility that Richler feels does him credit. Nor can there be any objection to the burlesque masks he assumes in order to project that hostility; vengeance is mine saith the artist, slyly. It's the writing itself that poses the difficulty, the ways in which it tightens into a forced hilarity and loses comic resonance. This is very much like those evening gatherings at which people, laughing hysterically, demolish some common enemy. Played back the next morning, with all the giggles gone, the exchanges are likely to be singularly unfunny….

The difficulty may be a double one. It takes a good hater to write successful burlesque, one able to revel in a happiness of malice made sweet. William Burroughs for instance—his savage joy. Richler never seems quite able to revel. Like his protagonist, Jake, he is perhaps too forgiving, gentle. Thus one of the funniest passages in St. Urbain's Horseman, the middle-aged film makers' softball game on Hampstead Heath, is no burlesque at all, but delicious roly-poly slapstick….

It will be to Richler's everlasting credit, since works of art endure, that he does dare to imitate Swift, in more than a few ways. Gulliver's Travels was the first English novel to take advantage of symphonic form, inadvertently since the form itself was only just coming into being. In Gulliver there are the four lively movements, liveliest of all being the third, a swirling prose scherzo, all over the geographical and thematic place. And the fourth movement, in Houyhnhnmland, recapitulates and resolves the themes woven into the first three. Which is a way of saying that St. Urbain's Horseman is Gulliver come round again. Most of the writing devices Richler uses have sanction, in that Swift also used them. Just as Swift laces burlesque passages through Gulliver, Richler laces them through Horseman. Just as Richler intrudes expository asides into his narrative, Swift intrudes even more of them into his: passages concerning law, education, family life, written in over Lemuel's shoulder. And both writers hold to the crucial rule that, as their scepticism cuts the ground from beneath their protagonists' feet, redemption will occur not in pronouncements but in the act, the art of writing. If the human spirit is to prevail over the grimness of things, it will prevail in the interstices of the words themselves: "there is a music at the heart of things."

And there is another decisive similarity, though it leads to an even more decisive difference. Both novelists choose as protagonist a fool whom they then trap into experiences which will reveal and, they hope, cure the foolishness. Gulliver doesn't seem exactly cured at the last, since he's mad enough to believe that he's almost a horse and likes it that way—farewell mankind! Yet he's an awfully human horse. If you met him trotting down the street, you'd be less likely to weep for mankind lost than to smile. Jake isn't exactly cured either, since he does leave the question of Joey's death open, implying that he might some day climb back on to the nightmare desire that vengeance shall be Joey's, Harry's and his. But the similarity that leads to difference is a deeper one. Both Lemuel and Jake are atheists; Jake by direct acknowledgement of the fact that throughout his ordeals he never once calls on God's help, as his creator did every evening of his adult life. Which means that both fools must call on their human resourcefulness to outface or outfox the surrounding grimness. But Swift takes Lemuel's atheism as the basic foolishness that branches out into all his other idiocies, driving him finally outside human boundaries, to Horseville. Richler takes Jake's atheism as a source for his tenacious humanity, the stubbornness with which he clings to fair play for such sorry specimens as Joey and Harry Stein. Swift, then, is on God's side, laughing, while Richler is on man's side, needing to laugh, trying.

Warren Tallman, "Need For Laughter," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1973, pp. 71-83.

A novelist first, last and temperamentally, Richler does not feel the need to give a running chronicle of his time, or any small part of it, in anything but his fiction. So that while the middle of [Shovelling Trouble] is comprised of reviews of books by such persons as Roth, Fiedler, Kazin and Podhoretz, there is no implication that the reviews are part of an even subconscious discussion of Jewish American writing or any phase of it. They are just statements (and generally pretty fatuous ones) on objects in hand, of no higher quality than your average newspaper review, except a little longer perhaps and smart-alecky in a way few newspaper deskmen would allow.

To aspire to stuff of newspaper quality, to allow age and not ideas to make the copy interesting, is to be no great hell as a journalist. And this is what Richler is doing a good percentage of the time….

Trivia, together with other forms of nostalgia, is another of the keys since Richler, so much the autobiographical writer, is concerned with the past only insofar as it is his past and with the present only to the extent that it is personal nostalgia in the making. It is not surprising then that most of his better nonfiction is, like his fiction, first person idealizing of times gone by….

The current vogue of novelists covering major news events has a longer history than such novelists would have us believe. Witness the journalism of Dreiser or Anderson or, only a decade ago, the coverage of the first Patterson-Liston fight by Schulberg, Mailer, Baldwin and Hecht. Richler, suited to this kind of journalism by virtue of his basic reportorial ability and his often loud, loose style, has not undertaken such assignments. This is a pity, for he also has an approach to journalism unusual (or unprofessional) enough to break through the clichés fast closing in on this type of reporting and to give new insights.

But then he is basically an iconoclastic writer, even when autobiographical, and such writers have an historical tendency to reach a certain plateau and camp there for the duration of their careers…. Does he really want to be as skilled a journalist as he is a fiction writer? He could be, but, alas, he has only the one art; and with that goes the curious detachment of art from the workaday self from which it is distilled or wrung—a detachment the journalism possibly would usurp.

Doug Fetherling, "Richler's Journalism," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1973, pp. 118-20.