Richler, Mordecai 1931–
Richler, a Canadian novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and children's book author, employs in his fiction a Swiftian blend of burlesque, satire, and vulgarity. "To be a Jew and a Canadian," Richler says, "is to emerge from the ghetto twice, for self-conscious Canadians, like some touchy Jews, tend to contemplate the world through a wrongended telescope." His most successful novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, chronicles the protagonist's attempt to escape the physical and psychological Jewish ghetto in Montreal. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68).
Mordecai Richler's novel, Cocksure, illustrates [a] satiric double focus on grotesque fantasy and morality. In attempting analysis, one can usefully distinguish between the two levels of satire in the novel—the first a gentle, humorous level dealing with the foibles of man, and the second a more biting, shocking level which attacks gross evils. These two levels in turn involve two different types of the grotesque.
The first level of satire involves the people and activities which touch Mortimer Griffin in his daily life as husband and father and in his part-time position as public lecturer. Griffin himself fits into the common role of ingénue evident in many satirical works from Swift to Evelyn Waugh…. Mortimer Griffin [drifts] through life, but if his educated brain allows him some superior moments of perception, his neurotic personality makes something of a grotesque of him. Griffin worries constantly about himself and about the impression he creates on others. This exaggerated self-concern is ridiculous in itself, as when he agonizes over the racist implications of picking up or not picking up the glove of the coloured girl standing ahead of him in line. Gradually his fears and anxieties become obsessive, a condition which we have seen to be typical of much grotesque fiction. The culmination of neurotic worry about his sexual adequacy is his sexual impotence.
Griffin's follies are sometimes an extension of prevailing social attitudes, which Richler satirizes by means of grotesque exaggeration. Yet Griffin is more often the passive victim of others' foolishness than he is the butt of his own…. The other characters which are part of Griffin's domestic or personal life are drawn with a more dispassionate, unsympathetic eye. On this level of folly, Richler creates characters which, on the one hand, are familiar enough to be recognizable types and, on the other hand, are exaggerated enough for the satire to be effective. (p. 96)
Most of the 'foolish' characters in Cocksure fall into the [category of purely fantastic caricature]. Joyce Griffin is an exaggeration of a recognizable type of faddish woman striving to stay 'with it' in a rapidly changing world and ardently supporting every fashionable attitude….
Miss Ryerson is an exaggeration of the old-fashioned Ontario WASP school teacher, attempting to perpetuate the ideals of yester-year's empire in a decidedly different sort of England from that of her literary dreams. Her hearty clasp of duty ('England needs me') and her confident invocation of traditional solutions against the encroachments of modern cultural and educational laxness are absurd in their inappropriateness….
One might wonder at this point why the attitudes and antics of such a group of people should be called grotesque, since exaggeration, incongruity, inappropriateness, and inversion are also familiar comic devices. Certainly the dividing line in satire between what is comedy or burlesque and what is grotesque is sometimes a fine one, and it is possible … to see all forms of comic exaggeration as grotesque. However, in this study, as has been previously discussed, the grotesque is considered to combine in varying proportions humour with horror, and...
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it is this latter ingredient which makesCocksure decidedly grotesque in most of its satire.
When dealing with follies, admittedly Richler's satire often begins as pure fun or burlesque, as, for example, the description of Ziggy's film or the early scenes with Miss Ryerson. As the story proceeds, however, a sense of something strange, bizarre, or shocking intrudes—milder terms perhaps than the word 'horror' implies, but nonetheless producing a reaction other than laughter. (p. 97)
The opposite is true in the second level of satire, which exposes characters and actions Richler obviously regarded as evil—a category centring upon the Starmaker and his cohorts. The Starmaker is as truly a gothic creation as Frankenstein, and his plans to perpetuate himself by taking new body parts from people around him and to ensure the popular success of his biographies by killing the subjects are sinister in the extreme….
It is as a possibility rather than a probability that the Starmaker is the source of the greatest terror in the book. He goes beyond the distortion of a human trait or attitude, and comes to represent the evil of all superhuman and yet inhuman manipulative forces in the modern world….
Although the grotesque which Richler creates in Cocksure underlines both follies and evils, the moral or philosophic position from which his satiric arrows take wing is less obvious. With satire, the author's stance is revealed often by implicit contrast with the distortions he projects. (p. 98)
Richler himself says that 'any serious writer is a moralist and only incidentally an entertainer.' He also maintains that with the breakdown of absolute values in the world, new personal values are needed: 'What I am looking for are the values with which in this time a man can live with honour'—a statement which points to the directedness of his grotesque fiction….
Taken as a whole, Richler's position seems to be more directed than a vague distrust of change, or dislike of progressivism. Rather … he seems to provide a warning against all forms of contemporary collectivity, be it intolerant social pressure, faddish cultural coercion, or corporate impersonality….
Perhaps a further clue to Richler's position in Cocksure is contained in Griffin's saddened description of himself…. Mortimer sees himself as ugly and grotesque, but ironically, to the reader he is clearly the least grotesque character in the book. His relative normality, as compared to the gross distortions of the other characters, indicates that he embodies what Richler sees as a fundamental decency against the world's conformist indecencies. Griffin's feeble attempts at self-honesty and humanity are inadequate and frequently ridiculous, but Richler directs his satire against his sense of inadequacy more than against his values. (p. 99)
Griffin's deportment has its own folly, but his downfall is largely linked to his susceptibility to the follies and evils of other people. Although the attitudes and values which Griffin expresses are neither the whole lesson of the story nor representative of its entire body of philosophic thought, clearly Richler has provided a moral centre to his grotesque satire in that 'much abused man, the square.' (p. 100)
Margot Northey, "Satiric Grotesque: 'Cocksure'," in her The Haunted Wilderness; The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction (© University of Toronto Press 1976), University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. 95-100.
[We] don't mind in the least that all [the tantalizing mysteries of "Joshua Then and Now"] are dangled before us without resolution until we have zigzagged all the way across Mr. Richler's teeming canvas. For he has crammed into his book so much in the way of gags, social satire, suspense, stinging dialogue, sports and political trivia … that the resolutions to these comic-pathetic mysteries are so much icing on a very rich cake.
What I admire especially about "Joshua Then and Now" is that Mr. Richler never permits his comic shticks to run away with his story. This not only establishes him as superior member of a certain class of contemporary Jewish novelists … who is so burdened by the weight of his past experience and the vulnerability of being human, that only the most outrageous clowning will serve to keep the pain at bay. It also enables Mr. Richler to keep in precarious balance the sort of outlandish situation comedy that explains why Joshua is wearing those lace panties at the beginning, and the tragic family situation that has caused his wife to have a nervous breakdown.
How does Mr. Richler manage this balance? Simply by scrambling Joshua's past into so many brief scenes that no single mood or character (except Joshua, of course) is ever permitted to dominate the novel. Yet the dozens of scenes skipping back and forth in time are so skillfully interlocked that a reader never loses track or interest. (pp. 337-38)
[Mr. Richler] succeeds in portraying the warm father-son relationship that exists between Reuben and Joshua, especially in contrast to the mutually destructive one that persists between Pauline's father, the WASPy Senator, and her playboy brother, Kevin. And thus he satirizes both the upwardly mobile Jews of Montreal and their smugly racist gentile counterparts, yet still manages to paint a telling portrait of their uneasy and mutually fascinated relationship.
Not everything in the book works perfectly. The incident in Ibiza does not live up to its enticing promise, mainly because a German who humiliates Joshua, Dr. Gunther Mueller (he has two doctorates, both awarded in Vienna), is too broad a caricature to come into focus as a character. And the ending of the book is a touch on the sentimental side for a novel that has wreaked so much satirical havoc. But all in all "Joshua Then and Now" is a remarkable bittersweet accomplishment. Its slapstick and pathos blend artfully to make a wine of unique flavor. (p. 338)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Joshua Then and Now'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 27, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 7, 1980, pp. 337-38).
Mordecai Richler's latest novel, Joshua Then and Now, is, in spite of the vengeance, meanness, envy, hatred, mindless japery and cruelty that trouble its pages, a love story—often oxygen-deprived, harsh, battering, but, nevertheless, a love story, even, in a way, a happy-ending fairy tale…. (p. 58)
Jack Ludwig, "Keeping a Sheet on Everybody: The New Richler Novel" (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 95, No. 5, June, 1980, pp. 58-9.
[Joshua Then and Now] is a very funny and often wrenching book,… [a] clamorous, bumpily comic chronicle….
Richler crowds his hero's long voyage with as many colorful folk as on any ship of fools…. [He depicts] a world's worth of people who spend their passions raking at each other with the sharpened claws of class and religion and race even as they grapple to get into each other's pants.
Joshua would seem to have made good in all this welter. Look at his faithful but still full-blooded marriage, his solidly successful career. Look at how every five pages he's telling someone off to his or her face. Look how well scornful Joshua knows the score…. (p. 36)
So why, then, does the book open in the present with this 47-year-old Joshua a rumple of fractures in a hospital bed, his name unfairly linked to a scandalous faggotry, his wife doped groggy in a nuthouse and he himself being watched over by his two elderly fathers, not Mr. Cocksure anymore at all?
The reason, as Joshua Then and Now fleshes out, is Time. That cruelest of fathers is committing physical violence on Joshua's dearest friends (and crucial enemies) and performing such devious mental assaults as transforming the land of the Spanish Civil War (life-long symbol for Joshua of old-fashioned, manhood-making right and wrong) into a tourist schlockarama, where Communist functionaries sit leafing through Hustler. Time destroys even our personal ancient histories, discovers Joshua; we are called upon to bury them, and make new ones in these strange new lands….
So much for thumbnail. The first part of Joshua Then and Now, strong on our hero's crazy childhood, is full of tang and flavor, really first-rate, as is the character of dad Reuben (I'd nominate him for the pantheon of memorable comics, Sam Weller section). Later on, the business of age and change has authentic, resonant power; there is much wit and legitimate, accurate acidity in the social satire. The writing throughout, while never the work of a stylist as such, constructs a fine tempo. Richler, a major league pro in top form here with character, dialogue, and situation knows how to make comedy with breadth, if that's news to many people.
To be honest, I did pick up a few stones in my boot along the way, especially after Joshua's childhood. Some of the character painting (as of the lecherous Seymour) has, I must say, a lot of schmaltz and corn mixed in. Furthermore, Richler's predisposition for the street-born, for the booze, boobs, and ballgame trinitarians, and his sneers at left-libs and Causes—these prejudices grow a little rancid. A couple of times the pages of Joshua Then and Now fairly billow with the smoke of a satiric auto-da-fe—patsies being burned at the stake by the heaped fires of Richler's unmitigated scorn….
But these are stones, as I say, not landslides. My abiding grievance with Joshua Then and Now is that so much of it has an enticingly autobiographical texture that I sit here lashed by desires to know how much of this novel really happened, what really did happen, who are the real life models, etc. (Alas, I have no way of finding out, unless I hire a private detective.) And I ask myself, If a lot of this book is in fact somehow autobiographical, would it have been even more powerful without the mascara of fiction, as straight memoir?
Be that as it may, we have this Joshua Then and Now, and it's a most special accomplishment just as it stands. (p. 37)
Barry Yourgrau, "Of Time and Montreal," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 22, June 2, 1980, pp. 36-7.
The first time Joshua Shapiro [of Joshua Then and Now] and his prospective father-in-law, Senator Stephen Andrew Hornby, meet, neither wastes time on preliminaries. (p. 30)
In this contentious encounter between Joshua and the senator you have the book's major themes in miniature: Jewish cheek pitted against Anglo-Canadian snobbery; the special asperity that passes between two cultures that recognize and fear in each other the stubbornness and drive that they cherish in themselves; and the refusal of the modern Jew, who is no longer deterred by pogroms and legal disabilities, to knuckle under. (pp. 30-1)
What is not yet apparent in this fierce testing of wills is that it is the first step toward the eventual reconciliation of both men on grounds entirely congenial to both. Joshua's marriage to Pauline Hornby fulfills not only St. Urbain Street's dream of the mansions of Outremont, but also Anglo Canada's dream of the ghetto Jew….
As Richler portrays the social drama of Jewish enterprise and success, the Jew muscles in or marries in (the daughter being the soft spot in Anglo cultural armor) only to learn that, not only was it easy, but the conquered province is not so strange a place: its inner values—striving, achievement, competitive superiority—are much like his own, if not so desperately enacted, while its visible cultural practices—the golf, the drinking, the snobbery—are readily tolerated, even happily taken up. The meeting of Jew and WASP in marriage and business is the discovery, by one puritan culture gone soft, of another much like itself….
Joshua Shapiro is another one of Richler's Jewish arrivistes, like Duddy Kravitz and Jerry "the Boy Wonder" Dingleman of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Jacob Hersh of St. Urbain's Horseman…. He comes on like a Canadian Howard Cosell, or, more precisely, like Reuben Shapiro, former lightweight champion of Canada, who once went eight rounds with Sammy Angott and, when his fighting days were finished, did odd jobs for the syndicate. Joshua's most vivid childhood memories of Reuben are of his leaving home in strange cars—by climbing into the trunk. Joshua may be a literary sort who mourns for Republican Spain in his spare time, but he is every inch Reuben's boy. "My father brought me up to believe I would only be making one trip round," he boasts. "So I want a good life available on terms that do not offend me. I also intend to enjoy myself." You won't find those sentiments in the Talmud, but they are no less Jewish for that.
As such unrelieved bragging suggests, Joshua is a fairly unpleasant fellow, and indeed, though his exploits are unfailingly vivid and engaging—even fun—they rarely elicit from us much enthusiasm for Joshua himself. He is as callow as he is clever, and, one suspects, Richler means him to be an anti-type, to stand against the more common brands of self-congratulation that are endemic to Jewish fiction. From Sholom Aleichem and his Tevye to Bellow and Malamud, with their Herzogs, Sammlers, Bobers, and Dubins, Jewish fiction has repeatedly thrown up figures of wisdom and endurance, observance and rectitude, who are always asking rigged questions like "How shall a good man live?" and showing, after a moment of dubious hesitation, that they knew, they knew, they knew all along. Richler, by contrast, adheres to a tradition of dissent that runs from Isaac Babel's Odessa stories through Daniel Fuchs's Williamsburg Trilogy and Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, which finds more color, more life, and more fidelity to the facts of Jewish existence in the demimonde of hustlers, heavies, strong-arm types, and men on the make than in the heroes of menshlichkeit. This countermyth should not be mistaken for Jewish "self-hatred" or embarrassment, for it is a self-regard of a different sort, in which vigor and tenacity are celebrated instead of saintliness. Richler's affection for these quarrelsome, grasping Jews is genuine, and if he fails at last to make his Joshua an appealing figure, we should not conclude that he loves him any the less. And yet, for all the attention lavished on him, Joshua never comes to life as a person, and remains throughout a cultural attitude: a hunger, a rhythm, an accelerated pace, a violence of mind.
If I've slighted Richler's plot, it is not because Joshua's story lacks interest, but because the episodic march of his adventures never amounts to a destiny. Things happen to him because Richler wants them to, rather than because they have to. However, because Richler has a wild imagination, Joshua's life is eventful in a bizarre sort of way. (pp. 31-2)
But all this frenetic activity takes a back seat to the drama, now become the comedy, of race and class that so possesses Richler, and to the intricate harmonics of his voice, which simply overpower his narrative. This voice is the demiurge of Richler's writing, a supersonic machine that propels him forward from one episode to the next, turning everything it touches into anecdote and comedy….
Richler sets a fast pace; you have to sprint to keep up. "There is nothing he will not try to package with humor and anguish," Roger Sale once complained of an earlier Richler novel, and while the point holds no less true for Joshua Then and Now, the sheer virtuosity of Richler's style has to be conceded. Richler is a high-energy artist, one of the best in the business, and if you enjoy watching him perform and can forget that the novel is now supposed to be a cultural sacrament, "Ulysses or bust" emblazoned on every dust jacket, then this book will give you your money's worth. (p. 32)
Mark Shechner, "Books and the Arts: 'Joshua Then and Now'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 24, June 14, 1980, pp. 30-2.
Joshua Shapiro [of Joshua Then and Now] is Mordecai Richler's irresistible incarnation of the Wandering Jew, returned to Canada after two decades of scouring the planet for his inheritance, "any inheritance, weightier than the construction of a transcontinental railway, a reputation for honest trading, good skiing conditions." A TV celebrity and sportswriter whose fame inspires envy and anger in many of his overachieving buddies from the shtetl of St. Urbain Street in Montreal, Shapiro is nonetheless up against it. He's in the hospital with multiple fractures, his wonderful goyisheh wife is on the lam, his "homosexual" correspondence has been leaked to the press, and he is being hounded by reporters anxious to show that this media heavy is light in the loafers. Shapiro is a familiar Jewish type, a man in the vanguard of suffering. Oy vay, does he have problems. But give him 435 pages and all will be explained.
Joshua then, and now, has an appetite for vindictive triumph. Richler never writes better than when Joshua, in his role as Jewish avenger, is allowed to "glow with ill will." Life has betrayed his early political idealism; the only great cause left is getting his tuchis off the table….
Richler writes funny. Laughter, not chicken soup, is the real Jewish penicillin, doing shtick while waiting for the coronary. Richler's characters enter as philosophers and exit as stand-up comics, firing zingers as they go…. The narrative gusto of Joshua Then and Now rushes the reader past its longueurs and turns it into a kind of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu for the Ritz Brothers. In its mournful hilarity, the novel is a mosaic of four worlds: contemporary Canada, Ibiza and London in the fifties and sixties, and growing up poor and Jewish in Montreal in the thirties and forties. In the end, for Shapiro and Richler, chutzpa conquers all.
John Lahr, "Shrieks and Kvetches: 'Joshua Then and Now'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 24, June 16, 1980, p. 79.
In a volume of his essays, Mordecai Richler once quoted with relish a question he was asked after lecturing to a Jewish audience in his native Canada: "Why is it that everybody loved Sholem Aleichem, but we all hate you?" He went on to suggest that his writing infuriates not only Jews but Canadians of all races and creeds because he writes with "a certain skepticism, a tendency to deflate," exactly what's needed, he felt, to discipline those given to anxious special pleading.
Another explanation would be that Mordecai Richler loves to be hated, that he's a temperamentally ill-natured writer whose art, as essayist or novelist, consists of being as offensive as possible to everyone who comes his way. In this view, he was doubly lucky in his birth, having been given both Canadians and Jews, with their richly varied sensitivities, to push around.
Mr. Richler's new novel, "Joshua Then and Now," will win him few new friends, gentile or Jew, north of the border, and it will sound familiar to readers of his other fiction, where the figure of a humbly-born Jewish-Canadian with creative talents or aspirations and a hearty contempt for both his natal cultures, is more or less standard….
Mr. Richler's imagination seems not to be strongly engaged by the upper-class melodrama Joshua disapprovingly but helplessly witnesses—Fitzgerald and even O'Hara did this sort of thing so much better, long ago. "Joshua Then and Now" is much more at ease with its Jewish materials, in this case the vulgarity and pathos Joshua sees in the lives of the men he went to school with, now prosperous but by no means comfortable in the world they have nominally mastered. But here again ill-feeling overcomes understanding and possible sympathy. (p. 11)
Joshua is represented as a kind of nihilist who nevertheless stands for the only kind of integrity possible in a corrupt world. Toward the end Pauline tells him that "You turned out to be more moral than we were," and the author seems to agree. Joshua will do just about anything…. But apparently we're to think that he is redeemed by his ability to feel something like shock at what other people, or even he himself, are capable of, and to recognize in the predicaments of others—his brother-in-law, for example, accused perhaps falsely of fraud—some possible affinity to his own moments of undeserved humiliation.
This novel seems most alive, however, not when Joshua is experiencing purported moral understanding but when his gift for animosity exercises itself more or less freestyle….
Comedy is a rough and self-assertive art. In even the gentlest and most loving portraits of human absurdity—Sterne's Uncle Toby, say, or Dickens's Joe Gargery—there are traces of contempt, hints of the artist's satisfaction in being more than his subject is, and Mr. Richler is not to be blamed for being malevolent or morally unfocused or excessive. "You never know what is enough," Blake said, "unless you know what is more than enough." But predictable excess is less exciting, and Mr. Richler's ways of going too far aren't always very surprising….
Mindless good feeling is an enemy to the intelligent life, but so is habitual ill-feeling, since it spoils the hope of making any useful distinctions. I wish, for example, that Mr. Richler could have done more than make rather easy jokes about the issue of French separatism….
"Joshua Then and Now" in fact ends with a withdrawal from the world in which difficult distinctions need to be made…. [The] ending would be stronger if it were clearer that Joshua's public disasters weren't mostly his own fault, that he had at least tried to meet an unsatisfactory world half way, that his defeat is in some part a disenchantment and not just a confirmation of his author's worst expectations.
"Joshua Then and Now" is frequently an amusing book and never a boring one, however questionable its claim to moral seriousness may be. But it seems dangerously similar in theme, situation and personnel to a number of Mordecai Richler's other novels—"Son of a Smaller Hero," "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," "Cocksure" and "St. Urbain's Horseman." It's as if a rich and unusual body of fictional material had become a kind of prison for a writer who is condemned to repeat himself ever more vehemently and inflexibly. So what else is new? (pp. 24-5)
Thomas R. Edwards, "Mordecai Richler Then and Now," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1980, pp. 11, 24-5.
We must separate the writer from his or her fictional hero. This is a first rule of literary judgment. Joshua Shapiro is the hero. He is a writer….
Joshua did become famous as a star of personality on Canadian television, for which he had contempt. "Anybody good on camera was an abomination to him, yet he owed his reputation to television."
Mordecai Richler, on the other hand, according to his publisher, "is generally considered Canada's most important writer…." All right, now I am clear that Joshua Shapiro cannot be Richler, and I am glad. Here is a book in which viewpoint is so perfectly rendered, so exquisitely pure, that the author successfully places himself at an invisible distance.
This leaves Joshua exposed, and the trouble may be that it's Joshua I don't like. I find it difficult to root for him. I don't like him. He is one of those people who reviews books to slam writers—"scabrous reviews, outbidding everybody in invective."…
Writers like Joshua lose their moral grasp. The pranks of boyhood are crimes when men commit them. Joshua instructs his friend Murdoch how to live on nonexistent credit. The passage is amusing if you find it so, and there are others, for Richler at his best is sprightly, crisp, crackling, good at cataloguing things.
When the pranks of boyhood bear consequences in the mature (anyhow later) years I become sick inside watching it happen. Joshua's desperation produces calamity….
Joshua appears to be very confused at this point, and so am I. "Although Shapiro," says his fictional antagonist, "could not be reckoned a writer of the first rank, he had written a book of some significance on the Spanish Civil War and was considered by many to be a sporting journalist of note." This is a fair, just, correct analysis of Joshua by Richler. Richler is also considered by many people to be a sporting journalist of note, as well as a novelist.
This is his first novel in nine years, a masterpiece of imitative form, resplendent with every imaginable failure of characterization, relevance, style, or grammar; loaded with gratuitous obscenity, genital prurience, pointless melodrama, disconnected anecdotage; it contains a very large cast of unrealized people—exactly the novel poor wretched Joshua would write if he could gather himself together long enough for sustained work.
Mark Harris, "Canadian Star without Brilliance," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), June 29, 1980, p. 5.
Successful, famous, and possessed of a demonic sense of humor, Joshua is living a kind of satiric Pilgrim's Progress, making his way through a crazy world with a few good breaks and a lot of chutzpah.
Despite the vast number of topical references that contribute to its bite, Joshua Then and Now is good enough to last, perhaps Richler's best novel to date. Moving back and forth in time and place, from Canada in the 1940s to Spain and England in the 1950s and 1960s, the book never loses stride in its pursuit of the truth, whether that truth is mockable or tragic or, most often, somewhere in between. Every character gets a fair and full treatment, and Richler's considerable ability as a humorist is apparent throughout.
What lifts Joshua Then and Now from being a very funny novel to being a fine one, however, is the power of its theme. Richler has chosen Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love" as his epigram, and it is love that suffuses this book with delight. Love of place, ideas, and friends is rare enough in contemporary literature; married love, the kind that can outlast any sort of trouble, is almost nonexistent. Joshua has it all, in spades.
"Life and Letters: 'Joshua Then and Now'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 246, No. 1, July, 1980, p. 84.
[Joshua Then and Now] is intermittently wonderful but it is told in such a way that it is occasionally short-circuited. Between the beginning, where he is recuperating from an accident—"You're lucky to be alive," says the doctor. "I'll be the judge of that," thinks Joshua—to the reasonably hopeful ending, he contemplates his entire life, but not sequentially. The nervous bits and pieces collide to constitute too intricate and deliberate a puzzle. The freewheeling energy that is Mordecai Richler's style and the overplotting—particularly in the Ibiza sections—are at odds with each other. (p. 22)
Nora Magid, "What Happened to Everybody?" in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 1, July 5, 1980, pp. 22-4.
Of course, Joshua's [racist] outbursts can be explained away as the spasms of a mind twisted with jealous rage, but they're still coarse, particularly in a novel which prides itself on its heart-bruised Jewish sensitivity. Besides: even in calmer moments, Joshua acts as if all blacks make their homes in the trees….
A slapstick farce, Joshua Then and Now shuttles back and forth in time, tracing Joshua's bunged-up life from his boy-hood in a St. Urbain cold-water flat to his misadventures in London bedsitting rooms and Hollywood bungalows. It's a book full of pranks, excursions, roguish couplings, and smutty wisecracks, but the look!-we've-come-through exuberance of Richler's earlier work is sadly missing. As Joshua rattles from decade to decade the novel turns into a male-menopausal moan, a lament for lost energy and idealism in a tone of intellectual condescension and racist rancor. Richler scores easily (too easily) off New Statesman radicals and Hollywood liberals, scattering these pseuds like pins into the gutter. Swept into the gutter with them are the objects of radical-chic agitation: Third World blacks….
The comedy of Richler's previous novels is based on a cunning understanding of the sneaky motives of flunkies and upstarts. Perhaps his most brilliant set-piece is the chapter in St. Urbain's Horseman describing a Sunday morning softball game on London's Hampstead Heath, played by a cutthroat crew of show-biz expatriates (actors, producers, blacklisted writers). On the grass behind home plate gather their ex-wives, who cheer and heckle as their paunchy former hubbies pant around the bases. Unaffectionately known as the Alimony Gallery, these "crones" had stuck with their husbands through lean times only to be tossed aside for starlets and other "juicy little things."
So there they were, out on the grass chasing fly balls on a Sunday morning, short men, overpaid and unprincipled, all well within the coronary and lung cancer belt, allowing themselves to look ridiculous in the hope of pleasing their new young wives and girl-friends…. Here was Al Levine, who had used to throw marbles under horses' legs at demonstrations and now raced two horses of his own at Epsom. On the pitcher's mound stood Gordie Kaufman, who had once carried a banner that read No Pasarán through the streets of Manhattan and now employed a man especially to keep Spaniards off the beach at his villa on Mallorca. And sweating under a catcher's mask there was Moey Hanover, who had studied at a yeshiva, stood up to the committee, and was now on a sabbatical from Desilu….
Laughs aren't entirely missing from Joshua Then and Now. There's a funny account of the frolicsome activities of the William Lyon Mackenzie King Memorial Society—Mackenzie King was the barmy prime minister who worshiped his dead mother and communed with illustrious spirits (Louis Pasteur, Lorenzo de' Medici)—and a funny line about a psychiatrist who pens a self-help book called Your Kind, My Kind, Mankind.
But the humor of Joshua Then and Now isn't rooted in the grit and rue of rivalmanship, as it was in St. Urbain's Horseman and Duddy Kravitz, both of which were Jewishcomic classics. The satire here is groggy and far-fetched—Mary Hartman surreal. Joshua's mother, for example, is a red hot mama in spiked heels who does a burlesque bump-and-grind at his bar mitzvah. (p. 35)
Predictably, Richler's feminists are little more than cartoon harpies: "truculent" fanatics with hairy armpits and fiery eyes….
Even more tiresome are the Archie Bunkerish monologues of Joshua's father, Reuben, who in flashbacks explains passages from the Bible to his impudent son….
Yet Reuben's exegetical rap on the Book of Esther perhaps holds the key to the novel…. From the Book of Esther, Reuben draws two morals: "One, Mordecai's rise out of nowhere proves something I've always tried to knock into your head. It doesn't matter what you know, but who you know." Two, "If I interpret the law correctly, you are not allowed to marry out of the faith unless it's into a royal family. Interesting, eh?"
After all the fuming about West Indian studs and honor sullied at Ibiza, Ibiza—after trying to make our ribs ache with pained laughter—the novel ends with a scene of soft tender bliss…. It's a beautifully subdued fade-out—but it doesn't wash away the spiteful bile that's accumulated like sediment for more than 400 pages. For all its lurching ambition, Joshua Then and Now is finally a sentimental fable about a morose Jewish lump redeemed by the love of a royal shiksa. Love's balm soothes all wounds, that's the first lesson we are meant to get from the Book of Joshua. And the second?
Mordecai is still sitting at the gates. Kvetchy, unbowed. (p. 36)
James Wolcott, "Kvetchy but Unbowed," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 12, July 12, 1980, pp. 35-6.