Mordecai Richler Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 9) - Essay

Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richler, Mordecai 1931–

Richler is a Canadian novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and children's book writer who combines humor and satire with a strong moral and historical sense to create his interpretation of Jewish and Canadian experience; George Woodcock calls him "the essential Canadian." Richler is best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the story of a Montreal boy's attempt to outfox society. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

"I have never," says Bellow's Dangling Man, "found another street that resembled St. Dominique…. I sometimes think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality."

This reality, this place, is the province of Mordecai Richler….

["The Street" is] a lovely book, irrepressibly alive, funny, mean, self-derisive. Richler is technically adroit at the management of ricocheting impressions, at undercutting himself abruptly so that his material goes around unexpected corners, at engaging the reader wholly in a miniature world already to a degree familiar….

A memoir of a place and of a time—"I have elected myself to get it right"—"The Street" cannot be read as literal autobiography. Of the 10 stories, reminiscences and essays, some seem obvious fiction (these are at once the most carefully structured and the least substantial), some personal, some a combination of the two. Some are first-person, some third, and in some cases, minor details from the original magazine pieces have been adjusted to make it all hang together more. The streets and certain characters—Duddy, Hersh—make the connections in such a way that some of the material may be assumed to have been rough sketches for novels then in progress. (p. 6)

Nora L. Magid, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1975.

As a "Jewish" novel, The Apprenticeship has both a pungent ethnic flavor and the convincingness that arises when a writer deals with a milieu with which he is completely familiar. At the same time, Richler treats the ambivalent relationships of the Montreal ghetto to both English and French-Canadian cultures. The material, psychological, and spiritual realities of the life of the Jewish community, as it attempts to cope and to define itself in relation to a larger world, are in turn reflected in the personalities and the careers of Duddy and other characters. Here, Richler applies the insights of Freud to achieve a broad, often ribald satiric humor, in which the psycho-sexual lives of his creations symbolically express their social background. Informing Richler's depiction of Montreal, and of Duddy's personal development, is a complex and sophisticated view of human nature. Simplistic moral judgments are suspended in favor of a satiric vision that combines comic affirmation with ironic condemnation, a brutal realism with a humane sensitivity to ethical questions. In communicating his multifaceted outlook, Richler commands a technique in which symbolism unobtrusively coexists with "solidity of specification." (pp. 413-14)

For Richler, the destructive psychological effects of the ghetto mentality are equalled and to some extent paralleled by those of the Jewish family. Like the society from which it springs, this tends to be closed and exclusive, clinging together in spite of its intense quarrels. The best aspect of such clannishness, the feeling of kinship which transcends all personal differences, is exemplified by Duddy. Although he is in varying degrees put down and rejected by all of his relatives except his grandfather, Duddy sticks up for them and protects them…. His support of his family is appropriately reciprocated and rewarded when, at a crucial stage in his financial career, Lennie persuades his father to give him a loan.

However, the loyalty and the affection which bind the Jewish family together cannot hide its less pleasant aspects. On the one hand, its protectiveness can be stifling. On the other, it drives its members mercilessly, partly by its intense ambition for its favored sons and partly by the complexes it induces in those whom it regards as second-best. (pp. 421-22)

[Duddy's] potentially violent emotions illustrate Richler's view of the Jewish family as a psychological pressure cooker. Either its members explode, or they are boiled down to mush.

In The Apprenticeship, the family and the ghetto are both implicitly related to the Jewish mother. Both are in this way characterized as psychological wombs, from which the Jewish male must fight free if he is to achieve real manhood. Here, the novelist's Freudian comedy involves some of his subtlest symbolism. For instance, Simcha's "stiffness" and "uprightness" are phallic metaphors for the masculine integrity and dignity which he struggles to maintain against his "castrating" hag of a wife. His ultimate inability to cope with her is expressed in his sense of failure as a man and, on an analogous cultural level, in his clinging to the old ghetto life…. The symbolism that Richler ironically uses to undercut Simcha appears in a much more obvious form in the case of Milty Halpirin, the rich little milquetoast tormented by Duddy. Thus, Milty's "softness" indicates his emasculation by a mother whose protectiveness utterly imprisons him. One particularly significant aspect of Milty's entrapment is his attendance at the Jewish parochial school to which he is driven daily by Mrs. Halpirin. Once again, Richler connects the psychic "enclosure" of the ghetto mentality with that of the domineering woman. (p. 423)

Another repeated image which Richler uses with respect to this emasculation is vegetation. Thus, the negative connotations of Simcha's shop and of his wife are also borne by the garden which produces only unhealthy, inedible vegetables. Simcha tries in vain to express his masculinity through the ancient metaphor of the man as a sower of seed. The connection of the garden with the castrating woman appears also in the garden of Mrs. Halpirin. With its jealously tended plants, this provides an analogue to the womb of maternal protectiveness by which Milty is smothered. Like the tulips that are opened as a surprise for his mother, Milty is a tender "flower" who cannot survive in the hard world represented by Duddy and the Warriors…. Duddy is compared to the "spiky" grass growing by the railroad tracks in the slums…. Richler's image suggests both a phallic potency that symbolizes a mature manhood and also a tough vitality which thrives upon adversity. Therefore, the spiky grass epitomizes Duddy's adolescent struggle to prove himself by overcoming the psychic trammels of his family and the ghetto and by succeeding as his own man in a tougher but larger world.

The garden which is a symbol of the Jewish mother is further connected with the ghetto mentality through the Zionist dream of a homeland that is a pastoral paradise. Richler obviously regards Zionism as a soft sentimentalism which is regressive both psychologically and culturally. Its promised land, "flowing with milk and honey," is really a dream of returning to the pre-natal state, a wish partly fulfilled by the enclosure of the ghetto. As Dingleman tells Duddy, Zionism originated as a mawkish poetic fantasy of old men imprisoned in the cities of eastern Europe, men who really "want to die in the same suffocating way they lived."… (p. 424)

That even Duddy never completely escapes either the ghetto mentality or his mother is implicit in his obsession with owning the land around Lac St. Pierre. The connection of Duddy's monomania with his imprisonment by his background is indicated by the fact that it is an extension of Simcha's Zionist dream. The same parochialism is also suggested by Duddy's plans for making the resort into a sort of little Israel. The association of the lake with his mother is more subtle, but Richler has taken considerable pains to convey it to the reader…. Not only is the body of water an archetypal image of the female and of the subconscious which harbors our elemental dreams, but its connection with Duddy's mother is made evident by the circumstances surrounding its discovery. Thus, he is led to the lake by the highly maternal Yvette…. Ironically enough, his own feeling for his mistress is diverted to the lake as soon as he sees it. That it immediately and almost completely absorbs his libido is indicated by the absent-mindedness of his love-making to Yvette, which he apparently arranges so that he can see the real object of his desire over her shoulder! (p. 425)

Therefore, in the final chapter of The Apprenticeship, Duddy has satisfied the primal Freudian wish not only by supplanting his father but also by symbolically possessing his mother. His apparent triumph is, however, ironically qualified by the absoption of his sexual energies by a regressive passion for a woman whom he cannot even remember. In his ultimate inability to give love in an adult relationship, Duddy is really as "castrated" or "impotent" as Simcha, Max, Benjy, and Lennie. Long after her death, a Jewish mother has triumphed once again. (pp. 425-26)

Duddy indicates that his creator has like many satirists a jaundiced view of human nature and little faith in its improvability. To some extent, Duddy represents (and also becomes increasingly aware of) the incurable evil and sickness of man and his society, a nastiness which must be faced, if we are to be at all realistic and honest, and coped with if we are to survive.

In order to emphasize his dark satiric vision of human turpitude, Richler uses Duddy to put down those characters who are too stupid, soft, sentimental, or idealistic to recognize and to admit unpleasant truths. For instance, it is fitting that Duddy should deliver the coup de grace to MacPherson's socialist belief in human brotherhood, the last lingering vestige of which is his refusal to strap his students. Not only is MacPherson's idealism a bourgeois self-indulgence that ignores the ethnic and economic conflicts that divide society, but it neglects the hard fact that in a "fallen" world there are bad kids who only understand brute force. Similarly, Duddy's ruthless exploitation of Yvette and Virgil, besides reflecting on his own moral failings, also indicates that his two victims are unable to contend with life in its frequent bestiality. Virgil's naiveté, his helplessness, and his squishy puppy-dog desire to be loved at any cost are manifestations of an ambiguous innocence which is partly sympathetic, but which also arouses that instinctive cruelty that is one of nature's ways of eliminating the hopelessly incompetent. Therefore, his victimization by Duddy may be seen as a judgment of implacable reality upon the unfit. In the same way, Yvette's maternal protectiveness and longing for romantic love are from one viewpoint simple deficiencies, signs of a parochial culture which has not prepared her for the tougher, more competitive urban environment. Her soft spots not only make her vulnerable to men like Duddy but actually arouse their latent sadism. In fairness to Richler, it should be noted here that the harshness of his view of Yvette and Virgil, which would seem to try and condemn them by the law of the jungle, is in part a comment upon their self-willed stupidity. As we see in Duddy's career, man was given a brain to perceive reality, to learn from experience, and to evolve strategies for survival. Virgil and Yvette may be fools, but they are not idiots, and there is no excuse for their not being disillusioned about Duddy much sooner. Their slowness really to face his turpitude is a comfortable but dangerous self-indulgence, which is appropriately punished.

Nonetheless, Richler's ironic condemnation of those characters who cannot cope with a fallen world may seem to reflect an ethos perilously close to a facist redaction of Darwinism and of Nietzsche's theories of the "will to power" and the U bermensch. Certainly two of the novelist's basic metaphors, war and the animal relationship of predator to prey, would seem to support this judgment. If reality is hard and ugly because man is in large part reprehensible, the only realistic course of action is to fight fire with fire by being as vicious as Duddy at his worst. However, such an unpleasant outlook is only half of Richler's satiric vision, which has a strong moral component. As the writer points out through Dingleman's twisted physique and the multiple ironies of Duddy's career, mere survival and success without the higher ethical and cultural values leave a man as "crippled" as those who are too weak to preserve themselves. Similarly, Richler condemns the soft and the unrealistic not simply because they are "unfit," but also on moral grounds. Here, the animal metaphor of predator and prey is ironically juxtaposed with that of parasite and host. Thus, the person whom Duddy comes closest to murdering, MacPherson's supposedly invalid wife, appears to be an emotional "tick" who uses a psychosomatic illness to cling to her husband and suck the life-blood from him. What Duddy does to her is, therefore, a just and appropriate punishment for her sins. Virgil is another example of a human parasite. In his infantile need for love and protection, which leads him to play upon his epilepsy, he is a psychological "tapeworm" looking for a comfortable warm intestine to milk. Once again, he meets his proper nemesis in Duddy.

If Richler sees the soft and the weak as being morally shabby, the same condemnation applies to the intellectuals of his novel. Peter John Friar, whose humbug about communism and artistic integrity masks a ruthless self-interest, is representative of the moral shortcomings of the would-be intellectuals and sophisticates of The Apprenticeship. The snobbery, lovelessness, and self-pity that are variously displayed by Benjy, Lennie, Linda, and Ida are all signs of their egocentricity, a vice to which they add canting and hypocrisy. Even Hersh, perhaps the most admirable of the intelligensia, can be a self-righteous little prig in his bohemian posture.

Thus, a central dilemma in Richler's novel, which is never fully resolved, is how to reconcile the hard necessities of a wicked world with ethics. The problem is reflected in the author's complex and ambivalent attitude towards his protagonist. In this regard, the unwary reader is in danger of embracing one of the two opposing half-truths. The first is [Warren Tallman's view] that Duddy represents a Nietzschean celebration of a raw but exuberant "New World" vitality which "transvalues" the morality of a dead past. The second is A. R. Bevan's contention that Duddy is an ironic failure [see CLC, Vol. 5]. As John Ferns has correctly maintained in a recent article, Richler's feeling towards his hero in fact oscillates between sympathy and condemnation, achieving in the end a balanced antithesis between the two. Corresponding to this ambivalence, Duddy's character is itself a maze of contradictions, combining virtues like generosity, loyalty, and unpretentiousness with an often repugnant ruthlessness and crudity. He is at once hard and sensitive, loving and cruel. For instance, Duddy's breakdown reflects a genuine remorse for his misdeeds, which he then proceeds to compound by robbing his victim Virgil. To add to the complexity, even Duddy's vices are signs of an unabashed vitality which is somehow appealing. Moreover, although Richler would not subscribe to that sociological liberalism which blames the individual's sins entirely upon his environment, it remains true that Duddy is in large part a victim of his milieu. In creating a hero who defies simplistic judgments, Richler is not revealing moral confusion or indecisiveness, but rather a perspective broad enough to embrace the contradictions of experience itself. It is for this reason that he is able to develop Duddy as a fully-rounded personality who encompasses something of the "infinitive variety" of life as it is perceived by the truly imaginative artist. (pp. 426-28)

John Ower, "Sociology, Psychology, and Satire in 'The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1976, pp. 413-28.