Mordecai Richler

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Richler, Mordecai 1931–

Richler is a Canadian novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and children's book author 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, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

[Hunting Tigers Under Glass is a collection of] a bundle of essays, reports and reviews on a variety of topics not immediately likely to fit together: Canada and sport, various forms of pop literature and art, Jewish-American writing, and Israel. The focus is Mordecai Richler himself. "After all, I'm a Jewish writer from Canada," he says. But so is Saul Bellow [sic]; and the book, on internal evidence alone, is not by him. The pieces, bitter-sweet and often very funny, form a kind of instant biography of reminiscence, observation and opinion: even when writing a fictional review of Malamud or Mailer, Mr. Richler usually turns the occasion into one for idiosyncrasy and recollection.

Moreover, they are written from a number of wry angles, some of them coming from Mr. Richler's intelligently common sense radical view of two forms of provincialism he knows very well indeed, the Jewish and the Canadian: and some from the fact that for a Jewish novelist he has taken the unpredictable tack of finding his cosmopolis not in New York but in London. More still come from the fact that the pieces address heterodox reading-publics…. (p. 117)

It all seems to go to show that it is, as they say, hard to know who one is nowadays: but actually Mr. Richler knows very well. He is a confessed product of the 1940s, when one was interested in pop not because it was camp but because it was what there was, just as he says as a student he and his friends had sex in the afternoon not because they were radical or alienated but because they were horny…. [With] confident opinionation he cuts through the glossy romanticisms and belaboured intellectual worries in the interests of establishing the real feel of the thing.

The three essays on Canada and Canadianism here (while not as good as his brilliant treatment of the same thing in his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) have some of the best insights into provincial cosmopolitanism, mainly because Mr. Richler observes, collects and remembers the essential data with at once an ironic and a sympathetic vision. The basic tactic of compassion and irony is very funny and it brings him right into the middle of the enclaves of kitsch. (p. 118)

The targets are never too easy since Mr. Richler is fully involved—as the Canadian-Jewish good-bad boy of the 1940s who himself went through both the bourgeois and the intellectual apprenticeship…. The kids on the block and what became of them through the past twenty years of complex history really form the theme that runs behind these pieces. The time is one in which it became easier to be a Jew (and Mr. Richler is excellent on the inept touchiness of hard-core Jewish culture, which he has constantly offended). (pp. 118-19)

But easier can be harder. Mr. Richler is a writer of ironies, detachment, and comic involvements rather than a voice of exile or anomaly; but one can see in his writings why the Jewish writer or intellectual might have gone a good deal deeper into self-doubt. In a critically...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

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sharp review of Malamud'sThe Fixer, he points out the way in which the Jewish writer tends, his modern experience being now pretty well on file in the Jewish-American efflorescence of the 1950s, to hark back to origins, to the shtetl or the archetypal pogrom. Mr. Richler himself holds to the fascination of ordinary origins, and comes out as a grand supra-provincial….

This is a lively book, the more illuminating if you consider Mordecai Richler, and he goes on giving us more and more grounds for thinking so, an important novelist. And it is a usefully oblique insight into a body of experience that the Jewish-American novelists have gone through with more tension and bravura, but with a good deal less irony and humour. (p. 119)

"On the Block," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 23, 1969 (and reprinted in Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps, McGraw-Hill Company, 1971, pp. 117-19).

G. David Sheps

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In their themes and motifs, Mordecai Richler's novels return regularly to a constant set of preoccupations. Despite this consistency, however, his career as a novelist has undergone some interesting alterations in terms of his moral attitudes towards his favourite preoccupations. This change of outlook has naturally been accompanied by a change in style and genre. It would have been difficult, on the basis of his early naturalistic novels, to anticipate the satirist and caricaturist who emerged with The Incomparable Atuk and Cocksure…. Occasional satirical elements are utilized by most novelists. It is another matter altogether to step from a dominant narrative mode of realistic characterization, verisimilitude of action and psychological plausibility to a dominant mode of conscious caricature in characterization, purposeful implausibility of action and fantasy in events. For a novelist to alter his style and narrative mode so decisively, a deliberate change in moral outlook must have occurred…. One of the theses of this interpretation is that, philosophically, Richler has moved from a tentative Romanticism to a kind of Classicism. (pp. ix-x)

In Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, we can already see most of the materials that recur in his later work: power, egoism, self-realization, struggle for survival, the conflict of generations and youthful rebelliousness, the need to escape from a confining environment, the sense of moral disillusionment and the fear of failure. The form of his first novel (and of all his naturalistic novels) is that most traditional of fictional structures: the attempted progress of the sensitive young man … in escaping the fetters of an inhibiting situation and in advancing towards a form of independence, realization of what he takes to be his inherent potentialities or worldly success and recognition. In other words Richler's theme is that of the attempted rise from rags to riches, on several moral and aesthetic levels. (p. x)

This configuration, of course, is not surprising in a novelist. It is a truism that the novel is the bourgeois literary form. Theorists of the novel, like Ian Watt, have emphasized that the novel is specifically the literary form which is structured by the sense of time and movement as progressive, qualitative change, i.e. the notion that time must not be wasted and that the measurement of time should also measure changes in the person's status or situation…. Naturally it reflects a society where social mobility and the idea of self-development are both possible and social and psychological imperatives. The novel, therefore, is the form which best expresses romantic individualism…. Richler's novels are located in bourgeois time. His young men in a hurry or on the make (whether the hustler, Duddy Kravitz; the impatient aesthete, André Bennett; or the mixture of the two, Noah Adler) are the distant cousins, not only of Paul Morel, Stephen Dedalus and Sammy Glick, but also of Raskolnikov, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler. Like these nineteenth century heroes and heroines, they are manic depressive (the characteristic bourgeois psychosis, if we can believe the evidence of Ibsen and Flaubert). They urgently need to succeed and are haunted by the fear of failure; they alternate between delusions of triumph and a suicidal sense of utter emptiness.

Richler's novels differ, however, in that they are obviously of the middle of the twentieth century and lack much of the partial optimism current in the previous century. His characters are acutely aware that they come after the disillusionment with several twentieth-century revolutions and causes…. Richler's characters, for all their ambition and energy, really know from the beginning that either they are defeated or their outcomes will be much drearier than their apparent victories might indicate. Duddy Kravitz, for example, appears successful in achieving his ambition. But there is every indication that he has been metamorphosed into something very like his antagonist, the odious Jerry Dingleman.

A further problem for Richler's protagonists (and it is a problem, often, with the novels themselves) is that they do not know what it is they are seeking…. They insist that salvation lies only in the adoption of personal values, but they are not sure which personal values to hold. The statement, in fact, becomes a mechanical formula with which they try to persuade themselves of something, rather than any passionately held and confident sense of personal identity. This becomes a problem for the reader as well as for the fictional character and represents the greatest weakness in Richler's writings. I don't mean to suggest that Richler ought to supply his characters with a facile affirmation. The problem is a genuine one. (This, I suppose, is why some people have referred to Richler's "existentialism." But this kind of comment, besides betraying a lack of understanding of existentialism as a philosophical standpoint, is itself a facile evasion of a problem and a retreat into a mechanistic formula.)

To be frank, it gets rather boring to be told repeatedly that all the good old causes are dead, that one knows what one dislikes but not what one likes, and then to be expected to be deeply concerned with the activities and fate of a very self-serving and self-pitying character. (pp. x-xii)

For myself, I am always rather puzzled by critics … who take at face value the moral posturings of many of Richler's main characters. After all, if we look at them with a cold eye, we often get a picture in which they appear something like this: they are egocentric and insensitive to others; they are ruthless and are basically indifferent even to those they sometimes claim to love; they will exploit or misuse their closest friends and relatives often on not much more than a whim; their claims to their own moral sensitivity and dilemmas are generally self-serving; they are usually contemptuous of the causes served by others at great personal risk; and they give little evidence of possessing either the kind of intelligence or knowledge which would be required to sustain the complexities and subtleties of the moral consciousness to which they pretend. Indeed, most of Richler's youthful rebels and idealistic questers share many characteristics with the hypocritical older generation, or the corrupt society, or the oppressors against whom they appear to be in revolt. (p. xiii)

[Nevertheless, Richler makes] claims on the reader to view with sympathy and concern the problems of his heroes. As many critics have pointed out, the author is often emotionally engaged himself with his heroes. This clear call for sympathy with these figures, many of whom objectively have unsympathetic or dull personalities, has divided Richler's readers. These are those who find the novels almost wholly objectionable because of the repugnant qualities of so many of the characters. Others are taken in by the postures adopted by his sensitive or lonely young men and thus uncritically proceed to sentimentalize these figures as courageous knights who assault the unrelieved evil of a corrupt society…. (p. xiv)

There is another possible approach to the reading of Richler's novels. One of the most interesting facts about these novels is that the ostensible heroes and the ostensible villains share many qualities. It is entirely possible to regard the apparent heroes unsympathetically and to respond even to the most malevolent figures, like the Nazi Kraus, Melech Adler, or Karp, sympathetically. Indeed, Richler's ability to make his characters sufficiently complex and humanly ambiguous, in a perfectly plausible manner, and to supply enough information so that we understand how they got to be the way they are is one of his most striking achievements. Some critics may fail to see the humanity in an apparently monstrous figure or naively may be taken in by a putatively sympathetic figure, but Richler the novelist does not make these mistakes.

Others have noted that Richler's characters are often "survivors" and that much of their energy is consumed by the strategies of survival in a competitive and hostile world. This is true enough. The Richler characters often have the wary, suspicious, necessarily egoistic psychology of the survivor. They move through life like tacticians, are survivors of concentration camps; various forms of persecution, war, or poverty; or simply painfully traumatic personal experiences and shattered dreams and ideals. They are frequently the floating debris of the wreckage of the modern period and this mental set conditions them to ruthlessness, emotional detachment and scepticism. Whatever hopes they have are tempered by an instinctive awareness of great odds against them. This often concludes in cynicism, barely suppressed hysteria, or submissive resignation. (p. xv)

This leads us to a consideration which is at the heart of Richler's books. The figures of the romantic individualist and the survivor merge. But not only in the obvious sense that the survivor is perforce an isolated individual. What I am suggesting is that the very concept of the romantic quest of the individual hero, either for worldly success or for self-realization, is itself treated in Richler's novels as a part of the debris that lingers after a cultural wreckage. Although Richler's heroes, from André Bennett to Duddy Kravitz, embrace this romantic concept, the concept itself is no longer wholly intact for these characters. There is something inauthentic, even spurious, about the quality of their hopes and quests. It is intimately related to their sense that they know what they oppose, but not what they positively want. And it is the reason they cannot formulate their ambitions with any more precision than that. There is the sense with several of Richler's more important characters that they must, even involuntarily, engage in individualistic, quixotic quests—although they can't say why and are sceptical if any reasons are proffered. Ironically, the young Richler hero has a culturally induced instinct—almost a blind instinct—to be rebellious, individualistic, iconoclastic. He must revolt against an Establishment and its values, whether that establishment be represented by a paternal figure, a teacher or professor, a philistine capitalist or a religious fanatic. They know they don't like these things, but will quickly admit that they can't suggest anything that is necessarily better. Significantly, collective actions like socialism are also spurned, but a bit more respectfully. (pp. xvi-xvii)

Characteristically, Richler's protagonists are those romantic, adolescent (of whatever age) "rebels without a cause" popularized by James Dean in the 1950s. This hero has no particular notions about the reconstruction of society or about the reconstruction of himself. His individualism is a matter of posture, a stance without content he adopts in opposition to his society. Hence, it is often expressed as a generational conflict between fathers (or grandfathers) and sons, as this is generally the most content-less of conflicts and the most readily articulated in terms of style of life—as only styles change drastically in a single generation. (pp. xvii-xviii)

I don't mean to pretend that some of Richler's figures do not suffer genuinely at the hands of their parents or communities. In many cases they clearly do and they are sometimes authentically shocked or repelled by hypocrisies they encounter. But frequently the degree of their contempt seems unwarranted by the objective quality of the putative cause…. Throughout the novels there are many instances where a younger man voluntarily assumes the psychological role of son to an older man or woman and then turns against them. The older person is usually childless, but wants children, and seeks out surrogate children who will betray them. If the youthful Richler hero may be described as simply wanting to "do his thing," his thing often enough seems to be devouring his parent figures. The surrogate father figures, like Norman Price and Theo Hall, pay their nostalgic respects to their own vanished youth by willingly presenting themselves for the feast, masochistically re-enacting themselves in their surrogate children.

Clearly defined motives and desires do not exist in relation to these figures, even for Duddy Kravitz and his ambition to acquire land. Rather, there are threads of various possible motives, often mutually contradictory, in the same person: escape from poverty and weakness, a search for economic security, the vague need to define one's own identity, a desire for a form of ecstasy, and others. To put it another way, their motives are a mixture of the varieties of motives that can be isolated in the heroes and heroines of nineteenth century literature. (pp. xviii-xix)

The repression and distortion of aesthetic values into their antitheses is one of the themes of Richler's writings. The more closely one examines the typical Richler character, the more evident it becomes that his actions are predicated on the idea of the expression of sensibility itself. It is not only the idea that the inner, private sensibility ought to remain inviolate … Richler's characters often aspire as well towards existing on a plane of pure, exquisite sensibility; a form of ecstasy. This, too, is in the Romantic tradition and is usually represented as the beatific side of the romantic individualist's medal. It is the reverse, yet the mirror image … of the individualist as robber baron or mercenary buccaneer. (pp. xix-xx)

As early as André Bennett in The Acrobats, Richler has figures who are partly driven by a sense of guilt or the memory of a dishonourable past of which they would like to purge themselves. Their striving for autonomy and the kind of fresh start which might release them from past generations and traditions is related to this. (p. xx)

The apparently inconsistent and confused motivations, the intransigent negativism, the moral attitudinizing, and the nebulously inarticulate anti-authoritarianism of Richler's heroes can be resolved and made articulate by the idea of sensibility. The characters usually will themselves into the attitude of the neo-Byronic hero. Thumbing their noses at an Establishment becomes the main expression and content of their rebellion, an act more of gesture than of coherent substance. A curious determinism, in fact, has molded them into the style and expression of "free spirits." Psychologically and historically they are the consequences of the romantic cult of self-expression, long after the substance has been drained out of the concept and all that remains are the involuntary reflexes of the old romantic revolution. As Marx said of historical repetition, the first time is tragedy and the second time is farce. History weighs heavily, if unconsciously, on these youths. But it is a specific history which has run its course and has left them only with the possibility of compulsively mechanical gestures which once, perhaps, had meaning.

These youths, after all, are the inheritors of the propaganda of the romantic era. Their imaginations have been nourished by the contemporary packaged versions of the dreams of that era: Byronism filtered through Hollywood films, the legends of heroically successful self-made men, and unreal images of a war in Spain ironically made seductively exotic through the songs of the losing side. In the synthetic myths of their popular culture, objective disparities and contradictions merge into a unitary image of glamour where capitalism's rugged individualist and the itinerant revolutionist present a single model to be imitated. Sensing also that this image presents a false model of reality, they nonetheless are fired by the romance they feel it ought to mirror. This accounts for their own mimicry of a posture they know to be anachronistic and their deep resentment of that history and those older generations which foisted such a dream upon them. (pp. xxi-xxii)

[It is] true that the older generation in Richler's work … have been sons to other fathers and have also been inspired and victimized by similar visions. This links the dilemmas of fathers and sons in an intergenerational iron chain of determinism where, with considerable irony, they are almost mechanically programmed to re-enact the ceremonies of "free spirits."

It is for this reason (although the process began in A Choice of Enemies) that in Atuk and Cocksure the most contemptuous satire is reserved for the information media—the world of film, TV, advertising, journalism and publishing—the pop culture industries which manipulate dreams and visions, determine the sensibilities of the populace, tamper with souls en masse. Star Maker (radically complete unto himself, the consummation of Romanticism), in Cocksure, is thus far Richler's most remarkably concentrated symbol for the destructively manipulative force of a spent historical romanticism. (p. xxii)

There is only so far an author can go with a historical and cultural situation which is trapped in a dead-end sensibility of burnt-out romanticism where the sensitive young men of the bourgeois epoch are fated to acting out illusions they can no longer believe. This, of course, is one of the fundamental problems of the novel today. The fact that the novel developed while formulating the ideology of that epoch is an important reason why so many contemporary novels are reduced to synthetically frenetic repetitions of the ethos of Huckleberry Finn. It is as if frenzied overstatement could resurrect the culturally dead the way Baroque art sought to restore the late medieval ethos through exaggeration of expression. An approach to Richler's writings like that of his earlier commentator Warren Tallman, who fundamentally misreads the import and direction of these novels, only sentimentalizes the hybrid Faustianism of a Duddy Kravitz. Reading through American ideological glasses, he sees Richler's themes as variants of the antihistorical innocence of American frontier ideology and manifest destiny at the very moment when Richler is beginning to satirize this romantic Faustianism almost as lucidly as Conrad does in Heart of Darkness. Such an approach cannot account for Richler's tactical shift from involvement to detachment and his adoption of satire as a formal mode (as opposed to satirical flashes in basically naturalistic novels) while maintaining his hold on the same set of cultural materials as subject matter.

After his first four novels, it would appear that Richler clearly realized a need to get away from characters attempting to live according to the measurements of bourgeois time…. As it was, his characters had strong doubts that [progress] was possible or significant even though they tried it. Comic forms, including satire, present one way out of this situation. In satires like Atuk and Cocksure we are no longer in the world of progressive and incremental mobility, even though men and women on the make still inhabit the world of these books. But the focus of interest here is no longer on their progress…. This particular shaping of our responses is assured because the author presents his characters as self-evident stereotypes. As soon as we see them, we know what they are like without waiting for their stories to unfold. We recognize them as caricatures of familiar attitudes and behavior patterns, largely caricatures representing aspects of the world of contemporary popular culture…. The fictional time is relatively static as the characters do not grow and change. Rather, the reader simply sees layers being peeled away which reveal to him more information about the nature and meaning of the relationships and encounters among the various patterns of conduct of which the characters are emblems. The reader's response, therefore, is more cerebral than emotional. The satirical mode is closer to the purely intellectual.

One cannot, of course, assume that Richler will choose always to write in the same vein. As his perceptions of his materials change, so will his fictional techniques. But in these two latest books [Atuk and Cocksure,] he has begun to write comedy of manners and has revealed a spirit far closer to that of Congreve, Swift, and Shaw than one might have guessed from his earlier novels. (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

In my view, there is frequently an element of nihilism in the literary genre of comedy, particularly in its satirical side…. These elements of renewal and nihilism co-exist in a complex and fascinating tension. There is something about comedy that is not open-ended; that inflexibly closes off possibilities and is antipathetic to the idea of growth and change. It is not a form beloved by romantics and most of the great comic artists of English literature have not been romantics. (p. xxv)

An artist formulates and articulates the complex interactions of cultural experience. He does not prescribe for it. Richler makes no attempt at being a philosopher of history or a social visionary. Like many modern writers, he is aware that we are still wrestling with the problems bequeathed to us from the nineteenth century—that, indeed, twentieth century man is still intellectually and emotionally parasitic upon the concepts and dreams that both flourished and began to dissolve in the previous century. We still live with specific historical ghosts. The Romantic Revolution may be over, but its Faustianism is still operative in a thousand posthumous ways. Richler has no facile answers for this cultural situation and he eschews the posturings of prophecy. Proponents of a brave new world do not write comedies of manners. He is a writer devoted to his craft and the purpose of his craft is to articulate experience as it truly is. The immediate task of his craft is to discover fictional strategies for the accurate representation of reality. To represent the current dilemmas of the legacy of romanticism in the cold light of comedy is an illumination we require. (pp. xxv-xxvi)

G. David Sheps, in his introduction to Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps (copyright 1971; reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, Toronto), Ryerson Press, 1971, pp. ix-xxvi.

F. M. Birbalsingh

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[Canadianism and Jewishness] jointly form the main theme of [Richler's] fiction and the chief concern of all his writing. His novels deal, in general, with the large national problem of assimilating a Canadian identity out of disparate racial and cultural elements and, in particular, with the process of assimilating Jewish elements into an integrated Canadian culture.

Richler's first full-length work of fiction, The Acrobats, may be regarded as a beginner's novel. Its chief technique is to string together some of the author's most worrying dissatisfactions into a pastiche that is only mildly satirical. The satire is not completely effective because the writing is too derivative, relying more on the over-used jargon of literary idols like Hemingway and Dos Passos rather than on an individual style that bears the stamp of the author's own personality and conviction. Indeed, the most striking feature of this first novel is that the author has no firm or sincere convictions. His philosophical ideas are unstable and imprecise and represent a spontaneous overflow of merely personal grievances whose principal intention, it seems, is to afford the author psychological relief rather than express balanced or thoroughly digested opinions.

The Acrobats is greatly influenced by ideas and modes of thought which were fashionable during the decade of the 1950s; for it was the era of Lucky Jim and On the Road, of Colin Wilson and Allen Ginsberg, the Angry Young Men of England and the Beat Generation of America. Like the 1930s, it was a time when Gods had failed those who believed in them, when sensitive and intelligent young men, especially in England and America, experienced an acute sense of disillusionment because they felt there was a dearth of causes worth fighting for. They spurned traditional beliefs and could not commit themselves with any enthusiasm to such causes as were recognized by prevailing religious faiths and political allegiances. André Bennett, hero of The Acrobats, experiences the spiritual malaise of his contemporaries of the 1950s…. (pp. 72-3)

The Semitic aspect of Richler's theme is embodied in Chaim who represents the resilience of Jewishness, a faith and way of life that survives despite long and severe persecution. Neither this, however, nor the Canadian aspect of the theme is expressed with any coherence. One receives mere intimations of the author's passionate concern with Jewish-Canadianism; his attitude to his theme seems overwrought and confused. At the same time, the passion and intensity of Richler's concern are not missed. His rage and indignation are too over-powering for that. He rips into existing Canadian cultural standards and artistic achievement [with acid, searing fury]…. But this fury is not malice…. Richler's passion springs from devotion to his country, a patriotic desire to see the arts flourish in Canada, not through pretentious and insincere dilettantism or servile obsequiousness, but through the dissemination of a genuinely humane influence in a society marked by its own clearly-defined regional idiosyncrasies and cultural homogeneity. (p. 73)

Son of a Smaller Hero is set in Montreal and deals almost exclusively with Canadian subjects. The novel reproduces the local Jewish community in which the author himself grew up. The plot, such as it is, traces the career of Noah Adler, who rebels against the religious orthodoxy of his family, which he regards either as hypocritical or effete. Noah's perceptions and observations are frank and unsparing, and he holds nothing back, revealing to us with equal candour, the sneaking clannishness, inbred self-righteousness and internal squabblings of Jews, as well as the sordid anti-semitic prejudices, abandoned sexual promiscuity, and foul moral apathy of gentiles. (pp. 73-4)

To Noah [his family's] hypocrisy and duplicity are intolerable…. Noah's problem is that, as a Jewish-Canadian by birth, he feels neither wholly Jewish nor wholly Canadian. His lack of self-identity creates inner confusion and uncertainty, for it makes him spiritually rootless and places him in a moral chaos where there are no clear principles or standards by which he can regulate his thought and action. His rebellion and defiance therefore spring, not from malice or perversity, but from a vital longing for a clear identity which will free him from inner anxiety and doubt, and reconcile him to the two fundamental facts of his existence—born a Jew, and growing up in Canada.

Evidently disappointed by the result of his continuing experimentation in Son of a Smaller Hero, Richler returns to a European setting in his third novel, A Choice of Enemies. Like André Bennett, Ernst Haupt, the German hero of A Choice of Enemies, is worried by a dearth of causes worth fighting for. His sense of disillusionment is, however, less frenzied than André's, and his philosophical speculation more sophisticated. Ernst realizes that his problem is not simply to choose enemies, that is, to acknowledge loyalty to one side of the universal conflict between good and evil; firm loyalty to either side of this conflict can be equally menacing for 'the enemy was the hit and run driver on both sides'. Ernst's frustration is tempered, more balanced than André's. The change represents the author's own increasingly objective attitude toward his subject which is produced partly by the sobering effects of the McCarthy, anti-communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. The point was not lost on Richler that in the capitalist-communist conflict of those Cold War days, McCarthy was a hit and run driver on what Richler himself believes to be the good side of the conflict.

All three novels mentioned so far should be regarded as the training ground on which the author practises and sharpens the techniques that are later to convey, with greater success, his iconoclastic wit and satire. These three novels extend and develop his capacity for lively narrative and sparkling dialogue, while they also provide an opportunity for ideological experimentation. Richler's chief worry in the first novel is to find the right cause to support. By the third novel, however, he recognizes that even so-called good causes can become bad depending upon the people and circumstances involved. His philosophical outlook is therefore chastened, more stabilized. It is not that he is made less angry and bitter by the dissatisfaction embodied in his main theme; for extreme passion is the very substance of Richler's fiction, sustaining and promoting at all times the mordancy of his insights and the catholicity of his judgements. What he gains from the experiments in the first three novels is a more articulate voice and a more stable outlook, which together allow him to speak out his discontents with no less bitterness but with greater coherence and cogency and, ultimately, to better artistic purpose.

Fortified by all he has learnt from his first three books, Richler tackles his theme head-on in the fourth, with rare gusto, and an electric energy that is unparalleled in Canadian writing in English…. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz deals with the youth and early manhood of its Jewish hero, Duddy Kravitz, who lives in a Montreal slum: it is not only Richler's most impressive work, but the best satirical novel produced by a Canadian…. [The action is] exciting and flamboyant…. With shameless self-interest, Duddy eagerly plunges into one enterprise after the other, ruthlessly eliminating rivals along the way and showing not the slightest awareness of compassion. It is a savage portrait, bordering closely on caricature; Duddy comes close to being merely a neatly packaged capsule of energy, competence, and success; but the bracing vitality, electric energy, and pointed humour of the prose makes him thoroughly convincing as a human being. Duddy's fantastic career exposes to ridicule the contemptuous goy versus contemptible Jew relationship, pouring scorn on gentile and Jew alike for failings that are, in the end, not narrowly racial and cultural, but broadly human and universal. The point is not that Duddy is a nasty Jewish 'pusherke', for his behaviour is conditioned less by personal motives than by social pressures. His nastiness is his response to an existing social phenomenon, the antipathy between Jew and goy. Thus, Duddy is what he is because goys are what they are.

To Richler, racial discrimination is not a simple issue of good versus evil. Since hit and run drivers can appear on either side of racial conflict, Jews and gentiles alike (blacks and whites too) share a common, human guilt. Existing prejudices force both Jew and gentile, black and white, to adopt stereotyped attitudes that are mutually opposed. Solution does not lie in apportioning blame, but in erasing the stereotyped characteristics of either side. In Richler's view, Jewishness, like niggerness or untouchability, for that matter, is not so much a fact as an idea, a state of mind which confers a prescribed form of behaviour on groups of people whose main common feature is that they are social minorities. As Noah says in Son of a Smaller Hero:

The important thing is not that they [the Nazis] burned Jews but that they burned men….

Time and again, in his non-fictional writing, Richler underlines the point, that Jews are people first, and whatever else attaches to them as a minority only comes second…. (pp. 75-6)

If The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz reveals the artificial qualities of Jewishness which he despises, Richler's fifth novel, The Incomparable Atuk, lays bare the synthetic aspects of Canadianism which he scorns. The hero, Atuk, is an Eskimo poet who is taken from his home in snow-bound Baffin Bay and placed in the Toronto metropolis. Slick promotion techniques soon turn him into a celebrity rubbing shoulders with the best of the urban 'soi-disant' intellectuals and sophisticates. Inevitably, he makes enemies, and is eliminated by means as slick as those which bring him wealth and fame. Atuk lacks the psychological depth of Duddy and so is more of a caricature. But this does not hinder the author's satirical method which is to give a broad and superficial exposé of those aspects of Canadian urban society of which he disapproves: its excessively commercialized habits, cultural hollowness, and moral fraudulence. These social weaknesses, in Richler's view, corrupt Canadianism and impair its natural qualities.

At one level, The Incomparable Atuk settles personal scores for the author by caricaturing certain well-known Torontonians. At another, it parodies Zionism by ridiculing the hero's views of reclaiming his Eskimo homeland. But the chief idea of the novel is not entirely limited by personal motives and polemical objectives; it is to prose an integrated Canadian identity within a comprehensive Englishspeaking culture that embraces the whole of North America. (pp. 76-7)

Arguments from preceding books are implicitly repeated [in Cocksure], while the author airs a few personal grievances against novelists he doesn't like or critics who accuse him of being anti-Semitic. Apart from all this, Cocksure is set in England, and contains English characters who do not strike us as completely successful. Richler fails to capture, with exact precision, English psychological niceties and mannerisms of speech…. The West Indian characters in Cocksure, also, are not fully convincing. The world of London is altogether too diverse and too unfamiliar to Richler, and his satire on such vaguely contemporary subjects as big business, sexual permissiveness, the communications industry, pop culture, and modern educational methods lacks sharpness and edge.

Richler's novels reveal original insights into the psychology of minorities…. (pp. 77-8)

Richler's work surpasses that of other Jewish-Canadians because it is less limited by its preoccupation with Jewishness. It falls short of American standards because he works within an unstable and debilitating national ethos that severely inhibits creativity…. Bellow's hero [Herzog] takes his Jewishness and Americanness for granted, and so can either ignore these aspects of himself, or subject them to a scrutiny whose objectivity would completely elude a Canadian hero such as Duddy Kravitz. Because of the vague and changeable national ethos in which they live, Richler's protagonists feel spiritually fragmented, and their chief concern is the desperate aim of achieving spiritual wholeness. They lack, totally, the moral equipoise that would enable them to examine their experience with the wide-ranging awareness and depth of a Moses Herzog. (pp. 79-80)

[It] is the whole substance of Richler's argument that Duddy is ridiculous because he is a bad Jew and a bad Canadian, not simply because he is Jewish-Canadian. In other words, Richler offers to his protagonists positive hope of salvation, namely, of being better Jewish-Canadians by following the true teachings of their religion and acknowledging the regional American character of their Canadian identity. (p. 81)

F. M. Birbalsingh, "Mordecai Richler and the Jewish-Canadian Novel," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (copyright by F. M. Birbalsingh 1972; by permission of Hans Zell (Publishers) Limited), June, 1972, pp. 76-82.


Mordecai Richler World Literature Analysis


Richler, Mordecai (Vol. 18)