Mordecai Richler Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 5) - Essay

Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richler, Mordecai 1931–

A Canadian novelist and journalist, Richler often draws on his urban Jewish background for his fiction.

[One] runs head-on into a curious discrepancy between what Mordecai Richler says he is writing about, what his heroes think they are railing against, and his novels' actual content. Granted that he employs the idiom and a few of the ideas ventilated by his American and English contemporaries, in terms of social viewpoint, feeling, and literary style Mordecai Richler unmistakably harks back to an earlier period. The best evidence for this is his preoccupation with the Marxist mirage and the Jewish middle-class family unit, the latter as it evolved in the East European shtetl and later in North America.

Neither is an issue of current validity. The subject of friction between first- and second-generation Jews and their American-born children is a noticeably exhausted one with such prominent American Jewish writers as Saul Bellow, Harvey Swados, Herbert Gold, Arthur Miller, Bernard Malamud, and Norman Mailer. Theirs is no cowardly neglect, no parvenu passion to disclaim their skullcap and prayer-shawl antecedents. In point of fact, this particular narrative vein began to peter out after the First World War with the cessation of the mass migrations from Russia and Poland. It dried up altogether by the time of the second world bloodbath. (p. 47)

Not that there is any scarcity of conflicts confronting the Jew as an individual or as a member of a group that would make the legitimate stuff of fiction. The point is that Mordecai Richler's concept excludes the middle-class Jew (the lower upper-middle-class Jew, to be precise) as he really is. Son of a Smaller Hero negotiates an obsolescent theme; moreover, the process is carried on in dated fashion. (p. 48)

The Richler vision embraces left-wing politics only, and the only type of left-wing politics and thinking that his novels appraise with any seriousness has a strong Marxist impulse. At that, it is a Marxism emotionally approached. There are few Communist characters in the books, and they are endowed with a blatantly bookish vocabulary. The impression grows that the author's contact with the ideology and its practitioners is based mostly on hearsay and casual encounters. Fundamentally his point is that the message of the Communist Manifesto formed our last chance to have something to believe in, something that gave the right answers to all questions. Now it has failed, and nothing remains. First went God, then gold, then Marx.

Now certainly Mordecai Richler has every right to concentrate on these matters. Only the writer can decide what material he should deal with. The people he feels are worth studying, the strains he cares to analyse and force and interpret, the dark corners of the human condition he chooses to light up—all are fitting grist for his mill. But he always takes the risk that his findings will be old and far from freshly seen, that they lack the broader, more universal meaning his limited experience suggests to him.

The salient fact about Mordecai Richler's blasting instruments (heavy irony, political attitudinizing, a pious taking for granted of one's superiority and greater wisdom) and his targets for attack is that of themselves they refute his belief that he is coping, squarely and frankly, with the relevant dilemmas of our time. (pp. 50-1)

Most of the men and women who pass through his pages are, by design, empty, trivial, disgusting, happy to vegetate in the safe cage of traditional principles, alarmed beyond belief by the perilous freedom of truth-seeking. They are so small, so worthless, so obviously (according to him) undeserving of compassion, that they are not worth caring about.

That Mordecai Richler is unable to see, and project, people as individuals is most demonstrable in the repetition of characters from novel to novel. Charlie Lawson, of A Choice of Enemies, appeared before in Son of a Smaller Hero as the culture-conscious professor and cuckold Theo Hall. Larkin, the foul-mouthed and foul-minded tourist visiting Spain with a gentile wife in The Acrobats is indistinguishable from Noah's uncle, Max, in Son of a Smaller Hero, a manufacturer with a gentile mistress. Sonny Winkelmann, the expatriates' leader in A Choice of Enemies, is simply an up-to-date version of the grandfather in Son of a Smaller Hero.

Then there are his women. Interestingly Mordecai Richler's novels deal with a man-dominated society; his treatment of the opposite sex suggests at the very least a deep distrust and contempt. Two kinds of female occupy his attention: the woman who takes for granted that an unpleasant time in bed is the contractual consideration for material security (Larkin's wife in The Acrobats, Margaret in Son of a Smaller Hero), and the woman who believes that happiness is only attainable through sexual gratification. The latter constitutes his heroine. Whether named Toni or Miriam or Sally, she happily defies society's wrath to achieve her purpose. (pp. 53-4)

Essentially Mr. Richler's heroines are temporary pillows for his protagonists to lean on. Weak-minded creatures, they are stepping-stones leading his truth-seekers toward their freedom bridge. (p. 54)

The Richler heroes … never question the values they condemn. They just know they are bad. But how and why they fail, and by what means the light dawned on the hero and enabled him to grasp their falsity, we are never actually told.

As an example of the insufficiency of his heroes' value judgements, take the appraisal of the Canadian scene in Mordecai Richler's books. Canada in them consists of the Jewish ghetto in Montreal and a few adjacent neighbourhoods, a third-rate university and the attached teaching community, and a CBC television studio in Toronto. This minute landscape is enough, nevertheless, to make … [his protagonists take] for granted that the small subsection of it he has inherited is a microcosm, not just of the city but of the country. (pp. 55-6)

The dislike of Canada expressed in his novels does not issue from any genuinely-felt injury or effort to discover what this country is like, what elements hold it together, however shakily, or the nature of its identity such as that is. The unhappy truth is that Mordecai Richler is proffering what is scarcely more than the hit-and-miss, insubstantial chitchat of a pseudo-intellectual tea party as definitive, basic reasoning.

Here is the cruellest irony: the charges the heroes of the Richler view make against their antagonists apply, with equal validity, to themselves. They are selfish, oblivious to human dignity, cold, insensitive, conscienceless, wantonly destructive of personal relations. They have no nobility of spirit. Indeed, they are worse than the people around them since they presume to know better and insist on their superiority. Neither Nemesis nor Galahad, they run an erratic, footless course from anarchy to futility. Mordecai Richler is correct when he declares that few of his people are worth caring about, although there is more to most of them than he realizes. But he is wrong to suppose that his heroes are admirable exceptions. Alas, they are worth caring about the least of all. This is the weakness that causes the scaffolding of each of his novels to totter and give way. (pp. 56-7)

Nathan Cohen, "Heroes of the Richler View" (originally published in Tamarack Review, No. 6, 1957), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 43-57.

It is not seeing life steadily or whole to suggest [as Nathan Cohen, above, has] that Richler's novels express a dislike of Canada, any more than of Paris, Barcelona or the Finchley Road…. What is definitive and basic in A Choice of Enemies does not refer to Canada at all. It concerns the conflict for freedom and survival between a German …, a stunted gamma-product of defunct ideology, and a Canadian …, who, with all the weaknesses of being undetermined, has the strength of being not-quite-wholly defined. (p. 59)

In The Acrobats, Richler tended to write from within his characters, all of them; in A Choice of Enemies he tends to describe them as they appear and behave. This is a move towards maturity as a writer, even though, as is always the case with maturity, something must be lost. (p. 60)

In Son of a Smaller Hero one had the suspicion that Richler might develop more fully as a portraitist of a group than of an individual. His background seemed to come alive at a glance, while his intuitions of his hero were sometimes incoherent, sometimes unconvincing, sometimes embarrassingly personal. In A Choice of Enemies, however, the process of objectification has been almost completed. All of the characters are characters in themselves; no single one of them can be identified as the simply projection of Richler's propria persona. (p. 61)

[In] contrast to the facility with which his minor characters fall into view, Richler struggles to create his protagonists with a difficulty which is at once ungainly and arresting. They are, some would say, too important, his motives for creating them too serious, for the down-to-earth medium and style in which he works. Certainly it is true that at times there is a tendency for them to move, not according to their pattern, but to the simpler destiny of Richler's own. At the worst they are manipulated, do not behave but are made to behave, to reach more surely a previously conceived-of conclusion or inconclusion…. This tendency is one which Richler seems to have inherited obliquely from Sartre, his most obvious master: if indulged too far, it could reduce Richler's valid subject to a puppet or peep-show for the idiot-minded. In Sartre the problem is linked to the synthetic nature of existentialist psychology; it is both germane and irremediable. In the case of Richler, whose "philosophy" is eclectic, undisciplined, and tolerant, it is at odds with his deeper gift for accurate vision of diverse people in diverse situations. I would not suggest that the novel is a democracy, and that the author has not the right to order and dismiss his legions at will; but in the exercise of such arbitrary power Richler is still less subtle and skilled than Sartre, more like Arthur Miller, and yet more completely ambitious than Arthur Miller. (pp. 61-2)

There are [in A Choice of Enemies] other more disturbing features of manipulation and contrivance. What is ostensibly the plot, the contest between one man and another who has (unknown to either) murdered the former's half-brother, has an improbability which fits the Jacobean drama; but in the context of the novel's present conflict it is a thing of no meaning…. They are faults of a new and serious order. Richler was always an uneven writer, but his earlier blemishes were those of immaturity; these are blemishes of achievement and volition. (p. 63)

Throughout the postwar period we have seen fatigue with ideology and preoccupation with survival. Richler is one of the many authors to have caught this mood: his heroes, those endowed with the most consciousness, want above all to live,… not as flattened projections of history or of society, but as individuals grown free of their exhausted roots. To achieve this they must conquer their own hatreds and denials; to do this they must deny their own obsession with themselves. This is the moment of freedom which occurs in all three books, and which allows us to consider them as, if only in Thomas Mann's sense, comedies. (p. 64)

A Choice of Enemies closes with an ambiguity not of words, but of situation: in this ambiguity lies Richler's true achievement. Perhaps he is no more sure than in The Acrobats of what, on this level, he is trying to say—or even that he is really trying to say anything, for it is so difficult for art to survive when statement begins. I certainly would not wish to impute to him the motives of Tom Thumb fighting to salvage the Western sensibility from individualism. But I do think we can trace in the shape of his writing hitherto the beginning of a powerful and complex insight.

To believe in this insight, one must take Richler's work, as one takes all works of art, partly on its merits, and partly on a kind of faith…. If we ask more for Richler on faith than on demonstration, that is because his novels are less articulate, and to that extent less conscious, than are the novels of any established European. But so are the lives of the Canadians he describes, especially against a European background: his very theme is this conflict of conscious and unconscious. (p. 68)

Peter Dale Scott, "A Choice of Certainties" (originally published in Tamarack Review, No. 8, 1958), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 58-68.

The Acrobats brought to light one of the richest promises in the young tradition of Canadian literature. The Acrobats is in itself a mediocre novel, but, though it has all the pretentiousness and all the imperfections of a beginner's work, it reveals qualities which could equally well be those of a clever craftsman or those of a true writer.

Richler uses every means to avoid speaking directly of Canada and particularly of Canadian Jews. He sets his stage as far as possible from St. Urbain Street—in Valencia, in Spain. The complex intrigues, fruits of a fevered imagination, hide imperfectly the real anxieties of the young novelist. Since timidity and bashfulness prevent him from speaking in the first person, Richler disguises his characters to the best of his ability, clothing them in borrowed garments which barely hide the conventional faces of the wicked who succeed and the good who are defeated. (pp. 93-4)

In his second novel, Son of a Smaller Hero, the masks fall away. Richler does not speak in the first person, but the autobiographical tone of the book is not entirely deceptive. It is the world of his own childhood that he reveals in fictional form. The adolescent hero deprived of childhood takes his revenge. He sits in judgement on a family which has cut him off too early from an affection he desperately demanded. (p. 94)

The adolescent cannot cross the frontiers of the ghetto without doing violence to himself. He is too much affected by the traditions which nourished his childhood for him to be able to reject them except by force. It would be treating this rage of youth too seriously if we were to elevate Richler into the censor and critic of a whole community.

It is to his family that the hero owes a grudge; it is his family he accuses of not bearing the same love and feeling as he does toward a doctrine which he would like to maintain in its pristine purity, that is to say, without modification by the demanding laws of existence.

This is clearly the mental process of the adolescent. And this is what gives the novel movement, if not power. The ambitious youth who has made his reckoning with a narrow society is propelled by an irrepressible impulse. He wishes to deal as a man with adult problems. After all, has he not set himself free? Has he not said what he thinks of those who do not see beyond the wall of the ghetto? Now he must face them with the proofs of his initiation into manhood. (p. 95)

In [A Choice of Enemies] Richler places himself in the centre of great world problems. He brings before us the ex-Communist who fled from East Germany, the Ex-Nazi, and a whole assortment of North American fugitives who keep meeting in that vast city as if they were living in a little village where everyone knows everyone else, knows his petty habits and his grand manias. It is a novel in which skill is more in evidence than true passion.

In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Richler returns to his childhood. He has not yet said all there is to be said. To the bitterness, the surly anger of Son of a Smaller Hero is added the dream of a world in which frankness, straightforwardness and love reign together. Great is the disenchantment of the unfortunate child who has put all his hopes in the mystery of non-Jewish society and has found there the same recurring faults as elsewhere. (p. 96)

In this novel, which is without doubt its author's most accomplished work, one can measure his talent against his limitations. Stirred by a demanding passion, he is led to destroy his characters through caricature. Facing a society which he wishes to conquer, he has no time to look at it, to understand it, to perceive its complete ambiguity. His characters are linear, for complexity would deprive them of the artificial consistency which is fabricated by a novelist whose wish to do battle is stronger than his desire to comprehend. This world without love or tenderness is at once sentimental and false—false because sentimental.

Richler manipulates situations and characters to fill a void which no degree of inventiveness can conceal. He does not succeed in breaking the yoke in which his sensibility imprisons him, for he takes no account of the sensibilities of others, and especially of his characters. These are his banner-bearers, the extensions of his own tastes and whims.

It is evident that Richler, who burns with the desire to plunge into the great ocean which he sees beyond the walls of the ghetto, can never quit St. Urbain Street. Whether he walks in England, France or Spain, he carries everywhere his little world, his secret fatherland, for he never succeeds in completing and going beyond his adolescence, which is its product.

In … [The Incomparable Atuk, he] is the master of artifice and appearance, and he intends to demonstrate the fact. In fabricating his caricatures he goes to the limit of his powers. He no longer pretends to create living personages or complex situations.

The Incomparable Atuk is a great piece of farce in which the child of the ghetto, once again disguised behind the mask of a fake Eskimo poet, makes his conquest of a world of imposters and hollow men. Richler turns his vengeful anger against all those personalities of swollen reputation and unmerited celebrity who people the intellectual world of Toronto. All of them are provincials puffed up with their false importance, blinded by their degree of influence, corrupted by the ambient complacency. The adolescent who reproached his parents and society in general for responding meagrely to his longing for purity, now directs a burst of mocking laughter against a world which was to blame for the mutilation of his dreams. (pp. 97-8)

Naim Kattan, "Mordecai Richler: Craftsman or Artist" (translated from the French by George Woodcock and originally published in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1964), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 92-8.

Like Thoreau, who decided that Harvard taught all the branches of knowledge but none of the roots, Richler wants to get at the prime meaning of experience—to drive life into a corner and see whether it is a good thing or bad. But Richler does not live at Walden; his reality lies somewhere beneath the encrusted hypocrisies and orthodoxies of urban culture; and though in burrowing towards this reality he is often naïve, cranky, and even short-sighted, he is determined (in the words of his best critic, Peter Scott) "to keep to the experience at hand and to the truth which is available." Far from the reflective or analytical mood that has been characteristic of Canadian fiction, Richler's spirit resembles that of the "angry" young Englishman and the "beat" writers of "the great American night"; but though, like them, he strips away the world's pretences, he does not end as an outsider, in alienated or intoxicated freedom. Richler belongs (as Brian Moore does) in society, and he has enough nerve to refuse alienation. If orthodox frauds reject him, he will simply bypass them and create his own order—a crude one, perhaps, but bracing in its directness, and electric with energy. (pp. 712-13)

The Acrobats (1954) and Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) might both be described as "first novels"; both deal with a hero obsessed by self and in reckless opposition to a world which is stifling, corrupt, and Protean in its deceit. (p. 713)

The forced symbolism of [its] ending is only one of The Acrobats' shortcomings: the festival of San José glitters like the fireworks which conclude it, but falls short of the structural significance which similar rites achieve in Hemingway or Mann; the narrative method flickers uncertainly because the narrator is not sufficiently distinct from his hero; and the echoes of Hemingway, Sartre, and others are more often reflexes than conscious devices. But though the book is not, as one critic claims, "a guide to intelligent, contemporary pastiche," it has a nervous, exploratory power.

Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) is in effect an earlier chapter in fictional autobiography. But if Richler is on firmer ground in the Jewish community of Montreal than he was in Spain, he is still uncomfortably close to his hero's anger and confusion; the family and community described come magnificently to life, but the hero, Noah Adler, is such an unreliable guide to his own experience that the closing ambiguity of the novel appears inadvertent rather than deliberate. The step from this to A Choice of Enemies (1957) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) is the enormous stride from denial to assertion, from rejection to deliberate choice. As in battle, the technical units lag behind the attack forces in both of these works, but the objectives are taken and held. (pp. 713-14)

In A Choice of Enemies, Richler the film-writer occasionally interferes with Richler the novelist; suspense is introduced whether meaning requires it or not, and dialogue is often geared to the film editor's cut. In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz the novelist is again in control, but a new problem, the relation between realism and comedy or farce, presents itself. Duddy's apprenticeship—his chequered progress from a Montreal slum to a shaky status as landowner—is a story by turns comic, pathetic, bawdy, and farcical; and though the exuberant reality of Duddy himself is never in doubt, the modulation of other characters from pathos to farce makes the reader's suspension of disbelief something less than willing. But these flaws are principally evidence of the rapidity of Richler's artistic development. The theme of Duddy Kravitz extends the quest for values of the earlier books. (p. 714)

Mordecai Richler has asked piercing questions on issues which involve the self, the nation, and mankind, and he has dismissed the stock replies that religion, politics, and the polite social sciences and humanities customarily offer. His exuberant style and intellectual toughness make him the most exciting and promising of Canada's younger novelists…. (p. 715)

Hugo McPherson, "Fiction 1940–1960," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl F. Klinck and others (© University of Toronto Press, 1965), University of Toronto Press, 1965, pp. 694-722.

Richler sometimes seems to sacrifice his art to a love-hate attitude to Hemingway's works, especially to For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the beginning of The Acrobats there is a noticeable Hemingway influence, in the artificial dialogue, in the sentence order and length. (p. 2)

All the directionless bar scenes of The Acrobats are like expatriate The Sun Also Rises scenes, but without even the desperate gaiety of the Jake Barnes crowd—rather with a soft and aimless self-hate. (p. 3)

This is the post-Hemingway world, the post-For Whom The Bell Tolls world, where the sermon from Donne takes on a grim cast. The language of Richler and his characters is also post-Hemingway, with all rapture gone, all romanticism sifted out. The (anti)hero's girl is not brave Maria in a sleeping bag, but the pregnant prostitute Toni, not the rebellious Pilar of the mountains but the city-slum girl tired of revolution and war. (p. 4)

Almost all the people in the novel are tired and disappointed. (p. 5)

Pretty obviously Richler intends in this first novel to show his own disillusionment in a postwar world he never made nor even had a hand in destroying. (p. 6)

Some critics have pointed out (and correctly, to a certain extent) that the people we meet in The Acrobats are stock characters. André is the young athlete, lost and in exile, searching for meaning in a confused world. Toni is the innocent prostitute, the traditional wry comment on a whole society that has sold its innocence for quick, mortal and illusory rewards. Chaim is the perennial wise old wandering Jew and father figure to those who have lost all their own fathers. Barney is the rich boorish American abroad, hiding secret fears of his own sexual inability behind an aggressive social manner. And so on.

Probably more to the point is that in this first novel, Richler has not yet, as he has in his later books, submerged the techniques of writing below the surface of the story as we are allowed a look at it. (p. 12)

I believe that the young Richler scored a coup in this novel, in arousing compassion for characters who would superficially seem to be the enemy—Barney and Kraus the best examples. In this way, Richler speaks not to the smug liberal intelligence, but to the compassionate human being who may be lurking behind that mask. No author who speaks that way can hope to write an "accomplished" novel. But the book reaches at least determinedly beyond accomplishment toward the place where a man is forced to ask himself where he is, and how he feels. And there the sun also rises again. (p. 14)

George Bowering, "And the Sun Goes Down: Richler's First Novel" (originally published in Canadian Literature, No. 29, Summer, 1966), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 1-14.

In every way, but particularly in their control of the sensationalism that at its best gives vitality to his writing and at worst makes it banal, the Montreal novels [Son of a Smaller Hero and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz] are the best; with a small number of short stories dealing with people in the same environment, they form the body of work that made Richler, before he reached the age of thirty, the most important of the younger generation of Canadian fiction writers.

It might be a metaphorical exaggeration to describe Canada as a land of invisible ghettos, but certainly it is, both historically and geographically, a country of minorities that have never achieved assimilation.

It is this fact that makes Montreal a great frontier city, where various traditions intermingle and react upon each other. It is a natural laboratory for examining the fears and fascinations that flow between the various communities, and Richler, working outward from the Jewish environment of his own childhood, has presented us with such an examination in Son of a Smaller Hero. Yet Son of a Smaller Hero is not a sociologically slanted novel about the "problem" of Jewish-Gentile relationships…. He does not, of course, ignore the social problems, yet at the same time he does not seek to abstract them from their context. They are part of the world he is trying to present in a fictionally viable form, part of the particular world of a divided city that he is using to illuminate a universal theme: the predicament of the man who sets out honestly to find and to be himself in a world where most men fear their own natures and try to live by comfortable falsehoods.

The inhabitants of the ghetto are depicted with a Dickensian eye for the foibles and tics of behaviour and speech; this makes them memorable, but too often we remember the habitual behaviour rather than the person, and Richler, in Son of a Smaller Hero at least, is inclined to present his minor figures as humours rather than characters. His sense of satire leads him perilously near the edge of caricature.

Son of a Smaller Hero is often amusing, but rarely pleasant, and never comforting; Richler would not have wanted us to find it so. His revelation of the ruthlessness of the man who seeks the truth is as deliberate as his exposure of the brutal world where men accept big lies and live by small evasions. Like most good satirists, he has his moments of compassion, but his most convincing tendernesses are those which emerge with the sharp rigours of candour. Richler's best line is taut, twanging, and a little discordant. (p. 21)

George Woodcock, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of The Canadian Publishers, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto) to Son of a Smaller Hero, by Mordecai Richler, New Canadian Library No. 45, McClelland and Stewart, 1966.

Mordecai Richler is a satirist, and therefore a comparatively rare bird in our time. A great many writers toy with satire—insert satirical passages into a non-satirical work, or try to give an edge to farce by offering a satirical interpretation of their buffoonery. But Mr. Richler declares himself a conscious and deliberate satirist from the first page of [Cocksure]—I have read, alas, none of his earlier [novels]—and he keeps up the satirical pace from start to finish. (p. 106)

[A] general weakness of this funny and memorable book is that it is quite impossible to detect the moral platform on which Mr. Richler is standing and from which his darts are launched. Nobody wants a satirist to make a solemn declaration of faith, but that declaration is implied by the best satirists in everything they write. Here is a striking example of Mr. Richler's failure: an elderly and a highly reputable Canadian governess decides to take a job in the monstrous school, with the intention of counteracting its malignant influence. At first we are led to understand that she is having a great success just because she is introducing discipline, rewards, privacy, etc.—all the things which the school rejects but children need. Not a bit of it. It turns out that she is getting her splendid results simply by rewarding the children with her own techniques of mutual masturbation. Seeing ahead of it the fence of a positive moral judgment, Mr. Richler's horse has shied away from it….

The weakness is a serious one, and before Mr. Richler writes a really good satire he will have to learn not only what he hates but where he hates it from. Meanwhile Cocksure is a highly entertaining book, and often a properly uncomfortable one. (pp. 108-09)

Philip Toynbee, "'Cocksure'" (originally published in London Magazine, May, 1968), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd. 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 106-09.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz … seemed to me when I first encountered it, hopelessly retrospective for all the talent that went into its making—the sort of fictional study of making it out of the ghetto appropriate for Americans only to the Thirties. Having made it was our new subject—and Richler's too, though he did not seem to know it at the start. Still, there was apparent in him a lust for surreal exaggeration and the grotesque, and an affinity for the atrocious—the dirty joke turned somehow horrific, the scene of terror altered somehow into absurdity—which made him, before he himself knew it, a member of the group later to be labelled Black Humorists.

Satire was his special affinity—not, to be sure, polished and urbane satire, but shrill and joyously vulgar travesty—directed, all the same, against pop culture, on the one hand, and advanced or experimental art on the other: middlebrow satire, in fact, however deliciously gross, an anti-genteel defence of the genteel tradition. It is this which makes Richler so difficult a writer for me to come to terms with, and—by the same token—so easy a one for the guardians of official morality to accept…. Richler himself belongs to the world of mass culture (in which he has laboured long, continues to support himself), so that he seems ultimately—seems, I think, rather than is—as harmless as The Black and White Minstrel Show.

It is quite another aspect of his work which makes Richler more dangerous than he seems perhaps even to himself: his concern with exile, his compulsion to define all predicaments in terms of that hopelessly Jewish concept, and his implicit suggestion that, after all, we are—everyone of us—Jews….

The Incomparable Atuk, is not quite a successful book …; but in it Richler seems to have discovered at last where the demands of his real gifts were taking him—toward ultimate, absolute burlesque, i.e., burlesque that includes finally the book itself and its author, the sort of nihilism implicit unawares in all pop art, and consciously exploited in "Pop Art" of which Cocksure is an example. But ultimate burlesque requires a sense of the ultimate outsider, the real victim, the true Jew, who—in the realm of Anglo-Saxondom at least—turns out to be the Anglo-Saxon…. It is a book which seems always on the verge of becoming truly obscene, but stops short, alas, at the merely funny. Yet it is so close, so close—the sort of near miss that leaves permanent damage behind.

Perhaps it is close enough, then. Certainly Richler has come as near to saying how it is with us now when the ultimate exile has proved to be success, as anyone can out of the generation which dreamed that success, at a point when being poor and excluded seemed the only real indignity. (pp. 102-05)

Leslie Fiedler, "Some Notes on the Jewish Novel in English: or Looking Backward from Exile" (originally published in The Running Man, Vol. 1, No. 2, July-August, 1968), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 99-105.

To be Canadian in any meaningful sense today one must come to grips with what [Mordecai Richler] has to say. To [some] he may be a "professional Jew," to many Jews he is a "jewish anti-Semite", to me he is one of the country's best writers and surely one of its most penetrating wits.

Considering the shallowness and hysteria of the attacks frequently levelled at him I sometimes wonder why Richler continues to bother with us at all. (p. 112)

Perhaps the best clue as to the difficulties Richler faces with his fellow Canadians is given by Richler himself. "To be a Jew and a Canadian," he says, "is to emerge from the ghetto twice, for self-conscious Canadians, like some touchy Jews, tend to contemplate the world through a wrong-ended telescope."

It is through this kind of telescope that Canadians most frequently view the giant phenomenon to the south of us. While it is true that many members of the Canadian élite differ sharply as to the merits of political and economic continentalism there is one type of continentalism the Canadian illuminati, en masse, are most fanatically opposed to. I refer, of course, (borrowing Richler's own phrase) to "the Jewish cultural take-over" in the United States.

That most distinctive and most influential segment of American culture is not part of the cultural continentalism the Canadian intelligentsia is prepared to buy. In the United States Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Leslie Fiedler are American writers. In Canada Mordecai Richler is "a professional Jew."

In Canada the good Jew is a WASP. Good Canadian Jews never talk about Jews or being Jewish, don't think Jewish, don't look Jewish. Their noses are bobbed, and their minds are circumcised.

To people like this Mordecai Richler is a menace. They are not amused. (pp. 112-13)

What is really sad is what those Canadians who shout "professional Jew" and "Jewish anti-Semite" at a man of Richler's obvious talents, reveal about themselves and this country. What seems to link both these groups together is paranoia, a sense of inferiority, a feeling of alienation. The Canadian WASP élite is essentially cut off from the superior cultures of their American and British counterparts. Years ago it was a direct and vital part of the British Empire. It was getting part of the action. Being British was enough. The demise of the British Empire and non-membership in the new American one has left our WASP élite homeless, ghettoized, so to speak, in the northern half of the American continent. (pp. 113-14)

It's surely a typical Canadian irony that one-half of the tiny Jewish community in this country should live in Montreal and be English-speaking, making it in a French city a kind of ghetto minority squared.

It is doubly ironic that the Montreal Jewish Community should look to that city's WASP élite for inspiration and leadership. It is one beleaguered minority leading another in a basically hopeless situation. It is not surprising that the paranoia gauge of Canada's Jewish community, with its Montreal base and leadership, is high. (p. 114)

Richler … is a bad Jew and a worse Canadian but he tells it as it is. In Hunting Tigers Under Glass, a collection of his essays and reports, Richler writes about bad Jews and worse Canadians, superbly.

Take for example his hilarious account of that peculiar Canadian psycho-drama, the annual gathering of the Canadian Authors' Association. Listed by Richler as being in attendance, were such literary lights as Bluebell Phillips, Phoebe Erskine Kyde, and Una Wardelworth. Overlooked, much to my annoyance, were authors Carpathia Radish, Hathaway Yoyo, Paisley Goornisht, and Gay Abandon (she of Memoirs Of A Venetian Streetwalker fame).

Mentioned by Richler, as if in passing, was the Canadian literary hit of EXPO year, Ripe And Ready. Sad to say, this was not a Canadian Fanny Hill but rather a history of the Canadian apple. Unforgivably ignored by Richler were such Canadian literary hits of yesteryear as Awake And Sing, a history of the Canadian Opera Company; Hail and Farewell, a history of Canadian crop failures; and From See To See, a history of Canadian Catholic voyeurs.

Equally unforgivable in Richler is his tendency, at times, to view us provincial Canadians with the lofty disdain of the profligate, world-weary sophisticate. Air Canada does, after all, fly across the pond; the Paris and Partisan Reviews do find their way into the occasional household; the ladies from Dubuque and Coronation Street utter the same banalities as Anne of Green Gables.

Less irritating but a bit unnerving is Richler's tendency to drop the names of good friends and potential employers in some of his reports and essays. More disturbing is Richler's barely suppressed desire to be Canada's Edmund Wilson. His serious comments on writers and writing, filmmaking and politics are insightful and often valuable, but for the most part, are prissy and professorial in tone, often indistinguishable from the many academic prigs that already clutter up the field in these areas.

God forbid I should be labelled a professional Jew, but I like Richler best when he is idiosyncratic and autobiographical, first-person and Jewish….

The final words on Hunting Tigers Under Glass should go to Richler. Says he: "If I'm able to communicate just some of my enjoyment of Israel, the Catskills, comicbooks, Jews in sport and the Canadian comedy, to readers, then I will count this collection a success."

Well start counting, Mordecai. It's a success, it's a success!! Me, I can hardly wait for the movie! (pp. 114-16)

Larry Zolf, "Why, Why Should Mordecai Bother with Us At All?" (originally published in the Toronto Telegram, November 16, 1968), in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright © McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd., 1971), McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1971, pp. 112-16.

At first glance, [The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz] seems to fit into the tradition of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, each of which deals with the growing up of a young man to the point where he is on his own, alone and lonely, ready to strike out in life freed from the ties of his youth…. In both of these earlier novels the protagonist has made a choice of direction, aware of the chain of events that had made such a choice possible and necessary. Each has made a decision, based on thought and self-awareness, and each has chosen a way of life that is an affirmation of man's greatness or potential greatness.

Richler's novel, however, in spite of its superficial affinity with the two novels mentioned above, ends with no such affirmation. His protagonist, who has never weighted the consequences of his actions in any but material terms, is less alone in the physical sense than the earlier young men, but he is also much less of a man. His decisions have been made on the wrong terms, have been based on nothing at all. He has destroyed himself and others for a piece of land that means nothing to those who have loved him. He has devoted his energy to acquiring property; he has done nothing to develop himself. Whereas the other two, Stephen Dedalus and Paul Morel, have matured, and have decided the course of their lives for themselves, Poor Duddy has simply gone along without realizing where he was headed. He is a modern "anti-hero" (something like the protagonist in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange) who lives in a largely deterministic world, a world where decisions are not decisions and where choice is not really choice.

The novel ends … as a devastating attack on the world of Duddy Kravitz, which is the world of Jewish Montreal. It is interesting to note that Duddy's Montreal is a bicultural city, Jewish and non-Jewish. All non-Jews, French and English, are seen as pretty much the same; the two-culture theme of [Hugh MacLennon's] Two Solitudes takes on a new look in Richler's novel. He is obviously very aware of the flaws in his own society, and on one plane the novel is a bitter revelation of the vulgarity and raw materialism of middle-class Canadian life, for Richler well exemplified by the world he still probably knows best. There are a few admirable Jews presented very briefly and used to reveal even more clearly by contrast the glittering false standards of the many; but for the most part Richler emphasizes all too strongly the aspects of Jewish society that the anti-Semites do. The few warm and unselfish characters we meet remain largely undeveloped and lifeless…. But it is not only the sympathetic characters who fail to come to life; we also get to know very little about any character other than Duddy himself. Other characters are seen only in terms of their relationship with Duddy….

Canadian novelists seem to me to be a very conventional lot, at least as far as experiments with form go …, and certainly in this novel Richler is a traditionalist…. In the narrative and descriptive sections of the novel Richler writes good, sound, correct English, perhaps a bit too much like a good term essay. It seems to me that Richler handles dialogue exceptionally well, giving us conversations of great range and convincing authenticity…. The book comes to life through its dialogue, and the vitality of dialogue is usually a reliable test of the success of a novel…. [This] novel with its satiric-tragic-comic attitude to man in the modern world is much more than a "mere" Canadian work. Richler's novel, it seems to me, can stand on its own by any standard.

A. R. Bevan, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of The Canadian Publishers, McClelland and Stewart Limited. Toronto) to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler, New Canadian Library No. 66, McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

As adults we thrive on constant change, but our childhood goes on forever, like a movie about a certain time and a certain place that keeps on running, with continuous showings in our heads. [Knelman is reviewing the film version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.] Our time and our place was different from Mordecai Richler's, but he puts us in touch with our own roots when he tells us the truth about growing up on St. Urbain Street in the 1940s. Richler's grandfather came to Montreal instead of Chicago because he traded tickets with somebody on the boat from Russia, and his work is about people who are Canadians more by a fluke than by historical design. His is the one voice in Canadian literature, as Brian Moore puts it, that is neither French Canadian nor English Canadian. He gives us the missing chapter of Canadian history whose absence made us sense that the official version we got in school, about destiny forged on the Plains of Abraham and the heritage of the United Empire Loyalists, had less to do with our lives than Judy Garland and Danny Kaye did. Richler gave us the story of our parents and our grandparents, and he took St. Urbain Street to London the way his grandfather had brought a Russian village to Canada. He speaks for those of us who in the third generation still feel like exiles because we've left even the transplanted ghettos of the new world. We're gypsies of the jet age, still scrambling and waiting for the next plane to somewhere, never quite going home again and never quite breaking away, either. And still trying to show somebody: "You see, Daddy, you see?" This isn't just a St. Urbain story or just a Jewish story. It's the theme that links the lives of Mordecai Richler and Ted Kotcheff and John Kemeny and Richard Dreyfuss and many of us in the audience who have never had a movie that came this close to us. That's why the making of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz matters emotionally even to people who are a bit afraid of it. We don't want it to be just another movie; we want them to get it right. (p. 24)

Martin Knelman, "How Duddy's Movie Brings Us All Back Home," in Saturday Night (copyright 1974), March, 1974, pp. 17-24.

"What, who, why, when is a Canadian writer?"

An outraged and apparently depletable Canadian Authors' Association posed the question, then editorialized:

If a writer wants to make big money he will probably stop writing about Canada and almost certainly leave Canada. If a writer wants "instant fame" he will very likely have to prostitute his talent by such things as writing sex-dripping prose or taking a deliberately shocking stand on a touchy subject.

Mordecai Richler qualifies as a living answer to the association's livid question. He left Canada and went to England and wrote for the movies for money. He has written novels like Cocksure, and St. Urbain's Horseman, full of sexdrippery, and he has taken radical stands on such touchy subjects as Jews in sport. The whole story is revealed in his newest collection of pieces [Notes On an Endangered Species and Others], and a scurvy tale it is. Richler may not have left Canada spiritually, literarily or reportorially, as these articles (and his novels) shamelessly prove, but he is nonetheless a cunning Canadian type. He will not run for mayor of Montreal. He will not streak at the National Book Awards affair to protest mountie brutality. He, sly fox, betrays his true nature instead by writing well. (p. 28)

Compared to St. Urbain's Horseman this collection of work is minor; but at that it has the capacity for outlasting far flashier, far more controversial journalism and criticism of the day, for it comes from a man who has, probably out of some appallingly splendid character defect, not yielded to the pull of what was flimsy in his generational urges, but chose to steady it on, on through nine rewrites last time out, and who has produced book after book of quality fiction. And whatever the judgment of that body of work may eventually be, he certainly got one thing right: that without such work, the public man is only a clown of the time.

Richler fans will like this collection. Newcomers are advised to step first to the fiction counter for St. Urbain's Horseman, and come back to the Endangered Species as the hors d'oeuvres of another day. (p. 29)

William Kennedy, "Unsentimental Chronicler," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 18, 1974, pp. 28-9.

As black satirist, fearless lambaster of Jew and WASP, dirty comic writer, Mordecai Richler has consistently displayed a resolute sneer. But in his first children's book, Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang, Richler stands revealed. Beneath the hardened accretions of cynicism, there's an incorrigible softy. Richler knows and loves children. (p. 65)

John Ayre, "Mordecai Richler's Subversive Accomplishment," in Saturday Night (copyright 1975), July/August, 1975, pp. 65-6.