Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1745
Mordecai Richler 1931-2001
Canadian novelist, essayist, critic, screenwriter, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Richler's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 5, 9, 13, 18, 46, and 70.
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- Critical Essays
Mordecai Richler 1931-2001
Canadian novelist, essayist, critic, screenwriter, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Richler's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 5, 9, 13, 18, 46, and 70.
One of the most prominent figures in contemporary Canadian literature, Richler was best known for his darkly humorous novels in which he examines such diverse topics as Canadian society, Jewish culture, Quebec nationalism, the adverse effects of materialism, and relationships between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds. A skilled and unrelenting satirist, Richler left Canada at the age of twenty, living as an expatriate in Europe for more than twenty years. However, a large majority of his fiction is set within the Jewish section of Montreal where he was raised, exploring the characteristics that define Jewish and Canadian self-identity. The typical Richler protagonist is an alienated, morally disillusioned individual who finds stability and inner-knowledge difficult to attain. Though known primarily for his novels, in his later years, Richler's critical works attracted considerable attention—his essay collection Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country (1992) inspired a virulent national debate in Canada regarding the self-sovereignty of Quebec.
Richler was born in Montreal, Quebec, on January 27, 1931. He was raised in a community dominated by the first large wave of Jewish immigrants to settle in Canada, those who fled from Russia during the massacres that followed the Russo-Japanese War. Though he received a traditional Jewish upbringing, Richler abandoned his family's orthodox customs in his teens. Richler entered Sir George Williams University in 1949, but dropped out two years later, citing the belief that academia would distort and exhaust his creativity. In 1951 Richler left Canada and sailed to Liverpool, England. He worked as a freelance writer in Paris from 1952 to 1953, returning briefly to Montreal in 1952. After the publication of his first novel, The Acrobats (1954), Richler settled in England, where he would live until 1972. During this period, Richler continued to compose essays and novels which focused largely on his Jewish and Canadian heritage. In 1960 he married Florence Wood, with whom he had five children. He returned to Sir George Williams University to serve as a writer-in-residence from 1968 to 1979 and edited an anthology of Canadian fiction, Canadian Writing Today, in 1970. In 1972 Richler moved back to Montreal permanently, writing extensively about Canadian politics and culture, particularly the Quebec separatist movement during the 1990s. His vocal criticism of often-taboo political issues made Richler a Canadian national celebrity, frequently appearing in magazines and on television. Throughout his career, Richler has been awarded numerous honors, including the Governor General's Literary Award for Cocksure (1968), Hunting Tiger under Glass: Essays and Reports (1969), and St. Urbain's Horseman (1971). He was nominated for an Academy Award and the Screenwriters Guild of America award for his screenplay adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for his children's book Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975). Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) received the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1990, and Barney's Version (1997) was awarded the Giller Prize in 1997. Richler died of complications from cancer on July 3, 2001, in Montreal.
Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, is devoid of the humor prevalent throughout his later works. Set in post-World War II Spain, the book recounts the experiences of André Bennett, a young Canadian expatriate trying to overcome his guilt caused by the suicide of his pregnant Jewish girlfriend in Montreal. Richler's next two novels, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) and A Choice of Enemies (1957), evidence a progression toward a more satirically humorous tone. In Son of a Smaller Hero, Richler recreates the Jewish community of his childhood, chronicling Noah Adler's attempts to liberate himself from the religious, economic, and familial pressures of his past. As the novel ends, Noah departs for Europe, still searching for a sense of personal identity. Richler's stark, unsympathetic depiction of Jewish culture in the novel drew charges of anti-Semitism, a reaction provoked by several of his subsequent works. A Choice of Enemies focuses on Norman Price, who, like many of Richler's protagonists, is faced with a moral dilemma. Living in London with a group of American and Canadian expatriate artists, Norman must ally himself either with his bohemian friends or with a young communist whom the expatriates ostracize. Norman eventually realizes that both options are undesirable.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz established Richler as a major literary figure and internationally recognized humorist. Frequently compared in theme and plot to Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, the novel chronicles Duddy Kravitz's rise from Montreal ghetto-dweller to prominent landowner. Although Duddy is driven by greed and his means of acquiring land are ruthless and exploitative, Richler depicts the surrounding Montreal society as equally immoral. Richler followed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with two caustic satires—The Incomparable Atuk (1963) and Cocksure. In The Incomparable Atuk, Richler derides the materialistic values of contemporary society through the experiences of an Innuit poet who achieves wealth and popularity when his work appears in a series of Canadian advertisements. Cocksure, a black comedy that ridicules popular culture and the entertainment industry, details an unscrupulous movie mogul's takeover of a British publishing company. Several Canadian and British booksellers refused to carry Cocksure, claiming that certain passages were overly graphic and offensive. In St. Urbain's Horseman, Richler returns to the less trenchant humor of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, detailing the life of Jake Hersh, an affluent man who believes that his success is largely unmerited. To relieve his sense of disillusionment and remorse, Jake fantasizes that his cousin Joey is the Horseman, a fictional heroic figure committed to fighting Jewish oppression. Richler's next novel, Joshua Then and Now (1980), is composed of extensive flashbacks describing the prominent events and personal crises in the life of Joshua Shapiro, a prominent Jewish-Canadian author. By depicting Joshua's marriage to an upper-class Gentile, Richler explores problems inherent in relationships between individuals of different upbringings and social positions. Reuben Shapiro, Joshua's smooth-talking father, is regarded as one of Richler's finest comic creations.
The winner of the 1990 Commonwealth Prize, Solomon Gursky Was Here chronicles more than one hundred years of Canadian history, documenting the Gursky family's rise to power and wealth. Utilizing flashbacks and a shifting narrative, Richler traces the Gursky lineage from Ephraim, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who was the only surviving member of an expedition searching for the Northwest Passage, to Bernard, the president of a liquor dynasty in modern Montreal. The narrator of the novel, Moses Berger, is a self-appointed biographer who becomes obsessed with the Gurskys and attempts to discredit their reputation as respectable community leaders. After investigating the mysterious disappearance of Solomon, one of Ephraim's sons, Berger becomes convinced that Solomon is still alive and has secretly participated in such monumental political schemes as the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, the Watergate burglary, and the Israeli raid on Entebbe. Berger, however, eventually abandons his work when he realizes his discoveries make him sound like a lunatic. Although Solomon Gursky Was Here is often viewed as a parody of the historical saga genre due to the mythic quality of its eccentric characters, the novel also explores the repercussions of greed, revenge, and betrayal. Richler's last novel, Barney's Version, is a fictional memoir of Barney Parnofsky, a Jewish writer living in Montreal. Narrated in the first person, Barney describes his three marriages, the founding of his television company (Totally Useless Productions), and his best friend's mysterious death, which Barney may have inadvertently caused. As the memoir progresses, the reader begins to recognize Barney as an unreliable narrator after he admits that he is prone to embellishments and may be developing Alzheimer's disease.
Among Richler's nonfiction works, a majority focus on his native country and his identity as a Canadian—though each book serves a distinctly different thematic purpose. Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (1984), for example, explores the defining elements of Canadian culture, addressing subjects from Canadian patriotism to ice hockey. In Richler's most controversial polemic work, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, Richler turns his attention to the problem of Quebec separatism, a delicate political issue in Canada. Richler's essays condemn the province of Quebec for rampant nationalism and a history of anti-Semitism. In response, the Quebec government denounced Richler as a racist and some government officials suggested banning the book. This Year in Jerusalem (1994) is primarily concerned with examining Richler's identity as a Canadian Jew—a theme also present in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! The essays in This Year in Jerusalem blend Richler's remembrances of growing up in the Montreal Jewish community with descriptions of his visits to Israel, where he questions some Western Jews' decision to emigrate to the Zionist state. Richler's final two essay collections, Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2001) and On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It (2001) recount the author's reflections on such sports as ice hockey, fishing, bodybuilding, and pocket billiards.
Though sometimes faulted for excessive vulgarity, throughout his career, Richler has developed a reputation as one of the most skilled humorists of twentieth-century fiction. Critics have consistently lauded Richler's ability to create comedy within family situations and his barbed satiric perspective on modern culture. However, several members of the Canadian-Jewish community—frequent targets of Richler's comedic vision—have condemned the author's works as degrading and anti-Semitic. Commentators have debated these assertions with some arguing that it is impossible for Richler to be truly anti-Semitic—being that he is Jewish himself—and noting that Richler's parodies are inspired by his personal life rather than a critical agenda. Rachel Feldhay Brenner has commented that his biting social commentary polarizes audiences, noting that “Richler's vacillations and his ambivalent world picture point to his inability to establish a true bond with either Jewish community or the Gentile society.” Out of Richler's collections of essays and criticism, none have attracted the attention of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, which has both been praised and reviled in Richler's native Canada. While a number of reviewers have viewed the work as a frank and engaging look at the history of Quebec politics, others have lambasted Richler's essays as prejudiced, bigoted, and inflammatory. Some critics who agreed with the dominant themes in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! have argued that the collection's bitter and rancorous tone makes it difficult to support the author's admittedly intelligent insights. Overall, despite the controversy surrounding his work, scholars have continued to regard Richler as one of the defining Canadian authors of the past century.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223
The Acrobats (novel) 1954
Son of a Smaller Hero (novel) 1955
A Choice of Enemies (novel) 1957
Insomnia Is Good for You [with Lewis Greifer] (screenplay) 1957
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (novel) 1959
The Incomparable Atuk (novel) 1963; also published as Stick Your Neck Out, 1963
Cocksure (novel) 1968
Hunting Tiger under Glass: Essays and Reports (essays) 1969
The Street: Stories (short stories) 1969
Canadian Writing Today [editor] (short stories) 1970
St. Urbain's Horseman (novel) 1971
Shovelling Trouble (essays) 1972
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [with Lionel Chetwynd] (screenplay) 1974
Notes on Endangered Species and Others (essays) 1974
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang [illustrations by Fritz Wegner] (juvenilia) 1975
Fun with Dick and Jane [with David Giler and Jerry Belson] (screenplay) 1977
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays (essays) 1978
Joshua Then and Now (novel) 1980
Duddy (play) 1984
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays) 1984
Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur [illustrations by Norman Eyolfson] (juvenilia) 1987
Solomon Gursky Was Here (novel) 1989
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions (essays and criticism) 1990
Writers on World War II: An Anthology [editor] (essays, letters, and diaries) 1991
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country (essays and criticism) 1992
This Year in Jerusalem (essays and memoirs) 1994
Barney's Version (novel) 1997
Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case [illustrations by Norman Eyolfson] (juvenilia) 1997
Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions (essays and criticism) 1998
Dispatches from the Sporting Life (essays) 2001
On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It (essays) 2001
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16690
SOURCE: Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. “Mordecai Richler in the Context of Canadian Jewish Writers' Response to the Holocaust: A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Adele Wiseman.” In Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler's Writing, pp. 167-205. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
[In the following essay, Brenner compares Richler's dualistic representation of the Jewish response to the Holocaust in his fiction and nonfiction with the works of A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Adele Wiseman.]
Mordecai Richler's representation of the Jewish response to the Holocaust in his fiction and his direct response in his non-novelistic writing vacillate between two opposing points of view. The Jewish individual moves between an obsessive aspiration to be assimilated into the Gentile world and a powerful need to confront the Gentile world with a straightforward accusation of terrible injustice committed against Jews. Paradoxically, he wishes to obliterate his Jewish identity by embracing the ideals of liberal humanism and, at the same time, experiences a powerful urge to assert his Jewishness and expose the hypocrisy of liberal ideals.
The dualism in the self-contradictory attitude of the North American Jew towards the Gentile world as depicted in Richler's work is by no means an isolated phenomenon in Canadian Jewish literature. On the contrary, an examination of this particular theme in the work of a group of significant Canadian Jewish poets and novelists reveals a similar preoccupation with the moral and emotional position of the North American Jew in the post-Holocaust world.
A comparison of Richler's world picture with the perception of other Canadian Jewish writers represents a useful method of reaching conclusive findings about the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish consciousness in his writing. The chapter presents the holistic literary response of Canadian Jewish writers to the tragedy of European Jewry. The comparison focuses on the collective response of writers who are historically and culturally connected to Richler, regardless of the various genres they might employ in their reaction to the Jewish predicament in the post-Holocaust world. Therefore, the primary considerations in this chapter are mainly historical and sociological.
The relevance of such comparisons is enhanced by the variety of common denominators that these writers share with Richler. Not only is their cultural and religious heritage identical—they were all raised in Jewish Orthodox surroundings—but their personal biographies also reveal similarities in historical time and sociological environment. The writers' preoccupation with Jewish moral existence originates in and relates to the formative circumstances of their youth.
The thematic pattern of Jewish ambivalence in relation to the world's anti-Semitic hostility first emerges in the writings of A. M. Klein (1909-1972), a leading Montreal poet and journalist in the 1930s and the 1940s. The theme continues to occupy a central position in the writings of the Jewish authors who followed Klein. The group includes Mordecai Richler (born in 1931) and his contemporaries: Adele Wiseman (born in 1928), Leonard Cohen (born in 1934), and Irving Layton (born in 1912) who is Richler's contemporary in terms of his literary work.1
These writers belong to the generation of Canadian Jews born to immigrants who came to Canada the beginning of the century to escape pogroms and persecutions in Eastern Europe. They grew up in large cities—Klein, Richler, Layton and Cohen in Montreal and Wiseman in Winnipeg—where their childhood was imbued with anti-Semitic incidents. They all witnessed, in their lifetime, the Holocaust and the birth of the Jewish State.
The complexity of the historical events and the personal history of Jews growing up in Canada explain the thematic affinity which emerges from these writers' work. Though they watched the Holocaust from the safety of the North American continent, their work reveals the extent to which the knowledge of Nazi atrocities affected North American Jewish consciousness. Though none of them has made the State of Israel his or her home, their work often invokes the tremendous moral and emotional impact of Israel upon their North American identity.
The personal preoccupation with historical events that these writers experienced only vicariously seems to originate in their childhood which was shaped by the persistent atmosphere of anti-Semitism. Their youth was permeated with the notion that they were selected to be victims because they were Jewish. They were raised in a world where the stories of pogroms and persecutions told by their parents and grandparents coalesced with everyday experiences of anti-Semitism. Thus, childhood memories, infused with the sense of imminent danger and threat, provide a point of reference in the perception of contemporary Jewish history. Their early experience of discrimination has a profound influence on the way the writers see the Jew in relation to the Gentile world.
An examination of the psychological and sociological predicament of the North American Jew in the work of Klein, Richler, Layton, Wiseman and Cohen reveals common patterns of disillusionment with liberal humanism. In the reality affected by the event of the Holocaust, the Jewish humanist undergoes a process of ideological displacement. The humanist principle of cooperation among nationalities in building a just world which was cultivated by liberal Jews since the nineteenth century does not seem to be operative any longer; the horror of the Holocaust coupled with anti-Semitic sentiments demonstrated by the Western World during the War has severely damaged the hope of brotherly co-existence between the Jewish people and the Christian majority. In view of the moral disintegration of the enlightened world manifested in the cynical political manipulations and oppression of the innocent victim, it no longer makes sense for the Jew to trust that the humanist ideals adopted by liberalism will protect his right to maintain his Jewish identity.
In search of a new modus vivendi, a new pattern of Jewish attitudes toward the Gentile world emerges in Canadian Jewish writing. The Jewish character is seen to be moving within the spectrum of two mutually exclusive options: the ideological and emotional withdrawal from Gentile society through self-assertion as opposed to the ideological and emotional integration into the Gentile world through assimilation.
The notion of withdrawal implies a straightforward acknowledgement of a fundamental incompatibility between the Jewish people and the Christian world. It demonstrates a total disillusion with the principle of justice as it is implemented by Gentile societies. The repudiation of Christian morality on the part of the Jew requires the establishment of independent Jewish system of just retribution predicated on powerful assertiveness and self-sufficiency. Very often, these writers refer to the State of Israel as the representation of Jewish independence from the Gentile world.
At the other end of the spectrum, the notion of integration into the Gentile world implies obliteration of the Jewish demand to confront the world because of the Holocaust. The post-war liberal maintains that the potential for evil exists in every human being, and, therefore, the identity of the victim and the victimizer is determined mainly in terms of relativity rather then through an absolute distinction between good and evil. It follows, than, that through assimilation within the Gentile world the Jew renounces his identity as the innocent victim; he reduced the particularity of Jewish suffering at the hands of anti-Semites to an abstract symbol of general suffering under oppression. Thus, he accepts the notion of being as liable as the Gentile perpetrator to become the victimizer. In an ironic twist of reductio ad absurdum situation, the integration of the Jew in general society will be realized as the Jew becomes a ruthless tyrant and oppressor. Richler, Layton and Cohen claim that Jews have the potential to become as evil as their persecutors.
The suggested distinctions between the options confronting the Jewish character define the spectrum of the Jewish dilemma as presented in the world of Canadian Jewish writing. The Jewish character is constantly vacillating between the two positions, unable to make a definite choice. This dialectic provides a useful paradigm for the comparative study of the Jewish position in the post-Holocaust world. The paradigm will help to determine each writer's particular position on the spectrum and, at the same time, it will bring into focus Mordecai Richler's perspective in relation to each of the writers. An examination of the theme of the Jewish identity crisis in Canadian Jewish writing will, hopefully, provide an insight into the historical and psychological process of coming to terms with one's Jewishness in Canadian environment.
In his editorials and essays2 which cover the War and the post-War events, A. M. Klein invariably perceives liberal ideology as a key to a better future for humanity. At the same time, however, his writing shows increasing disillusion with the moral standards of the liberal world view. The discriminatory attitude of the Allied governments toward European Jews evokes Klein's helpless rage against the Christian world and its blatant breach of liberal values. Optimistically, Klein's humanist vision of a better world extols the newly born State of Israel as a promise of the moral rebirth of humanity. Yet, the idealistic vision clashes harshly with the reality of everyday life in which the detrimental experience of anti-Semitism spells out the impossibility of the humanist dream of brotherly love among nations. In his editorial “The Mystery of the Mislaid Conscience” (1942), Klein lists the horrors committed against the Jewish people by the Nazis. He knows that what is happening in Europe amounts to “total destruction, the methodical and complete annihilation of a people.”3 Then he turns to the free nations with a strong moral exhortation:
Where, we ask, is the thunderbolt of invective which these events should call forth? Where are the keepers of the world's conscience, its intellectual leaders, guardians of the progress of the ages, and where the as-yet-unuttered “J'accuse” of our generation? … If silence continues, it can only be interpreted as the uneasy conscience of the democracies themselves. Certainly it is high time … that the German government is told … that the democracies are not indifferent to the fate of the thousands of Jewish hostages in Nazi hands. Liberty is indivisible; democracy is not a rationed article. Jews, although not represented as such among the United Nations, are also the family of mankind.4
The editorial presents an interesting example of Klein's political naivete embedded in strong humanist belief. The exhortation made in the name of the ideals of democracy and liberty and the attempt to explain the silence of the nations as an expression of “uneasy conscience” demonstrate Klein's self-deception about the motives for the lack of efforts to help save European Jewry. Steeped in the ideals of social liberalism which promise equality for everybody, Klein boldly claims his people's right to protection. He fails to see that the humanist argument is no longer valid in the struggle against anti-Semitic discrimination. Furthermore, a close examination of Klein's seemingly powerful exhortation reveals that his own argument is nothing but rhetoric. His actual demand that nations stand up to Nazi bestiality sound curiously ineffective in view of his dismay at the atrocities committed against Jews.
Klein identifies “the thunderbolt of invective” that should be raised against the Nazis, “the as-yet-unuttered ‘J'accuse’”; he decrees that the German government should “be told” that the United Nations know about its crimes. Although Klein makes it clear to the readers of his editorial that thousands of Jews are perishing in Europe, all he is demanding from the Allies is a verbal threat directed at the Nazis. The passivity of his argument manifests not only the inadequacy of the humanist approach at the time of the Holocaust, but also the pathetic helplessness of the Jew who sees in humanism the only channel of communication with the Gentile world. Total reliance on humanist morality results in total dependence on the good will of the Gentile world. Thus, when the war is over, Klein pleads with the world, reminding the leaders of the United Nations of their promises to declare Palestine the Jewish homeland:
… in a moral world one would have had the right to imagine—that the European conscience, the Christian conscience, would have been so plagued by the memory of what had been done to Jewry … that it would have sought every means to make amends.5
The righteousness of Klein's complaint about the immoral procrastination of the Christian nations in making amends to the survivors of the Holocaust cannot disguise the ineffectiveness of such demands. By pleading with the world, he inadvertently conveys passive submission to the world's decision about the future of the Jewish people. Any attempt to use military power in order to establish the Jewish State meets with Klein's indignant and forceful disapproval. Thus, on the grounds of Jewish traditional abhorrence of violence, Klein condemns the activities of the Irgun, the Jewish movement of resistance against the British in Palestine, as the “reign of terror.”6 Ironically, Klein invests those states which intentionally, out of their anti-Semitic bias, did so little for the Jews in the Holocaust with the sole legitimate authority to grant the Holocaust survivors their Homeland.
Consistent with his humanism, he practically ignores the significance of Israel's ability to defend itself. For Klein, the significance of the birth of the Jewish State lies in the fact that the Jewish people will henceforth be legitimized by a “seat in the councils of the world.”7 Klein believes that as a legitimately recognized nation Israel promises to become the centre of universal humanism.
The Second Scroll, Klein's novel based on his visit to the newly born State of Israel, is a most eloquent praise to the revival of Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. Yet, as Miriam Waddington observes, “the theme turns out to be secular and humanist, and not, as first appears, doctrinal in the religious sense.”8 The importance of the sanctity of human life and brotherly love among nations and religions seems to constitute the moral lesson of the novel. Thus, in the Sistine Chapel, Uncle Melech, the prototype of the universal Jew, learns from the Christian Michelangelo that murder is “the sin against our incarnate universality.”9 In “Gloss Dalid” the Jewish character invokes the common descent and heritage of Moslems and Jews when he claims “Admit to brotherhood a brother … Are we not one kin, one tribe, one race.”10
In the vision of Israel as the source and centre of humanist ideas rather than a politically independent and militarily self-reliant state, Klein's humanism assumes universal and messianic dimension. The rebirth of Israel becomes the symbol of the rebirth of the world. The metaphor of the intercontinental journey underscores the aspect of Jewish universality. Naim Kattan, in his analysis of the combination of Jewish and universal themes in Klein's The Second Scroll points to the centrality of the ideal of universal humanism in Klein's world picture:
Klein, parcourant le mode, circulant entre l'Asie, l'Afrique, l'Europe, et l'Amérique, retrouve le Juif dans son integralité, son humanisme universel.11
The humanist ideal informs Klein's vision of the Jewish future in the post-Holocaust world. His solution to the question of Jewish identity is firmly rooted in the sphere of integration into the enlightened general society. Klein never advocates assimilation; he is fully cognizant of his Jewish origins. Raised and educated in the spirit of Jewish Orthodoxy, Klein sees himself as part of the Jewish tradition; his language and style reveal a deeply embedded Jewish cultural heritage. Nevertheless, he seems unable to conceptualize Jewish existence as distinct from the Gentile world. The concept of Jewish self-sufficiency and independence is acknowledged in the context of liberalism. In his view, Jewish survival is predicated on the humanist ideal of brotherly love to which both Jews and Gentiles ought to subscribe. The desire to be accepted by the Gentile world motivates the Jew to prove himself worthy of the ideal of the brotherhood of men. In his work, Klein proposes to educate his fellow-Jew in the spirit of pacifism and humanism. At the same time, he strives to demonstrate to his non-Jewish readers the scope of Jewish tolerance extended towards society in general. Thus, Klein's most famous collection of poems, The Rocking Chair was meant to represent the cultural and political closeness between the two Quebec minorities, the French Canadians and the Jews. Klein himself commented on the affinity between the two ethnic groups:
… we have many things in common: a minority position; ancient memories; a desire for group survival. Moreover the French Canadian enjoys much—a continuing and distinctive culture, solidarity, land—which I would wish for my people.12
In his efforts to show that Jews and French Canadians share humanistic values, he chooses not to acknowledge persistent French Canadian anti-Semitism. The extent of Klein's desire to manifest tolerance is even more clearly articulated in his editorial “The Tactics of Race-Hatred” (1944).13 The article deals with the opinion propagated by the press that Quebec is a predominantly anti-Semitic province. Klein argues that the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is universal and should be treated as such. Localizing the problem in one geographic area can hardly be justified; singling one province as the perpetrator of anti-Semitism detracts from the general importance of the issue and spawns even further racist sentiments. Klein lectures both his Jewish and non-Jewish readers about the universal nature of the humanist process:
The struggle of democratic principles is not a struggle between areas; it is a struggle between the forces of light, everywhere, against the forces of darkness, everywhere.14
However, the problem of anti-Semitism cannot always be defined in terms of the struggle of liberal progress against the obstructive elements of oppression, intolerance and injustice. In his autobiographical essay “Stranger and Afraid,” Klein clearly demonstrates that the humanist perspective does not assist him in his personal encounters with anti-Semitism. He describes his strenuous efforts to trivialize the anti-Jewish treatment he is continually subjected to by conditioning himself “into believing that these things are merely signs of an absence of breeding, vestiges of old practices …”; he keeps reminding himself that he is “living in a country that is free and civilized [where] these things are anomalies. …”15
As a humanist, Klein rationalizes anti-Semitism as a temporary setback or obstacle in Canadian democratic progress toward equality. As a Jew, he realizes with horror the formative effects of the continual exposure to racial hatred on his psyche. An honest self-analysis of his behaviour and reaction toward his fellow-Jews reveals to him that the long endurance of anti-Semitism has undermined the very core of his Jewish identity:
And then, as I pause to consider my Self, myself, the focus taken from off my environment, I am amazed to discover that these things have never passed through my consciousness, as through sieve at all, at all. They cling to my mind, and at the most unwelcome moments reveal themselves in the strangest forms. I meet a casual acquaintance on the street, engage in conversation, and am soon embarrassingly aware that he is talking too loud, his thoughtways, his inflections are objectionably Jewish. Objectionable to whom? I shudder at my revelation: objectionable to me. I consider the behaviour of my fellow-Jews, and find myself passing judgement upon them, not according to the general social code, but according to some unwritten laws which I apply to Jews only. It is I who am now passing discriminatory legislation … A horrible dialectics has taken place. The hater has converted the hated …16
The “horrible dialectics” diagnosed by Klein signifies the transformation of the victim into the victimizer. The process of assimilation in the hostile world involves erosion of self-identity and self-esteem and, eventually, results in emotional and ideological alienation from one's own culture and people. The prejudice of the anti-Semite is meant to present the Jewish individual as an untrustworthy, second-rate member of society. This degrading treatment signifies social rejection underscored by a threat of physical violence. The recipient of such humiliating treatment chooses not to respond. As shown in Klein's recollection of his own response to anti-Semitism, he persistently chooses to ignore the anti-Semitic incidents which he witnesses or experiences directly; not even once does he attempt to confront his persecutors. This reaction, or rather lack of reaction, is rationalized as appropriately civilized behaviour in a civilized country.
On the emotional level, however, the passivity of the victim coveys an acknowledgement of his helplessness which entails a degree of acquiescence to the anti-Semitic notion of Jewish inferiority. The victim's failure to retaliate increases his impotence and fear in contrast to the uninhibited freedom and potency of the oppressor. To escape such humiliating self-realization, the victim must regain the sense of potency. He does so by internalizing the anti-Semitic perception of the Jew. Klein's judgemental and critical attitude towards his fellow-Jews reveals the extent of his assimilation of the anti-Semitic patterns of thinking; this derogatory attitude towards his people exposes his unconscious wish to dissociate himself from the helplessness and impotence that his Jewishness imposes on him.
The Jew assumes the anti-Jewish perspective to compensate for his inadequacy and powerlessness in face of his persecutor. But powerlessness also implies defencelessness against acts of violence that anti-Semitism invariably communicates. It follows that the shift of perception also functions as a strategy to please the aggressor in order to avoid persecution. In her study “Identification with the Aggressor” Anna Freud examines the patterns of children's behaviour in threatening situations:
The child introjects some characteristics of an anxiety object and so assimilates an anxiety experience which he has just undergone. By impersonating the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat.17
A similar emotional mechanism of defense is operative in Klein's unconscious assumption of anti-Semitic mentality. Identification with the aggressor provides a sense of deferment of imminent danger. Compliance with the oppressor creates in the mind of the victim an imaginary bond with the enemy, a safeguard against violence. At the same time, the perceptual shift to the world of the anti-Semite enables the victim to imagine that his potency has been restored.
The process of assimilation engendered by powerlessness, passivity and fear exacts the emotionally devastating price of loss of self-esteem. The sense of disloyalty towards his own people pervades Klein's recollections in “Stranger and Afraid.” The image of the anti-Semitic Jew that emerges from Klein's self-analysis enhances his sense of self-betrayal. Paradoxically, the identification with the Gentile hatred of the Jew has turned the assimilationist into a self-hating Jew. As such, he struggles with the sense of displacement of his identity. On the one hand, Gentile prejudice against his own people has alienated him from the Jewish world; on the other hand, his sense of self-betrayal and disloyalty towards the Jewish people prevents him from being completely assimilated into the Gentile world.
Albert Memmi, in his study of the relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, discusses the same patterns of assimilation. The victim of colonization adopts the model of the colonizer and wishes “to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him.” Renunciation of identity exacts an “exorbitant price” when the colonized “realizes that he has assumed all the accusations and condemnations of the colonizer, that he is becoming accustomed to looking at his own people through the eyes of their procurer.” The victim's disloyalty to himself and to his people undermines his moral integrity and self-respect. “Love of the colonizer is subtended by a complex of feelings ranging from shame to self-hate.”18
In “Stranger and Afraid” Klein presents an astute analysis of the split separating the Jew's sense of belonging to his people and his desire to escape his people's weakness and suffering. Klein's probing exposure of the Jewish existential dilemma confronts the naivete of his emphasis on humanism and democracy. Though he is fully aware of the irreparably damaging effect of anti-Semitism on the Jewish ego and conscious of the genocide carried out by the Nazi Jew-haters, Klein persistently clings to humanist ideals of brotherhood of men and peaceful co-existence of nations based on human good will. The underlying motif of passivity emerges from both Klein's exploration of the psychological effects of anti-Semitism and his life-long trust in the redeeming values of humanism. His passive endurance of anti-Semitic insults is channelled into identification with the aggressor, never into direct confrontation. His humanist activity is limited to that of a Jewish moralist who preaches to the nations about their moral obligations toward the victimized Jewish people.
Klein supports integration, recognizing and struggling against the danger of assimilation. Other Canadian authors, such as Layton and Richler venture into the other extreme in their exploration of actively forged Jewish self-assertion in the post-Holocaust world. Jewish assertiveness and independence are manifested in the work of Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler. The formative anti-Semitic experience in Montreal motivates them to focus on the independent existence of the Jewish State. Unlike Klein, who essentially follows the tradition of non-aggression and compliance practised by Diaspora Jews for centuries, both Richler and Layton interpret the submissive nature of Jewish interaction with the Gentile world as a sign of impotence and weakness. Israel's sovereignty and potential for self-defence are portrayed, in part of their work, as the ultimate model of Jewish self-sufficiency. Klein sees a possible fulfilment of the humanist ideal of world-wide spiritual and cultural unity and brotherhood in the context of the Jewish State; Richler and Layton see Israel as the symbol of the restoration of Jewish strength, dignity and freedom. They celebrate Israel's military victories as the most efficient deterrent of another Holocaust. Unlike Klein, neither author expects the democratic world to fight anti-Semitism and make sure that another Holocaust will not recur. In the morally corrupt post-War world, only the Jews can prevent further anti-Semitic persecutions by courageously standing up to their oppressors.
In his memoir “Waiting for the Messiah,”19 Layton vividly depicts the world of virulent anti-Semitism in which he grew up. He clearly remembers the everyday humiliating encounters with French Canadian anti-Semites, and the constant fights between French Canadian and Jewish adolescents.
Layton's anti-Semitic experiences resemble, to a great extent, Richler's memories of anti-Semitism. The constant exposure to anti-Jewish hostility has shaped the feeling of being different and unwanted in both writers. Richler describes the sense of alienation incurred by racial discrimination, which made the Jew feel that “this was still their Canada, not ours.”20 Recalling Jewish suffering at the hands of anti-Semites, Layton remembers that “it was as if we lived in different worlds … The sense of being picked on, the sense of injustice, the sense that a Jew cannot expect protection or human decency, was very strong.”21 The oppressed Jews in Montreal could not expect the Canadian State to alleviate their plight, neither were they capable or ready to confront the anti-Semites. They knew that “to resist overtly was to invite further trouble” and, therefore, they “stood their ground and suffered,” and “ignored the abuse.”22
Layton's observations of passive Jewish submission to the tormentors correspond to Klein's description of his own reactions to anti-Semitic phenomena. In spite of the tremendous emotional damage that constant exposure to anti-Semitism causes him to endure, Klein rationalizes the hostile incidents as vestiges of hard-dying prejudices and racial biases. In an attempt to uphold his belief in Canada as a civilized, free country governed by the principles of liberal humanism, he minimizes the significance of the frequent manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiments in his own country.
When focusing on the aspect of strong Jewish identity, both Layton and Richler praise and encourage defiance and self-assertion as a response to anti-Semitism in their native Montreal. They acknowledge that it is the manifestation of Jewish aggression in the establishment of the State of Israel that terminated the anti-Semitic oppression of the Jews in Quebec. Layton refers to the change when he claims in his memoir that “the Holocaust and the Israeli Air Force have changed all that.”23 The new Israel which emerged from the ashes of the annihilated European Jewry has restored the sense of potency and freedom of expression to the Canadian Jew. The creation of the Jewish State is a milestone in terms of the position of the Jewish community in Montreal. It marks the end of the era where Jews could be tormented with impunity.
Layton's identification with the regeneration of the Jewish spirit of assertiveness and independence is manifested in his poem “On Seeing the Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame.”24 Layton who sees himself as a modern prophet, traces his roots to the potent, “sultry prophets,” the “arrogant men” of the time of the Judean Kingdom. He pledges to save them from the emasculating captivity of Christianity, restore their masculinity and bring them to “my hot Hebrew heart as passionate as your own.”
The tremendous change in the interaction between Montreal Jews and Gentile society is illustrated in Richler's recollection of the celebration which marked the passing of the Partition Plan by the members of the Jewish organization Habonim:
On the night of Nov 29, 1947, after the UN approved the partition plan, we gathered at Habonim and marched downtown in a group, waving Israeli flags, flaunting our songs on WASP neighbourhoods, stopping to blow horns and pull down street car wires, until we reached the heart of the city where … we put a halt to traffic by forming in defiant circles and dancing the hora in the middle of the street.
“Who am I?”
“Who are you?”
“All of us?”
The display of Jewish presence in such a conspicuous manner stands in total opposition to the self-effacing, apologetic passivity that Jews used to exhibit in their relationships with Gentiles. The overwhelming pride and self-assurance of the Jewish demonstrators communicate not only joy and happiness on the historic occasion of the birth of the Jewish State; the demonstration constitutes also a statement of Jewish liberation from the fear of anti-Semitic oppression. In a sense, the establishment of the Jewish State indicates, for the Diaspora Jew a rejection of Jewish helplessness and impotence and marks the rebirth of Jewish identity and independence. Layton commemorates the transformation in his poem “For My Two Sons, Max and David:”
The wandering Jew: the suffering Jew The Despoiled Jew: the beaten Jew The Jew to burn: the Jew to gas The Jew to humiliate
Be none of these, my sons My sons, be none of these Be gunners in the Israeli Air Force(26)
The sense of pride and self-sufficiency instilled with the creation of the State and its military victories informs the authors' treatment of the theme of the Holocaust. As long as they relate to the sphere of the strong, independent and self-reliant aspect of Jewish survival, both Layton and Richler manifest a strong tendency to withdraw from the non-Jewish world and to define their identity in terms of their Jewish heritage, history and suffering. The Holocaust seems to have engendered in both writers a patriotic sense of belonging and devotion to their people, coupled with a poignant condemnation of the Gentile world. The consciousness of the Holocaust made it possible to comprehend the irreconcilable disparity between the Jews and the Gentiles based on unmitigated hatred of the Jew which had been cultivated for thousands of years. The newly discovered and potent Jewish identity often expresses itself in the form of a forceful accusation of the oppressor and a call for Jewish revenge.
In their identification with Jewish self-assertion both writers emphasize the tragic uniqueness of the Holocaust. They vehemently refute comparisons of the terrible loss of their people to unrelated communal disasters or personal misfortunes of other people. The inhumanity of the Nazi treatment of Jews has no parallel in human history. Any attempt to draw such analogy aims at trivialization of Jewish suffering and detraction from the magnitude of the disaster. Layton points out that
To play the numbers game as some have done by pointing to the equally large or larger number of deaths in our century among Hindus, Moslems, Armenians, Russians, and others is to be … frivolously or foolishly irrelevant.27
The scheme to deprive Jews of human dignity and to annihilate them physically did not start with the rise of the Nazis. Layton claims that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of the accumulated anti-Jewish teaching of the Christian church over many centuries:
By preaching contempt and hostility towards Jews for nearly two thousand years the Church prepared the way for the near-success of Hitler's genocidal attempt to wipe out European Jewry.28
The deeply embedded hatred of the Jewish people did not cease with Nazi destruction of the Jews in Europe. In the post-Holocaust world anti-Semitism takes the form of denial and forgetting of the Holocaust. Layton laments the victims of the Holocaust whose “horrible deaths are forgotten; no one speaks of them any more”;29 he adds that “everyone lives as if Auschwitz never happened.”30 The persistent denial of the Holocaust, the unwillingness of the Christian world to acknowledge the terrible Jewish loss constitutes the proof that the menacing spectre of another attempt at Jewish annihilation may rise again. Watching the world's reaction to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, Layton envisages how the Holocaust will be used by anti-Semites to begin another era of Jewish persecutions. They will not hesitate to have recourse to the slanderous excuse of a Jewish conspiracy in order to prepare for another attempt to annihilate the Jewish people:
… Tomorrow some “goy” will observe you never existed and the Holocaust your just desserts for starting wars and revolutions.31
This time, however, fortified with a strong sense of self-sufficiency, the Jews will not submit helplessly to their oppressors. The situation of the Holocaust in which Jews were murdered by the Nazis spurred on by the anti-Semitic “Polacks” will not be repeated. Jews will not act as “tamed bears / toothless tigers / caged lions …” as they did behind the ghetto gates “in Warsaw circa 1941.”32 They will be free and proud individuals capable of defending themselves, following the example of the Israeli soldiers who forged a new Jewish identity in “June 1967 / in Tel Aviv and Sinai.”33
Richler discusses the concept of the new image of the Jewish fighter in the same context as the Holocaust and Israel's victory in 1967. In his essay “The Holocaust and After” he glorifies the Israeli Air Force and refers to Israel's ability to defend the Jewish people in case of another threat of annihilation. The existence of the Jewish bombers, Richler claims, “offers some assurance that, should they be required, there would now be planes to spare to destroy the railway heads leading into extermination camps.”34
The strong accusation again the Allies' refusal to save Jewish lives during the War implies Richler's disbelief in the Gentile world's motivation to prevent another Holocaust. Like Layton, Richler observes increasing signs of the denial of the Holocaust, distortion of facts and trivialization of the horror. In Germany Richler discovers that the concentration camp in Dachau has become a tourist attraction where the German guides deny the existence of gas chambers.35 In his survey of films and novels thematically related to the Holocaust he finds that the horror is often used to present the Nazis and Hitler as “glamorous and sexy.”36 In total disrespect for the memory of the victims, the concentration camp frequently becomes the scene of sexual exploits and sensational adventures.
In Richler's novels the world's complacent blindness to the horrible Jewish suffering does not seem to relieve the protagonist of his anxiety about another outburst of anti-Semitism. In St. Urbain's Horseman Jake Hersh constantly relives the fantasy of Nazis murdering his children. In Joshua Then and Now, Joshua Shapiro actually encounters a Nazi. Both protagonists were raised in Montreal, in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the 1930s and the 1940s, at the time of the rise of the Nazis and the event of the Holocaust. It seems that the sense of humiliation and impotence incurred by their childhood experiences results in the consuming desire for a violent confrontation with the Nazi, the archetypal oppressor of the Jewish people.
The formative encounter with anti-Semitic hostility has determined the writers' wish to assert themselves as Jews in front of the hostile Gentile world. The events of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel constitute two crucial components in the process of self-assertion. The Holocaust represents a magnified reflection of the anti-Semitic phenomena in their native Montreal. To some extent, the murderous acts of the Nazis could not seem too remote in view of the virulent fascist movement in Quebec in the 1930s and 1940s. Israel, then, represents the assertive way to deal with anti-Semitism. Its daring initiative and will to defend itself become the model for the Diaspora Jew. In contrast to European Jewry's submission to its oppressors, Israel has paved the road toward Jewish liberation from anti-Semitic intimidation. In their work, Richler and Layton are aware and often preoccupied with the modern dialectic of the Jewish response to anti-Semitism.
When contemplating the history of Jewish suffering from the point of view of Jewish regeneration, both Richler and Layton endorse emphatically the right of Jews to determine their own destiny vis-à-vis the Gentile world. However, the insistence on the uniqueness of the suffering and on the claim of the Jews to avenge their losses does not represent the totality of the writers' perception of Jewish survival in the post-War world. In fact, a close reading of Richler's and Layton's work reveals the dialectical nature of their response to the Holocaust. When assuming the stance of liberal humanists concerned about the future of mankind, both writers tend to minimize the uniqueness of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and doubt the validity of Israel's struggle for independent survival. As liberals, both Richler and Layton point to a solution diametrically opposed to the concept of Jewish proud dissociation from Gentile society. Both writers claim a special role for themselves: Richler sees himself as “the loser's advocate,”37 while Layton defines the poet as “the interpreter of his age.”38 As such, both writers clearly wish to scrutinize the problem of Jewish persecution in terms of the universal moralist conception of the victim and the victimizer.
It would appear that Layton's and Richler's vested interest in the victim should coincide with Klein's demand of compensation for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Klein's expectation that the Christian world will make amends to the Jewish victims of the tragedy invokes the universal principle of justice. Since Jews, as members in the “family of nations,” have paid the ultimate price of the Nazi horror, the world must make sure that their security in the future remains inviolable. In Klein's opinion the injustice inflicted upon Jews by the Christian world ought to be redressed by the Christian world itself. Palestine must become the Jewish homeland and Nazi criminals must be punished for their nearly successful “Final Solution.”
Klein never doubts the validity of the Jewish claim as it is based on liberal ideals of equality and justice. Paradoxically, the same ideals of equality and justice as interpreted in Richler's and Layton's writing undermine the argument for the uniqueness of Jewish suffering and the Jewish claim for the punishment of their Nazi persecutors. Since both writers claim that all human beings are equally inclined to do evil and to destroy each other, it follows that the subscription of the German people to the Nazi ideology was purely circumstantial. In a similar situation any other nation, including the Jewish people, would have behaved in the same way.
As a humanist, Layton again assumes the role of the prophet. This time, however, he does not see himself as a descendant of the defiant Hebrew prophet. Layton, the liberal humanist, sees himself in the prophetic role of the supreme teacher of humanity who must “forge the wisdom his tortured fellow men need to resist the forces dragging them down into the inhuman and the bestial.”39 Everybody is susceptible to wickedness; “man is a sick animal.”40 Therefore, in relation to the German crime, Layton's role of a humanist prophetic poet compels him to teach the truth about human nature to his fellow-men. Although the Jewish poet admits that “a number of [his] immediate family ended up as chimney smoke,” he objects to placing the blame for war atrocities on the German people:
I've had a great deal of experience with human irrationality, cowardice, hypocrisy, arrogance and cruelty. I have found no people—even my own—entirely free from these vices. If the government of any country turned loose its criminals and psychotic elements without any opposition being possible, I do not think its citizens would behave very differently.41
The recognition of human propensity to evil as a fundamental truth obliterates the distinction between the victim and his oppressor. In fact, from Layton's point of view, the Western World is as guilty of war atrocities as the Germans for not having stopped Hitler from obtaining power, and it should “acknowledge its own guilt and responsibility for the tragedy which overtook [the Germans].”42 Surprisingly enough, the responsibility of the democracies does not consist in making amends to the Jewish people, the main victim of the German oppression. The Western World, according to Layton, is morally obliged to remove the stigma of shame that has been attached to Germany since the war. The hatred and revenge that many Jews and non-Jews feel towards Germany seems to Layton “both wicked and foolish.”43
Layton's insistence on forgiving and forgetting the German crimes constitutes a total contradiction of his poems which manifest his vehement hatred for the Germans and his conviction that even the post-War German generation is capable of the same kind of bestiality as exhibited by the generation of their parents.44 Perhaps the most striking example of the range of contradictory attitudes displayed in Layton's work is the analogy in which he identified his own experience of anti-Semitic persecution with the sense of rejection that the Germans experience today:
It is precisely my Jewishness that makes me disavow such hatred and revenge … When I was a boy I heard a French-Canadian call me and my mother “Christ-killers.” I've thought a great deal about that episode ever since, and I have wondered—in light of how most of us have regarded Germany since the war—how many Germans must feel the same way today.45
The disparate nature of Layton's reactions signals the total effacement of the distinction between the victim and the victimizer. The German who only recently served the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews is perceived by the Jewish poet as an innocent victim of post-War social discrimination and prejudice. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the two examples of social injustice clearly belittles and trivializes the lasting trauma of anti-Semitism which Layton himself depicts so vividly in his memoir “Waiting for the Messiah.” After all, even if ostracized by other nations, the German people today are hardly exposed to the kind of fear, intimidation and powerlessness to which Layton, as a child, was constantly subjected.
The analogy marks Layton's dissociation from the idea of Jewish vengeance and his endorsement of the Christian principle of forgiveness as a redeeming force in a world of corruption and wickedness. As a humanist poet-prophet, Layton teaches mankind the need for reconciliation with the past to ennoble human nature and build a better world. As a Jew, he feels that his own experience of suffering and his readiness to make peace with his people's persecutors will communicate his humanist credo:
Whether we like it or not we must continue along the road indicated to us by the Enlightenment even though it has led through the fires of Bergen-Belsen and Hiroshima.46
The emphasis on the importance of forgiveness points to the extent to which Layton has allowed the Christian prejudice to affect his humanist mode of thinking. He goes to the extreme of downplaying the tragedy of Jewish suffering so that he may commiserate and empathize with the unhappiness of the former oppressor. Moreover, the attempt to establish suffering as a common denominator between Jews and Germans signals an overwhelming motivation on the part of the Jew to be found equal to the Gentile even at the price of his righteous claim for justice. The powerful attempt to establish an affinity with the Gentile world reveals vestiges of anxiety and a fear of the recurrence of anti-Jewish persecutions. Layton tries to resolve the problem of entrenched Christian hostility toward Jews by espousing the ideal of the brotherhood of men promulgated by Christian humanism.
Layton's identification of himself as a liberal humanist operating within the humanist framework of the Christian world precludes the Jewish right to self-assertion and, consequently, modifies his attitude to the State of Israel. As a spokesman for assimilation, Layton no longer glorifies the military power of Israel as a necessary response to the Holocaust, neither does he see in Israel the symbolic rebirth of Jewish pride and self-respect. In fact, in his role of a humanist, Layton produces harsh criticism of the State of Israel. He claims that Israel's political structure does not represent a developing democracy; its society is conservative and does not allow for any deviation from the accepted conventions. He finds that “Israelis give the impression of walking around in a circle like the blinded ponies in the coal pits of the 19th c.”47 and that their life style exhibits ghetto mentality which does not produce original culture or new ideas. Layton's major attack against the Jewish State deals with the relations between Israel and the Arabs. In the account of his interview with the mayor of a Druse village in Israel, Layton emphasizes the humanist approach of the minority group member towards Israel. The mayor's main concern revolves around the existence of minorities in the Middle East and their right of self-determination. The mayor conspicuously displays a friendly and supportive attitude towards Israel.48
Israel's relations with its Arab neighbours however, prompt Layton to castigate the Jewish State. Israeli characteristics, as the poet sees them, of ruthless self-centredness in matters of self-defence coupled with total disregard of the international political scene and ostentatious disinterest in the Gentile world, both insult and disappoint the humanist in Layton. Israel has definitely not lived up to the ideal of the liberal humanist. Consequently, Layton identifies Israel's powerful response to the Arabs not as an act of self-defence, but as an act of oppression. As a country which denies the humanist ideal of the brotherhood of men, Israel is not fit to fulfil the role of the Jewish Homeland, the final stage in the history of Jewish dispersion. Its inability to live peacefully with the Arabs nullifies the hope for freedom that the State of Israel has initially promised. With obvious disregard of his own enthusiastic response to the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, Layton's impressions of the country in 1968 present a critical view of a detached, objective political observer who just happens to be a Jew:
In my harsher moments I have defined an Israeli as a Jew who has been stripped of all his Gentile friends and even as an ungoose-stepping Prussian. For all that, I am confident that the remarkable story of the Jew will not end on this note. That would be too much of an anticlimax … Israel's destiny is not to be that of a Switzerland or Belgium of the Middle East. The messianic mission has not been accomplished, Zionism did not put an end to the Jew's wanderings.49
Mordecai Richler's writings display a dialectic almost identical to that of Layton. Like Layton, Richler criticizes Israel's inadequate humanist perception. Israel's social and religious reactionary conservatism is illustrated in the episodes in which two of his characters make an attempt to make Israel their home. Both Karp in A Choice of Enemies and Carlos in Joshua Then and Now are victims of terrible anti-Semitic persecutions. Karp is a concentration camp survivor, physically and emotionally mutilated by his experience. Carlos is one of the Marrano Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition in Spain and who managed to preserve their Jewishness. Neither of the survivors is welcome in the Jewish State. Karp is not accepted by the Israeli society—“people suspect him because he survived.”50 Carlos is ostracized by the religious authorities; the Israeli Rabbinate does not consider him Jewish since “his mother was officially a Catholic.”51 Therefore, he is refused the status of the returning Jew. In both instances, Israel is criticized for its particularist stance.
Richler's perception of the Jews in the post-Holocaust world seems to shift incessantly. Opposed to the personal pain of the Holocaust and the identification with the potency of Israel, the humanist identification with the general notion of human suffering and the condemnation of violent means to resolve political conflicts.
In St. Urbain's Horseman Jake Hersh's contradictory response to the Six Day War illustrates the perennial conflict regarding Israel as experienced by the modern Jew. Consumed by anxiety about the survival of Israel in the crucial days prior to the outbreak of the war, Jake prepares himself to volunteer to fight for Israel. In the wake of Israel's victory, however, Jake hesitates, because of his liberal conscience, to contribute money to Israel's war effort. Jake, the liberal, who was ready to support the victim is unable to identify with the victor. Israel suddenly appears to be the oppressor, and its soldiers are seen as violators of the code of civilized, humanitarian conduct among the nations.
Like Layton, Richler in his role of a liberal humanist seems to be preoccupied with the shifting definitions of the victim and the victimizer. As the example of the liberal humanist reaction to the Israeli victory in 1967 illustrates, the identity of the victim and the victimizer is purely circumstantial. Once the would-be victim has been successful in defending himself, the sympathy of the liberal shifts to the oppressor who appears to have become the victim. It seems that the Jewish liberal, in his eagerness to join the ranks of international humanism, is prepared to modify his concept of man's accountability to his fellow-man. Jake for instance, is ready to ignore the fact that the Arab nations, even though they lost the war, only a short while before were planning the destruction of Israel.
Noah Adler, the protagonist in Son of a Smaller Hero, is also eager to justify anti-Semitic practices in Quebec because of the brutal reality of life which sets one human being against the other. Noah claims that
The guy who wants to get into a restricted golf course or hotel and the other guy who won't let him in are really brothers. The fact that one is inside and the other outside is an accident. They could switch places just like that. Besides, there is a certain kind of Jew who needs a “Goy” badly.52
Interestingly enough, Noah does not object to the very existence of discriminatory restrictions directed towards Jews. His sense of justice seems to be satisfied with the notion that some Jews do not observe the rules of fair-play either. In Noah's view of the world, the human tendency to exploit others is universal and, therefore, it is impossible to discriminate between the victims and the victimizers; nor is it possible to apply strict moral norms which will distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. In fact, being human is tantamount to having a propensity to do evil.
Using the same argument of human liability to wickedness as Layton does, Richler's protagonist neutralizes the uniqueness of Jewish loss in the Nazi concentration camps. Revoking the humanist principle of equality of men, he explicitly invalidates the Jewish identity of the Holocaust victims. And, like Layton, Noah insists on blaming the Holocaust on humanity as a whole, not just on the German people:
The important thing is not that they burned Jews but that they burned men. It did not have to happen in Germany, either. A Zionist, who I know very well, sold scrap to Japan right up to '41. He didn't see the connection. Nobody in the family protested against non-intervention …53
In his attempt to show sympathy and understanding for the German people Layton compares his own suffering of anti-Semitic rejection with the German feeling of alienation after the war. In no less striking analogy Richler's protagonist also draws a comparison between Jews and Germans. Noah finds a common measure of hypocrisy between Germans who claim innocent ignorance of the Nazi bestiality and those Jews who conceal their faults and petty crimes while pretending ignorance:
At last Noah understood about the concentration camps. About the Goldenbergs and Harvey. The Germans have told the truth when they said that they hadn't known. They couldn't cope with knowing. Neither could the Goldenbergs. Their crimes varied in dimension but not in quality.
Noah's insistence on comparing the negative qualities of his fellow-Jews with those of their worst persecutors reveals his own desire to blot out his Jewish uniqueness and merge into the brotherhood of men as promised by liberal humanism. He knows that complete assimilation requires complete renunciation of his Jewish identity. In rebellious reaction against his Jewish heritage, Noah nullifies his people's long suffering of anti-Semitism, neutralizes the uniqueness of the Jewish loss in the Holocaust, and discovers in every Jew not a potential victim of anti-Semitic persecution, but a potential exploiter of the Gentile.
Paradoxically, Noah's criticism of the Jewish people echoes the traditional anti-Semitic argument about the inherent immorality of Jews and their dishonest intention to use the Gentile world for their own self-interests. Noah's eagerness to assimilate leads him to identification with the anti-Semite and to blatant vilification of his people. A. M. Klein, in his memoir “Stranger and Afraid,” describes a similar phenomenon of the Jew taking sides with the persecutor. Klein shows how the destructive experience of anti-Semitism channels the anger and frustration of the humiliated Jew against his own people. Klein demonstrates consciousness of the emotional reasons for his self-manipulation toward assimilation and denounces, with dismay, his inclination to identify with the oppressor of his people. Richler's protagonist, however, rationalizes his wish to integrate into the Gentile world under the guise of a humanist social critic.
Klein's position is characterized by his efforts to make the Gentile world understand its responsibility toward the Jewish people. Klein does not advocate Jewish independent action to redress injustice, but he also steers away from the danger of assimilation. In spite of his disappointment and disillusion with the post-War world, he tries to preserve a vision of accepting the Jews as equals into the democratic system of the Western World. In relation to Klein whose stance, by and large, remains immutable, Layton's and Richler's writings display varying Jewish reaction to the post-Holocaust world. In contrast to Klein, both writers are capable of envisaging a strong, independent Jewish identity materialized in the State of Israel. At the same time, their humanist stance surpasses that of Klein. Eager to forgo the unique position of the Jew as an outcast among the nations and longing to merge into Gentile society, they are ready to renounce their Jewish identity and assume the role of humanist spokesmen for mankind as a whole.
Layton's and Richler's constant vacillations between the two mutually exclusive poles of assimilation and self-assertion manifest the phenomenon of split Jewish consciousness in the post-Holocaust world. None of the central Jewish themes is given a consistent representation. The reactions of the writers to anti-Semitism in Canada, the tragic destruction of European Jewry, and the historic event of the establishment of the State of Israel are characterized by constant contradictions. Each of the themes is treated in contrasting ways and, consequently, the world picture that emerges remains intrinsically disintegrated. The sense of unresolved duality in Layton's and Richler's work presents a picture of moral confusion and disorientation in Jewish relationships with the Gentile world.
Richler's novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz illustrates the fragmented world view of the Jewish community in Montreal. Although the novel does not deal directly with the theme of the Holocaust, the characters represent a split in the identity of Montreal Jewry. Uncle Benjy and his father, Simcha, personify two poles in Jewish orientation. Simcha's belief that “a man without land is nobody” (p. 70)54 highlights the concept of security, identity, and independence. In the most fundamental sense, land cultivation implies one's competence to survive on one's own, independently of others. For a Jew the idea of land is naturally connected with the Biblical concept of the Promised Land which represents the eternal Jewish hope and yearning for independence in their own country. For Simcha, an old Jew transplanted from the atmosphere of anti-Semitic persecution in Eastern Europe into Canada, possession of land could possibly fulfill his emotional need for the regeneration of Jewish dignity and self-respect in the new country. Benjy's conception differs drastically from that of his father. He does not wish to establish his Jewish identity in the new country; on the contrary, he wishes to integrate into the Gentile world. In his continuous efforts to be assimilated, Benjy presents a paradoxical phenomenon of a self-made Jewish factory owner with strong communist sympathies, who nevertheless, has an overpowering inclination to emulate the lifestyle and values of a WASP gentleman.
In a deceptively symmetrical pattern, Lenny and Duddy, Simcha's grandsons, are expected to actualize the principles of their uncle and grandfather. Thus while Lenny is being groomed by his uncle to penetrate the world of the Gentiles as an enlightened gentleman-doctor, Duddy invests enormous resources of energy in fulfilling his grandfather's expectations of owning land. Where Lenny makes desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with his well-connected Gentile friends, Duddy does not hesitate to use his Gentile friends in order to become “a somebody” (p. 79).
Eventually, neither of the boys fulfills his mentor's expectations. Lenny undergoes a disillusioning experience when he realizes to what extent his Gentile “friend” took advantage of his inferior social position. Lenny's declaration of his intention to settle in Israel marks his negative reaction to his uncle's orientation and draws him closer to his grandfather's concept of an identity determined by the sense of belonging. It is significant, however, that Lenny's plan is embryonic in the sense that his conversion to Zionism remains only a verbally articulated project. Duddy misinterprets his grandfather's credo. He fails to understand the idea of moral and spiritual regeneration through direct contact with land. Duddy can see the land only in terms of the acquisition of property which will establish his identity as a powerful landowner and a successful businessman. The ruthlessness and immorality of Duddy's pursuit eventually estrange him from Simcha. Ironically, Duddy's struggle for power and wealth endears him to his uncle. Benjy understands Duddy's relentless ambition as an expression of a powerful wish to break away from the restricting boundaries and deprivations of the Jewish “ghetto.”
The process of entering the world of social and financial success exacts its price in terms of moral corruption and brutal mistreatment of other human beings. The insensitivity, insincerity and dishonesty which typify Duddy's relationships with Yvette and Virgil turn him into a ruthless oppressor of the innocent. The novel exposes the Jewish community's moral confusion and ambivalence in relation to the Gentile world. While Lenny becomes the victim of his Gentile friends, Duddy becomes the victimizer of the Gentile. The absence of a unified world picture is demonstrated by the older generations of Simcha and Benjy. The juxtaposition of the conflicting messages to assimilate and to assert oneself as a Jew is both disorienting and demoralizing. In this sense, Duddy's lack of conscience manifests the effects of the confused Jewish consciousness in the modern world. To some extent, then, Duddy can be seen as a casualty of the loss of direction in Jewish interaction with the world.
The polarities of Layton's and Richler's fragmented picture of the Jewish post-Holocaust world also inform the point of view of Leonard Cohen and Adele Wiseman. On the one hand, Layton's and Richler's work shows constant fluctuation between poles of self-assertion and assimilation. Cohen and Wiseman, on the other hand, establish themselves firmly each at the opposite end of the spectrum. Cohen distances himself from his Jewish background and nullifies the distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Wiseman embraces the Jewish tradition and focuses on the uniqueness of the Jewish identity. Both writers are aware of the contrasting option, and they address themselves to it in their writing. But their work represents, by and large, a consistent point of view in contrast with the shifting perspective in the work of Layton and Richler.
Cohen's three books of poetry—Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), and Flowers for Hitler (1964)—demonstrate a progression in the poet's withdrawal from the Jewish tradition which culminates in total identification with the morally corrupt post-War world. His attempts to break away from his background manifest themselves in his conscious effort to adopt an impartial view of mankind as a whole. Cohen's struggle to disengage himself, as a Jew, from the impact of the Holocaust is resolved in the apocalyptic vision of human society where all men are equally guilty of the recent horror and where every individual has already become a tyrant. Cohen deals with the effects of his childhood anti-Semitic experiences by adopting the humanist stance of a reconciler. “Let us compare mythologies,” he suggests to his Christian childhood friends who accuse him of crucifying Jesus.55 As the humanist poet sees it, the era of hostility between Christians and Jews seems to be coming to its end:
Now each in his holy hill the glittering and hurting days are almost done.(56)
Cohen's expectations of the termination of anti-Semitic hatred resembles Klein's humanist hope that the anti-Semitic phenomena that he experiences are only vestiges of hard dying prejudices. But Cohen's humanism also communicates his wish to withdraw altogether from the conflicting relationships between Christians and Jews. In his poem “I have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” he reiterates his emotional withdrawal from identification with any religious tradition. The European history of religious wars is foreign to him and so is the memory of the noble knights who died in battle. Significantly, the poet manifests the same measure of indifference to the history of his own people's suffering at the hands of the Christians:
I have not worshipped wounds and relics, or combs of iron, or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.(57)
The strongest statement of Cohen's wish to liberate himself from the burden of his heritage is expressed in the prose poem “Lines from My Grandfather's Journal.”58 Here Cohen's narrator struggles with “the old tyranny” of the Jewish tradition of learning, liturgy and religious ceremony. He makes desperate attempts to free himself from “a tradition composed of the excuviae of visions” in order to be able to project his own vision and to establish his freedom from his binding heritage.
Grandfather's rebellion is directed not only against the binding rules of his heritage; he rages against God who permitted his people to be murdered in the Holocaust. When the Jewish worshippers were murdered in their synagogues, “in Prague their Golem slept.” The fire and the chimneys of the concentration camp ovens undermine the validity of the Jewish religious tradition of worship and learning. Moreover, the narrator's growing detachment from the terror of the Holocaust exacerbates his feelings of despair and desolation. Making “peace with the numbers” of his brothers who were murdered in concentration camps, the difficulty of remembering the “past intensity” of the Holocaust and the efforts to “estimate [his] distance from the Belsen heap”59 represent his reluctance in sharing the burden of the tragedy. However, the poem also refers to those who have not forgotten and responded powerfully to the Holocaust. Unwillingly, Grandfather admits that the Israeli soldiers “in a white Tel Aviv street” constitute “an answer to the ovens.” Although he does not approve of Israeli militarism, he feels compelled to admit that “there is only one choice between ghettos and battalions, between whips and the weariest patriotic arrogance …”60
In relation to Jewish existence in the post-Holocaust world, a powerful Israel indicates the pole of Jewish assertion and self-sufficiency. Cohen's grandfather's argument that the military strength of Israel constitutes the Jewish response to the Holocaust coalesces with Layton's and Richler's view of Israel as a guarantee that the tragedy of the Holocaust will not recur. Both Richler and Layton, when focusing on the aspect of Jewish independent position in the hostile Gentile world, identify wholeheartedly with the idea of a strong Israel. In contrast to Richler and Layton, Cohen's acknowledgement of the Jewish right to self-defense reveals a strong undertone of criticism about the act of violence manifested in this particular form of response to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. As a humanist pacifist, his narrator admits that
… it gives me no pleasure to see [Israelis] in uniform. I do not thrill to the sight of Jewish battalions.61
Paradoxically, Cohen's own response to the Holocaust as presented in Flowers for Hitler can hardly be defined as humanist. Cohen takes the suggestion of the universality of the human propensity to evil beyond the humanist concept of human fallibility into the realm of the absurd. Cohen's approach does not focus on criticism and correction of human weaknesses but, rather, on the acceptance of the existence of human wickedness as an integral and unchangeable part of human existence. In the opening poem “What I'm Doing Here,” Cohen establishes the existence of evil in every human being. He confirms that we are all guilty of crimes of conspiracy, torture and hatred of other human beings. The poet waits “for each one of you to confess”62 and acknowledge his inherent propensity to evil. Thus, the products of evil can no longer be isolated and considered to be transient historical phenomena such as concentration camps under the Nazi regime. Man's wickedness transforms the existence of every individual into a territory of pain and suffering and every individual into a persecutor.
Hitler the brain-mole looks out of my eyes Goering boils ingots in my bowels My Adam's Apple bulges with the whole head of Goebbels No use to tell a man he's a Jew I'm making a lampshade out of your kiss(63)
The particular issue of anti-Semitic persecution seems irrelevant in view of the universal evil force which penetrates and contaminates every aspect of human existence. The Nazi criminal is no longer seen as a fear-evoking, abject figure; Cohen's emphasis on the “normality” of the Nazi and his ordinary appearance implies that evil is not unique—any normal and ordinary person is capable of becoming a Nazi himself. In the poem “All There Is to Know about Adolph Eichmann” Cohen dismisses any feature which could qualify Eichmann as a monster, and mocks his reader's naive picture of evil which might include “Talons / Oversize incisors? / Green saliva? / Madness?”64 The human capacity to become Eichmann and Goebbels is by no means presented as a hypothesis. Cohen refuses to blame only Germany for the atrocities of the war. Like Layton and Richler, Cohen accuses the free world of collective guilt. Stephen Scobie in his study of Leonard Cohen notes that “Cohen insists, with his reference to western pop figures, that Hitler was not an exclusively German phenomenon.”65 The Western World assisted Hitler in his monstrous undertaking, and its complicity is reflected in its popular culture:
Captain Marvel signed the whip contract. Joe Palooka manufactured whips. Li'l Abner packed the whips in cases. The Katzenjammer Kids thought up experiments. Mere cogs.(66)
The element of terrifying absurdity in a world which has come to represent a vicious circle of suffering and oppression is further enhanced by the positive human qualities of affection and warmth that Cohen attributes to Hitler, the most inhuman of tyrants:
Braun, Rabual and him
these three humans I can't get their nude and loving bodies out of my mind.(67)
The grotesqueness of the image of a loving Hitler is compounded by the fact that a Jewish poet has conjured up such a haunting scene in his mind. The image underscores the complete loss of moral judgement in a world that has experienced the terror of Hitlerism. Remembering Hitler for his human qualities signifies that, indeed, there is no limit to human capacity for distortion, monstrosity and perversion in the post-Holocaust world.
In Cohen's perception, the Holocaust has been internalized and, therefore, its horror continues to shape the individual's interaction with the world. The Holocaust has nullified the sense of morality and discrimination between good and evil; it has obliterated the sense of moral accountability and has invalidated the principle of justice and retribution. In Cohen's imagination the world assumes the shape of a global concentration camp where the distinction between the Jew and the Gentile has all but disappeared. Cohen transforms the humanist stance as represented by Klein, Layton and Richler into a demonstration of the anti-humanist aspect of human equality. The humanist perception of man which stresses the potential for good that all mankind shares is supplanted by the vision of evil common to everyone.
In her essay “Leonard Cohen, Black Romantic,” Sandra Djwa outlines the fundamental disparity between Klein's Hitleriad and Cohen's Flowers for Hitler. She claims that “Klein's Hitleriad invokes the rational Neo-Classical world where human folly can be reflectively chastised by the wit of righteous indignation … In [Cohen's] perspective, irrational evil is accepted as a normal part of the human make-up which can even come to have certain attractiveness.”68 Klein's clear-cut distinction between evil represented by Hitler and innocence embodied by his victims stands in total opposition to Cohen's emphasis on the obliteration of any such distinction. The principles of justice can be exercised only when the norms which distinguish between the victims and their oppressors are operative. In Cohen's world where roles and personalities are interchangeable, justice and moral order have ceased to function.
Layton, too, believes that all men are capable of evil under certain circumstances. Like Cohen, he accuses the Western World of its complicity with the Nazis in allowing Hitler to carry out his threat. And, like Cohen, he sees the post-Holocaust world overtaken by forces of bestial violence and wickedness. Contrary to Cohen, however, Layton sees his prophetic role in terms of saving the world from another tragedy of senseless horror. Layton's exhortations for reconciliation with Germany communicates the vision of the world's rebirth in the spirit of Christian humanism. Cohen's absurd picture of the world precludes the humanistic expectation of humanity working together for a better future. Michael Ondaatje observes that Cohen's notion of evil communicates that “we all carry our own private hitlers.”69 This perception of communal and individual guilt rules out the hope for redemption.
Some measure of affinity can be established between Cohen and Richler. The arbitrariness of the roles of victims and victimizers is dramatized in the absurd world of Richler's novel Cocksure. The characters in the novel are in constant pursuit of power. The principle of the survival of the fittest governs the novel's world. The Star Maker practically dismembers his victims to regenerate himself while his Jewish counterpart, Shalinsky, victimizes the Gentile protagonist, Mortimer, in his sadistic attempt to divest him of his identity.
In Cohen's picture of the world, the distinction between Jew and Gentile becomes obsolete. Human capacity for evil has, absurdly, become the common denominator which molds man's identity in the post-War world. In Richler's representation of the world in Cocksure, the ruthless, totally unscrupulous struggle for power defines the character's identity as either a victim or a victimizer. Richler's acknowledgement of and occasional enthusiastic subscription to the concept of a strong and assertive Jewish identity alleviate the pessimistic vision of the post-war world as represented in Cocksure. Cohen's treatment of his Jewish roots does not provide him with an alternative to his vision of the disintegrating world. Cohen proceeds from conscious rejection of the Jewish tradition into total immersion in a world which is continually experiencing a self-inflicted Holocaust.
Cohen's nihilistic picture of the world is firmly anchored in the spectrum of Jewish assimilation into Gentile society. Like Layton and Richler in their roles of humanist critics, prophets and teachers, Cohen dismisses the notion of a Jewish identity independent of the Gentile world. Adele Wiseman, both in her interviews and her literary work, repudiates the assimilationist approach predicated on the assumption of guilt and perversity shared by Jews and Gentiles. Wiseman establishes a strong Jewish identity through direct affirmation of her distinctness as a Jew. Wiseman has asserted her Jewishness since early childhood. In the biographical article “The Stubborn Ethnicity of Adele Wiseman,” Adele Freeman recounts Wiseman's reaction to anti-Semitism as a growing child in her native Winnipeg:
When she was eleven she asked her mother for something that would announce to her schoolmates unequivocally that she was Jewish and save her the pain of being teased when her religion was discovered. Her mother had a Star of David fashioned out of gold for her. Wiseman still wears it.70
As an adult Wiseman has turned her literary work into the emblem of her Jewish identity. She sees her writing as a necessary act to confirm her sense of deep attachment and belonging to the Jewish heritage:
My consciousness is Jewish; it's a Jewish consciousness and I think I'm a flower in somebody's else's garden. I'm a different flower and my selfhood and my “otherness” I sing about …71
Deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, Wiseman is openly critical of those American Jewish writers who wish to obliterate the unique identity of the Jewish people in order to integrate into Gentile society. Wiseman submits that the Jewish liberal ideology which exonerates the Gentile persecutors from their guilt toward Jews is both damaging and dishonest. Such an approach undermines the Jewish right to redress the injustice and suffering inflicted by the Gentile world; it also invalidates the sense of moral indignation of the Jewish victim toward the Gentiles. Instead of releasing his righteous anger at the perpetrators of his suffering, the Jewish individual represses his anger by incurring a sense of guilt for crimes he has never committed. According to Wiseman, the Christian attitude adopted by liberal Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust which consists in “accepting the sins of the world and turning them on themselves”72 indicates the extent of self-humiliation that these American Jewish writes can put up with to ingratiate themselves with the Gentiles.
Wiseman categorically refutes the idea of interchangeability between the victim and the victimizer. In her discussion of the tragedy of the Holocaust, she forcefully accuses the Germans of their crimes against the Jewish people. It is true that, like Layton, Richler and Cohen, she denounces the complicity of the rest of the world in German bestiality. But on no account is Wiseman ready to accept the notion that the contribution of the free world to the terrible tragedy of the war is proof that the distinction between victim and victimizer is merely incidental, and that all human beings, under similar circumstances, display uniform patterns of cruelty and sadism.
In her unpublished play Lovebound—the tragic story of the German ships with Jewish refugees who in vain sought haven from the Nazi threat in 1939—Wiseman refuses to humanize the German characters. She finds nothing redeeming about the suffering that the Nazis inflicted upon their Jewish victims in spite of the indifference of the rest of the world to the Jewish plight. In that respect, Wiseman's attitude is similar to that of Richler and Layton in their phase of identification with the Jewish loss in the Holocaust and their call for Jewish revenge.
Both Richler and Layton exhibit strikingly inconsistent positions regarding Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Wiseman's consistent point of view about the Holocaust highlights the extent to which Layton and Richler vacillate between the wish to assert themselves as Jews and the desire to merge with the Christian world by shedding their Jewish uniqueness. Wiseman remains adamant in her position on the principle of a particular Jewish identity. According to Wiseman, it is only from the standpoint of their own uniqueness that Jews can interact with the Gentile world:
… ecumenism is a way of evading the really difficult task of respecting each other. It's a way of saying: “Well, we're basically all alike.” But we can only say that if we accept that we also really have basically very different orientations.73
In her novels, The Sacrifice and Crackpot, Wiseman is not preoccupied with the theme of Jewish assimilation in the Gentile world. Her interest focuses on the destructive effects of anti-Semitism on the emotional makeup of the Jewish individual and on the inner forces of spiritual and emotional regeneration that enable the Jewish survivor to re-establish his dignity and pride.
In his treatment of the traumatic effects of anti-Semitism on the Jewish psyche, Klein analyzes the emotional need of the victim to escape his suffering through identification with his oppressor. Layton and Richler struggle to restore the victim's potency by alternatively calling for Jewish revenge or subscribing to the Christian humanist concept of forgiveness. Cohen attempts to ignore anti-Semitism altogether by integrating Jewish suffering into the global moral disintegration of the world. Wiseman seeks remedy for the psychological injuries suffered by the Jew in the irrepressible vitality of the Jewish people. The emotional strength and moral perseverance of the Jewish tradition ensures the continually renewing bond between generations.
Many of Wiseman's characters are survivors who have escaped Eastern Europe and came to settle in Canada. In both her novels Europe is depicted as a burial ground for the Jewish people. In The Sacrifice, Abraham, his wife, and youngest son emerge from the grave-like cellar “blacker than night”74 where they were hiding from the pogrom and find the bodies of the two other sons who were murdered by the Cossacks. In Crackpot Danile and Rahel are married in the cemetery, “the field of death.”75 The wedding is supposed to stop the plague in their village and thus avoid a pogrom at the hands of the irate Gentile farmers who believe that the Jews have caused the disease. Lazar, the survivor of the Holocaust who eventually marries Hoda, Daniel's and Rahel's daughter, saves himself by crawling out of the pit under the bodies of his family murdered by the Nazis.
The personal ordeal of the victim isolates him from the rest of humanity. In his loneliness, he incessantly relives his personal disaster which he is unable to communicate to the rest of the world. The spiritual salvation of the victim is predicated upon his ability to break the self-imposed silence and relate his experience to the next generation. Only through the knowledge of the history of their parents will the children of the victims be able to establish a vital link with their heritage. The consciousness of suffering promises the hope of regeneration and renewal in spite of the despair and desolation caused by the long tradition of anti-Jewish hatred.
The final reconciliation in The Sacrifice between Abraham and his grandson, Moses, reconfirms Abraham's interpretation of the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac which he taught to Moses in his childhood. In the story, God, who demands the ultimate sacrifice of the patriarch, Abraham, ends up reaffirming life by relenting and letting Isaac live. Abraham, the protagonist of the novel, sees the event of the sacrifice as
the moment that even God could not resist, and so He gave us the future … He said, ‘Kill the ram and let your son live. In him is your future!’76
In a sense, the story of the patriarch who fought against the worship of idols which involved the sacrifice of children, and who almost sacrificed his own son at God's request is a very close representation of the protagonist's own ordeal. His two elder sons were the sacrifice, metaphorically speaking, required of the Jewish village to appease the Cossacks at the time of the pogrom. The subsequent death of Isaac, Abraham's lost son, is not caused by another pogrom; it is rather a reenactment of the Binding of Isaac story. It is as if God himself demanded the sacrifice this time—as Abraham sees it, Isaac died for the glory of God by saving the Torah scroll from a burning synagogue. In a terrible act of rebellion against God, Abraham kills a woman who has become the projection of his despair and desolation. This act symbolizes the spiritual loss of hope and faith for the Jewish people.
Redemption becomes possible only through the reaffirmation of the bond between Abraham and his grandson. In the last encounter between Abraham and Moses, the concept of faith and hope for the future becomes operative again. The murder of Laiah, rooted in Abraham's rejection of consolation and compassion, severed his ties with his God and his people. Moses who represents the future of the physically and emotionally mutilated Jewish people mends the link and establishes his connection with the history of Jewish suffering. At the end of the novel, Moses the son of Isaac reaffirms the Jewish moral principle of the sanctity of human life and the unseverable link between generations. The renewed bond with his grandfather confirms the validity of the lesson in the story of the Binding of Isaac about the undying existence of the Jewish people which in spite of its history of terrible suffering is constantly revitalized through unbreakable ties with its heritage:
And for a moment so conscious was he of his grandfather's hand on his own, of its penetrating warmth, of its very texture, that he felt not as though it merely lay super-imposed on his own but that it was becoming one with his hand, nerve of his nerve, sinew of his sinew; that the distinct outlines had disappeared. It was with the strangest feeling of awakening that he saw their hands fused together—one hand, the hand of a murderer, hero, artist, the hand of a man … It was as though he stood suddenly within the threshold of a different kind of understanding, no longer crouching behind locked doors, but standing upright, with his grandfather leading him, as he always did.77
In Crackpot the link between Danile and his daughter, Hoda, is established through Danile's stories about his own past. In contrast to Abraham's despair and grief, Danile chooses to present his stories under the note of persistent optimism which neutralizes the horror of his story. Rahel's father's endless service in the Czar's army, the pogroms, the plague, Danile's mother's death, his own blindness and the wedding at the graveyard, all these facts are presented as miraculous events which eventually have led to Danile's happy marriage with Rahel and to Hoda's birth.
The naive and humorous point of view in Danile's story does not function merely as a defense mechanism to preserve sanity in a world full of hatred and persecution. The emphasis on the particularly unique circumstances of Hoda's birth instills a sense of identity and belonging in Hoda. The optimism that permeates the story gives her the hope and encouragement to survive. The history of her parents, as told by her father, becomes the story of continuity and survival, a celebration of life and love in spite of threatening anti-Semitic humiliation and hatred. Even the cemetery full of freshly dug graves for the victims of the plague becomes a symbol of affirmation of life through her parents' wedding.
With the strong sense of identity and pride that her past gives her, Hoda is strong enough to persevere through poverty, prostitution and incest. She seems to be forever mending the world through her attempts to offer love and compassion to other human beings. Hoda is the one who stubbornly picks up the “shards, permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered thorough the Universe”78 in her instinctive faith in the possibility of a better world. Her irrepressible vitality coupled with unabated optimism does not allow her to lapse into despair or to relinquish hope for a better future.
In fact, it is Hoda herself who personalizes the hope for the Jewish people's regeneration in the wake of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Lazar, the survivor of the Holocaust who practically rose from the dead, instinctively recognizes Hoda's vitality and compassion. He realizes that Hoda is capable of giving him the strength to continue to live, that she can relieve him of his memories and the burden of his guilt:
When the time came I was just like everyone else. Flesh of my father, flesh of my sister, flesh of the whole world, I gripped them and I crawled over them … that's all my past amounts to, a horrid, jellied, fleshy consistency in the terrain over which I will crawl for the rest of my life. How can you remember what can never become the past? Help me, Hodaleh … Just be with me.79
Hoda is capable of offering a promise of a new life to the Jew who survived the Holocaust because her whole existence is, in effect, a reconfirmation of life in view of the world of death, persecution and disease in which she was conceived. Hoda is the living proof that renewal and regeneration are possible even in the wake of the most terrible experiences that a Jew may live through. In the union of Lazar and Hoda the history of the Jewish suffering has come full circle. But this time the union of the two survivors promises not death but rebirth, not desolation but regeneration and reconfirmation of Jewish life.
The comparative study of the work of Klein, Layton, Richler, Cohen and Wiseman in relation to their perception of the Jewish position in the post-Holocaust world reveals certain common patterns. All the writers see the Holocaust as a milestone in the history of Jewish interaction with the Gentile world. While some of them choose to react in terms of Jewish distinct self-definition and independence from the non-Jewish world, others choose to struggle together with the rest of humanity with the increasingly disintegrating moral picture of the post-War world.
Mordecai Richler, in his fiction as well as in his non-fiction alternates between these two diametrically opposed orientations. On the one hand, he considers the self-contained, self-sufficient Jewish society to be the answer to the Jewish problem; on the other hand, he seems increasingly attracted to the option of the obliteration of Jewish distinctiveness among liberal Gentiles. Richler no longer trusts the naive vision represented by Klein that the humanist principles of justice and equality will forge an equal status for the Jewish people among nations. Like Cohen, Richler has no illusions about the corruption of the human society whether Jewish or Gentile. And his liberal attitude will not allow him to side with the Jewish people whose members are, in his perception, as prone to corruption and evil as the Gentiles. At the same time, the emotional impact of the Holocaust does not allow him to exonerate the perpetrators of Jewish suffering. From a point of view which is very close to that of Wiseman, Richler cannot refrain from proclaiming his anger towards those who allowed the Holocaust to happen.
Richler's constantly shifting position between self-assertion and assimilation is very similar to that of Layton. It seems that the formative experience of anti-Semitism has affected both authors in similar ways. Social rejection and the threat of violence have created the conflict separating the desire for the sense of belonging and affinity with their people from the overwhelming wish to severe all ties with Jewish history through identification with the universal causes espoused by humanist liberalism. Richler's vacillations and his ambivalent world picture point to his inability to establish a true bond with either Jewish community or the Gentile society.
Usher Caplan in Like One That Dreamed: A Portrait of A. M. Klein (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1982) observes that “though Klein was merely three years older than Layton, there seemed to be a generational gap between them”. (p. 100) Klein introduced Layton to the literary circles of Montreal and acted as his mentor in the beginning of Layton's career.
M. W. Steinberg and Usher Caplan, eds., A. M. Klein: Beyond Sambation: Selected Essays and Editorials, 1928-1955 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).
Beyond Sambation, p. 155.
ibid., pp. 155-156.
ibid., p. 275.
ibid., pp. 307-309.
ibid., p. 320.
Miriam Waddington, A. M. Klein (Vancouver: The Copp Clark Publishing Co., 1970), p. 100.
A. M. Klein, The Second Scroll (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1969), p. 107.
ibid., pp. 133-134.
Naim Kattan, “A. M. Klein: Modernité et Loyauté”, Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 19, No. 2 (Sept. 1984), p. 26.
Usher Caplan, Like One That Dreamed, p. 149.
Beyond Sambation, pp. 230-231.
ibid., p. 231.
Caplan, p. 76.
ibid., pp. 76-77.
Anna Freud, “Identification with the Aggressor”, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The International Psychoanalytical Library, No. 30, p. 113.
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (New York: The Orion Press, 1965), pp. 120-123, 35 passim.
Irving Layton, “Waiting for the Messiah”, Canadian Literature, No. 101 (Summer 1984), p. 12.
Mordecai Richler, “Their Canada and Mine”, The Spice-Box: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Writing (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Denys, 1981), p. 231.
Layton, “Waiting for the Messiah”, p. 12.
ibid., p. 12.
ibid., p. 13.
Irving Layton, The Darkening Fire: Selected Poems, 1945-1968 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1975), p. 70.
Mordecai Richler, The Street, p. 127.
Irving Layton, The Shattered Plinths (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Ltd., 1968), pp. 50-51.
Irving Layton, “Foreword”, The Covenant (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1977), p. xiii.
ibid., p. xiv.
Irving Layton, The Tightrope Dancer (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978), p. 49.
Irving Layton, Europe and Other Bad News (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981), p. 59.
Layton, The Tightrope Dancer, p. 49.
Layton, The Shattered Plinths, p. 32.
ibid., p. 33.
Mordecai Richler, “The Holocaust and After”, Shovelling Trouble, pp. 90-91.
ibid., pp. 86-87.
ibid., p. 89.
Graeme Gibson, Eleven Canadian Novelists, p. 271.
Irving Layton, “Foreword”, Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1963), p. xxi.
ibid., p. xx.
Irving Layton, Taking Sides (Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1977), p. 98.
ibid., p. 98.
ibid., p. 98.
ibid., p. 123.
In the poem “Hangover” (The Tightrope Dancer, p. 50) Layton expresses fundamental mistrust in the post-War German generation. He remembers the atrocities committed by the Nazis and experiences grief and rage at the sight of their children.
I want to ask him whether his father had been a Storm Trooper or perhaps one of the guards in Buchenwald and whether his dear mother had gone to school with Ilsa Koch and I shudder so that people notice when he strokes an animal …
Layton, Taking Sides, p. 116.
Layton, The Shattered Plinths, p. 15.
Layton, Taking Sides, p. 143.
ibid., p. 141.
ibid., p. 139.
Mordecai Richler, A Choice of Enemies, p. 242.
Mordecai Richler, Joshua Then and Now, p. 335.
Mordecai Richler, St. Urbain's Horseman, pp. 360-361.
Quotations from Mordecai Richler's Son of a Smaller Hero are from the McClelland and Stewart edition, 1969.
Quotations from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz are from Penguin Books edition, 1978.
Leonard Cohen, “For Wilf and His House”, Let Us Compare Mythologies (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 19560, p. 15.
ibid., p. 15.
Leonard Cohen, The Spice-Box of the Earth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 30.
ibid., pp. 88-93.
ibid., p. 92.
ibid., pp. 88-89.
ibid., p. 87.
Leonard Cohen, “What I'm Doing Here”, Flowers for Hitler (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), p. 13.
Cohen, “Hitler the Brain-Mole”, Flowers for Hitler, p. 43.
Cohen, Flowers for Hitler, p. 66.
Stephen Scobie, Leonard Cohen (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1978), p. 49.
Cohen, “The Migrating Dialogue”, Flowers for Hitler, p. 72.
ibid., p. 74.
Sandra Djwa, “Leonard Cohen, Black Romantic”, Canadian Literature 31 (1967), p. 34.
Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), p. 37.
Adele Freeman, “The Stubborn Ethnicity of Adele Wiseman”, Saturday Night, 91 (May 1976), p. W6.
Roslyn Belkin, “The Consciousness of a Jewish Artist: An Interview with Adele Wiseman”, Journal of Canadian Fiction, Nos. 31-32 (1981), p. 152.
ibid., p. 152.
ibid., p. 158.
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ibid., p. 345.
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SOURCE: Fulford, Robert. “Canada, From Inside and Out.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 June 1992): 3, 9.
[In the following review, Fulford evaluates the controversy resulting from Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, calling the book “disorganized and rambling.”]
There are more French Canadians alive now than ever before, and they possess more wealth and power than at any point in the past; yet their politics is based on the profoundly held belief that they are in danger of disappearing into the fog of history like some preliterate tribe of the Amazon. They see themselves, all 6.2 million of them, succumbing to the demographic pressure of North America and slowly assimilating into the English-speaking majority.
This fearful view of the future animates Quebec separatism, which has kept Canada in a state of more or less permanent crisis for a generation and has made constitution-writing the county's major intellectual industry for as long as most young people can remember. The province of Quebec, where most French Canadians live, wants a new constitutional arrangement, one that will give much of the power now held by the Canadian government to the Quebec government, so that Quebec can do what is necessary to prevent French Canada from disappearing off the face of the earth.
The first rule of Canadian politics is that this issue must be treated with the utmost solemnity. No one, on any side, can laugh at it, for to do so is to prove oneself “insensitive,” a capital crime in Canada. Any law made in the name of French-Canadian survival, no matter how outlandish, becomes the subject of serious discussion. When the Quebec government in the 1970s forced stores and other businesses to tear down all signs in English, or French and English, and replace them with French-only signs, no political leader or journalist jeered. This bumpkinish chauvinism instead elicited widespread demands for “understanding” of French Canada's plight. The law may have been grounded in spite and demagoguery, but Canada as a whole (including the English speakers in Quebec) was expected to see the cultural necessity of giving a “French face” to Quebec and particularly to the city of Montreal. Most Canadians, including most of those who profess to be civil-libertarians, acquiesced. Canadians will do almost anything to preserve the peace.
Comes now Mordecai Richler, the celebrated author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and many other books. In his essays as in his novels, Richler has always been a gadfly, and in particular an annoyance to his fellow Canadian Jews. A few years ago he turned his attention to Quebec nationalism, in which he perceived an “unquenchable thirst for self-pity” and a nasty strain of authoritarianism. Last September the New Yorker published his lengthy treatment of this subject, and immediately it became the most famous and infamous magazine article in—so far as anyone can tell—the entire history of Canada.
In Quebec, Richler was reviled from every editorial pulpit for making fun of the language laws and for recalling, in embarrassing detail, the extent to which several of modern Quebec's leading intellectuals (now all dead, fortunately) were dedicated anti-Semites. Elsewhere in Canada, Richler was frequently described as a talented writer who had somehow betrayed the country by producing so much anger in the midst (Canada is always in the midst) of delicate constitutional bargaining. His article was not (another serious crime in Canada) “helpful.”
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, a much extended and much rewritten version of the New Yorker piece, has turned out to be an even graver offense. A Quebec separatist member of the federal parliament demanded that the book be banned, and the author prosecuted, under the law against hate literature.
As they had last September, the editorialists of Quebec rose up as one and smote Richler. He may have been harder to attack this time, since his evidence of the anti-Semitic stain on Quebec nationalism was now more extensive, but they attacked anyway. Some Quebec journalists even demanded that English-speaking Canada should take pains to disassociate itself from Richler's hateful views. Incredibly, a few writers and journalists did just that.
At this point it would be the greatest pleasure for a Richler-admiring Toronto Anglophone like the present reviewer, long impatient with the pretension of Quebec nationalism, to announce that Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! is a work of brilliant clarity, incisive and witty. Alas, it is none of those things. It turns out to be disorganized and rambling, frequently clotted with undigested material, an obstacle course for anyone who finds the topic strange and not much of a treat even for those who have been through this story before. Unfamiliar names rush past in a blur, laws and regulations become hopelessly mixed in the reader's mind. Often we are taken to meetings in pubs where nothing of much interest is said.
In short, substandard Richler—a big surprise. Since he was born in Montreal, and has watched French-Canadian nationalism for half a century, he would seem to be the perfect author of such a book. That he's failed to produce a readable and compelling piece of work may be due simply to the level of his feelings. Rage has a way of making even talented writers incomprehensible.
Jan Morris has given her new book of essays a similar title, O Canada: Travels in an Unknown Country, but she otherwise resembles Richler in only one way: Both of them affect to be astonished when the subjects of their writing are offended. Just as Richler claimed to be surprised by the outrage he produced among French-Canadians, so Morris tells us in an introductory note that she can't imagine why her essay on the city of Vancouver was not universally popular with Vancouverites when it first appeared in 1988.
After all, she said nothing worse than that Vancouver was the last resort of pleasantness “of a middle-class, middle-income, middle-aged Englishy kind.” She said merely that the people there tend to be shy and inhibited and are apparently yearning for self-release, that their architecture lacks spontaneity, and that the city's tone is not exactly nice but rather “variously neo-nice, semi-nice, post-nice, over-nice …” What could possibly be offensive about that?
The locals, of course, knew when they were being patronized, and reacted with fury at Morris and the Canadian magazine in which the Vancouver piece, and most of the other city profiles she's assembled in this book, were first published. Undeterred, she moved on to the next city on her list, taking her sense of innocence with her. Innocence is one of her charms, and certainly charm—as opposed to piercing insight or narrative strength—is the most obvious quality of her work in recent years.
Jan Morris may be the most experienced travel writer in the world. After all, she's not only covered most of the major cities of the planet, she's also made—alone among travel writers. I believe—the longest voyage available to humans on earth, the surgically assisted journey from male James to female Jan. To suggest that her life experience is varied is to wildly understate the case.
It's therefore worth noting that the easternmost city on this continent, St. John's, Newfoundland, is her all-time favorite. Why? Aside from being a provincial capital, St. John's is a chronically impoverished old fishing port of fewer than 100,000 people (165,000 in the greater metropolitan area) with few of the museums, theaters and other cultural pleasures of great cities. What Morris responds to, and describes with great acuity, is the genuineness of the place.
St. John's people speak in their own way (the accent musically combines Irish and West Country English) about their own subjects. They are curious about outsiders, and tolerant, but it is their own affairs that matter to them, and they seem not to care whether they impress the world. In a time when most cities are anxious to turn themselves into stage sets, St. John's is never (apparently) giving a performance. It still seems, Morris reports with some surprise, “more or less real”—and if that richly pungent civic character is even faintly fraudulent, the fraud is skillfully concealed.
In travel writing, what matters most is not what the writer finds but what she brings with her. Jan Morris, a Welsh nationalist of radical anarchist views, nevertheless admits to feelings that are nostalgic, even reactionary. That makes her the perfect student of Canada, a country that clings ferociously—as Richler demonstrates—to tradition even while relentlessly tearing itself to pieces.
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SOURCE: Marin, Rick. “Maple Leaf Rag.” National Review 44, no. 13 (6 July 1992): 52-4.
[In the following review, Marin commends Richler's wit and cynicism in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country.]
I met my first Québecois language Nazi at a French immersion course in Cap Rouge, a hamlet outside Quebec City occupied that summer by high-school students from Canada's Anglophone provinces. Guy was the fascist Francophone's name, and whenever he heard one of us utter un mot anglais, he barked a rebuke and issued a demerit. Later, in 1980, I was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, “the Paris of Canada.” My French was as good as it had ever been, but there was one problem: every time I addressed a native in French, I was rebuffed in English, frequently pidgin, in return. It was a perverse game, all the more so given the recent outlawing of English on public signs, so that STOP became ARRET and stores such as Steinberg's were forced to shed their apostrophes. The Orwellian folly of Quebec's language laws was well under way.
Mordecai Richler—the Canadian novelist, sometime journalist, and full-time provocateur—has now joined in these linguistic civil wars. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country caused a garment-rending controversy in Canada and will, like so much news from the Great White North, be politely noted, then promptly forgotten here in the United States. That's too bad.
All right, there are lots of reasons for an American reader not to pick up Oh Canada! It's longer than it needs to be, by definition parochial, and yes, it is about (stifled yawn) Canada. That said, there are reasons to pick the book up. In Quebec's majoritarian paranoia, Californians may recognize their own distress over bilingualism. More to the point, if anyone can make Canadian politics readable, it's Richler, an acid wit and ruthless cynic whose most recent novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here, fictionalized the rise of Montreal's Bronfman family, the Seagram's booze dynasty.
At the core of the book is Quebec's surreal language laws. Bill 101, introduced by the separatist Parti Québecois in 1977, decreed that all immigrants be educated in French, that all businesses transact in French, that English-named towns, rivers, and mountains be Frenchified, and that all English (or even bilingual) commercial signs be outlawed. French would be the province's only language. Brazenly unconstitutional, the law was amended—and rendered more absurd—by Bill 178, which banned English on outdoor signs but permitted it indoors, provided the French was more prominent. This culminated in the 1990 “two-for-one” rule: The French indoor signs had to be twice as large or numerous as the English. While civil-service vigilantes hunted down violators, Richler and his drinking buddies formed the “Twice as Much Society,” a “call for French to be spoken twice as loud as English inside and outside.”
Quebec has never been a happy province. Its license plates read “Je me souviens,” a reminder of France's defeat in the colonial battle for Canada. Montreal itself, as Richler tirelessly reminds us, has a long history of tribal warfare among its Jews, WASPs, and French. “A BAS LES JUIFS” (“Down with the Jews”), he remembers seeing scrawled on a rock when he was a boy. Much of Oh Canada! is devoted to anti-Semitism in this “reactionary, priest-ridden, folkloric society.” In a postscript, Richler hits back at those who claim his charges are trumped up.
Whenever possible, Richler digresses to mock Canada's political institutions (calling Ottawa's appointed senators-for-life “superannuated bagmen”), its people (“history's couch potatoes”), and its culture (whose “true common denominator” is “bad taste”). But it has taken two novelists to explore with any resonance the central fact of Canadian life: It is a nation with foundations in two “distinct societies,” French and English. The late Hugh MacLennan attacked the problem in his 1945 novel Two Solitudes. Now Richler, with a piece of polemical journalism. Though Richler lives in Quebec, he spent twenty years abroad—the source, I've always felt, of his acute sense of perspective about his native land. He knows his province and is brilliant at limning the cartoonish characters in this national melodrama. My favorite is Jacques Parizeau, the fervent separatist who nonetheless demands an English-speaking governess for his children and sprinkles his conversation with exclamations like “by Jove” and “jolly good.”
In the last 25 years, Canada has catred to Quebec's separatist Angst, most recently with an aborted parchment called the Meech Lake Accord. Richler believes “we need each other if we are to create a Canada that is more than merely functional.” Is Canada worth saving? Last year 51 per cent of Canadians said if Quebec wants to separate, “let them go.”
I remember the feeling. They're tired of Quebeckers giving everyone else demerits.
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SOURCE: Waller, Harold M. “The Folly of Independence.” New Leader 75, no. 9 (13 July 1992): 18-19.
[In the following favorable review, Waller provides a critical reading of the controversial subject matter of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, focusing on Richler's charges of anti-Semitism.]
Despite its proximity, Canada tends to be neglected in the United States. Of the Americans who do know it, probably few regard it as a funny place (although it has produced a fair share of comic talent). Mordecai Richler's highly controversial book, the subject of an abundance of newspaper articles and anguished outpourings in his native land, should go some distance toward changing the Canadian image. His observations brim with rich and biting wit. But the true humor of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! is intrinsic to the situation it describes: the evolution of nationalism since the election of the secessionist Parti Québécois in 1976.
One of Canada's premier writers, Richler points his sharp pen at Quebec's language laws, concentrating on the sillier aspects designed to ensure that the province's public face will be unmistakably French. He argues, essentially, that practices accepted today in Quebec, and even in other parts of Canada, would be deemed ridiculous by foreigners. His combination of anecdote and long essay is really a cri de coeur, an effort to persuade fellow Quebecers that their nation-building project has gone too far; that their policies, particularly on language, are excessive; and that endless flirting with the idea of independence is dangerous. In the case of the last charge, the rest of Canada is not spared, although naturally the emphasis is on what has been happening inside the province.
By standing apart and viewing the fray from the perspective of an outsider, yet at the same time using his intimate knowledge of the province in providing a context, the author evidently has struck a raw nerve among the Québécois. The region's French-speaking writers and intellectuals are quite skeptical—and occasionally hostile—toward anyone who questions the nationalist program. For having the temerity to wash dirty linen abroad, first with a lengthy piece in the New Yorker last fall and now with this extended critique, Richler has been vilified. One columnist decried the book as a trashy polemic. Some people went so far as to insist that it be banned. A prominent publisher, meanwhile, suggested that Quebec would be better off if Richler moved out. Such reactions can only send a chill up the spine of any Quebecer who is not part of the majority, defined by a mix of linguistic and ethnic characteristics.
Born and raised in Montreal, Richler appreciates the aspirations of French Quebecers. Still, he feels strongly that the way they have gone about pursuing them has made Canada “one of the world's most unnecessary and goofy trouble spots.” Recounting the story of his hometown and province, he offers numerous vignettes based on observations and personal encounters, many with prominent actors in the drama. In the process he highlights the foibles of Canadians, especially their politicians, and ruminates on a host of topics: history, sociology, ethnic affairs, writers, bureaucrats, culture, anything that might be relevant to his main theme.
With a deft hand, Richler exposes the logical inconsistencies of Quebec nationalists (for instance, claiming that French culture is vibrant and original, but that its existence is “so fragile that the mere sight of a bilingual street sign is sufficient to propel it into the nearest intensive care unit”). He is contemptuous of those who would lead Quebecers toward the chimera of independence, which he regards as a “bourgeois conceit” of the intellectual class and politicians. More acidly he writes: “If Quebec's independence was a projected book, rather than a political cause, it could only be published by a vanity press.”
The tale Richler tells, while not widely known externally, is familiar to all Canadians. Admittedly, his is the view of Anglophone Montrealers, a group distressed by increasing limitations on its linguistic rights, by the steady decline of its population (due largely to the departure of young adults), and by the prospect of living in a Quebec independent from the Canada they are accustomed to.
Though most of what Richler recounts is factual, he makes no pretense to writing a history. On the contrary, instead of evaluating the arguments logically or engaging in sober analysis of public policies, he pokes devastating fun at the various manifestations of nationalism. These include the late Quebec Prime Minister René Lévesque's protestations that he hated imposing harsh and restrictive laws; the self-appointed vigilantes snooping around and taking pictures of illegal English signs in stores; the text of the regulations that specify the size, position and prominence of French words on signs; and the hypersensitivity of Quebec intellectuals.
But what has most unsettled Quebecers is Richler's declaring that anti-Semitism has for decades been an underlying theme of the province's nationalism. Indeed, the bulk of the uproar over the book (itself an extension of the response to the earlier article) has focused on this issue. That is unfortunate, for besides being ancillary to Richler's case, the charges of anti-Semitism have deflected debate from pressing questions about language policy and the practicality of independence.
Certainly anti-Semitism was a prominent feature of Quebec nationalism in the early part of this century, through the '30s. Richler is not the first to note this, and it is amply documented. Nor can it be denied that a disturbing anti-Semitic attitude persists among segments of the Quebec population. One cannot help but be dismayed, for example, that the Canadian Jewish Congress, the representative body of Canadian Jewry, was called on by many quarters to dissociate the Jewish community from Richler's stance, and to repudiate what some thought were allegations that Quebec society is anti-Semitic. Equally upsetting is the fact that the Congress felt compelled to react by in effect taking responsibility for the expressed views of an individual Jew, despite the disclaimer that his “Jewishness is entirely beside the point.”
On the other hand, Richler contends that the anti-Semitism he observed in the Laurentian resorts “in the late '40s is a metaphor for what ails Canada now,” a hostility toward the other. Nearly all of the instances he cites, though, are from earlier periods. Montreal in 1992 clearly is not Vienna in 1900. Anti-Semitism does not inform public policy and is not a focal point of political debate.
Repugnant incidents do occur, of course, and these are faithfully chronicled by B'nai B'rith in Quebec, just as they are in Ontario, Alberta and throughout the United States. Regrettably, too, unscrupulous nationalists are not above taking advantage of whatever anti-Semitic feeling exists, and their tactics need to be resisted vigorously. But they ought not to be allowed to obscure the crucial political matters confronting Quebec and the country: whether the province's independence is justified, let alone worth the costs; whether the danger of subordinating individual rights to the collective will of the majority is acceptable in a free society; and whether Canada can find a way to preserve itself at a time when other nations are falling apart because of an inability to cope with diversity.
In spite of the distracting nature of his material on anti-Semitism, Mordecai Richler has produced a trenchant critique of indépendantisme in Quebec. As a writer, he may not have all the answers, but he is surely asking the right questions about a country and province he loves dearly.
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SOURCE: Delany, Paul. “Vivre Comme Chien et Chat.” London Review of Books 14, no. 16 (20 August 1992): 12.
[In the following review, Delany contends that Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country presents several important insights but notes that “the case for Quebec nationalism needs to be answered more seriously and scrupulously than Richler cares to do.”]
The population of Québec is about seven million, all of them minorities. The Jews, for whom Mordecai Richler makes his complaint (though not only for them), are outnumbered by 11 to one in the English-speaking community. The English are outnumbered five to one by the French, but the French are outnumbered by three to one in Canada as a whole. In North America, finally, the Americans have Canadians outnumbered by a factor of ten.
Québec is thus a place where everyone can feel that they have a legitimate grievance, and even the same grievance as their opponents; and this is an endlessly irritable, though often amusing book that serves up every ethnic squabble of the past thirty years in Québec, in no particular order and with minimum energy wasted on possible solutions. Richler seems entirely comfortable with his own grumpiness, and the occasion it gives him to berate his French-speaking fellow citizens. At the end of his tirade, he vows that he loves Québec in spite of all, and intends to stay where he is and let his discontent ripen further. Meanwhile, his book has stirred up a howl of nationalist denunciation, a good deal of it proposing that Richler isn't a ‘real’ Quebecer and should get out of the province. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! pokes and stabs at the body politic of Québec, and especially at the pettiness, malice and farce often evident in its language policies. But in the tragic context of the ‘ethnic states’ now emerging to the east and south of the European Community, the case for Québec nationalism needs to be answered more seriously and scrupulously than Richler cares to do.
Richler's subtitle, ‘Requiem for a Divided Country’, gets the quarrel off to an early start. Outside Québec, in what is now called the ROC (Rest of Canada), it is widely assumed that there should be a unitary Canadian identity, co-extensive with the whole territory north of the forty-ninth parallel, and reconciling ten diverse provinces. Québec, in this vision, would simply be a province equal to the other nine. The desire of most Quebecers to speak French can be accommodated by making the Federal Government officially bilingual, and by conceding that Québec should have a generous share of political power and Federal spending. Francophone Quebecers, on the other hand, don't think in terms of ‘one country’, but rather of two ‘founding nations’ that happen to share a common territory. Until now, a plurality of Francophones have been willing to accept nationhood within Canada: the constitutional formula now being debated is called ‘distinct society’ status for Québec. But since the late Sixties a formidable separatist movement, the ‘Parti Québécois’, has argued that the Francophone nation should not settle for less than having its own state.
Compared to other subordinated nations, Québec already possesses large powers of self-determination, as well as great influence within the Canadian federation. First, it has been conceded by the ROC that if Québec declares unequivocally for independence it will be allowed to leave: no one can conceive of a US-style civil war, and many in the ROC would actually welcome an orderly departure of their fractious cousins. Meanwhile—unlike, say, Scots, Basques or Palestinians—Québec has its own parliament (l'Assemblée Nationale) which controls a budget of some £19 billion and has broad powers over taxation, medical care, education, culture, language, the economy, and even foreign relations. At the Federal level Québec has 75 MPs (out of 295) who typically form a strategic bloc to defend Québec's interests. Of post-war prime ministers, three of the five significant ones have been Quebecers (St Laurent, Trudeau, Mulroney), and there has been a Québec prime minister for 23 of the past 24 years. Brian Mulroney can be thought of as an ‘English’ leader, of course; but he is completely bilingual and can legitimately be seen as a hard-nosed Québec politician who happens to speak English some of the time.
Since the emergence of separatism, Francophone Quebecers have disagreed as to whether they should pursue their national destiny within Canada or outside it. The case for ‘within’ tends to be narrowly economic and therefore irritating to the ROC: using the popular marital analogy, Québec doesn't love her mate but can't afford to leave (jokers add that the marriage was never consummated). In Richler's jaundiced view, this situation is close to blackmail: the louder Québec complains about its position in the Confederation, the more ‘booty’—political spending on defence contracts etc—will be sent its way by an appeasing Federal Government. Separatists argue that it is humiliating to bargain for Federal largesse, and that Québec should control its own booty—even if there will be less of it after the divorce.
The separatists believe that the very survival of their culture and language is at stake. Since Francophones are being assimilated everywhere else in the continent, the only chance of survival for those who remain—2 per cent of the North American population—is to defend their bastion in Québec. Because the birthrate in Québec is now below replacement level, the bastion must be reinforced by attracting immigrants and making sure they assimilate to the Francophone rather than the Anglo-phone community.
Québec's language laws are the main target of Richler's book (though he does admit that he has led a satisfying life there without ever learning to speak French). Camille Laurin, a minister in the Parti Québécois administration of 1976-85, argued the case for language restrictions in this way. Immigrants to Québec whose first language is neither English nor French (‘allophones’) have tended to join the English community. This is not because Francophones are unwelcoming to them, but because ‘the assimilative power of the dominating group is always stronger than that of the dominated group.’ The solution must be a ‘global francisation’ of Québec society. Once the immigrants see that the government is serious about making French dominant, they will opt for the winning side voluntarily. When the Parti Québécois came to power they passed Bill 101 to entrench the supremacy of French, and made it compulsory for immigrants to send their children to French schools. It could be said that the PQ picked up the stick before even offering the carrot; but they argued that only shock treatment would change the mentality of non-Francophone groups. Later on, perhaps, the government could afford to be more conciliatory. The current Liberal regime of Robert Bourassa has toyed with proposals to soften the language laws, but has left them essentially unchanged in the interest of ‘social peace’—fear of nationalist wrath if, for example, commercial signs in English were to be allowed.
In recent years the percentage of Francophones in Québec has held firm and even crept up a bit, to 83 per cent. But this stabilisation is not the result of the mass conversion of Anglo or allophones to French. The weakness in Laurin's theory is that non-Francophones are free to move on to another province, or perhaps to the US, rather than turn themselves into vrais Québécois. Of the three million immigrants received by Québec since 1945, two million have chosen to leave. They sense that it's not just a question of ‘speak French and you will be accepted.’ Immigrants feel that they are also being asked to identify with the historic grievances of the Francophone nation in North America and to see themselves as a dominated minority. This is simply not an attractive proposition for anyone with a different historical memory.
The departure of non-Francophones from Québec slows down the economy and, perversely, promotes Francophone emigration as well. Between 1860 and 1920, nearly a million Francophones left Québec to find work in New England: their descendants are now completely assimilated Anglophones. A more linguistically neutral Québec society would have a higher proportion of Anglophones, but also, in the long run, a higher absolute number of Francophones. There are also some half a million Francophones in the ROC; if Québec left and Canada ceased to be officially bilingual, its Francophone communities would probably disappear in two or three generations. Some nationalists, such as Daniel Latouche and even the leader of the Parti Québécois, Jacques Parizeau, recognise the arguments for a less aggressive language policy. But, they say, this could only happen after separation when, having become maîtres chez nous, they could afford to be more generous.
To some extent, the battle is over a city, Montréal, rather than a nation. The rest of the province has become largely unilingual, and the capital, Québec City, is well over 90 per cent French. But Québec, as a government town, doesn't suffer from being unilingual, whereas Montréal, trying to maintain its position as a regional metropolis, must keep its doors open to trade and immigration. As with other pairs of cities—Beijing and Hong Kong, for example—the ideological capital looks at its mercantile rival with suspicion. Yet Montréal has nearly half the province's population, and must be the engine of its future prosperity.
It is perhaps an even bet that Canada will go the way of Czechoslovakia within twenty years. The ROC would then be split in two, like Pakistan was from 1947 to 1971, and would face an uncertain future. Québec would be more cohesive, and still one of the world's larger and wealthier nations. Richler indulges in much schadenfreude about the troubles Québec might encounter on its own, such as being excluded from the North American Free Trade Agreement, suffering from a massive national debt, or losing parts of its present territory to the ROC. The last is unlikely to happen, and the first two are risks that Francophones must assess for themselves. Inside and outside Québec, a majority may come to feel that separation would clear the air and allow each of the ‘founding peoples’ to pursue their destiny unhindered.
Once on its own, Québec might have to reconsider its linguistic ideals. Anglophones and allophones would be nervous about staying, and might have to be appeased with concessions on language. Francophones might be more willing to accept that they must know English in order to succeed in the North American economic space. Independence would clarify the issue of whether this has been a battle about language, or about sovereignty. Many Irish nationalists argued that they needed independence to preserve the Irish language. Today, Irish is dying but the independence and identity of the Irish people are still secure. In Québec, similarly, language tensions might gradually resolve as a more comprehensive national consciousness was established.
Events might not unfold so harmoniously, of course. Richler returns obsessively to the claim that Québécois nationalism is inherently and dangerously anti-Semitic. Before 1945, anti-Semitism was indeed a widespread prejudice in Québec (and elsewhere in Canada). Québec intellectuals, inspired by the blood-and-soil nationalism of Frenchmen like Charles Maurras, reviled Jews as cosmopolitan merchants who threatened the rural and religious virtues of the Québécois. It may even be true, as Richler claims, that anti-Semitism is still a more common prejudice in Québec than in the rest of Canada. But Canada has laws against overt anti-Semitism (if David Irving lived in Canada he would probably be convicted of promoting racial hatred); and all the significant convictions under these laws have been in provinces other than Québec. To prove his point, Richler would have to show that anti-Semitism is inherent in the ideology of the Parti Québécois, that it is more common among nationalists, that Jews are treated the same whether their first language is English or French, and that an independent Québec would single out Jews for discrimination. On all four points, Richler fails to make a case.
Richler is at least consistent: he has angered plenty of people in the Jewish community by criticising Israeli nationalism. And there is a serious point behind his grousing and posturing: Québec nationalism is only one of a thousand particularisms that now threaten the universalism that Western liberals have fought for since the Enlightenment. It is disappointing that Richler's book hops about from one newspaper clipping to another without any coherent account of why universalism is in trouble, and how much worse that trouble may get. Richler mentions a Francophone school official who wants to break up concentrations of allophone immigrants: to avoid being swallowed by the English, Québécois must swallow the smaller fish of immigrant subcultures. Once a group defines itself in terms of an essential difference from others, the difference of the others inevitably becomes a threat. But that mistrust reflects an anxiety about one's own identity. Francophone Québec used to be a rural, Catholic, traditional, isolated and French-speaking society; now only the last characteristic survives—which is why it takes on ever-greater prominence as a rallying-point. The nationalisms of our era are understandable reactions to the disintegration of the rooted local cultures in which most people lived until this century.
Ethnic particularism, Québec style, assumes that dominant cultures becomes stronger and ‘more themselves’ by assimilating weaker groups. The Canadian Federal Government proposes the alternative of ‘multiculturalism’, whereby ethnics preserve their folkloric qualities but become loyal Canadians as well. In Eastern Europe, the current solution is to redraw boundaries to try and re-create homogeneity. As their populations become more diverse, all Western countries are experiencing a more fluid kind of ethnicity. What is really happening on the ground is transculturalism, in which every group—not excluding the dominant one—absorbs cultural traits from the others. Modern popular culture makes this process specially evident, but in the long run it prevails at every level of society.
Ethnic states—with a capital E—are bound to pay a political and economic price for their fetishising of national character. In an increasingly pluralist world, their self-centredness can never be credible to outsiders; nor will the international community accept their rationales for repressing their minorities. Pretensions to exclusivity, special status and an unchanging historical destiny are bound to be eroded by the larger forces of globalism and transculturalism. Even the unitary nation-state may see much of its power redistributed to smaller units, like cities and regions, or larger ones, like the European Community. We may even come to recognise that the dream of a united country is one we can comfortably survive without.
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SOURCE: Cooper, Barry. Review of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, by Mordecai Richler. American Spectator 25, no. 12 (December 1992): 71-2.
[In the following review, Cooper argues that Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! is a useful study of Quebec nationalism and recent Canadian politics, commenting that Richler's criticisms are the “only appropriate response of a concerned citizen in a democracy.”]
Canadians are prey to many myths, but the most important of them is that what makes us truly, uniquely, profoundly etc. Canadian is Quebec. Two peoples, working in two languages, together, building on the northern half of the continent a more tolerant, more caring, more just nation than the U.S. Without Quebec, sing the full-throated chorus of Canadian intellectuals, we would simply be poor, cold, rust-belt Americans with a deep appreciation of hockey.
When the novelist Mordecai Richler attacked many of the underpinnings of that myth in an article in the New Yorker in September 1991, it was greeted in Canada—and especially in Quebec—with a tumult of incoherent anger. Richler drew attention to two dirty little secrets: the repressive language laws of Quebec and its history of anti-Semitism. Last spring he published it all over again as Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!—with footnotes, a bibliography, and a host of new details that have only increased the rage and the incoherence of the response. To make matters worse, a week after it appeared in Canadian bookstores, it was the number-one best-seller in the country.
Richler is famous enough abroad that his words will carry weight at home, and, although his book doesn't aim to ridicule the government and politics of Quebec, it does the next best thing: it surveys with wit not unmixed with contempt, a long train of stupidities that have contributed to a world-class economic, political and constitutional crisis that may well require the partition of the country to resolve—civil war having been ruled out as “unthinkable.”
October's “no” vote in a Canada-wide referendum on national unity only deepens the problem. Quebecois intellectuals and governments have over the years debated whether Quebec would be better off without Canada. But anyone who points out that virtually all of Canada's constitutional difficulties center on Quebec is indirectly raising another question: Wouldn't Canada be better off without Quebec?
Richler starts by describing Bill 178, a law that excludes any language but French from exterior commercial signs. Inside stores, English is allowed to appear but only if it is clearly subordinated to French. Detailed directives have been promulgated regulating, for example, the size of letters on signs. One rule states: “The color of the French and English lettering should be the same. If not, the color of the French should be stronger. The language inspector will decide what color is stronger.” The assumption sustaining the Quebec sign law seems to be that French will be preserved and enhanced by suppressing English and those citizens who speak it. Likewise, one can argue that arson is really a form of urban renewal.
Contemporary ethnic nationalism is best understood by looking at the religious history of the province. A half-century ago French Quebec was Roman Catholic not only in its religious practices, but also in its social organization. The health, education and welfare bureaucracies, for example, were staffed and administered by priests, nuns, and lay brothers and sisters. It is only in the last generation and a half—which is to say with astonishing rapidity—that that entire apparatus has been secularized.
The most unsavory aspect of Church-dominated society in Quebec was the contempt it taught for non-French, non-Catholic citizens. The term maudits anglais, damned English, was understood literally. The powerful English-speaking Presbyterian businessmen of Montreal were indifferent to these curses, not least because they knew who controlled the wealth of the city—but poor Irish Catholics and even poorer Jews were not so strong. Richler was tasteless enough to remind the nationalists of their anti-Semitic heritage, a heritage of which they are properly ashamed. But since their nationalist pride is uncertain, their shameful past can be accommodated only by denying it ever existed. They have thus described Richler as filled with delirium and hysteria, resentment, racism, bad faith, contempt, morbid introspection, unresolved personal problems, and both hatred and self-hatred. One nationalist Member of Parliament urged that the book be banned under Section 319 of the Criminal Code as hate propaganda.
Richler cited public opinion surveys that indicated contemporary French Quebec was more anti-Jewish in its attitudes than English-speaking Canada. Rather than admit such a thing was possible the nationalists disputed the language of the survey questionnaire and noted correctly that there were even more anti-Semitic “incidents” among the “English.” Look, they said, Toronto has more anti-Jewish vandalism than Montreal and in 1934, in Regina, Saskatchewan, two Jewish radiologists were excluded from a hospital. What does Richler say about that? Nothing!
Such bile might well alert ordinary readers to the existence of a real issue. No one among the Quebec nationalists wanted to consider Richler's argument: that there is an intelligible connection between the bigotry of a priest or the editorial position of a major Montreal newspaper during the 1930s, and the contemporary nationalism of the French population of the province. No one dares admit that the French are fighting against injustices that no longer exist, nor that they are committing real injustices against their English-speaking fellow-citizens, whose bilingual sons and daughters are leaving for more hospitable places in record numbers. Worst of all, no one even knows how to talk about the relationship of bigoted priests in the 1930s to bigoted intellectuals today. If Richler has ridiculed ridiculous laws, surely that is the only appropriate response of a concerned citizen in a democracy. Americans seeking a quick study of the painful recent history of their northern neighbor cannot do better than this splendid piece by Canada's best writer.
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SOURCE: Craniford, Ada. “Solomon Gursky Was Here: Fiction or Fact?” In Fiction and Fact in Mordecai Richler's Novels, pp. 115-35. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Craniford surveys the critical reaction to Solomon Gursky Was Here and investigates Richler's inspirations for the Gursky family. Craniford notes that the “most compelling quality of Richler's novel is the fact that it is based on and made out of other works of fact and fiction.”]
In Mordecai Richler's ninth novel [Solomon Gursky Was Here], the Gurskys are here there and everywhere. The book celebrates and parodies not only the Jewish contribution to world civilization and the underworld of crime, but also the central role of the artist as embroiderer of history and mythologizer of mankind. In this story, for the first time in Richler's writing, the teller and the tale are one.
Of all the book's reviewers only the aptly named Francine Prose—writing in The New York Times Book Review (8 April 1990, 7)—comes close to this view of the book:
If the Gurskys weren't present at the Creation, they haven't missed a trick since. (The novel is at once an extended joke about, and a homage to, the amateur historian in every Jewish family who can prove Columbus was Jewish and who knows what Abraham Lincoln and F. D. R. were called before they changed their last names). …
Shadow figure, con artist, agent of primitive justice, Solomon [Gursky] is that updated myth, the Wandering Jew as frequent flyer: part guardian angel, part avenging angel settling scores with Mr. Richler's sharp sense of humor.
While Solomon—seemingly from the after-world—settles family scores and fights the good fight against evil, Moses Berger, always one step behind, searches for Solomon while wrestling with Gursky demons and “demon rum.” And all the time, Richler—the conscience behind Solomon and Moses—reveals with witty exaggeration the kind of tools he must have used himself in researching and writing this subversive history of Canada and its Jews—“an enormous map of Canada, circa 10,000 B. C. … a smaller 1970 government surveyor's map of the Northwest Territories, … Arctic books … Solomon Gursky's journals, tapes made by his brother Bernard, clippings, file cards, notes” (Solomon, 10).1 While Moses researches the Gurskys, Richler researches the Bronfmans—at least partly through Peter Newman's invaluable unauthorized biography, Bronfman Dynasty (a source he does not acknowledge when he “comes clean” about books on the Franklin Expedition, the Victorian underworld, and Captain Al Cohol, in his Author's note.
Reviewers have, understandably, played up the Bronfman connection. In The Canadian Jewish News (30 November, 1989, p. 41), Bernard Baskin declares, “Montreal's Bronfman family is certainly the inspiration for Richler's saga and the prime victims of his satire.” What impressed Robert Fulford the most was “Sam Bronfman's power over this book and over Richler's imagination. Richler makes up some stories about his version of Bronfman (his crimes, his sex habits, etc.) but otherwise he seems in thrall to the public image of the man we all know about (The Financial Times, 15 January 1990, 32). In an earlier review in The Financial Times (29 November 1989), Sheldon Gordon was even more direct:
Pass the Maalox; Bernard Gursky, a.k.a. Mr. Bernard is angry. “I don't get ulcers,” he rages, “I give them.” Funny, Sam Bronfman, a.k.a. Mr. Sam, used to say exactly the same thing. But don't jump to the conclusion that Gursky, the Jewish bootlegger who founded McTavish Distilleries in Mordecai Richler's new novel, is a thinly veiled version of Bronfman, the Jewish bootlegger who founded Seagram's.
Both the publisher's note at the front of Solomon Gursky Was Here and the author's note at the back insist otherwise. Of course, skeptics will note that Mr. Bernard, like Mr. Sam, launched his empire in the 1920s with a string of prairie hotels, exploited loopholes to sell booze interprovincially and then smuggled the contraband into the U.S. Both tycoons, having succeeded with the help of brothers, feuded with them and kept their sons out of the line of succession. But Mr. Sam never had a brother like Solomon Gursky, whose mysterious presence haunts this book.
True, Sam Bronfman did not have a brother Solomon, but he did have brothers Abe, Harry, and Allan, out of whose best qualities—together with some good traits from Sam himself, and a generous dose of literary petty larceny—Solomon Gursky was fashioned. What Richler appears to have done with his Montreal-insider's knowledge of the Bronfmans, and a large amount of additional research, is to take known facts to create a fictional product. This fictional family, the Gurskys, and the liquor empire on which their wealth is based, then become a complex symbol for both good and evil in the book. Solomon Gursky, for the most part, uses his massive wealth for worthy causes: such as buying planes for the Israeli air force and financing the Entibbe rescue mission (another example of Richler's larcenous fictionalizing of fact). His brother Mr. Bernard—Mr. Bad for the purposes of the book—buys power and prestige for himself and his children, while cheating the rest of the family out of their rightful inheritance. And the liquor from which the family money flows—sold in bars from Halifax to Vancouver—is not only a private source of wealth and popular public commodity, but also the poison that destroys Moses's life.
Leon Rooke, writing for Books in Canada (November 1989, 12), makes the important connection between the Gursky family business and the fatal fondness for liquor displayed by Moses Berger, self appointed Gursky biographer and scourge: “Richler's fiction has always shown the author's fondness for boozy personalities, and in Solomon Gursky he has gone to the source in composing a narrative about the family that created a sprawling financial empire out of its bootlegger origins.” Since Moses Berger's life is ruined and made bearable in equal parts by his fondness for booze and his fascination with the famous makers and distributors thereof; and since Richler's protagonists all wage a more or less destructive battle with the “genie in the bottle,” it is—as Leon Rooke notes—delightfully appropriate that in his most ambitious novel Richler should use liquor in all its manifestations and embodiments as one of his central metaphors.
Rick Kardonne in The B'nai Brith Covenant (November 1989, p. 40), winces at what he sees as Richler's undue crudity and coarseness in portraying the Gursky family in particular and early Canadian history in general:
the question of whether this story is based on fact or fiction is ultimately irrelevant. The Gursky people are crude, crude, crude, and will delight anti-Semites. Nowhere is there mention of the philanthropic and very worthwhile Zionist activities that Gursky real-life equivalents engaged in in the past, and generously continue today … in a similar matter, everything that means anything to contemporary Jewry, from Entibbe to traditional Jewish respect for education and culture, is unduly coarsened.
Similarly, so is early Canadian history, …
Because this is a typical misreading of Richler and misunderstanding of his fictional purposes, it is worthwhile to consider it carefully. First of all, Solomon is also a Gursky and the most attractive of the lot. And Solomon—in his “second life” as Sir Hyman Kaplansky—is clearly and continuously engaged in more “philanthropic and very worthwhile Zionist activities” than his “real-life equivalents” ever dreamed of. Furthermore, behind Mr. Kardonne's criticism of Richler's book stands the belief that writers—especially Jewish writers—have a moral responsibility to present every one of their “own people” in the best possible light, since to do otherwise would be to play into the hands of racial and religious bigots. Mordecai Richler, on the other hand, has stated in interview after interview that he considers it his moral responsibility to tell the truth as he sees it, albeit in his own savagely satiric way, and critics be damned. Moreover, his characters—for all their occasional real-life counterparts—are fiction; and he can therefore do with them as he will. There is, of course, no way of convincing Jewish apologists that Richler's books do no harm. Possibly they do. Satire in any form is bitter medicine, especially for those at whose vices or follies it is directed. And Richler can on occasion be very direct indeed. All that can be said is that Richler seems to see himself as a scourge of mankind—his own friends, family and race not excluded—and he has had to pay the price for his “honesty” in bad relations and bad press. On the other hand his overwhelming writing skills, together with the stubborn courage he continues to display, have won him many readers and many friends. Joel Yanofsky, in The Canadian Jewish News (4 January 1990, 28), puts this vexed matter in clear perspective:
Richler … knows, as most writers do, that on one level literature is gossip. The fact is: the similarities between the Gurskys and the Bronfmans, while superficial, are also impossible to overlook. On the other hand, … readers preoccupied with looking for clues about the private habits of local figures will not just be missing the point of the novel, they will be missing out on a rich, rewarding and marvelously engaging work of fiction. … Novelists are not in the public relations business. If they're good, they entertain us. If they're better than that, they throw a little light on our worst motives and our best dreams. Richler does both in this novel and that should be all that matters.
While Mortin Ritts (Maclean's (13 November 1989, 64), describes the novel as “a stunning triumph of the imagination … an adventure story, a mystery novel, social satire, a crazy historical and biblical epic, and a tale of unfulfilled love” (65). Carole Corbeil in This Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 1990, 22-24) finds little to admire:
The novel is soaked in booze, which befits its subject (the boot-legging-cum-millionaire Bronfmans), but booze also affects the novel's point of view. Bluntly put, the novel's point of view is profoundly alcoholic: … [Richler's] later work accords a kind of bewildered dignity to the writer's alter-ego (Jake, Joshua and, in Solomon Gursky Was Here, the alcoholic Moses) while demeaning everyone else, especially the women, with the exception of the haute WASPS who belong to the maudlin side of the split narrative.
Richler's portrayal of female characters has frequently been a problem for critics: a problem compounded by his own admission that he doesn't write about women well. This being said, it must also be noted that in Solomon Gursky Was Here, his characters include not only the delightful Diana Morgan and the “ball-breaking” Becky Schwartz, but also the inimitable Gitel Kugelmass: in her prime a young boy's fantasy and later, in her destroyed old age still a force to be reckoned with, especially by old women with more or less intact husbands in the nursing home where she now resides. And the man who can create her, with such obvious affectionate delight, both in her glory days and in her decline, can't be all bad so far as depicting women is concerned.
Corbeil's assertion that “the novel's point of view is profoundly alcoholic,” is even less valid than her claim that Richler demeans women. She seems to be suggesting here that Richler's own drinking habits have somehow invalidated his literary work. This is a dangerous assumption to make, involving as it does a confusion between the drink-destroyed Moses Berger and the hard working man who created him for this book. If Richler's own off-duty experiences have given him a special understanding of Berger's plight, and of liquor as a potent symbol for good and evil, then this is a useful addition to the writer's craft.
However, Corbeil does point out one of the more intriguing themes in the book: the problematic relations between fathers and sons. “The most interesting aspect of Solomon Gursky Was Here is Richler's depiction of father-son relationships. No Oedipal contests here. It is the fathers in this novel who slaughter their sons. The novel is a son-abattoir, full of neglect, humiliation and betrayal, and most of the male characters are steeped in rivalry, envy, malice and pathological competition. The alcoholic Moses is utterly betrayed by his father, and fixates on the larger-than-life Solomon Gursky as a result” (23).
Although Corbeil tends to overstate the case, and neglects to mention that it is Isaac who cannibalizes his father, not the other way around, essentially she makes the same case as Philip Marchand (The Toronto Star, 11 November 1989, M11). Marchand declares that in Richler's “perverse form of Judaism,”
the ways of the jealous God are most clearly mirrored in the hot, fierce, primal relations between father and son. In this religion, the blessing of the father, or its absence, means everything. And it is no accident that in Richler's novel the real emotional drama derives not from the relations between men and women but from the terribly disordered relations between Richler's fictional fathers and their sons. … Moses Berger, whose life has become wholly devoted to the search for Solomon Gursky, dismisses a psychiatrist's suggestion that the search is for a surrogate father, but at the end of the novel, Richler tells us that “what he wanted, above all, was for the old man to love him. For the old man to look upon him as a son.
But father-son conflicts in the novel mirror an even more intriguing relationship, according to Morton Ritts (Maclean's 13 November 1989, 64):
Moses … quest for Solomon Gursky, however frustrating, gives [his life] meaning. In the end, however, that meaning is ambiguous: Moses is still a drunk and Solomon is always one step ahead, tantalizing him with messages, clues and symbols. But both men, Richler makes clear, need each other. “I once told you,” Solomon writes to Moses, “that you were no more than a figment of my imagination. Therefore, if you continued to exist, so must I.”
These lines neatly summarize the dependent relationship between writers and their books: Each, in a way, invents the other.
What, precisely does this mean? Certainly a writer “invents” the characters in his book, giving them a fictional life and a fictional destiny. Equally certainly, a writer is known by the books he writes, so to some extent he is “defined” by them. Also, by giving meaning and purpose to his everyday existence a writer's writings shape his fate.
Both Moses Berger and Solomon Gursky are Mordecai Richler's fictional creatures; although Berger, the writer, shadows forth Richler's life, while Solomon, the adventurer, mirrors Richler's dreams. But the mirrors are set up so that they reflect each other in an endless progression. For Richler's book, like Berger's biography, has a living subject that changes even as he writes. The real life “Gurskys” whose rise to wealth and power mocks the resources of fiction, are always tantalizingly out of reach. And all previous writings on this family must form a sub-text for Richler's work.
In this symbolic relationship it is hard to say who is the father and who the son. And if we look at the actual father-son interactions in the novel, we might not even want to try.
Strong and Never Wrong is He, Worthy of our Song as He, Never failing, All prevailing, Built the Temple in our days. Speedily, O speedily, Built that all may sing Thy praise.
Ephraim Gursky at the age of eleven, pulling a heavy wagon through the dark depths of a Durham coal mine and earning his daily “pulpy white bread,” lustily sings God's praise (when he isn't singing lustier songs). And well he might! For Richler's Ephraim takes his name from Ephraim in the Bible who—according to Biblical tradition—stands in a special relationship to God who had declared: “I am father to Israel and Ephraim is my first born” (Jeremiah 31:9). Although the biblical Ephraim was the second son of Joseph, he received the blessing reserved for the “first born” to signify that his descendants would become the mightier people (Genesis 48:13-20). And in the novel this useful fact is pointed out to Ephraim Gursky by Mr. Nicholson, his language teacher, surrogate-father, and seducer (Solomon, 229).
The biblical Ephraim's descendants became the tribe of Ephraim, dominant among the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, until the Assyrian invasion of 721 BC after which the people were dispersed and the ten Northern tribes were “lost.”
In Richler's novel, the story of the ten lost tribes of Israel takes a giant step into biblio-historical parody. Ephraim Gursky (now grown into a young man) disguises himself as a sailor and sails with the doomed Franklin Expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Having survived the deaths of Captain and crew (because he had prudently taken along his own kosher food rather than eating from the tainted tins that killed the others) Ephraim stumbles on a tribe of Innuit. Performing the usual “white man's magic” to impress his hosts, Ephraim convinces them to make him not only their chief, but also their god: “I am Ephraim, the Lord thy God, and thou shalt have no other gods before me” (439). The born-again Innuit Jews now become a new Northern Kingdom of Israel, a new tribe of Ephraim.
From the coal mines of Durham to the far North of Canada, via the London underworld, Newgate Prison, and the Franklin Expedition, Ephraim Gursky sowed his seed far and wide (following the biblical prophecy: “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, … “(Jeremiah 31:27, Solomon, 229). His first seed “the first of what would become twenty-seven unacknowledged offspring, not all of the same color” (204), was sown in England, in Mrs. Nicholson who shared him with her husband when Ephraim was about twelve. A month after the child was born, with Ephraim long gone, Mrs. Nicholson hanged herself; and her sorrowing husband brought up the child with the help of a charming “nephew” with whom he was now living happily-ever-after.
Ephraim's seed was also scattered liberally among his chosen Innuit as part of their sabbath ritual, according to the covenant he instituted with them: “‘On the evening of the sixth day thou shalt wash thy women and bring them to me, an offering—’” (439). As a result of this sabbath observance, “one name that recurred among a roving band of natives out of King William Island was Gursky or variations thereof including Gor-ski, Girskee, Gur-ski and Goorsky” (59). However, it was only when he went back to his roots, to Minsk where his father had been a famous cantor in the synagogue, that Ephraim—in an absent minded moment—sowed his only legitimate son, Aaron. And through this son, transplanted in adulthood to the Canadian prairie, the seed of Ephraim flourished, producing Bernard, Solomon and Morrie who would build a mighty empire based on good fermented grain.
When Ephraim Gursky was eighty nine years old, and tracking back to his settlement on the Polar Sea to die, he took with him his grandson Solomon. And he blessed this chosen grandson with “the blessing his father used to say over him: ‘Yeshimecha Elohim keEfrayim vechiMenasheh,’” (May you be blessed like Ephraim and Manasseh).
And as Solomon, son of Aaron Gursky grows up, he is blessed above his brothers Bernard and Morrie. Like Solomon in the Bible, he is blessed with wisdom, wealth, power, and many women. But, although Solomon Gursky himself has the golden touch and propers in all his endeavors—especially in his second life as Sir Hyman Kaplansky—his house does not prosper. Henry his son is a pious, gentle misfit; and Isaac his grandson becomes an abomination in the eyes of men. Therefore Solomon chooses Moses Berger, brilliant son of a failed poet, to be his spiritual heir, teaching him to sing Ephraim's songs and tell the family story.
Although Moses had already taken on himself the task of charting the Gursky's rise to fame and fortune, he could not get it right without Solomon's influence and help. And though at first he did not know the true identity of his sponsor, with time the collaboration between Sir Hyman and Moses became so intricate that—as with the covenant between God and Israel—it became impossible to tell who had actually chosen whom.
In keeping with his covenantal stature, Moses Berger bears a famous biblical name, perhaps the greatest name of all. He is named after Moses who brought down the Tablets of the Law from Mount Sinai, and who wrote the history of his people in the first five books of the Bible (The Five Books of Moses).2
As the biblical Moses described the rise of the house of Israel, so Moses Berger writes about the rise of another mighty house, the House of Gursky, blessed in some of its sons and cursed in the rest. And as the ancient story of the Israelites is intertwined with the history of nations other than itself, the Gursky saga spans continents and generations, finally becoming an integral part of the history of Canada where the Gursky empire was built. But, since this novel is the ninth chapter in Richler's ongoing, rage-filled defiance of God and man, the Gursky characters, as their comic-book name suggests, act out diminished or debased versions of the biblical history from which they spring.
In this regard, no story is more debased than the history of short, brutish Isaac Gursky, son of Henry, grandson of Solomon, and co-inheritor (together with his equally degraded Uncle Barney) of the Gursky empire when the novel ends.
In the Bible, Abraham—first Patriarch of Israel—is called upon by God to sacrifice his only child—Isaac, the beloved son of his old age—to prove his faith. He takes the young man on a three day trip to the top of Mount Moriah, binds him down, lifts his knife, and prepares to kill him when an angel calls his attention to a ram caught in the thicket, and tells him to sacrifice that instead. Abraham thankfully does as he is told, and he and Isaac journey home together.
In Richler's book, the story of Abraham and Isaac takes a sinister twist. Isaac Gursky lives with Henry his father and Nialie his Innuit mother by the shores of the Beaufort Sea—Henry having moved to the Arctic to rescue the Northern tribes abandoned, and wandering “lost” after Ephraim's death. As part of his Innuit brethren's religious care, Henry brings in special food for the Passover holiday and journeys far into the north to deliver his sleigh-borne “meals on wheels.” On one of these missions of mercy Henry is cannibalized by his son.
On the morning of their departure, “A gleeful Henry roused Isaac out of bed early. ‘Wake up, wake up, to do the work of the Creator!’” (p. 524). (This is in keeping with the biblical source where “Abraham rose up early in the morning, … and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son.” (Genesis 22:3). Henry takes Isaac and one other young man, and the three set off for the far North. However, only the resourceful Isaac survives the trip: Henry dies of a broken neck; the young Innuit, Johnny, starves to death; and Isaac is finally rescued, having survived by eating his father's thighs. “‘Isaac swears he didn't dig in until the tenth day out there,’ Riley said, ‘but the helicopter crew told the RCMP they found little bags filled with cubes of meat hanging from his tent. If Isaac had waited ten days like he said, Henry's body would have been harder than a frozen log. Splinters is what he would have got, not boeuf bourgignan’” (526).
Richler's satiric reversal and parody of the sacrifice of Isaac—a parody in which the son has possibly the most unorthodox Passover seder in history—shows to what depths the Gursky clan descends in its fourth generation. By implication, Richler would also seem to be commenting on the general decline of the House of Israel since biblical days.
Although Henry is generally considered a saint, he is not terribly bright, and his repulsive son thinks he has evidence to prove that his father is also a sexual pervert. This “evidence” contained in a brown envelope is not what Isaac thinks it is. However, other “brown envelopes” in the novel do point to acts of genuine perfidy.
Isaac finds a brown envelope in his father's desk containing pornographic pictures of a skinny woman doing unmentionable things with several men. He assumes that his pious father bought those pictures and despises him for it. But the envelope (containing pictures of Henry's cocaine-addicted sister Lucy) had been sent to him as blackmail by one of her former lovers. Since Lucy had written that an envelope was coming which was to be destroyed without being opened, Henry had never looked in the envelope. In his simplicity, however, he neglected to get rid of it, and when Isaac finds the pictures he automatically thinks the worst. His father is already worthless in his son's eyes when Isaac comes home from school to observe the Passover with his family.
But Isaac's eating of his father, a gruesome act of impiety, includes more savage irony than the inversion of the Abraham and Isaac myth. For this travesty of a Passover seder is also a travesty—in Christian mythology—of the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood. …” (Matthew 27: 26-28). Unblessed by the mystery of Christian faith, this symbolic eating of flesh and drinking of blood becomes cannibalism. And Isaac, eating his father's flesh when no other food is available, is surely unblessed.
When he returns to his studies at the yeshiva in New York, Isaac is asked by the rebbe,
‘How could you do such a thing?’ …
‘The other one maybe [says another rebbe, referring to the Innuit boy also on the trip, who had died of starvation]. But your own father, alay ha-shalem?’
‘The other one was trayf,’ Isaac responded, glaring at them.
Although Isaac's father never betrayed his family or his faith, and did not deserve the contempt of his son, Moses Berger's father, unfortunately, did. In his sensitive review of Solomon Gursky, (The Gazette, 18 November 1989, K-7), Neil Bissoondath suggests that “there is … a stunning parallel between the way L. B. Berger treats his son Moses and the way Morrie Gursky treats Miss O'Brien, his brother Bernard's loyal and longtime secretary …” And this parallel, we find by a close reading of the text, is tied to Isaac's tragedy and triggered by “brown envelopes” as well.
Morrie Gursky is gentle, mild, and loved by all who know him, a striking contrast to the egomaniacal, vulgar Mr. Bernard. Morrie comforts Miss O'Brien when she finds that the brown envelope promised her by Mr. B. (as a bonus for years of faithful service, and certain services well beyond the call of duty), is nowhere to be found. He promises, seemingly from the heart, that he will always be her friend. But Morrie, as we learn almost at the end of the book, has taken for himself Miss O'Brien's promised envelope, which appears to have held both cash and a substantial number of shares in McTavish Industries. And through his theft Morrie is able to buy back that share of the family business that Mr. B. swindled him and his children out of, many years ago. Meanwhile, the hapless Miss O., cheated of her promised reward which was to have cushioned an otherwise unprotected old age, becomes a tearful, self-pitying, eventually incoherent drunk, a member of what she calls “the select club of Gursky casualties” (544).
If Isaac became a moral casualty because he trusted his father too little, and Miss O'Brien, a financial casualty because she should never have trusted the Gurskys at all, Moses is the victim of a father's hypocrisy that Isaac never was. In his case the ubiquitous brown envelope contained a short story he had written and sent to the New Yorker, which was returned by the editor for revision of minor errors before publication. But Moses' father, smarting over various rejections of his own, and jealous of his son's success, intercepted the envelope, replaced the editor's letter with a typed letter of rejection, and then called Moses into his room to scold him for sending a story where his father feared to tread. Moses, at the time a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, home because of his father's heart attack, disheartened by his father's attitude, broke off his studies and never amounted to anything much again. (Although at the time he did not know the full extent of what his father had done—that information only came out a few years later—Moses was horrified at his father's having opened an envelope not addressed to him, and at his obvious delight that his son had failed). Both Morrie Gursky and L. B. Berger were much loved, respected men who stood revealed as hypocrites and thieves. But Morrie did it to protect his family, while L. B. Berger did it because he feared that his son would prove to be a greater writer than himself. Since L. B. had already lost some of his son's respect by becoming Bernard Gursky's speechwriter and mouthpiece, the episode of the brown envelope was a final blow.
Robert Fulford (in The Financial Times 15 January 1990, 32) deplores Richler's characterization of L. B. Berger based, as it seems, on a harsh view of the Montreal poet A. M. Klein.
But what are we to make of the relationship between Bernard Gursky (the man who is not Sam Bronfman) and L. B. Berger, a poet whom Gursky hires as his speechwriter? When Berger arrives on the scene, everyone who has studied Canadian literature will think of only one name: A. M. Klein. And, in history, Sam Bronfman did hire Klein, keeping him on the payroll for years. But this is where the roman-a-clef business goes off the rails. Klein was (and is) considered a first-class poet, and most people thought that writing speeches for Bronfman was not at all a dishonorable way to stay alive. In the novel, however, Richler presents Berger as a failed poet and depicts his job with Gursky as a sellout. There's of course nothing wrong with Richler inventing a lousy poet who sells his soul, but when he fills in the details that clearly identify Klein, he puts his whole project in question.
This was my reaction as well until I read the 1982 biography of A. M. Klein by Usher Caplan: Like One that Dreamed. Here we discover that A. M. Klein was not—in his time—the success we all learned about in Canadian studies.
When his first collection of verse, Hath Not a Jew, appeared at last in April 1940, Klein proudly mailed out inscribed copies to dozens of friends and colleagues. He received many congratulatory letters from his long-time admirers, but was disappointed at the small amount of attention his book received from serious reviewers of poetry.
In the excitement of the moment, Klein unrealistically anticipated a very wide readership for The Hitleriad and offered to collaborate closely with Laughlin in promoting its sale. …
Laughlin was equally optimistic about the book's popular potential and tried very hard to get the influential Book-of-the-Month Club to comment on it in its monthly newsletter. Klein went a step further and attempted to persuade Reader's Digest and Life to publish part or all of the poem. He also reported that he had sent copies of the book to Churchill and Roosevelt. …
None of these publicity efforts succeeded. Laughlin wrote to Klein of his disappointment that The Hitleraid had been ignored by a number of prominent American critics and reviewers who happened to be Jewish and who therefore might have been expected to take special note of the book. At this prompting, Klein's own vehemence was instantly unleashed: …
In 1946, … he finally managed to complete his first novel—a spy thriller, originally titled Comes the Revolution, …
First he tried to sell it to Collier's magazine for serialization. Then from the spring of 1947 to the fall of 1948 he sent the manuscript to nearly every major American publisher of popular fiction, with no success.
In the summer of 1958 Klein allowed himself to be interviewed by Eli Palnick … [who] was preparing a short biographical study of Klein as his Master's thesis for Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. … Palnick portrayed Klein's life as a devastating series of frustrations and failures.
In regard to A. M. Klein's own feelings about his position as speechwriter to Sam Bronfman, we find the following lines quoted by Usher Caplan from A. M. Klein's journal:
FROM JOURNAL, 1942
Rejoicing and drinks—the maestro's—at the planning of the final banquet of the annual philanthropic campaign. Everybody complimented by everybody, even me, who am only the author of its slogans—the proxy of the poor—the compiler of its sob-letters. Particular backslap for an anonymous poem about the grace of charity—Ah the charm of the gilded platitude—printed on the banquet souvenir program. Poor me! poet parsleyate to a menu. Actually the sonnet was written only to avoid writing the sickening prose called for … But that I should write it at all. It is a humiliation only a philanthropic world makes possible.
From Caplan's biography and from conversation with Montreal readers of A. M. Klein in the 1930s and 40s when the poetry was first published, one gains a view of the poet more in line with Richler's. However, L. B. Berger's betrayal of his son in the novel has little to do with A. M. Klein's family life. It must surely be understood symbolically, as the reluctance of some prominent men of letters in their decline, to allow younger writers of promise to flourish.
Although Moses Berger's own father betrayed him and took no interest in his writing, his “chosen father” Sir Hyman Kaplansky, is keenly interested in the young man's literary quest: the search for Solomon Gursky. Kaplansky (who is, of course, Solomon Gursky in disguise) lends Moses his journals bound in morocco, and bestows on him “an income of thirty thousand dollars a year to be paid quarterly by Corvus Trust, Zurich” (501). And this subsidized search, this quest for the shadowy Gursky brother who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances so many years before, is the central story line of the book. Moreover, Richler makes plain—as he does with sources in all his novels—exactly where he found the model for this particular kind of literary quest.
On page 394 of Solomon Gursky Was Here, Diana McClure—the enchanting girl with the mismatched eyes whom Solomon had loved and lost—suggests to Moses Berger that “an excellent model for [your biography] might be The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons. Brilliant, I thought.”
And indeed, this delightful little book (written in 1934), which tells the story of Frederick Rolfe—an eccentric, semi-criminal near-genius—provides not only Moses Berger but also Mordecai Richler with a special way of organizing his work. Symons' method of writing biography by making the search for information an integral part of the final result is perfected in Solomon Gursky Was Here. However, biography-as-literary-quest is not the only aspect of Symons' book that Richler purloined. He also appropriated Symons' raven, playing major and minor variations on the theme, and gave Solomon Gursky some of Fr. Rolfe's particular social skills. Finally, in The Quest for Corvo (which is the biography of a real person) one finds an example of the kind of fictionalized biography that gives Solomon Gursky its peculiar appeal.
The Quest for Corvo begins with Symons' being lent a book called Hadrian the Seventh, written by an author unknown to him, called Fr. Rolfe. This book (Symons is told) is actually a fictionalized autobiography in which “half the incidents were based on [Rolfe's] experiences, and most of the characters drawn from living men” (Quest, 19). The main character in Hadrian the Seventh—the man who represents Rolfe himself—is a clerk called Rose who eventually becomes pope. But along the way to the papacy he practices a number of other professions, each under a different name. “I adopted pseudonyms … in fact, I split up my personality. As Rose [Rolfe] I was a tonsured clerk: as King Clement [Baron Corvo] I wrote and painted and photographed: as Austin White I designed decorations: as Francis Engle I did journalism” (Quest, 44).
After reading Rolfe's fictionalized autobiography, Symons begins to make inquiries about this strange man with the many talents and many names. By seeking information from people who had known him, searching through newspaper files, reading other books by Rolfe under his various pseudonyms (including a chronicle of the rise and fall of the house of Borgia), reading memoirs, letters and journals written by Rolfe himself, Symons draws ever nearer to the object of his quest. Nevertheless, The Quest for Corvo is not a finished polished portrait of the man who is its subject, but rather a fascinating literary exercise in researching a book, which leaves many of the mysteries surrounding the man, intact.
It may just be noted in passing that the title which the Baron selected is of the following signification—Latin, corvus; Italian, corvo; French, corbeau; Scotch, corbie; English, crow.
[note] This gibe is inaccurate; corvus is raven, not crow; and it was the raven that Baron Corvo took as his emblem.
Among the many odd and fascinating facts about Fr. Rolfe (the Fr. standing not for Father but for Frederick) was his use of the title Baron Corvo, (which may or may not have been given him by the Duchess Sforza-Cesarino, who may or may not have “more or less adopted him as a grandson and bestowed on him a small estate carrying the baronial title” (26). However, having adopted the title, a further eccentricity “was to stamp everything available with his crest, the raven (corvo). But most noticeable was a stuffed raven which had the place of honor on his table” (49).
A. J. A. Symons makes no more of the raven than to note its various language equivalents and to indicate the times and places that Rolfe uses the name, but Mordecai Richler takes Rolfe's “stuffed raven” and makes it fly.
However, first Richler combines in one book Rolfe's use of fictionalized biography (Hadrian the Seventh) and his chronicle of a mighty house (House of Borgia). In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Moses Berger researches and writes about the rise (and potential fall) of the house of Gursky—a sensationalized history of the Bronfman family, in which Richler—like Rolfe in Hadrian the Seventh—satisfies “his spleen against all those who had in fact or in his fancy injured him, to ‘cleanse his bosom of … all the grudges which he had harbored for years …’” (Quest, 125). Then, in imitation of Rolfe's calling himself Baron Corva, Richler adorns Solomon Gursku—the mystery of whose disappearance Moses is determined to solve—with an infinite variety of Raven disguises: he is known variously as Mr. Corbeau, “the naturalist from California” (Solomon, 327); Mr. Cuervo, “a dealer in Kikuya and Masai antiquities … [with] a gallery on … Rodeo Drive” (541); Herr Dr. Otto Raven “a little Swiss Banker [and friend of Otto Bismark]” (518). He is the shadowy financial genius behind Corvus Trust of Zurich (553), and the major shareholder of the Raven mine and gold brick plant in Yellowknife (411). He owns mythological paintings of ravens, plants a dead raven on his brother Bernard's grave, and at the end of the novel flies north, presumably to die, in a black Gypsy Moth that turns into “a raven with flapping wings.”
Moreover, the raven stamps every aspect of the Gursky chronicle, beginning with Ephraim who—according to the diary of Angus McGibbon of the Hudson's Bay Company (1849)—“is living with a wandering band of Esquimaux … and appears to be worshipped by them as a manner of faith-healer or shaman. He goes by the name of Ephriam Gor-ski, but possibly because of his dark complexion and piercing black eyes the Esquimaux call him Tulugag, which means raven in their lingo” (60). This account is not quite accurate, or at least it doesn't tally with Ephraim's own account of the origin of his name (read by Moses in one of Solomon's journals):
Ephraim then noted the position of the moon bobbing on the horizon. Hoping against hope that his calculations were right, he said, “I am more powerful than this foolish old man [the Innuit shaman] or even Narssuk, [whom the Innuit worshipped] and to prove it to you I will soon raise my arms and lead the moon, who is my servant, between you and the sun, bringing darkness in the season of light, and then, unless you obey my smallest wish, I will turn myself into a raven and pluck out your eyes one by one.”
What begins as a grandiloquent though empty threat eventually becomes Ephraim's Innuit name and sign. Ravens are now his helpers and friends, although perhaps falling short of feeding him in the wilderness as they did for Elijah in the Bible.4 Later, Solomon—under his various raven identities—engages in philanthropic activities, including the Israeli rescue at Entibbe, and the saving of Diana McClure's ineffectual husband from financial ruin. However, as a Gursky family crest the raven is an ominous, ambiguous symbol. “The ravens are gathering” becomes a family code name for clandestine takeover operations within McTavish Industries; “a big menacing black raven” pecks at Henry's window the morning of his fatal trip; and Isaac is “attacked by ravens one morning” after feasting on his father's remains. Indeed, the raven as eater of carrion flesh unites the horrors of the Franklin expedition—where the starving sailors were driven to cannibalism—and Isaac's abominable meal. Richler signals what is in store for Isaac, when the first thing he sees on coming home for Passover is “the new ship with three masts locked into the ice in the bay … Crazy Henry's ark, they called it” (523)—a sinister reminder of the three masted Erebus locked in ice while the Franklin sailors starved.
Isaac's bloody Passover is also presaged by Sir Hyman Kaplansky's vindictive seder for his anti-Semitic friends. He kept them waiting for hours until they were “starving” for their dinner, and then served Matzo laced with blood (508-509).
It is interesting to note that Moses Berger—chronicler of the voracious Gursky clan—is associated, not with ravens, but with sodden partridges. And, as the raven is brother to Ephraim so to the partridges, “drunk from pecking at fallen, fermented crab apples,” become brothers to Moses. “One of them wakened Moses Berger with a start, slamming into his bedroom window and sliding down the glass. Responding to the brotherly call of another dipso in trouble, Moses yanked on his trousers and hurried outside” (9). To the extent that the Gursky chronicle is a fictionalized history of the Bronfmans—which means that perhaps half the events and characteristics are true to life and the rest are fiction—so also is Moses Berger a fictionalized version of Mordecai Richler. The physical resemblance between Moses and Mordecai may be verified by any recent photograph:
He had turned fifty-two a few months earlier and was not yet troubled by a paunch. … He was not, as he had once hoped, even unconventionally handsome. A reticent man of medium height with receding brown hair running to grey and large, slightly protuberant brown eyes, their pouches purply. His nose bulbous, his lips thick. But even now some women seemed to find his physical ugliness oddly compelling. Not so much attractive as a case to answer.
And even Richler's detractors must admire the trait that “redeemed the young Moses, … he had not yet grasped that the world was imperfect. He actually expected justice to be done” (162-63).
Possibly the demand for justice is one reason for writing Solomon Gursky Was Here: the same force that drove Moses Berger to find out what actually happened to the Solomon who was “betrayed by his brother” (21). Perhaps the continuing prosperity of a family in which betrayal of brothers played a prominent role is galling to a writer who expects justice to be done. In any case, what we have in this family chronicle is a “correction” of history. Evil does not triumph for ever. Mr. Bernard—after stripping his brother Morrie of most of his shares in the business and writing Morrie's children out of any place in McTavish Industries; after trying to kill Solomon not once but twice (as well as throwing him to the wolves when the brothers were on trial)—dies in mortal fear of revenge beyond the grave. Bernard's son, Lionel, as dangerous and devious as his father, loses the coveted position of CEO at McTavish Industries, when “the Gursky Jackdaw,” Mr. Morrie and “the shadowy Corvus Trust of Zurich” join together to put Morrie's son and Solomon's grandson in Lionel's place. Since the jackdaw (corvus monedula) is also member of the raven family, this new gathering of ravens reverses some of the damage done by the first. However, neither Barney Gursky nor Isaac—now in command of the family business—is a particularly attractive specimen of humanity. The long range forecast for McTavish Industries, therefore, tends to be bleak.
But changing the ending of a story to correspond to a justice one does not find in its real-life source, is only one aspect of this long, fascinating and complicated book. From a literary standpoint, the most compelling quality of Richler's novel is the fact that it is based on and made out of other works of fact and fiction. Richler acknowledges “putting [his] own spin on events” taken from various accounts of the Franklin Expedition, especially Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. He “found The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney, indispensable in [his] attempt to recreate nineteenth-century London.” He “learned on James H. Gray's Red Lights on the Prairie and Booze for Western history, and on Bernard Epp's Tales of the Townships.” But Richler does not acknowledge “putting his own spin” on Bronfman gossip, nor on facts to be found in Newman's Bronfman Dynasty, itself based partly on Harry Bronfman's unpublished memoirs and Sam Bronfman's expurgated version of family events. Neither does he admit to having read any of the A. M. Klein biographies that would have supplied him with a view of the poet very different from the official version. He does not admit to plundering his own life and the lives of family and friends to create his continuing repertory theater of Richler characters. Nor does he need to acknowledge any of this.
Within the novel every event, except for what happens to Moses Berger himself, comes from “Moses' Arctic books … Solomon Gursky's journals, tapes made by his brother Bernard, [dictated to Miss O'Brien and taken away by her when she was done out of her promised reward] clippings, [from newspapers] file cards, and notes [of conversations with Henry and Lucy—the only Gurskys other than Solomon who were Moses' friends]. (10). To this we might add letters, such as those from Diana McClure.
If Shakespeare's dramas are “such stuff as dreams are made on,” then Richler's latest novel is stuffed with letters, journals, and books. But this “stuff” is pummelled and polished into new patterns and shapes, and filled with the inspiration of Richler's dreams of a justice not readily to be found. If Solomon Gursky had existed in the real world, then the history of Seagrams would have taken on a different shape. But it is only in the realm of fiction that one can say with confidence that Solomon Gursky Was Here.
Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) cited as Solomon.
Although Moses is no longer considered to have written these Books, Richler is parodying the traditional view.
“Trayf” means unclean in Yiddish.
Richler interprets the admittedly ambiguous text of I Kings 17 as the ravens being commanded to feed Ahab. (Solomon, 45).
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SOURCE: Rieff, David. “A Special Relationship.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 44 (30 October 1994): 11.
[In the following review, Rieff commends Richler's complex and poignant characterizations in This Year in Jerusalem but faults the work for its excessive political commentary and cursory travel narrative.]
It seems that for the young Mordecai Richler, growing up Canadian and Jewish in Montreal in the 1940s, the three great consuming passions were baseball, girls and Zionism. He was raised, he writes, “in homes where the pushke, the blue-and-white coin-collection boxes for the Jewish National Fund to buy land in … Israel, squatted on the kitchen table.” But outside the closed immigrant world of his St. Urbain neighborhood, of Hebrew school and Yiddishkeit, another world beckoned—the secular, cosmopolitan one in which the adult Richler would choose to make his home and pursue the life of a writer.
But, as Richler makes clear in his appealing but curiously disjointed memoir cum polemic, This Year in Jerusalem, the Zionism of his youth remains alive in him still. If, unlike some of his boyhood friends, Richler chose not to emigrate to Israel, it is clear that he still wonders about the rightness of that decision. In a sense, This Year in Jerusalem is Richler's attempt to come to terms with what happened—not only to himself and to his classmates, but to Israel as well.
Perhaps this is why the book has such a curious shape. Richler oscillates between a memoir of his boyhood and an account of a trip he made to Israel in which he encountered some of the friends who had emigrated there, as well as notable figures from all parts of the Israeli political spectrum. The effect is somewhat confusing. Almost all travel writers use the device of interspersing the history of the place they are writing about into the more personal account of their journey. But Richler's rendering of various signal moments in Israeli history seems cursory, as if he, like the reader, were eager to get back to Montreal, or to discover what happened to these eager adolescents half a century on.
That said, Richler is in fine form in This Year in Jerusalem. The scene in which Jerry Greenfield (all the names in the book are pseudonymous), the young stud of Richler's youth, turns up 50 years later, an embittered ex-soldier full of prejudice, vanity and misery, and, after boasting endlessly about his life ends up asking Richler for money, is worthy of the best scenes of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or St. Urbain's Horseman. Similarly, when Richler encounters his old friends in Israel and anatomizes the way they have aged and evolved and the ways in which they have remained the same, his writing is charged and vivid. He is less successful in rendering his encounters with Israelis. Whether it is David Bar-Ilan, the pianist turned newspaper editor on the right, or the writer Amos Elon on the left, the reader cannot help feeling that these figures are brought in solely as exemplars of various positions on the Israeli political spectrum.
Were Richler writing about a place less well-known and well-chronicled than Israel, perhaps such broad brush strokes would be satisfying. But most readers in North America who are likely to pick up This Year in Jerusalem already know too much about Herzl and Rabin, the Russian immigrants and the West Bank, to find Richler's turns on these themes either novel or profound. And he himself seems to coast through these episodes, his prose coming alive only when he returns to his own memoiristic account.
In the end, Richler declares himself not only “unapologetically Jewish” but, to the discomfiture of many of the people he meets in Israel, unapologetically Canadian. “I am,” he writes in a bravura passage toward the end of the book, “a Canadian, born and bred, brought up not only on Hillel, Rabbi Akiba, and Rashi, but also on blizzards, Andrew Allen's CBC Radio ‘Stage’ series, a crazed Maurice Richard skating in over the blue line, Leacock's Literary Lapses, wild blueberries out of the Lac St. Jean country in August, Mackenzie King's procrastinations, the Dieppe raid, Jackie Robinson breaking into organized baseball with the Triple A Montreal Royals, Northern Review, Molson's ale, the Dionne quintuplets, the novels of Hugh MacLennan and Gabrielle Roy, Morley Callaghan's short stories, the Stanley Cup playoffs …”
The list goes on for another half a paragraph. It is a hymn to the power of assimilation, of the seductive power of North America. And not just in this passage but throughout This Year in Jerusalem, what is impressive is Richler's ability to remain faithful to both the Jewish and Zionist and the Canadian and secular parts of himself. If only he had radically cut back the political commentary, which is sensible, dovish and scarcely original, and the travel narrative, which is cursory. The force of the book comes from its autobiographical elements, from Richler's “Song of Himself.”
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SOURCE: Kelly, J. B. “Holy Lands.” National Review 46, no. 24 (19 December 1994): 56-7.
[In the following review, Kelly criticizes the incoherent and disjointed structure of This Year in Jerusalem, labelling the book as “an exercise in self-justification.”]
It was only when I was halfway through reading Mordecai Richler's book [This Year in Jerusalem] that I began to understand why I was so uncomfortable with it: why its structure is all over the place, why its constituent parts hang so awkwardly together, and why the whole seems pervaded by an air of maudlin introspection. It is because in large measure it is an expiatory work, an exercise in self-justification. Mr. Richler has made two visits to Israel, the first in 1962, the second thirty years later, and he has been stung on both occasions by the contempt expressed by many of the Israelis he encountered for the Jews of the Diaspora, especially those of North America, for not having made aliyah (literally “going up,” i.e., migration) to Israel. Still smarting from the hurt, he has set out to demonstrate that one can be a good Jew, like himself, even though living outside Israel, as well as a stout upholder of Zionist ideals.
He begins his apologia pro vita sua with a lengthy reminiscence of his boyhood in Montreal during and after the Second World War, an account heavily embroidered with tales of his companions in Habonim (the socialist, Zionist youth organization), his difficulties with his Hasidic grandfather, his family's devout observance of Jewish rituals and festivals, and his own keen delight in stories from Yiddish folklore. Since these are matters it is difficult for an outsider to comment upon—being, as it were, de la famille—I will pass them by and confine my remarks to topics I am more familiar with.
Mr. Richler's adolescent imagination and emotions were fired in those far-off days by the campaign of resistance and terrorism waged by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground organization led by Menachem Begin, against the British administration in Palestine. Two of the Irgun's exploits particularly thrilled him: the kidnapping and killing of two British sergeants as a reprisal for the execution of two Irgun terrorists, and the kidnapping and flogging of a British officer and two of his men in retaliation for the flogging of convicted Irgun prisoners. It is evident from the way Mr. Richler writes that he has not put such juvenile sentiments behind him. Nor has he seen fit to redress the balance in any way, as mature reflection might have dictated, by giving other instances of the Irgun's handiwork, such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, British military headquarters, in which a number of innocent civilians perished.
What Mr. Richler fails to appreciate is that it was not by the efforts of the Irgun alone, or even through the more disciplined operations of Haganah, the Jewish Defense Force, that Israel was brought into being in 1948. The original opportunity to create a Jewish state was provided by Britain's conquest of Palestine from the Turks in 1914-18, and by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Neither of these facts is referred to by Mr. Richler, even en passant. Instead he tends to write the British off as just a bunch of anti-Semites (Winston Churchill?), and to give whatever outside credit is due to the United States alone. Similarly, he views the problem of Jerusalem and the Holy Places exclusively in terms of entrenched Jewish and Muslim interests. Christianity doesn't get a look in: in fact, the only Christians who appear in his pages are an unappetizing group of American fundamentalists. So much for Rome and Byzantium.
By far the best sections of Mr. Richler's book are those describing his visits to Israel, especially his second trip, in 1992. Here his skills as a novelist serve him well. He has an acute ear for the false note in conversations, a sharp eye for the telling details in a person or a place, and a dry, sometimes acerbic, wit. One sympathizes with his irritation at the air of moral superiority assumed by many Israelis toward Jews who have not made aliyah but simply visit Israel at intervals. Yet, since the foundation of the state, he notes pointedly, half a million Israelis have emigrated, mostly to North America, and twenty thousand more are still leaving every year. He has little time for the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose influence in Israel's public life he finds not only distasteful but also disquieting. Since he himself accepts, even though reluctantly, the inevitability of some form of Palestinian-Arab autonomy, he fears what the haredim's apocalyptic obsession with Eretz Israel may one day bring down upon the land and its people. He has a point.
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SOURCE: Alexander, Edward. “Bad Trip.” Commentary 99, no. 1 (January 1995): 82-5.
[In the following review, Alexander offers a negative assessment of Richler's “lazy” intellectual tone in This Year in Jerusalem.]
Mordecai Richler first came to prominence by virtue of two novels set among the Jews of Montreal. The first, Son of a Smaller Hero (1959), recounts the struggle of its hero, Noah Adler, to free himself from the prejudices and limitations of the Jewish community; the second, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), later made into a movie, is a rags-to-riches story, formulaic but also satiric (it was reviled in some parts of the Jewish community). Since then Richler has written seven more novels, numerous screenplays, and, in 1992, a book (Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country) severely critical of the Quebec separatist movement.
As we learn from his latest book [This Year in Jerusalem], which is in part a memoir, Richler grew up in a Hasidic family in Montreal. He attended a traditional religious school but also became involved in the Labor Zionist youth movement called Habonim, not out of strong commitment to Zionism but, as he freely admits, in order to spite his pious grandfather and lay hands on girls broken loose from the bonds of piety. But those “hallelujah days of Habonim” (as he calls them here) were also a time of moral certitude, when he still believed that Jews deserved a state of their own and that the best young people would leave the wasteland of the Diaspora, where Jews were destined for assimilation, and make their way to the land of Israel as pioneers.
Soon, however, Richler found that the American novelist John Dos Passos “spoke” to him more than Jewish writers did. His “ride into goyish culture,” begun at Montreal's Sir George Williams University, was so “exhilarating” that in 1950 he set sail not for Tel Aviv but for Paris, where he lived for two years before going on to London for another twenty. So far had he emancipated himself “from childhood religious observances” that in 1951, he writes, he was surprised to find a kosher restaurant—to which he wished to take a Gentile friend—closed on Yom Kippur. Nor do the ensuing decades appear to have brought him back to Jewish sources: a reader, for instance, curious about the origin of a sentence Richler quotes here from an ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah, will be directed by the endnote to consult Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish.
Although Richler made a brief visit to Israel in 1962, it was not until 1984 that he became curious about the path not taken, about those old friends from Habonim in Montreal who had actually moved to the Zionist homeland. Still, he managed to restrain his curiosity for eight years until he was invited to be a guest at Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim, an elegant guest house to which the Jerusalem Foundation invites artists and intellectuals, and so was afforded an occasion for writing this book.
This Year in Jerusalem combines Richler's talents as a chronicler with his new penchant for social-political criticism, now applied to Israel (whose prospective division into two states he contemplates far more favorably than the possible dismemberment of Canada). Insofar as a jerry-built book can be said to have a narrative skeleton, it is supplied by Richler's travels through Israel to look up his old friends from Montreal, ostensibly to show us what has happened, physically and spiritually, to comrades from the old neighborhood who now live in Israel's cities or kibbutzim.
Haphazardly draped over and obscuring this skeleton are recollections of his family, memoirs of growing up in Jewish Montreal, bits and pieces of Zionist history culled from secondary and tertiary sources, and political commentary on Israel and every other Jewish issue that happens to cross his field of vision. If there is a unifying theme underlying Richler's observations, it is Albert Einstein's declaration (of 1938), quoted as an epigraph and repeated in the fourth chapter—that the “essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders” and that nationalism will cause severe “inner damage” to Judaism.
Readers familiar with the Israeli scene and its interpreters will find very little that is new in Richler. We get the standard horror stories about ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, the fulminations against religion by Israeli members of the Peace Now movement (to which Richler also belongs), a reactionary Moroccan-Jewish taxi driver, an Arab expelled from a home where his ancestors lived “for a thousand years,” the incessant depiction of the 100,000 Jews living in the disputed territories as Uzi-toting lunatics expecting the Messiah to arrive next month, the repetition ad nauseam of the mindless slogan about how “you make peace with your enemies,” and—this above all—the ritual depiction of Arabs as Jews.
Since Richler's preferred guides to the Israeli-Arab scene are the leftist journalist Amos Elon, the leftist novelist David Grossman, and Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman (who, Hillel Halkin once wrote, shows “how it is possible for a reporter to be thoroughly dishonest without telling too many outright lies”), he must know just how stale this formula is; yet he doggedly adheres to it throughout the book. Palestinian nationalism is for him the mirror-image of Zionism. Just as Grossman, in his The Yellow Wind (1987), likened a boy he saw on the roof of a house in an Arab refugee camp to a “fiddler on the roof,” so Richler reports that Arab junk collectors in Jerusalem make their pitch in Yiddish. If Jews call Sukkot Ha-chag, then Arabs use the word hagg to describe the pilgrimage to Mecca. And so forth.
But the cultural aspect of this equation is trivial compared with the political-military. If 750 “collaborators” were executed by their fellow Arabs during the intifada (actually the number is much higher), then, admonishes Richler, we must recall that the Stern Gang (allegedly) did the same to about twenty Jews between 1940 and 1948. If it is really the case that the PLO is in collusion with Hamas, why then “its mirror-image was arguably the Zionist faction that was once led by Vladimir Jabotinsky.” If Jews do not much care for “Hamas youngsters … sharpening their daggers in praise of Allah” (is that all they do with those daggers?), then the ever-ready Richler recommends that they contemplate “the God-crazed settlers wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, Uzis protruding from their belts.” (The exhortation to make peace with one's enemies would appear to extend only to enemies wearing keffiyehs, not to those wearing yarmulkes and tefillin.)
It never occurs to Richler to ask why, if the Palestinian Arabs are a distinct people requiring a distinct state, they (abetted by a thousand publicists) need to represent themselves as Jews. The answer is not far to seek: to misrepresent an aggression against the Jewish state as a case of victimization by that same state. Neither does Richler ask an equally obvious question about the missing element in his Arab-Jewish equation: in which cafés in Damascus have Syrian novelists argued for the legitimacy and moral necessity of Israel? In what purlieu of Montreal is there a Canadian-Arab writer making the case for the Jews?
Although This Year in Jerusalem is social commentary rather than fiction, it resembles Richler's novels in at least one important respect. Those books elicit disdain for the vulgarity of Montreal's Jews without ever showing anything that might complicate that vulgarity with the weight of the Jewish past; they display, in the novelist who wrote them, a lazy weakness for the easy target and the easy laugh. That laziness is still in evidence here. In fact, the same straw men into whose mouths Richler puts the crudest objections to his novels—“You earn big money writing novels that make fun of the Jews.” “Are you a Jewish anti-Semite?”—turn out to be also the most foolish Zionist rams for his sacrificial knife.
Now and then, however, he overcomes his intellectual indolence and appears to sally forth against strong adversaries. One such is David Bar-Illan, executive editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, Israel's most unabashedly Zionist newspaper and a standing affront to Diaspora visitors of the Peace-Now persuasion who (like Richler) do not read the Hebrew press. Declaring that he “almost never agree[s] with” Bar-Illan, Richler tries to rebut him.
According to Richler, Bar-Illan's “case” against the Arabs is based on two shaky, irrelevant premises: one, that Palestine was a desolate land before the Zionist return; two, that the notion of a Palestinian-Arab identity is a recent invention, since, prior to the 1960's, the only people who called themselves Palestinians were the Jews. But, retorts Richler, even if the land had gone to ruin over the centuries, this did not justify the “stiff-necked” Jews coming in, saying “move over or get out” to Arabs who had tended their sheep and olive groves “for generations,” whether they called themselves Palestinians or not. And besides, “the dispute is not about semantics.”
It would be too much to expect a dilettante with Richler's prejudices to have delved into the history of high Arab in-migration into predominantly Jewish areas since the inception of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century, or to be aware that the coastal plain, for example, really was empty of population on the eve of Zionist settlement. But one might think that a person who earns his living as a writer would acknowledge the importance of words and the political potency of linguistic larceny. If semantics are unimportant, one wonders why Richler is so punctilious about referring to the “Old Testament” instead of the Hebrew Bible, about saying “West Bank” instead of Judea/Samaria, and “Greater Israel” instead of Land of Israel, or why he takes the trouble to include a glossary in which he disputes (for example) the definition of Fatah Hawks as terrorists.
Much later in the book Richler seems about to take on a second adversary: Hillel Halkin, an American who settled permanently in Israel in 1970. Halkin's Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic (1977) is one of the most important books to come out of Israel since the founding of the state, yet Richler could not, he complains, manage to read it because it is “out of print.” (Apparently there are no lending libraries in Montreal.) Therefore, in preparation for a Tel Aviv meeting with Halkin, he read a short magazine essay by him so that he could paraphrase Halkin's argument for aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel.
As usual, he gets it wrong. “Halkin's assumption that it was impossible to lead a full Jewish life in America was unnerving,” Richler writes. But in his book Halkin says nothing of the kind. Rather the opposite:
I am not saying that you cannot live an authentic Jewish life in the Diaspora; I am saying that if the criterion is the future of the Jewish people, you are living it in the wrong place.
Although he has only the vaguest idea of what Halkin's position is, Richler “refutes” it by listing a score of prominent, “caring” Jews who by virtue of living (and writing) in the Diaspora disprove the Halkin thesis. Had Richler taken the trouble to look, he might have thought better of this mode of argument. Here, for example, is what the late Irving Howe, one of Richler's Diaspora all-stars, wrote about Letters to an American Jewish Friend:
When … Hillel Halkin sent from Israel a powerful book arguing that the Jews in the West now had only two long-range choices if they wished to remain Jews—religion and Israel, faith and nationhood—I searched for arguments with which to answer him. But finally I gave it up, since it seemed clear that the perspective from which I lived as “a partial Jew” had reached a historical dead end.
Repeatedly, from his Einsteinian epigraph until the book's end, Richler harps on the theme that Jewish nationalism, i.e., Zionism, is “contrary to what had evolved as the Jewish tradition.” But in him this non-or anti-religious Diaspora “Jewish tradition” amounts to nothing but a puffed-up “pride” in Jewish neighborhood origins and a fossilized left-wing ideology. That is a considerably deader end even than the one Irving Howe confessed to, but it is in that dead end that Mordecai Richler complacently has chosen to live. This book shows it.
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SOURCE: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “Lingering Questions.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 January 1995): 4, 7.
[In the following review, Wheatcroft compares This Year in Jerusalem with Glenn Frankel's Beyond the Promised Land, calling them both “complementary and absorbing” books.]
Just 100 years ago, in late 1894, a French army officer of Jewish extraction was arrested, tried and falsely convicted of treason. The trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and his formal degradation on a barracks square in front of a mob that shouted “Death to the Jews!” was witnessed by the Paris correspondent of a Vienna newspaper. Months later, Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, his clarion call for resolving the apparently irresolvable “Jewish problem”: the misery of the poor Jews living in Eastern Europe under the czar, but also the false and humiliating—and, as the Dreyfus Affair suggested, precarious—position of supposedly emancipated Jews in the West.
Did Herzl really believe it would happen: that within little more than half a century—though only after the Jewish people had endured their most terrible catastrophe—a Jewish state really would be established on the ancient Land of Israel? It did happen, and by any standard, it was a most astonishing achievement. But, as the Greeks teach us, history is ironic, and consequences of events are unexpected and unintended. In her visionary, quasi-Zionist novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot had foreseen a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a symbol of peace between the nations. Herzl himself had said that the Arabs living in the Holy Land would welcome Jewish settlement bringing prosperity and order. And all Zionist advocates, from Moses Hess 30 years before Herzl, had believed something else, that a Jewish state would resolve the Jewish Question and simplify the position of those Jews (the majority, as both Hess and Herzl rightly guessed) who continued to live in the Diaspora.
As Glenn Frankel and Mordecai Richler [in This Year in Jerusalem] both make clear in their complementary and absorbing books, it didn't work out quite like that.
Both authors are North Americans. Frankel is a Washington journalist who first visited Israel in 1970, spent three years there in 1986-1989 as the Washington Post's Jerusalem correspondent, and then another year in 1992-1993 writing this book; Richler is a Montreal novelist who first visited Israel in 1962 and returned in 1992. They both found the country at a critical moment in its history. The euphoria of 1967 had ebbed away, and the character of the country had changed. In 1977, the conservative Likud Party had broken the 30-year monopoly that the Labor Party held on power; in 1982 the Lebanon adventure had turned sour; in 1987 the intifada had erupted.
Israel was still living in a state of psychological as much as military siege; it was spending twice as much of its domestic product on defense as the United States; “its unifying historical myths were the twin traumas of Masada and the Holocaust,” as Frankel puts it; the Israelis were always waiting to fight again; they “had not reconciled the innate contradiction between living in a Western-style democracy and in a Jewish state.” Whereas in those first Labor decades Israel had been ruled by David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, whom the rest of the world—and especially American Jews—took to their hearts, now the prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir. Frankel traces his background as a notably ruthless terrorist, who had been vetoed by Ben-Gurion as even a junior state functionary. A man whose early career included killing Arab civilians, assassinating British statesmen and even whacking (as they say in Scorsese movies) troublesome colleagues in the Jewish underground was a different kettle of fish indeed for the American government and people.
Frankel takes us over territory familiar from television and newspapers at the time, but which falls into shape when told here as a consecutive narrative. Israeli policy was sometimes cunning but sometimes foolish: the militant Islamic movement in Gaza was actually, if covertly, encouraged in the first place by the Israelis as a counter to the secular PLO, a particularly rich example of the law of unintended consequences. Many Israelis—as well as many outsiders who had been sympathetic to Israel—were shocked by the intifada and its repression: the bone-breakings, the buryings alive, the killing in 18 months of 90 Palestinians under 17, 20 of them 12 or younger.
The psychological effects of this weren't as obvious to Shamir or to Yitzhak Rabin—who urged Israel Defense Forces draftees to use “force, power and blows” on demonstrators—as they might have been. As Frankel says, the damage done to the army by setbacks in the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars had been external; “the intifada caused a different kind of internal damage … like gangrene, eating away at the IDF's moral core.” Frankel rightly says that “by the standards of war” the repression was not exceptionally brutal. The trouble was that Israel had always asked to be judged by different standards than its neighbors.
Sometimes Frankel's rhetorical flourishes are slightly comical: “Israeli politics were a cauldron of grand schemes and petty ambitions in which the main ingredients were greed, egotism, willfulness and betrayal.” You don't say; how unlike politics anywhere else. But he does put his finger on the increasingly vehement tone of Israeli politics, and—what was not unconnected—the increasing strain on Israeli-American relations. President Bush was sometimes called hostile to Israel, and even anti-Semitic by a couple of Israeli cabinet ministers. But as Frankel explains, all through 1991 Shamir was assuring the Americans that no large-scale settlement program was proceeding on the West Bank—the crucial question at issue—while Washington's own intelligence, including satellite data, told them that it was. It was hard to imagine any politician in any country at any time who would not have resented this.
Nearly Frankel's most interesting chapter, “We Are One,” describes the all-important relationship between Israel and Jewish America, which underwent a sea-change in this period, with growing estrangement on both sides. American Jews had been famously loyal to Israel but found their patience more and more tried and their loyalty more and more strained: by the Pollard case, by the “Who is a Jew” affair, by the intransigence and sheer chutzpah of the Israeli government. It was not only that most American Jews stood “far to the left of the Shamir government,” in Frankel's words. Israel's very success had paradoxically been its undoing vis-a-vis American Jews, whom it had given “something crucial as well: a way of preserving their Jewish identity even while participating in the freewheeling assimilationist American culture. … Israel, which was supposed to rescue Jews from the Diaspora, instead made it easier and more attractive for Jews in America to remain where they were.”
Which is where Richler comes in. Growing up in Montreal in the 1940s, he was a keen Zionist, a member of the socialist Habonim, a potential candidate for aliyah, a secret admirer of Menachem Begin and his Irgun terrorists. (“He, not Ben-Gurion, was our gutsy street-fighter, our James Cagney.”) He never did make aliyah but sailed for Paris instead of Tel Aviv, spent 20 years in London, married a beautiful Protestant and then returned to his hometown for good. On his previous visit to Israel 30 years earlier, he hadn't looked up those of his Habonim chums who had made aliyah, “feeling that I had failed them somehow, disembarking at the wrong port years ago.”
Now he returns to find that Israel has changed and so has he. This Year in Jerusalem is an intensely personal book, with most of the qualities of Richler's fiction: it is salty, sardonic, irritable and hugely readable. He isn't an objective political reporter like Frankel but a novelist with the novelist's eye for telling detail. He finds that very large numbers of Israelis want to leave the country, that 500,000 do in fact live abroad, that Rabin denounced these yordim (those who have gone down rather than up—aliyah in reverse) as “the dregs of Israeli society.” He notes the conflict between the ultra-Orthodox haredim—some of whom reject the Israeli state, a few of whom think that Auschwitz was divine punishment of impious Zionism—and a secular society. (He also notes that the black-coated haredim are known as shwartze—not quite the same meaning as in America—and are widely disliked because of their smell.) He finds a cartoon in the Jerusalem Post showing Jews in the death camp in one frame, alongside another of a mixed marriage in a church, over the caption “Final Solutions”; he does not wake his wife to show her. He finds an old Montreal friend, now an Israeli, who tells him that “the dream has gone sour,” but he doesn't elaborate.
But the real point of his visit is a voyage of self-discovery. Though he is an exceptionally gifted writer, there is nothing exceptional about the process he has been through: ardent Zionist youth in the shadow of Hitler, passionate involvement with Israel in the great hour of peril of 1967, then a sentimental attachment, which gently cooled, latterly a growing sense of the other side of the question: “There is no denying Jewish accomplishment in Israel, but much of it was achieved in a land where another people, however unambitious, was rooted. Their failure to cultivate their gardens does not justify their displacement by a stiff-necked people turning up with a book saying, “This is the turf God Almighty promised me and mine thousands of years ago. We took it by force of arms from the Canaanites in the first place. … Now we're back, what's left of us, so move over or get out.”
Richler's disenchantment is exacerbated by the mixture of hectoring cajolery and moral blackmail to which he is subjugated as a Diaspora Jew. It is one thing to put up with the well-known vexations of Israeli life (hotel staff “are unique. They are unobliging at best and, given any opportunity, down-right rude”). It's another to be called a kind of traitor to his people; to be told by another writer that “for any Jew in this day and age who cares seriously about being Jewish, the only honest place to live is Israel.” In the end, he bursts out, “I'm not only Jewish but also Canadian, and Montreal just happens to be my home. … I am a Canadian, born and bred. …” He remembers the excitement he and his friend, felt in November, 1947, when the U.N. General Assembly voted for a Jewish state. But when one of those friends who did make aliyah tells him how much at home he feels in Israel, Richler replies: “I too continue to feel a part of something, and at home, right here in Canada.”
The Jewish State of Herzl's dream had been created, in many ways triumphantly. But it had not been a beacon of peace and understanding; it had not been welcomed by those already living there and it had not, in a simple sense, resolved any social and psychological predicament of Diaspora Jewry.
The Jews of the West had in any case existentially resolved their “question” in a society where they flourished. They had also existentially rejected Zionism, whatever sympathy they felt for Israel. Richler discovered this in the Land of Israel. In his characteristically blunt way, Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, had told his fellow Jews that in their degrading exile they had become “Yids” and that they should now become Hebrews once more. Richler is happy to be a Jew. He is not in Jabotinsky's sense a Yid; but he isn't a Hebrew either. How many others does he speak for?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194
SOURCE: Ravvin, Norman. “What I'm Doing Here.” Canadian Literature 151 (winter 1996): 191-93.
[In the following review, Ravvin contrasts the portrayals of Jerusalem in This Year in Jerusalem and Bronwyn Drainie's My Jerusalem, commenting that Drainie's work is the more journalistic and objective of the two.]
Amos Oz has written of the “Jerusalem stillness which can be heard, if you listen for it, even in the noisiest street.” Like the famous Jerusalem light, it may take very sensitive instruments to pick up such sublime sensations. To most of us, Jerusalem is a fascinating enigma—constantly in the news, beloved of Jews, Arabs, evangelists and tourists—a daunting topic for any writer who struggles to record the city's daily life. In recent years, the pace of political change has rendered local wisdom obsolete with startling suddenness. “Wars and victories, inflation and censorship,” writes Oz, “Likud and Labor, Eurovision and the Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball team. El Al and the Histadrut are all like shifting sands. Here today and gone tomorrow. …”
Mordecai Richler and Bronwyn Drainie both made visits to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and produced very different accounts of what they saw. Like typical Canadians abroad they managed to cross paths halfway around the world. In This Year in Jerusalem, Richler describes a visit he and his wife paid to Drainie. Drainie gives Richler a cameo appearance in My Jerusalem, during which he feeds Drainie the most unabashedly honest and funny line she has to report of her two-year long Jerusalem sojourn. As Drainie and her husband, Globe & Mail correspondent Patrick Martin, lead Richler to view a Franciscan procession of the cross on the Via Dolorosa, he remarks, “I've spent my entire life trying to avoid people like this. What am I doing here?”
These two authors bring vastly different resources and concerns to their accounts of the long-contested Israeli capital. Drainie describes herself as a “journalist, specializing in cultural matters,” and accounts for her preference “not to advertise” her “half-Jewishness” by the fact that she
had heard stories of North American Jews, especially those with young children, being subjected to extraordinary pressure from religious Jews in Israel to make aliya. Since this was out of the question for our family, it was simply easier not to let the subject arise at all.
Richler makes no effort to disguise himself, and his credentials as a respected Jewish author—though no voice of the status quo—precede him wherever he goes.
Jewish culture and learning played a minimal role in Drainie's daily life before Martin was chosen as the Globe's Middle East correspondent and Drainie decided to join him there. Her mother, she says, grew up “Jewish in Swift Current Saskatchewan, which is to say she had hardly grown up Jewish at all.” Richler, on the other hand, takes the opportunity in This Year in Jerusalem, to reveal how deeply his childhood was influenced by a wide variety of Jewish experience: both his grandfathers were learned and daunting figures—most notably his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg, who was the author of more than 20 books of religious scholarship, as well as a “puckish” collection of stories based on the legendary Golem of Prague (one of the chapters in This Year in Jerusalem includes a story from this collection—an evocative fable with a plot twist influenced by the same small town yarns that I. B. Singer drew on throughout his career). Most revealingly, Richler investigates his youthful attachment to the leftist youth organization, Habonim, whose twin causes were to increase immigration to Palestine and the “establishment of socialism” in North America. It was this early affiliation that bound Richler, though from a distance, to the new Jewish State, and which provides him with old friends—now inhabitants of kibbutzim and Israeli cities—to track down and compare notes with.
Richler employs his story-teller's skills as he interweaves his youthful memories with accounts of a 1962 trip he made to Israel as a reporter for Maclean's, along with his account of the 1992 visit that prompted him to reassess his earlier enthusiasms and ambivalences regarding Zionism. This Year in Jerusalem is pleasurable and provocative for a number of reasons. Richler's interviews with Israeli journalists, arts administrators, kibbutzniks and professors convey the character of the country's inhabitants with a minimum of authorial editorializing. In his description of encounters from his 1962 visit, characters and incidents that made their way into his fiction—primarily the 1971 novel St. Urbain's Horseman—are given an arresting non-fictional presentation. And in his candid description of the contrasting influences of his family and the non-Jewish friends who guided him to “goyish culture,” Richler explores how he linked his own cultural and religious background with the tradition at large. Richler also captures the way his youthful Jewish commitments were coloured by Hollywood, leading him and his St. Urbain crowd to admire, along with actual pioneers, “elite desert fighters like Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston in Beau Geste.”
Drainie's book is lacking in all such complexities, ambiguities, and self-revelations. We learn very little about how the writing of My Jerusalem affected the author's sense of herself as a writer, as a non-practicing Jew, as a Canadian. She is quick to speak for and sum up those she meets—Israelis and Arabs alike—but rarely distances herself from these judgments to consider how her own assumptions colour her outlook. Jewish orthodoxy is a favourite target of Drainie's, but the reader learns nothing from her report of “black-suited” and “baby-making” figures who observe “obscure family-centred rituals.” Israel as a whole is dealt with in My Jerusalem in stereotypic terms: “Claustrophobia. … It is a feeling all Israelis share as they sit hunkered down on their slim dagger of a Mediterranean coast-line. …” Drainie also seems to have decided to exclude from her account any anecdotes or information learned by way of her partner's involvement with the international press. A more personal look at the way the media views and influences the Middle East might have led Drainie to material she felt more enthusiastic about. Instead, we find out what it's like to buy a Volvo in Jerusalem and how Israeli supermarkets compare with Canadian stores.
The best chapter in Drainie's book describes the friendships she developed with Arab women who work in a West Bank sewing co-operative. Here she restrains her brooding authorial voice and lets her acquaintances speak for themselves. Through much of the remaining chapters of My Jerusalem one gets the feeling that Drainie was asking, throughout the two years she spent in Israel, “What am I doing here?”
Richler's This Year in Jerusalem is far more successful than Drainie's book at conveying the most heart-breaking outcome of the Zionist dream—its creation, in the words of Amos Elon, of a “mirror-image of itself: Palestinian nationalism—the longing of a dispossessed people for their own state.” By examining his ambivalent allegiance to a distant land and to his grandfathers' world, Richler provides us with a compelling portrait of himself as “a Canadian, born and bred, brought up not only on Hillel, Rabbi Akiba, and Rashi, but also on blizzards, Andrew Allan's CBC Radio ‘Stage’ series, a crazed Maurice Richard. …”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Larger than Life.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4927 (5 September 1997): 21.
[In the following review, Enright discusses Richler's characterization in Barney's Version and compliments the novel's lean narrative pace.]
[In Barney's Version] Terry McIver, a former friend and fellow Montrealer, is about to expose Barney Panofsky as a wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap and probably a murderer. In reply, and notwithstanding his lawyer's opinion that McIver isn't far wrong, Barney resolves to set out the true story of his “wasted life”. His entrepreneurial beginnings were humble: importing French cheese and olive oil into Canada, running an agency for Vespa scooters and flogging ancient Egyptian artefacts stolen from the Valley of the Kings. “I have my principles. I have never handled arms, drugs, or health foods.” When we meet him, he is sixty-seven, “reeking of decay and dashed hopes”, though living high on Totally Unnecessary Productions, a company making television series “sufficiently shlocky” to be syndicated all over.
Barney has had three wives. The first, nutty Clara, author of The Virago's Verse Book, killed herself (which wasn't really Barney's fault), and became a feminist icon; the next, invariably referred to as The Second Mrs Panofsky, is a bitch of barely believable proportions (to which he contributes by falling in love during their wedding party with a stranger called Miriam); the third is Miriam, a long-suffering near-angel who has recently divorced him (wholly his fault) and remains his heart's desire.
What sustains Barney in his dotage, he says, is keeping track of everybody he has ever known, including Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist of an earlier novel by Mordecai Richler. “It's amazing. Mind-boggling.” Indeed it is. Barney's Version is crammed with larger-than-life characters; there are no relaxed interstices in the narrative; every rift is loaded with ore, not always precious: a case, one may feel, of over-egged cake, or over-gefilte fish. In an essay of 1974, “Why I Write,” Richler has told how his father, on hearing that his son had written a novel (his first, The Acrobats), asked: “Is it about Jews or ordinary people?”
Bigger than life these characters may be, but by no means better. There is one good man—Clara's cousin, who devotes his life to her posthumous reputation—described by Barney as “a clear and present danger to himself and others”; he comes to a sad end, brought down by “the sisters”. Among Barney's many antipathies are feminists (unless sweet and accommodating), “CanCult” and its groupies (McIver has won every national award in sight), Quebec separatists and the Commission de protection de la langue française with their “tongue-troopers”, snobs, hypocrites, food fads, non-drinking and non-smoking. Short of anti-Semitism (and there's an element of doubt here), Barney is about as incorrect as it is possible to be. His observations are variously in the worst of taste, old hat, sour, ribald, funny and shrewd. Of soya-oil breast implants: “You nibble a nipple and what do you get? Salad dressing.” Of film actresses: once they had to wear dark glasses and headscarves to pass unnoticed in the street, “but now all they have to do is get dressed”. Of the characters in McIver's novels: “so wooden they could be used for kindling”. More than usually telling is a quiet allusion to Yossel Pinsky, a survivor of Auschwitz, using a Swiss Army knife to clean his remaining fingernails. Not that Pinsky is any sort of saint; he decamps to Israel one step ahead of the police.
Barney's “version” is the long mea culpa of a self-destructive man whom we are to admire for his impenitence. On that score he can be called a hero. Nothing delights him more than biographies of “the truly great” that prove them absolute shits. Under his cynicism and self-disgust runs a current of sentimentality, artistically suspect, no doubt, but not such a bad thing. McIver has disobligingly died of a heart-attack, thus depriving this “door-stopper of a manuscript” of its raison d'être; but Barney weeps at his funeral. And, from an afterword by his son—who has supplied pedantic footnotes chiefly serving to draw attention to his father's failing memory—we gather that, despite Barney's unkind jokes about schvartzers, in his will he is leaving a tidy sum to set up a scholarship at McGill University for a black student gifted in the arts.
Even so, Barney is hard to take. He complains that he can't understand why he does things; our difficulty lies in condoning many of the things he does. And yet, feeling bruised and rather smaller than life, we are likely to read on. There is so much story here—what dire offence will Barney commit next? What fearful comeuppance awaits him?—and so much energy. Barney's old mentor and probable murder victim once said of the Beat writers, “Energy isn't enough.” But it helps. And here it helps too if you happen to be an ice-hockey fan.
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “A Highly Amusing Shambles.” Spectator 279, no. 8827 (4 October 1997): 47-8.
[In the following review, King offers a mixed assessment of Barney's Version, arguing that “for all its defects, this unruly book about a thoroughly unruly life contains not a page without its laugh and not a paragraph without its smile.”]
The Canadian, Jewish narrator of this fictional memoir [Barney's Version], Barney Carnofsky, writing when he is beginning to show the first insidious symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, is, as he himself puts it, ‘a shrinking man with a cock that trickles’. A cynic, philanderer, boozer, adulterer, and possibly a murderer, he would be a totally odious character were it not for the sharpness of his intelligence, the breadth of his culture, and the cathartic ferocity of his hatred of pretension and humbug.
As a young man, in 1950, Barney withdrew from his Montreal bank the modest stash of money which he had earned as a waiter, and set off for Paris. Once there, he became, for a brief, exciting period, the friend of a number of expatriate writers and artists destined, unlike himself, for eventual fame. It is one of these writers who, by producing some 45 years later a scurrilous memoir, goads Barney—‘Terry's the spur, the splinter under my fingernail’—into embarking ‘on this shambles that is the true story of my wasted life’. But in his endeavour to tell this story Barney rarely sticks to it—at one point comparing himself to Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is similarly made up largely of digressions.
Richler possesses a powerful and fecund imagination, the cells of his narrative dividing and subdividing during his first 100 or so pages with such acceleration that the reader becomes dizzy as he swirls around in a maelstrom of characters, incidents and ideas. Eventually he is tempted to cry out, ‘Stop! Let me out!’ Fortunately, at that moment Richler's hurtling novel ceases to be as jam-packed with characters as a rush-hour train and it is at last possible to discern something approaching a lineal story.
Barney—along with his creator?—has a loathing of most aspects of modern life both in his native Canada and in the world at large, now shouting in fury and now cackling in derision at such varied targets as lady psychoanalysts who shave, Québécois separatists, people who claim to be ‘of Jewish descent’ rather than Jews, health faddists, corrupt cops, writers who become famous for masterpieces constantly in gestation but never produced, artists whose million-dollar earnings lose them the friendship of their less successful and therefore envious colleagues, and feminists who accuse their male colleagues of ‘tripping on penis power’ in their bids to seize clitoris power for themselves.
There are times when, in the manic frenzy with which Richler spews out joke after joke, he resembles a literary Archie Rice. ‘I say! I say! I say! Did you hear the one about the man with the colostomy bag who was having sex? … Do you know about bulimia? Yes, it's disgusting but if Princess Diana's got it, then it must have lots of appeal.’ Bad taste is often the source of good jokes, but here it has produced some bad jokes one could well do without. One could also do without the running joke of Barney's overly conscientious son producing pedantic footnotes to his father's posthumous manuscript—along the lines of ‘The Ford Escort did not go into production until 1968’ or ‘It was not until 1928 that women were declared “persons” by the Supreme Court of Canada.’
Too many of the characters are Grosz caricatures of cupidity, self-importance, degeneracy, brutality or obtuseness, sketched in at furious speed. But Barney himself, his three wives and his children are all convincingly three-dimensional, even if Barney's cultural omniscience—would such a man, obsessed with ice hockey, be able to pronounce with such authority on topics as diverse as the descriptive passages in the novels of P. D. James, Pygmalion as play, musical and film, the pornography published by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, and Dr Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes?—rather strains credulity.
But for all its defects, this unruly book about a thoroughly unruly life contains not a page without its laugh and not a paragraph without its smile. It triumphantly confirms me in my belief that, since the death of Peter DeVries, Richler is the funniest novelist at present at work in the English language.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “‘Do Not Go Gently. …’” Maclean's 110, no. 41 (13 October 1997): 76.
[In the following positive review, Bemrose regards Richler's “bitter, ironic sense of mortality” as the central theme of Barney's Version.]
Across the land, Mordecai Richler's face is almost as famous as his books. The longish hair, usually collapsing around his ears. The sad-sack eyes. The big schnoz. The older he gets, the more he resembles Golda Meir. His readers love him, hate him, and often do both—not a bad measure of success for a satirist. He has poked fun at everything from vegetarians to Quebec's language police, and in one notorious magazine article he undertook to explain Canadians to Americans in terms that were less than flattering. He is also, of course, one of the country's leading novelists, the author of such books as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and St. Urbain's Horseman (1971). It is now eight years since the publication of his last novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here, long enough for his fans to think he might be preparing something really special. They will not be disappointed. Barney's Version, nominated for this year's Giller Prize, is a feast of nonstop storytelling, and arguably his funniest book yet.
Because of his prominent international profile—his books sell well abroad, he writes for Hollywood, and he spends much of the year in England—it is easy to forget that Richler is essentially a regional author. The territory that feeds his imagination is Jewish Montreal, which is as much a state of mind as a particular neighborhood. Barney's Version is not only situated there, but it also makes frequent references to the other Montreal novels, as if Richler were drawing attention to their imaginative unity. The Gurskys are mentioned, and Duddy Kravitz makes a guest appearance (now a millionaire several times over, he is as shamelessly self-promoting as ever). But what distinguishes Barney's Version from the earlier books is a truly manic comic energy, combined with an unliterary roughness of style. Richler seems to be enjoying a freedom that sometimes comes to older artists: like Doris Lessing in her late novels, or Picasso in his final decades, Richler has found a way to his subject that is direct and almost crude at times—though there is more art in this crudeness than first appears.
The novel's style mirrors its rough-and-ready narrator, a hard-drinking producer of bad TV programs named Barney Panofsky. Like Richler himself, Barney is in his mid-60s. He describes himself as a “sour, judgmental presence,” though that hardly does justice to his droll wit. Barney is writing his memoirs to combat the version of his life he suspects is about to appear in Of Time and Fevers, an autobiography by his archenemy, the mediocre (but much-celebrated) Canadian novelist Terry McIver. In many ways, Barney's life has been a scandal. He has had three wives. The first, a poet, committed suicide and became a feminist icon, while Barney is widely suspected of abusing her. The second he married in cold self-interest, simply because she was rich and respectable. The third, Miriam, whom he still loves, has abandoned him. On top of all that, Barney may also have murdered his best friend, the brilliant failed writer and drug addict, Boogie Moscovitch.
Barney is one of those characters who, the more awful they reveal themselves to be, the more weirdly likable they become. Fuelled by outrageous chutzpah, he does things most people only fantasize about. During the party to celebrate his second marriage, he glimpses a beautiful stranger across the room (it turns out to be Miriam). Falling instantly in love, he rushes to her side. “I've got two tickets for tomorrow's flight to Paris in my jacket pocket,” he tells her. “Come with me.”
Barney's habitual grumpiness gives Richler lots of opportunity to savage some of his favorite targets, including radical feminists, left-wingers, right-wingers and human vanity of all sorts. Among its scores of minor characters is a fund-raiser for aid to Israel who heartily approves of the desecration of synagogues by thugs, because it generates donations from fearful Jews. The book also pokes fun at the pomposity of Quebec's separatist government—and the paranoia of many of the province's anglophones. Witness Barney's version of the recorded message that greets him when he calls Montreal General Hospital: “Press number 17 for service of les maudits anglais, or number 12 for service en français, the glorious language of our oppressed collectivity.”
Like a character in a Samuel Beckett novel, Barney is an enthralled witness to his own decay: Richler wrings a lot of fun from Barney's struggle to remember the names of things, and to cope with the embarrassing side-effects of his swollen prostate gland. In fact, what powers this novel is a bitter, ironic sense of mortality—a raging against the dying of the light. This clearly comes from some very profound place in Richler. When Barney recalls, poignantly, what bliss it was for him and Miriam to watch their four young children come running into the bedroom and bounce on the bed, it is difficult not to think it is Richler—himself the father of five children—speaking of his own life.
But it is not necessary to unearth the autobiography in this novel in order to experience its deeper pathos. Curmudgeon though he is, Barney is saying goodbye to much that he loves: his outrageousness, his energy, even his hatreds, are, in the end, a kind of celebration.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1797
SOURCE: Schechner, Mark. “Commissar of the Contrary.” New Leader 80, no. 19 (29 December 1997): 30-1.
[In the following review, Schechner praises Richler for creating “a delectable, side-splitting comedy of humiliation” in Barney's Version.]
At his wedding—his second—Barney Panofsky confides to a friend, “I'm in love. For the first time in my life I am truly, seriously, irretrievably in love.” His wife of less than an hour overhears this and embraces him, “And so am I honey, and so am I.” But he was not speaking of her. He was speaking of a woman he had met minutes ago and is about to flee the wedding party to pursue—to persuade her that she, and not the Second Mrs. Panofsky, is the one who holds the key to his heart.
It is an extraordinary moment in one of the weirdest wedding scenes on literary record. Barney is marrying the Second Mrs. Panofsky—whom he never gives a name—out of a transient impulse toward respectability that he will sabotage with every waking breath. Even as he goes through the ceremony he is wishing he were at the Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens hockey team is playing for the Stanley Cup against Toronto. (It is 1959, and “les habitants” will go on to victory.) When Barney and his bride are pronounced man and wife, he kisses her “and made straight for the bar. ‘What's the score?’”
As a comic novelist with a long list of journalistic credits, Mordecai Richler doesn't command the sort of hushed reverence that attends other Canadian writers, like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Carol Shields. Yet he has been around longer than any of them—some 40 years—has 10 novels to his credit counting this one, and, dividing his time between Montreal and London, he is Canada's most cosmopolitan writer. In addition, he is its funniest, most accomplished social satirist, as readers of his two previous novels, Joshua Then and Now, and Solomon Gursky Was Here, are well aware. In a literary culture that confuses solemnity with seriousness, Richler, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don't get no respect.” But he has always had readers.
In Barney's Version Richler has written a delectable, side-splitting comedy of humiliation. His hero (who is also his villain, his clown, his warrior, his poet, his sentimentalist, his trickster, his alter id, and his alter Yid) goes toe-to-toe with the world in a game of ego-roulette: Each human encounter is a zero-sum contest of shame or be shamed, of do unto others before others do unto you. The Brazen Rule. And he plays it with a full arsenal of monologues, comebacks and one-liners, extracting every last microgram of humor from such venerable comic standbys as aging, sex, money, cuckoldry, culture, art, embarrassment, the literary life, narcissism, as well as the less promising subjects of Alzheimer's disease, Canadian politics and death.
At 66, Barney Panofsky is a three time loser at marriage. He has liver spots on his hands, blank spots in his memory and urine spots on his trousers. He smokes Montecristo cigars, drinks single malt Scotch and his film company, Totally Useless Productions Ltd., has made a small fortune grinding out trash TV programs for the Canadian market. Cantankerous, combative and politically reactionary, he harbors social attitudes so paleolithic that they would bring a blush to the cheek of Homo erectus. Brought to trial after the disappearance of his friend Bernard “Boogie” Moscovitch, whom he had caught in flagrante delicto with the Second Mrs. Panofsky, he may even be a murderer.
Now alone, Barney remains hopelessly stuck on his third wife Miriam (yes, the one he pursued at his second wedding), who left him after he helped himself just one time to a blonde and then haplessly confessed. It never dawns on him that he might have been cunningly set up, as he most assuredly was.
What keeps the book from becoming a sodden lament for a life gone to the dogs is Barney himself, who supplies its hum and buzz. He is a gamecock even in decline: a cornucopia of stories, jokes, barbs, and scornful opinions. With his jaundiced eye, wicked tongue and soul well marinated in grievances, he is a commissar of the contrary, a successor to Jonathan Swift, H. L. Mencken, Evelyn Waugh, and Dr. Johnson, all of whom he acknowledges and quotes. He prefers the company of bibulous and sharp-tongued lawyers, journalists, inside dopesters, and con men at his local bars—Dink's or Jumbo's—to that of any of his wives, including the treasured Miriam.
On the subject of modern art, for example, he recalls Leo Bishinsky, a fellow roisterer in Paris during the palmy days after World War II when young Americans and Canadians decamped to Europe, where living was cheap and dreams were plentiful:
A garage in Montparnasse served as Leo's atelier, and there he labored on his huge triptychs, mixing his paints in buckets and applying them with a kitchen mop. On occasion he would swish his mop around, stand back ten feet, and let fly. Once, when I was there, the two of us sharing a toke, he thrust his mop at me. ‘Have a go,’ he said.
Leo's paintings now hang in the Tate and the Guggenheim. They sell for millions “to junk-bond mavens and arbitrage gurus.”
Barney's bilious views range over contemporary politics and culture: Quebec separatism and the Québecois language laws, antismoking activism, animal rights, anti-Semitism (including Jewish anti-Semitism), New Age spiritualism, Hollywood Leftism and Leftism all around, and of course feminism. About the Hollywood Ten, the famous blacklisted writers of the 1950s, he snorts: “I had considerable respect for the Hollywood Ten as people, but not as writers of even the second rank. That driven bunch invested so much integrity in their foolish, guilt-ridden politics that they had none left for their work. Tell me, did Franz Kafka need a swimming pool?”
It is for feminism, however, that Barney saves his heavy artillery. When Clara Charnofsky, becomes pregnant during their footloose days in Paris, Barney does the manly thing and proposes marriage. Alas, Clara, a painter, poet and dabbler in astrology, palmistry, tarot, and Satanism, also dabbles in other men. When the still-born child turns out to be black, Barney packs his bags for Canada while Clara prepares a last-ditch gesture of reconciliation that fails when Barney's concierge forgets to deliver a message. Barney finds Clara dead, the table set for a candlelit dinner.
But her drawings and manuscripts survive. They are published years later as The Virago's Versebook to feminist acclaim, and pretty soon something called The Clara Charnofsky Foundation for Wimyn is handing out hefty grants, while Barney is gaining international notoriety as the “Calibanovitch” of one of her poems. It isn't hard to figure that Richler has cast his protagonist as Ted Hughes to Clara's Sylvia Plath in this story.
The wives of Barney Panofsky form a neat triad: the bohemian, the bourgeois and the true love. Although the bourgeois Second Mrs. Panofsky gets short shrift in the novel, her loopy, rambling monologues contain some of its best lines. Long-distance phone conversations with her mother from her Paris honeymoon reveal her to be the Madame Bovary of chatter and the Captain Ahab of shopping:
Yes, the waist is back and I've still got mine. I am not being snarky. How many times do I have to tell you that you have a terrific figure for a mature woman. It's from Dior. Yeah, I wore it this morning. Boy, did I ever turn lots of heads. It's pale blue shantung pleats with a cape collar, and over it I wore my new coat, it's a Chanel, a cardigan, nubby beige wool piped with navy blue silk. I'll wear it to the temple on Rosh Hashanah, Arlene will die on the spot. And wait till you see my shoes and the handbag that goes with. …
Move over Molly Bloom. The Second Mrs. Panofsky is in town.
Miriam, by virtue of being perfect and therefore ultimately too good for Barney, is the least interesting of the lot. Beautiful, gracious, deeply loving as well as provocatively sensual—an icon out of the Victoria's Secret catalog—she is destined to leave Barney and finally does so for one Blair Hopper, formerly Hauptman, who had come to Canada as a draft evader in 1969 and begun a flirtation with Miriam while taking refuge at their cabin. Blair is all that his predecessor was not—a handyman, a gardener, a social activist, an animal rights zealot, and, it seems, a man who certainly knows value when he sees it.
No question, Barney had it coming. It would not be too much to say that he is a schmuck. The downside of this for the reader is that he is impossible to like. The upside is his schmuck's-eye-view of the world, which is ruthless, unsparing, and finely attuned to the vanity of human wishes, including his own. He'll do anything for a joke or a prank or a withering remark. He doesn't even mind being beaten up for his one-liners, if he can get them off before the blow falls. During his interrogation after Boogie's disappearance, he gets it in the solar plexus for baiting the police.
As Homo dyspeptus, Barney sows the landscape with his grievances, finding egotism, fashion and self-aggrandizement everywhere he looks. He belongs to a long tradition of the crumbum hero that goes back to Dostoyevsky's underground man, but I don't recall any of the previous avatars being so funny. His pseudonymous letters to the Clara Charnofsky Foundation for Wimyn are typical of his savage humor. “Dear Person-hoods. Hi there. I'm writing to apply for a grant on behalf of CRAP (Chaps Resolutely Against Prejudice). …” Another: “Shalom Sisters. I was born Jemima (after the eldest of Job's three daughters) Fraser in Chicago 35 years ago, but since I came to the town of Dimonah in the Negev four years ago I pass by the name of Zipporah Ben Yehudah.”
Barney Panofsky gets away with being a jerk because he has panache. As a social critic he has an agile intelligence and a well-stocked mind; one is struck by the sheer density of his thought. As a raconteur and comic he's got the lines. And what reader doesn't hunger nowadays for a bracing dose of political incorrectness, which Barney delivers with the metronomic regularity of a man who has studied all his life to be in opposition? It is hardly a judgment on him that he winds up in a nursing home being fed roast brisket—Ashkenazi soul food—with a spoon.
Alzheimer's can strike teetotalers and vegetarians, even paper recyclers. But along his particular road to senility Barney performs for us a bitter, fractured comic dance that keeps us amazed and mortified and entertained.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912
SOURCE: McSweeney, Kerry. “Endgame Tap-Dancing.” Canadian Literature 159 (winter 1998): 188-90.
[In the following review, McSweeney offers a stylistic and thematic examination of Barney's Version.]
If old age is a shipwreck, as Charles de Gaulle claimed, then Barney Panofsky, the sixty-seven year old narrator of Mordecai Richler's latest novel, is already on the rocks. A successful producer of schlock (Canadian-financed films and Canadian television series), Barney's mid-1990s life consists of too much single-malt scotch and too many cigars, bar talk, channel surfing, health worries, and sour reflections on his wife of thirty years having left him, on the decline of Montreal and its hockey team, on friends and enemies, and on himself. Although not a writer, he is prompted by the mendacious memoir of a contemporary to set down his “version” of his adult life. The result is a rambling and digressive narrative—at one point he even calls it a “shambles”—that moves back and forth between past and present and is loosely divided into three parts, each named after one of his wives: the self-destructive poet Clara, one of Barney's expatriate circle in Paris in the early 1950s, who died of an overdose; his second wife, “an exemplar of that much-maligned phenomenon, the Jewish-American Princess,” who is much-maligned in Barney's recollections; and the lovely Miriam, the mother of his three children.
Typologically, Barney's Version is a memory monologue, a form of prose fiction that combines features of autobiographical monologue with the mnemonic a-chronology of memory narrative (see Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction). The reason Barney gives for attempting to tell “the true story” of his life is not untypical of such works: “to retrieve some sense out of my life,” “to impose sense on my incomprehensible past.” These constructive intentions, however, are made recessive and ultimately factitious by two very different features of the novel.
One is the narrative embodiment of “two cherished beliefs” of Barney's: “Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else.” These demoralizing dicta receive powerful artistic expression in the concluding account of Barney's succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and in Clara, the novel's most compelling and memorable character. A compulsive liar, shoplifter and dirty talker, who despises other women, supplies outlandish ideas to a writer of pornographic books, and smears the sperm of a man she has just fellated onto her face saying it is good for her complexion, Clara is the principal channel through which the periodically erupting deconstructive energies at the nadir of Richler's vision of human existence enter Barney's narrative.
The other feature is that, for all practical purposes, Barney's attempt to make sense of his life through telling his story is simply the pretext for a miscellaneous collection of skits, riffs, numbers, take-offs, character sketches, and entries in “Panofsky's Ledger of Ironies,” the embedded trope for all of which is Barney's love of tap-dancing:
I rolled back my living-room carpet and pulled the curtain that hid my embarrassing but necessary full-length mirror. Next I donned my top-hat, tails, and trusty Capezio taps, and shoved Louis Armstrong's rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” into my CD player. Remembering to tip my topper to the good folks in the balcony, resting my cane on my shoulder, I loosened up with a Round-the-Clock Shuffle, eased into a satisfying Brush, followed by a really swell Cahito, before I risked a Shim Sham and collapsed into the nearest chair, panting.
The skits et al. include the pseudonymous letters Barney writes to enemies and to his estranged wife, newspaper stories inserted into the text, anecdotes and self-contained episodes, and an abundance of character sketches, among them the hostess of the McGill student radio show called “Dykes on Mikes”; Irv Nussbaum, indefatigable fund-raiser for the United Jewish appeal, who opines that the “lasting problem with the Holocaust is that it made anti-Semitism unfashionable,” which in turn made it harder to raise money for Israel from Canadian Jews; Shelley Katz, the new-age Hollywood producer who drives a souped-up 1979 Ford pick-up truck with creatively dented fenders; and even Duddy Kravitz, who makes two cameo appearances, in one of which he refills used liquor bottles with water and replaces them in his hotel-room mini-bar.
Duddy's appearances are no less déjà vu than most of the other material, which was much more crisply deployed in earlier Richler novels. This falling off is repeatedly instanced in the soggy quality of the writing, including dialogue and descriptive detail, which used to be among Richler's strong suits. A brief example is the following part of a sentence, which would be more à point with the omission of the words I have italicized: “O'Hearne, his residue of snowy white hair still parted down the middle or spine, stray strands slicked down either side like bleached salmon ribs …”
Like Barney in tap-dancing shoes, panting in front of the mirror, Richler in Barney's Version seems pooped. His failure is precisely that of Hemingway in Across the River and into the Trees as diagnosed by Northrop Frye:
this kind of story [presupposes the] detachment of author from character which comes when sympathy and insight are informed by professional skill. This detachment has not been reached, and the book remains technically on the amateurish level in which the most articulate character sounds like a mouthpiece for the author. Hence all the self-pity and egotism [that should have been removed are present in the text] and the result is a continuous sense of embarrassment.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
SOURCE: Lichtenstein, Gene. “Memory Loss.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 6.
[In the following review, Lichtenstein discusses Richler's body of work and asserts that only the final section of Barney's Version lives up to the legacy of the author's oeuvre.]
When Mordecai Richler burst on the literary scene in 1960 with his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, there were cheers and hosannas from critics who had “discovered” him. No less a figure than Alfred Kazin pronounced: “It comes off brilliantly.”
Actually Duddy Kravitz was Richler's fourth novel, but the unknown Jewish writer from Montreal was still under 30. His occasional excesses—character spinning into caricature, farcical set pieces turning into digression—tended to be forgiven or ignored. The point was that he was funny in the biting, subversive manner of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth.
His outrageous comedic talent was directed primarily at middle-class and establishment Jews, perhaps not surprising given his own Jewish working-class background in Montreal. However, this created an extra-literary problem for some Jewish readers. In 1960, many North American Jews still felt the immediacy of the Holocaust. Their sense of guilt at having, had it so easy, while European Jewry was savaged and destroyed, made satire at their expense unacceptable.
Not for Richler, Such novels as Cocksure (1968), St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980) were hilarious and irreverent and aimed directly at his fellow Jews. Some Jewish readers reacted angrily and referred to him as self-loathing. What they failed to see was the affection that stood behind the humor.
Now with the publication of Barney's Version, his 10th novel, Richler is back again with all his old exuberance—and all his old excesses. On this occasion, he laces the humor with a sense of melancholy and loss: loss of love, of family and friends, of memory itself.
The novel is cast in the form of a memoir, which provides a loose kind of form and structure. It permits the story to swing back and forth in time and in the process enfolds the author's digressions so that some of them at least seem more central to the plot.
Barney (a.k.a. Bernard Panofsky) is in his late 60s, and the memoir is his attempt to tell his story, to set matters straight for everyone but mostly for himself. His life has been filled with excess, a certain crassness and more than his fair share of stumbling. But he is unapologetic. What complicates matters in this sifting for the “truth” of his life is that Barney has Alzheimer's disease, albeit in an early stage. His memory plays tricks with him. Who knows, the author seems to ask, if there is even validity to those things we call truth and facts.
Richler divides his story into three parts, each more or less self-contained, and each centered on life with one of his three wives. The opening segment sets the tone: ebullient, manic, over the top. It is centered in Paris, 1950 to 1952, where we are introduced to the young, untutored, unsure Barney living the bohemian life.
He is attracted to Clara, a young artist-poet who is by turns neurotic, unstable, capricious. She is essentially a fabricator who passes herself off as the embittered daughter of a wealthy New England WASP family. We witness their marriage, her suicide and the discovery that in reality she is the daughter of a poor, working-class Jewish family from the Midwest, not too dissimilar from Barney's roots in Montreal. Her poems are published posthumously and, to everyone's surprise, she quickly becomes a runaway feminist icon (not unlike Sylvia Plath). Barney is uncovered as the monstrous male figure, the husband in her poems and journal. We are treated to sendups of Jewish self-loathing, feminist cant and self-inflated artists.
A promising first act, to be sure, but it is marred by the author's shortcomings. Caricature dominates, and comic performances (by Richler) lead to a plot that begins to blur. The second section, which carries the novel forward to 1960, is equally hilarious—and flimsy. We encounter Barney as a young adult, a successful TV entrepreneur in Montreal, heading up his Totally Unnecessary Productions company. He meets the Second Mrs. Panofsky (she never is given a name), the spoiled daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. Barney marries her partly because he loathes her parents and relatives. The scenes with her family—rich, vulgar establishment Jews—are madcap Zero Mostel but, alas, also overplayed. Sadly, what was fresh and astonishing 35 years ago seems tired and stale today. Richler's targets remain the same—Jewish vulgarity, pop culture's fraudulence and feminism—but the humorous situations have turned into familiar clichés.
Here is the Second Mrs. Panofsky on her honeymoon making her daily phone calls to her mother.
No, Mom, we're getting on fine. What? Oh, I was wearing my new Givenchy, you just wait till you see me in it, and do give Daddy a big hug and tell him thank you a thousand times. What? Oh, it's a simple black silk and wool, with a bow making the high waist and the hem just to cover the knee. But don't you say a word to Pearl or Arlene, let them find out on their own now that you've spent so much on what's really last year's shmates. Will you stop worrying please. … When we come in every night, no matter how late, they lock up my pearls for me in their safe. Yes yes yes. The cameras too. I remember how expensive it was.
And on and on for 2[frac12] pages, in what is surely more than a tip of the hat to J. D. Salinger. Funny, yes. But also tired and more than a bit obvious. We are constantly aware of the writer caught in the act of writing.
It is only in the concluding part of the book, covering the years from 1960 to the mid-1990s (in effect the last 100 pages), that the novel becomes both truly funny (here Richler ties the outrageous parts firmly into the narrative) and moving. This 35-year span focuses on Barney's marriage to his third wife, Miriam, the one love of his life. They marry, bring three children into the world and then part, Miriam leaving Barney for a younger man, a pompous academic.
Barney never recovers from this loss. And while he remains boisterous and crude, larger than life and straight out of Montreal's street-smart working class, he becomes a poignant and appealing figure. As Richler's comic performances diminish, his digressions become fewer, the novel gains in power and hilarity. In the end, that we care about Barney in life and death turns out to be Richler's great achievement.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2344
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Boy Meets Girl in Montreal.” New Criterion 16, no. 6 (February 1998): 67.
[In the following review of Barney's Version, Steyn lauds Richler's caustic wit and vivid depiction of Montreal.]
The first time I met Mordecai Richler was through his son Noah, a BBC producer with whom I've worked a couple of times. Richler fils had invited me over to the family home in Quebec's Eastern Townships on the day after Christmas, when Richler père presides over a vast snooker tournament of family, friends, and locals. As things turned out, I could only manage the lowest score it's possible to get on a snooker table. But then most of the other fellows present were the sort who'd been loafing around pool halls since they were eight: carpenters, plumbers, snowplow operators …
In Britain and the Commonwealth, December 26 is known as Boxing Day, so called because it was the day when people would give Christmas boxes of small gifts and gratuities to their servants, local tradesmen, the deserving poor of the parish, etc. Because of the date, I vaguely assumed that Richler was filling his home with blue-collar types and ruddy peasants as some exquisitely condescending act of seasonal seigniorial munificence. After all, one of the most tiresome aspects of literary London is the way writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie—authors whose work is chiefly distinguished for its inability to understand the impulses which motivate the average man—affect a bogus, blokey solidarity with the masses, boring on about how much they love, say, soccer. We all know that Rushdie would last even less time among a terraceful of Millwall fans than at a mullahs' convention in Teheran.
But, with Richler, it isn't a pose. As I subsequently discovered, when he's in the Townships, you can usually find him most afternoons around four at a tavern called the Owl's Nest, perched at the bar, enjoying a couple of scotches and marveling over such signs of the times as Labatt's pioneering lesbian beer ads in the company of the same cheerfully sexist, homophobic farmers and loggers, carpenters, plumbers, and snowplow operators who make up his Boxing Day party. This is the company he prefers to keep. In 1972, after twenty years away, he returned to Quebec because he suddenly realized the only people he knew in London were writers, editors, critics, and directors: total immersion in the word of letters was in danger of drowning his writing. The literary world, he says, is “dull: it's a tradesman's world.” So, even in Montreal, he hangs out with lawyers, bankers, and accountants. “They're not as witty, but they're more interesting. It's a richer world.”
He's right. And one reason for the pitiful retreat of the English novel—and the comic novel in particular—is that more writers don't see it. If you're holed up in a university or kicking around the media, you eventually run out of anything to write about. One assumes that's the reason why so many novelists end up playing kiddie games with the laws of physics (writing novels that go backwards etc.): the alternative—going out into the world—is too ghastly to contemplate. Eventually, the comic horizons just shrivel away. Even Kingsley Amis by the end wasn't doing much except shuttling between home and the Garrick Club—and, in his last novels, it showed: the only people he knew not of his type were the two Asian fellows who ran the local news agent's (we were neighbors in London). In Richler's comic universe, the ratio of writers to businessmen is about what it is in real life—and in the self-absorbed laager of the modern novel this alone would give him distinction even if he didn't find it hard to take the whole concept of a “writer” seriously. As the young wordsmith in his short story “Some Grist for Mervyn's Mill” (1969) puts it:
“Nothing really matters. In terms of eternity our lives are shorter than a cigarette puff. Hey,” he said. “Hey!” He took out his pen with the built-in flashlight and wrote something in his notebook. “For a writer” he said, “everything is grist to the mill. Nothing is humiliating.”
Barney's Version is Richler's first novel since Solomon Gursky Was Here, and in the eight years between he has mostly been busy winding up his fellow Quebeckers. For his return to fiction, he's found an eponymous hero who's almost a precise inversion of Richler. They're about the same age—the author is sixty-six, his protagonist three years older—and the contours of their lives are not dissimilar—Paris in the early Fifties, then back to Montreal via London and Hollywood. But, whereas Richler is a lone novelist in his circle of lawyers and plumbers, Barney Panofsky is a cheery philistine in a group of literary talents—make that “literary talents.” There's his first wife, Clara, a delicate, if sexually promiscuous, waif to whom he's briefly married in Paris. After her suicide, she finds fame through her posthumously published poems and drawings. The Virago's Verse Book, now in its 28th printing, includes a poem dedicated to Barney:
he peeled my orange and more often me, Calibanovitch, my keeper.
There's his best friend, Boogie, who, after an excerpt from his work-in-progress appears in the New American Review, acquires an indestructible reputation as the author of the greatest American novel yet to be written.
The longer he resisted cutting a deal with a publisher, the higher the figures flew. Finally Boogie signed with Random House for an advance that ran into six figures, not unusual today, but I'm talking 1958, the year the Canadians won their third Stanley Cup in a row, taking out the Boston Bruins 5-3 in game five.
And then there's Terry McIver, a giant of the Canadian literary landscape who has decided to publish his diaries, including his account of those far-off days in Paris, when that distinctive McIver style was still being formed:
P— still tends to invert many of his sentences, as if they were translated from the Yiddish, as in, “He was a hateful bastard, Clara's doctor,” or, after the fact, “Had I known it would have been different, my behavior.” I must remember to use this peculiar syntax when writing a Jew's dialogue …
Wrote 600 words today and then tore them up. Inadequate. Mediocre. Like me?
Reluctant to be consigned to history as the “P—” of McIver's memoirs, Barney Panofsky determines to set down his own version, “the true story of my wasted life.” Wasted? Well, he hasn't written any lowercase poetry or novels-in-progress but he is the head of Totally Unnecessary Productions, which cranks out hugely lucrative schlock for Canadian television. His most reliable money-spinner is the popular Mountie adventure series, McIver of the RCMP, named for his bête noir.
Whenever a government minister, a free-marketeer responding to American pressure, threatened to dump the law that insisted on (and bankrolled to a yummy degree) so much Canadian-manufactured pollution on our airwaves, I did a quick change in the hypocrite's phone booth, slipping into my Captain Canada mode, and appeared before the committee. “We are defining Canada to Canadians” I told them. “We are this country's memory, its sour, its hypostasis, the last defence against our being overwhelmed by the egregious cultural imperialists to the south of us.”
On the other hand, it's the “bonking scenes in canoes and igloos” which have made McIver such a hit in the UK and other lucrative markets.
Barney sees himself as a player piano—i.e., he has no music of his own. But, compared to his Plath-like first wife and Brodkeyesque pal, he's a wonderful, rollicking storyteller, a truly creative force whose insights are sharper and more humane than any of the self-proclaimed artists to whom he's content to play Man Friday. The author's structure for these reminiscences is ostensibly unstructured—as disheveled as Barney and, come to that, Richler himself. But the disheveled surface belies a book that's in fact highly (as P. G. Wodehouse would say) sheveled. Barney's Version rambles back and forth across the decades, as if it were no more than a taped transcription of random thoughts. But it manages to encompass three wives—Clara; The Second Mrs. Panofsky (never named); and, last but best, Miriam—plus a lovingly uninhibited portrait of Montreal Jewry, snapshots of Hollywood, observations on Quebec separatism and tap-dancing, and general musings on the changing nature of women: “These days” says Barney, “some of them also go in for soya-oil breast implants. You nibble a nipple and what do you get? Salad dressing” You may recognize the style from Richler's notebooks for The New Criterion—the accumulation of apparent inconsequentialities. But Barney's Version also incorporates a murder mystery—Boogie disappears into a Laurentian lake, and Barney winds up in court—and the almost effortless way this most rigid of genres is folded into what appears to be the most shapeless of books is the surest sign of Richler's technical mastery.
In the same way, the reader's sense that everything in Barney's life is about to swim into focus emerges even as Barney finds his own life swimming out of focus. Small things at first, like not being able to remember the name of that thing you strain spaghetti in, or more than four of the Seven Dwarfs. Just natural absentmindedness, nothing to make a fuss about? Or a telltale sign of something worse? By the time Barney comes to take the test for Alzheimer's, it's the eve of Quebec's 1995 referendum on whether or not to leave Canada.
“What city are we in?” asks the doctor.
“And the country we're in?”
What a ridiculous question to ask in Quebec. The answer you'd get certainly doesn't depend on whether or not the guy you're talking to has got Alzheimer's. In this one scene, Richler's eye for the absurd and his power to move, profoundly, come together with a peculiar intensity. “It suits me,” says Barney early on, “to be rooted in a city that, like me, is diminishing day by day.” Mordecai Richler's Montreal is one of the most vivid of literary landscapes, and has been ever since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The only problem is it's now far more vivid than the city itself, which increasingly resembles something hit by a strangely selective neutron bomb. Among the vast Anglophone exodus are Richler's own children, gone to richer employment opportunities in London and Toronto. It would seem statistically unlikely that what's left of the English population could ever again produce a writer of Richler's stature. In Barney's Version, Barney's predecessors in the Richler oeuvre—Duddy Kravitz, the Gurskys—are glimpsed at airports and in the background at parties like ghosts lingering for one last look. If it is Richler's fate to be the first and last great Montreal (Anglo) novelist, then he has managed brilliantly in this book to conflate protagonist and place, so that Barney seems to be distilled from the same raucous mélange as the city itself, and his memories now seem as fragile as Canada's once-confident Anglo-Celtic business capital. Je Me Souviens, say the license plates in Quebec. But who will remember for the Anglos? When Richler was a boy growing up on St Urbain Street, he attended a school named for Viscount Byng, the soldier who commanded the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge during the Great War and subsequently became governor-general. Richler's school is long gone, but he's transferred Lord Byng's name to the apartment building in which Barney resides. The Montreal of Richler's youth now exists only in his novels.
It takes considerable adroitness to produce a wildly funny, satiric, virtuoso self-portrait of a man unaware that he's trembling on the brink of the abyss. By the time Barney realizes the truth, and is briefly reunited with his beloved Miriam, Richler has unobtrusively shifted into a tenderness you don't associate with him. He's only a few years from his three-score-and-ten, but satiric novelists don't usually age well. As they grow old, comics on the stage retreat into pandering, comics on the page retreat into crankiness: observation dwindles into obsession, drollness into biliousness. It's happened with Kingsley Amis, Tom Sharpe and many others—a kind of comedic Alzheimer's, in which the timing stumbles and trips and can't get up again. Not with Richler. He can get at the idiocies of the modern world, but you don't feel they're eating him up. Thus, Barney goes off to Hollywood to pitch an idea to one of the town's teenage moguls:
“But, lo and behold,” I went on to say, “the ship docks safely in New York, where the innocent kid is met by a sexy reporter, a Lauren Bacall type, who—
“Lauren Bacall” he said. “You've got to be kidding, unless she's playing somebody's mother.”
Maybe that's the gift bequeathed to him by his native province. In Canada, Richler is routinely described as “irascible” but that's only in Canadian terms, where the snow lasts six months but the suffocating blandness is year round. You couldn't stick it out in Quebec if you weren't a wag. On the night of that 1995 referendum, the premier, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the narrow defeat on what he called “ethnics”—i.e., non-Francophones—prompting Richler to set up the Prix Parizeau, a literary award for the best writing by Quebec ethnics, or les autres, as the separatists say. Gilles Rheaume, another more ferocious separatist, immediately reported Richler to the province's Human Rights Commission, demanding that they prosecute him for racism. Eventually, the Commission sent him a long document explaining why they'd decided not to go ahead with the prosecution. He's had it framed, so it can hang on the wall with the Governor-General's Literary Award and his invitation to Buckingham Palace. What writer worth his salt wouldn't thrive in such an environment? In Barney's Version, someone quotes Hugh MacLennan on the perennial dilemma of the Canuck writer: “Boy meets girl in Winnipeg. Who cares?” But thanks to a weird combination of a stubborn writer and a demented environment, boy meets girl in Montreal: we care.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2987
SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Pulling Down the Temple.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 4 (5 March 1998): 40-1.
[In the following review, Edwards explores the role of memory and truth in Barney's Version.]
“I dislike most people I have ever met,” says the leading character of the latest of Mordecai Richler's tales about smart, ambitious Jewish-Canadian men at war with their culture. Barney's Version is wildly comic, but as with most good satire those who make fun of others also mock themselves. Richler's anti-heroes suffer from a kind of Samson complex, as if compelled to pull down the temple even though they are inside it at the time. Barney's Version. Richler's tenth novel, is as usual almost universally offensive—to both French-and Anglo-Canadians, assimilated Jews, feminists, black activists, liberals, right-wingers, the ignorant young and their querulous elders, politicians, writers, and anyone else claiming special consideration, but it also contains some surprises.
Barney Panofsky calls his autobiographical narrative “the true story of my wasted life.” Now (like Richler) in his late sixties. Barney has plenty of money and the usual worries about heart, memory, and the urinary tract. He eats unwisely, indulges in too many malt whiskies and Cuban cigars, and despises not only the nameless multitudes whose folly outrages him but most of his acquaintances too. He tells us that he was born in Montreal in 1928, the son of a cynical, lecherous police inspector who was too short to realize his dream of being a Mountie and died of heart failure on a massage parlor table. As for Barney's mother, she was more interested in soap operas and comic strips than in her own family. His father once told him he was “an accident” whom they'd named after Barney Google. One sees why animosity became his ruling passion.
Barney grew up streetwise in Montreal's working-class ghetto. He barely finished high school, never went to college, spent his young manhood shooting pool, waiting tables, chasing girls, and rooting passionately for the Canadiens. He is a TV producer, not a writer—indeed he despises “creative” people (“I've never known a writer or a painter anywhere who wasn't a self-promoter, a braggart, and a paid liar of a coward”)—and he admits to “no artistic pretensions whatsoever” beyond his fantasies of being a song-and-dance man in the old music halls of Montreal.
Richler wants to have things both ways. Barney is supposed to be a rough, uneducated Jew from the Montreal streets who rebukes cultural pretensions of all sorts; but he also wants the readers of his memoir to be sophisticated enough to appreciate his rebuke. So Barney is both an unrepentant low-brow and a literary autodidact who in his youth worked his way up from Liberty magazine and J. P. Marquand's “Mr. Moto” stories to “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertie and Alice, as well as our own Morley Callaghan.” He quotes appreciatively from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson in their grimmer moods; his son Michael reports finding attempts at short stories, a play, and a novel among his father's papers. If his reading never got far beyond the moderns, he seems in his autobiography to have anticipated postmodernism, with its suspect narrators, loopy digressions and rewinds, flashbacks and fast-forwards, and lies.
In 1950, Barney's memoir tells us, he took his modest savings and set sail for the Left Bank, wanting to be an expatriate if not a writer. A “natural-born entrepreneur” like his boyhood pal Duddy Kravitz (who, we hear, has lately been indicted for insider trading), he supported himself abroad as an “exporter” of cheeses, motor scooters. Scotch tweeds, scrap metal, used DC-3's, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. But his life in Paris centered upon a group of fiercely competitive, mostly American would-be writers and artists subsisting on the GI Bill, remittances from home, and pornography commissions from Maurice Girodias.
Along with some real expatriates of that time and place. Barney's Paris circle included his first wife, Clara Chambers—of Gramercy Park and Newport (actually, it emerges, Clara Charnofsky of Brighton Beach), a poet, painter, shoplifter, nymphomaniac, and compulsive liar whom he married almost by accident. She cuckolded him with various of his friends and killed herself in 1952, but eventually her work and sad end made her a heroine of radical feminism. A rival Canadian, the pompous careerist Terry McIver, became a celebrated novelist and northern man of letters whose recent autobiography, full of scandalous stories about him, has provoked Barney to write his own.
In Paris, Barney tells us, he came under the spell of “Boogie” Moscovitch, world-class drinker, druggie, gambler, and Don Juan, who had the aura of greatness but published only a few stories in little magazines before he mysteriously vanished in 1960, with his much-touted masterpiece—“the greatest modern American novel yet to be written”—still yet to be written.
Returning to Canada after Clara's death. Barney staked out his own claim in the badlands between the arts and show biz. His company, Totally Unnecessary Productions Ltd., made awful movies to exploit a tax loophole, before turning to “Canadian-content” TV series for the programming slots chauvinistically reserved for domestic products only. (Some of these, like the maliciously entitled “McIver of the RCMP,” are conventional enough for syndication in the US and Britain too.) New York, London, and Hollywood see him often, and he prospers.
Barney experimented with bourgeois life, buying a big suburban house, trying “to infiltrate the Jewish establishment” as a volunteer fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, and marrying a motor-mouthed Jewish-Canadian Princess whom he got rid of and now refers to only as “the Second Mrs. Panofsky.” The road to Jewish respectability started with a visit to a USA potentate, the clothing manufacturer Irv Nussbaum, who displays in his office a model of his yacht, “the good ship Queen Esther, after Irv's wife, not the Biblical Miss Persia.”
“I'm going to trust you with just a few cards to begin with,” said Irv. “But listen up. Rules of the game. You must never visit your target in his office, where he is king shit and you're just another shmuck looking for a handout. If you run into him in the synagogue, you can butter him up with Israel's needs, but it's no good putting the touch on him there. Bad taste. Money changers in the temple. Use the phone to schedule a meeting, but the time of day you get together is of the utmost importance. Breakfasts are out, because maybe his wife wouldn't let him bang her last night, or he didn't sleep because of heartburn. The ideal time is lunch. Pick a small restaurant. Tables far apart. Some place you don't have to shout. Make it eyeball to eyeball. Shit. We've got a problem this year. There's been a decline in the number of anti-Semitic outrages.”
Eventually Barney married Miriam Greenberg, whom he met and fell in love with in 1959, at his wedding to the second Mrs. P., and with whom he spent thirty happy years and had three children before his talent for screwing up triumphed yet again.
Such is the life that Richler carefully recounts in flashbacks and fast cuts, reflecting Barney's own confusions or deceptions. Unable to write fiction, he is at least a notable liar (“burnisher,” he likes to say), until Alzheimer's stops him. When his narrative breaks off, the pedantic Michael explains in an afterword that his father, after carefully arranging his financial affairs and making generous bequests to family, friends, and charities, now reposes comfortably but mindlessly in the King David Nursing Home.
Michael, a big-time investor who believes in detailed research, has added to Barney's manuscript many footnotes correcting its many factual errors. Barney's story is indeed full of slips some of which he's aware of—he gets all mixed up, for example, about what he recalls as a novel by Mary McCarthy called The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit, but in time he distinguishes McCarthy from Sloan Wilson, Brooks Brothers from Gray Flannel, suit from shirt. And some of his errors surely were, as his fond daughter Kate tells her brother, “traps baited just for you.”
But there are traps for us too. Not all the errors Michael detects are erroneous; when, for example, Barney has his father reading Playboy in 1959, the note says, “Actually, the first issue of Playboy did not appear until December 1963,” but this is wrong by about a decade. Michael also misses real errors, as when Barney recalls “strolling down the boulevard St.-Germain-des-Prés.”
Are we to think that Michael, like any know-it-all, is at continual risk of embarrassing himself? Or that, whatever Michael does or doesn't notice, Barney can't be trusted with even the smallest details of his own life? But if the lapses are mysterious, the effect is curiously successful. Trivial or important, some of the details of our lives do slip away from us in time, and a memoir written in old age may in a way be more truthful for forgetting or mixing up something that was once the truth.
Not just personal but public history is at risk in Barney's Version. A memoir, real or fictional, of the past five decades might be expected to reflect more of their public eventfulness. They may have seemed less eventful in Canada, I suppose, where the cold war perhaps felt less chilling, Korea and Vietnam less harrowing, national politics less melodramatic and shrill than they did down here. But whatever the reason, Barney's story seems only nominally in touch with the history of his times. We hear that Boogie Moscovitch was a World War II vet: the Quemoy-Matsu affair, the American civil rights movement. Watergate and Pierre Elliot Trudeau get passing, sometimes inaccurate, notice: and Barney loves to mock Quebec separatism. But if public history occasionally clears its throat in his story, it has small effect on his life, and he treats the past rather as Boogie planned to do in his novel, in which the Titanic was to make an uneventful, “boring” maiden voyage. Franz Ferdinand to escape assassination at Sarajevo (though the Germans invaded Belgium anyway), and Lenin, busy explaining surplus value to the story's hero in a Zurich cafe, to miss the train to the Finland station and lose out to Trotsky.
Barney, whom Richler presents as Falstaffian in his pleasures and his cynicism, appraises great events mainly for their entertainment value. When he mentions T. S. Eliot, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Admiral Byrd, F. D. R, J. F. K, and Freud, they appeal to him most for their human weaknesses—“say, the story of T. S. Eliot having his first wife locked up in the bin, possibly because she had written some of his best lines.” Nothing delights him more than “a biography of one of the truly great that proves that he or she was an absolute shit.” Few of us are entirely immune to such low forms of Schadenfreude, but it can, as it does for Barney, make one's own private failings easier to live with.
Michael's editing prepares the way for the book's long-deferred account of the mystery at the center of Barney's life, how the disappearance (or murder?) of Boogie Moscovitch led directly to the longed-for breakup of Barney's second marriage, and thus made possible his happy life with Miriam. Boogie turned up in New York in 1958, after exotic wanderings in places like Marrakesh, Srinigar, and Kyoto, with the great work still unfinished. Finagling an advance from Random House, he lived it up in the big city before taking refuge at Barney's cabin in the Laurentians to kick his heroin habit. He took to his bed, where Barney surprised “my wife and my best friend” (the cliché enchants him) naked together.
After the distraught wife rushed off to her mother's, the best friend and the host had some drinks while they talked things over. In Barney's version, he got out his father's old service revolver and drunkenly fired it, more or less playfully, over Boogie's head, as the latter staggered down to the lake to snorkel. Barney then fell asleep on the couch, he says, and when a low-flying plane woke him up, he found no sign of Boogie on land or in the water. Neither did the police, luckily, and Barney's prosecution for murder failed for lack of a corpse. Everyone has wondered about this story, as does Barney himself, after three decades. He has no memory of shooting Boogie, but did the man drown or just go away? Maybe he'll even show up again.
Whatever happened then, he was happy with Miriam. She's beautiful, sexy, understanding, ten years younger than he and not too Jewish: their children are bright, affectionate, and successful. But the Miriam he often calls “my heart's desire” is, like everyone else in the book except himself, more a projection of his ego than a free-standing person, as in his sentimental thoughts about selling his house after she leaves him:
I could not abide the idea of strangers in what had once been our bedroom. Or some mod con yuppie bitch installing a microwave oven in the kitchen where Miriam had baked croissants to perfection, or cooked osso buco even as she helped Saul with his homework and kept an eye on Kate banging pots together in her playpen. … I didn't want some oaf playing Nirvana at ten thousand decibels in the room where Miriam had retired to the chaise lounge at three a.m. to nurse Kate, while she listened to Glenn Gould, the sound turned down low so as not to waken me.
If his image of ideal domesticity seems like a magazine advertisement, he at least sounds straightforward about himself: “I dislike most people I have ever met, but not nearly so much as I am disgusted by the Rt. Dishonorable Barney Panofsky.” How could a woman like Miriam love a man like him? His habitual boozing with his cronies, along with her regrets for the career at the CBC she gave up for him and her fears that he might be just like her philandering father, gradually undermined their marriage. When he drunkenly blundered into an affair and confessed it, she divorced him and married (as Barney describes him) a priggish, routinely radical American-born professor, who came to Canada in the Sixties to escape the draft.
As he looks back, the only lesson Barney can draw from his life is: “Never tell the truth. Caught out, lie like a trooper. The first time I told the truth led to my being charged with murder. The second time cost me my happiness.” This view has the ring of authorial sympathy, but for a Richler hero, Barney has unusually complex feelings about himself and those he claims to loathe. He can allow that his dreadful second wife had a comic flair and an “appetite for life” when they first met, and that her pretentious mock-WASP property developer father was also an affectionate husband and parent who died of cancer with stoic dignity. He admits to himself that the charismatic Boogie was in his later days an arrogant, spiteful, deeply unlovable man.
It's not that the years have mellowed Barney or given him a philosophic turn of mind. In fact they've sharpened the animosity and cynicism of his youth, and if some of his jokes are adolescent ones, they acknowledge the survival in us even when old, of that immature, untamed, unwise self which is the parent of any maturity worth having. He still has remarkable zest for showing himself at his most sophomoric, as when he sends phony grant applications to the corrupt feminist foundation that celebrates Clara's memory: he seeks support for a Black Hebrew movement in Israel that's developing “a rap Haggadah, inspired by the poetry of Iced T [sic],” and for a group (Chaps Resolutely Against Prejudice, or CRAP) that seeks a female contender for the heavyweight title of Mike Tyson.
While Richler's portrayals of malice are vigorous as ever, he can also suggest how much age matters, at least to the old: the approach of infirmity and death do concentrate the attention. When, near the end, he sees his old high school English teacher, the star of his primal erotic fantasies ever since but now a gnarled octogenarian, taking part in a geriatric demonstration for wheelchair access to the bus terminal, this “Hieronymus Bosch sprung to life” arouses not his scorn but a shocked recognition of kinship.
Public and personal history incidentally converge in the disclosure of Boogie's fate. The mountain on which his remains are found in 1996 has recently been renamed for a Quebec separatist hero whom Barney despised as a racist. Since the spot is near Panofsky's cabin, and it appears the deceased had either been “severely beaten with a blunt instrument, or had fallen from a considerable height.” Barney's guilt at first seems confirmed. But in the book's last paragraph Michael figures out how Boogie accidentally if bizarrely died. And he grieves that the now mindless Barney will never learn the truth: “Oh my God, I thought, breaking into a sweat, I'd better call Saul. I owe Kate an apology. But, Oh God, it's too late for Barney. He's beyond understanding now, Damn damn damn.”
But this cunning finale is less appalling than Michael supposes. What Barney has missed is a dark cosmic joke, a new proof of the perverse pointlessness of “truth” as literalists like his son conceive it. When Michael complains to Barney's lawyer that he and his siblings “have a right to know the truth” about their father's guilt or innocence, he gets a lawyerly but wise answer: “The truth is he was your father.” It scarcely matters that some unexpected circumstances proved that while Barney enjoyed being obnoxious, he was not a killer, and Michael's devotion to the “facts” cannot teach him anything very important. Whatever the years have done to Barney Panofsky, they've added some depth to Richler's power to outrage and amuse.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2204
SOURCE: Dellandrea, Meredith. “Stumbling on Pride.” Essays on Canadian Writing 65 (fall 1998): 187-92.
[In the following review, Dellandrea regards Barney's Version as an unreliable memoir, praising Richler's examination of the “authority of autobiography and the reliability of academic truths.”]
With characteristic wit, Mordecai Richler explores the limits of knowing in Barney's Version. The novel is written as a memoir. It is Barney Panofsky's version of the truth, Barney says, “about me, my three wives, … the nature of my friendship with Boogie, and, of course, the scandal I will carry to my grave like a humpback” (1). However, as he recounts the details of his past and digresses into his opinions about hockey and Canadian politics, the unreliability of his memoir is foregrounded. Barney is a flawed and troubled man who desperately desires forgiveness from and reconciliation with his loved ones, but his stubbornness and dishonesty prevent it. His attempt to “come clean” with his family and friends is mired in deliberate edits, memory lapses, embellishments, and possibly even plagiarism. In Barney's Version, knowledge of the truth about one's self and one's past cannot be reached through autobiography. Pride inevitably gets in the way.
Barney's Version is structured as a memoir, but it is also part mystery novel. The scandal that Barney carries around with him is the “real story” of the disappearance of Boogie, his best friend. Barney was charged with Boogie's murder but acquitted because no body was found. In his memoir, Barney both builds up to and tries to put off telling of his involvement in Boogie's disappearance/possible murder. When he finally recounts the incident, it is only the first of two versions. It becomes apparent that Barney is not avoiding the event because he has secrets to hide; rather, he is frustrated because even he, the only eyewitness, cannot explain what really happened to his friend.
Buried beneath the buildup to and disclosure of the Boogie scandal is another mystery that Barney avoids: the details of the breakup with his third wife. Miriam, who met Barney at his second wedding, is his “heart's desire” and the mother of his three children (18). She stood by Barney throughout his murder trial and was married to him for decades. However, when he starts writing his memoirs, he and Miriam have been separated for three years. He longs for her and wants her back despite his mentions of her purported treachery and desertion. Although Barney leads the reader to believe that Miriam caused their breakup, he must eventually reveal the episode from his past that haunts him even more than Boogie's disappearance: “I'm the one who is responsible for the breakup of our marriage. I failed to respond to minatory signals sufficiently loud to alert a village idiot. And I sinned” (348). Barney confessed his sin to Miriam, and she left him.
However, Richler complicates the mysteries of Barney's Version so that Barney's revelations of the “truth” become suspect. Included in his memoirs are passages from the autobiography of Terry McIver, a contemporary of Barney and Boogie during their early days in Paris. Barney claims that the publication of McIver's book Of Time and Fevers prompted him to write his own memoirs. He wants to counter McIver's lies with the “true story” (1). McIver's memoirs present Boogie as a scheming addict who used Barney to get money to feed his habit, and they present Barney as Boogie's insecure lackey. The McIver passages raise questions about Boogie. Was he really the friend whom Barney thinks he was? Was he capable of disappearing and possibly leaving Barney to serve time as his murderer? Could Barney have figured out Boogie's callous nature and killed him after all? By juxtaposing sections of McIver's autobiography with Barney's, Richler puts both versions into question.
Barney's memoirs come with footnotes and an afterword by his eldest son, Michael, and they further highlight the unreliability of Barney's account. Barney misattributes MacNiece for Auden and Auden for MacNiece (54, 349), and he mistakes Howard Peel for Ezio Pinza (206) and Charles de Gaulle airport for Le Bourget (116). Michael's footnotes also admit the occurrence of plagiarism in Barney's tale, though it is wishfully dismissed by Michael and his sister, Kate, as an error in transcription (196). In the afterword, Kate offers an explanation for the faults in Barney's text:
I happen to know that many of his so-called errors, quotes attributed to the wrong author here and there, were actually traps baited just for him [Michael]. He once told me, “I know how to make sure that Mike finally gets to read Gibbon, Auden, and lots of other writers. My system is foolproof.”
Despite her plausible explanation, doubt about Barney's text remains. Woven into musings on an imperfect memory and admissions of excessive drinking, the errors corrected in the footnotes are more than just Barney's last laugh. They serve to problematize his version(s) of his life.
It is Barney himself who unconsciously suggests alternatives to his interpretation of his past. For example, although his confession of infidelity precipitated Miriam's departure, it was not the sole cause that he makes it out to be. Barney recounts episodes from their marriage when Miriam spoke of feeling unfulfilled as a wife and mother. Hearing of the people with whom she had worked at CBC Radio before her marriage, Miriam said, “it sometimes bothers me that everybody I used to know seems to be doing interesting things now” (349). When she began freelancing again, Barney did not encourage her. Instead, he became resentful and dismissive, turning into the type of man—“a sour old man, full of regrets for a wasted life” (167)—with whom Miriam said she would never grow old. The more Barney recalls having been possessive of and petty toward Miriam, the more his “sin” of infidelity appears to have been the catalyst rather than the cause of their separation. The bits of conversation that Barney includes in his memoirs suggest versions other than his own.
As the title suggests, the inevitability of alternative interpretations lies at the heart of Barney's Version and its epistemological concerns. The strength of the novel is that it does not merely present a character unable to recognize the truth about himself; rather, Richler indicates that the very goal of truth telling is both important and impossible. Barney's assessment of his failed marriage is too intertwined with his need for forgiveness and reconciliation to be definitive. Similarly, his perception of his friendship with Boogie reveals much about his understanding of himself but little about his friend.
Barney is not the only one in the novel who confuses a personal interpretation of events with the truth. In Barney's Version, academics are guilty of the same sin. The novel contrasts Barney's story of his first marriage to the poet and painter Clara Charnofsky with the account put forward by feminist academics. Barney summarizes their differences this way: “the martyred St. Clara's admirers are legion and they have two things in common: they take me for an abomination and fail to understand that Clara intensely disliked other women, whom she considered rivals for the male attention she thrived on” (109). Passages from McIver's memoirs corroborate Barney's portrait of Clara as a woman who was dependent on men for her identity. Her uncle Norman Charnofsky, who established a foundation in her name to help female artists and academics, thought that her diaries indicated she was grateful to Barney and even loved him (157). But many recipients of grants from the Clara Charnofsky Foundation for Wimyn, like Ms. Morgan, focus on Clara's negative poetic representations of her husband; Morgan calls Barney's wish for a divorce from Clara “abandonment” and holds Barney responsible for her suicide (145-46). In their representations of Clara, the scholars confuse their own interpretations of events and documents with facts.
In Barney's Version, mistaking interpretation for fact occurs because of pride. And, because pride is an essential element of autobiography, misrepresentation in autobiography seems inevitable. Both McIver and Barney alter facts to project certain images of themselves. The footnotes in the text indicate where McIver modified the journals that he kept during his time in Paris before publishing them. The changes make him appear prophetic. McIver claims to have written of Barney on 8 November 1951: “It is not the first time P— has tried to settle a contretemps with his fists. Nor, I suspect, will it be the last. He is a violent man. Capable of murder one day, I fear” (104-05). However, Michael's note reveals that the original handwritten notebook does not include the last sentence (105). In another published entry, McIver substitutes “I would rather slit my wrists, as poor Clara did (Clara, whose prodigious talent I was one of the first to recognize)” for the original: “I would rather slit my wrists, as C— did (unsuccessfully, faute de mieux, like everything else she has undertaken)” (101). The alterations reflect McIver's need to appear wise, authoritative, and more clever than his contemporaries.
Similarly, pride prompts Barney to play with facts in his memoirs. Because he is insecure, he tries to make himself look as good as possible, and that means exaggerating and embellishing. Unlike McIver, however, he admits his infidelity to the truth: “But possibly I only wish that had happened. Dining out on a story, I tend to put a spin on it. To come clean, I'm a natural born burnisher. But then, what's a writer, even a first-timer like me?” (234). Barney knows that authorship grants a measure of authority. A writer can embellish and get away with it. For McIver and Barney, writing an autobiography lets each put an authoritative spin of the story of his life—a story that each hopes will be taken for the truth.
In his effort to counter the representations of him and his past written by McIver and the feminist critics with his own “authoritative” version, Barney relies heavily on his memory. He wanders from one significant event to another in his mind and pieces them together in a jumbled narrative. However, although he spends his time thinking and writing about his past, he becomes increasingly forgetful in his present. Barney interrupts stories of Boogie and Clara to play word-association games because he gets stuck on a missing fact. He ends up making a mantra of sorts out of each new word or name that escapes him. Whenever his memory fails again, he writes out his mantra. For example, having forgotten the title of Mark Twain's memoirs, Barney writes:
You strain spaghetti with a colander, Mary McCarthy wrote The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit or Shirt. Whichever, Walter “Turk” Broda was the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leaf team that won the Stanley Cup in 1951. Stephen Sondheim it was who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. I've got it. I didn't have to look it up. The Mississippi, Life on.
Variations on this chant pepper the text. The repetition of lost-and-found details gives Barney time to figure out whatever he has forgotten. However, his frequent need to deal with his forgetfulness frustrates him and puts the accuracy of his memories into question.
The tension between Barney's attempt to give an accurate account of his past and his recurrent forgetfulness underlines the relationship between memory and identity. Barney recognizes his memory lapses as a loss of control over himself. For him, being old means waging a constant battle against forgetting. Because he was known throughout his life as a hockey fanatic, he tests his memory by reciting old professional hockey scores. Getting the scores right becomes a method of demonstrating that he is still himself. When Barney forgets the details of a hockey game or the name of an author, he worries about the consequences: “Christ Almighty, I soon won't even be able to remember my own name” (52). He knows that memories are essential to the fabric of identity, and he fears the loss of them. Unfortunately, his worst fears prove true.
One of the most successful aspects of Barney's Version is its presentation of the onset and progress of Alzheimer's disease. Barney may be a cad, albeit a humorous one, but as a man defeated by such a devastating disease he is entirely sympathetic. Alzheimer's creeps into the text undetected with his memory mantra. Then his employees and friends begin expressing concern about his forgetfulness. Eventually, his consternation over a forgotten detail or name becomes less humorous and more ominous until his voice disappears from the text. The interdependence of memory and identity becomes clear when Barney loses both to Alzheimer's. Michael takes over the narration in an afterword, telling how Barney's family handles the loss of a man still alive but no longer with them.
Barney's Version, then, succeeds on many levels. Richler has crafted a compelling first-person portrait of a man's struggle with and loss to Alzheimer's disease. Barney's vibrant wit and appetite for life make the struggle all the more poignant. But the novel is not only about the effects of Alzheimer's. Barney's gradual loss of identity and memory, his personal record of the truth, is woven into the broader epistemological concerns of the novel. The authority of autobiography and the reliability of academic truths are prodded and found wanting because, in Barney's Version, truth lies outside and encompasses everyone's version.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3292
SOURCE: Richler, Mordecai, and Robyn Gillam. “Versions of the Truth.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists, edited by Beverley Daurio, pp. 141-52. Toronto, Ont.: Mercury Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Richler discusses Canadian politics and culture, the differences between Toronto and Montreal, and the main thematic concerns of Barney's Version.]
[Gillam]: Barney's Version plunges right in, in medias res, and there's this character who starts off with a diatribe against an enemy of his, and this is why he's writing the book, and then there's this incredible stream of reminiscences and all these tiresome little footnotes, and then the narrative starts, and he complains how everyone hates him and is trying to get even, and he doesn't seem like a very sympathetic character, but as we go through all the flashbacks and digressions and practical jokes, I felt that Barney was a very sympathetic character, and you begin to feel outrage that people think that Barney is a terrible person, and then I thought of the title and I thought, wait a minute, it's Barney's version, maybe he's making this up and he's really the awful person people say he is. Is this book about textual truth? Are you talking about a text as a truthful thing or a text as just somebody's version? Are you trying to make people think about truth?
[Richler]: That's a very reasonable and intelligent question. It's really for the reader to decide whether he's telling the truth or not. But everyone has their own version of the truth, obviously, and this is his version. Depends whether you credit him with veracity, if he's a man who tells the truth or not. It's certainly not self-serving, but I wouldn't follow it around with an explanation. There is it is. The reader has to make up his or her mind.
When someone tells you something, you should think about it, and when you read a text, for example, like the Bible …
That's full of lies as well.
Well, that's what makes it interesting.
The idea of memory is important in the novel, and the question is whether people remember things because they can remember them, or more importantly, because they choose to. And this goes back to the difference between Barney's version of what happened in Paris, or McIver's, or Clara's, and so on. Is his memory just what someone happens to remember, or is it a deliberate editing … ?
We all edit our memories to a certain extent, and, I'm sure you know that Barney and McIver had different versions of what happened, if he was being followed or avoided … and then readers have to make up their minds … and the footnotes are there to serve a purpose.
In the beginning you wonder what the footnotes are doing, but later it becomes clear. Even though there is this objective fact of him losing his memory, you start to question—well, I forget all kinds of things, we all do.
Yes, of course.
You referred to the recovered memory racket … I don't believe in it myself; I think if something important happens to you, you remember it …
That wasn't meant to send any message.
The whole idea of memory has become really important to people in the last few years and it's being used in this way.
Well, you know, if five different people have been to a dinner party, they all have different memories of happened.
The Rashomon phenomenon.
Yes. And this is the first time I've written a novel in the first person. Kind of liberating …
Why did you decide to do that?
Well, why not? I'd never done it before. A new game to play, and it has its own rules, and its own discipline. Once you find the voice, it's a lot easier, but until you get the voice, it's … difficult. But, I think I got the voice and then it just seemed to flow.
I was completely drawn in. It was just like meeting a person; at first you didn't know what to think of him, you're a little wary of him and then … Why didn't you write a novel in the first person before?
It just hadn't occurred to me. It just didn't fit. It certainly didn't fit Solomon Gursky Was Here which had all kinds of voices and versions; I would never have been able to do it … I guess Duddy Kravitz could have been written in the first person …
A lot of writers don't think except in the first person … very solipsistic …
Well, this is the first time … I think I'll do something different next time.
I'm not sure second person really works … it's really just the first person, you're just distancing yourself.
In this book and elsewhere, you often put your characters on trial, literally or metaphorically … Why?
I don't know … but I must confess I've done it more than once … I just don't know; I couldn't answer that now. But it's something I've done before. I guess I'm not going to get away with it again.
Throughout the Ancient Near East and in Early Christian times, the next world is a law court and you have to plead your case and I maybe just wondered if you had some ideas like that in the back of your mind.
Well, possibly. I had a very rich religious upbringing when I was a youngster and I guess it stayed with me … but I've used it in a literal sense … but sure, we're on trial …
I don't know about a final judgement …
But, in a sense, this is what happens to Barney …
One request. Please don't give away the ending.
You know, it was funny, but just a few days before I started reading this, I went to the Air Show and they had these water bombers there—the planes that figure in the book. You know, I'd never seen them before.
Oh, yes, oh, yes … Well, I tell you, what happened was that I was sitting out at our place on the lake one day and I saw those water bombers. That's when it occurred to me.
Oh, yes. It'd flatten you, wouldn't it?
That's right …
One of the things I like about the book is your humour, and humour is very two-edged; it's awful, and it's comic. This is, of course, what makes humour work, and what bothers people about it … This is what gives you a controversial standing with some people. Barney's not exactly a politically correct character, is he?
I think he's a good person.
I think so, on balance, yeah.
Barney says, I'm not really talented, I'm not really creative, what I do isn't worthwhile, I'm not really a success, I've had a rotten life and I've done a lot of rotten things to people. But he's no worse, certainly, than most of the people he knows. And that reflects on the kind of society we live in—you believe people who toot their own horn, who say, I'm good, I'm wonderful, and it works …
It's very sad.
What do you think will get people exercised about this book?
The truth is, I never know. I really just don't know how it's going to land. You never know. It's a very tricky time; you don't know how it's going to strike. I couldn't answer that. I think some people will strongly object to it being politically incorrect … I don't know; these are such odd times.
I do think that special interest politics has a valuable role in our society, but I also think there's a tremendous opportunity for real hypocrites to get out there …
I think there might be problems with some feminists. I don't know. It's a story about a man who's truly in love with a wonderful woman, so I don't know; it's pretty difficult.
And who regrets being negative about letting her go back to work.
I guess you can't predict, but what do you think it is that bothers people about your work?
Well, in the nature of things, I'm a satirical writer, so I make fun of just about everything or anybody. I'm fair game myself. No one's obliged to applaud or approve; I'm not owed an audience or anything. I do my work as best I can, I send it out, and I wait and see what happens, but I'm not owed anything by anybody. This book ridicules so many things that some people will respond very strongly.
I can imagine people taking those letters that Barney writes to the Clara Charnofsky Foundation for Wimyn in a not very good way …
I thought they were quite funny …
And some pillars of the Jewish community may object to that man who keeps welcoming anti-Semitic incidents, I don't know. I thought it was quite funny myself. I just don't know.
Do you think this is getting worse, or do you think that people have always reacted negatively to satire and humour?
They've always reacted negatively to some extent, but other people have obviously enjoyed it, responded with pleasure, or nobody would read my books.
I think you're practising satire out of a moral position …
Well, every satirist is essentially a moralist.
Yes, and I think you see some things in Canadian society that really bother you, in fact, maybe, outrage you.
It's not so much Canadian society; I use Canadian society because that's what I've written about, but most of it's true of American or British society … it's not that different from other western societies really.
Except maybe Quebec and that kind of thing.
Yes. But that's really in the background, Quebec.
In the book, they go and watch the Referendum, but since then, there's noise, but there's not much happening. What do you think will happen in Quebec?
I think people are getting rather bored with it all in Quebec and I really think they peaked in the last referendum …
They did really badly in the last federal election, the Bloc.
Well, it wasn't a big issue, it's deceptive. You know, Bouchard is a very intelligent man and I don't think he'll have a referendum unless he's sure of winning big, and that's very unlikely because he knows as well as anyone else that if it's 50-50 either way, it's a just a mess, and he doesn't want that. So I rather suspect that Bouchard will lead the Parti Québécois into the next election and then leave rather than be the man who lost another referendum … And without Bouchard it will sink, but still you have 30 to 35٪ of the francophones in Quebec who are hardcore separatists and whether or not one agrees with them, they've worked for thirty, thirty-five years for this dream of theirs, and there's going to be a lot of depressed people in their sixties who spent their whole adult lives working for this, so it's a very delicate situation all the same. That's a very substantial part of the population. I think we need some kind of healer in this country, and it's certainly not an office that could be filled by the dreadful Preston Manning.
I wish he'd just go away.
With the meeting of premiers, the ghost in the room was that dreadful Manning, and they had to appease Manning, who, I think, is an appalling man. Everything right-wing and ignorant in this country and all the buffoons are attracted to his manner, and they are anti-Quebec and I get sick and tired … Dreadful people.
You're lucky you don't live here in Ontario.
Well, happily, they didn't do that well in the federal election here. But I'm sure in small-town Ontario, they had a considerable following.
Basically, Mike Harris has copied the Reform Party. It's like having the Reform Party.
Yes, it's true.
Now, he's getting ready to disembowel Toronto.
Oh, Toronto is a hell of a lot better than it was thirty or forty years ago, when it was a real Orangeman's town. It's really a decent place now; a lot of Italians came here and Greeks and all kinds of people have come here—they've done a lot for the city. It's a far more enjoyable city than it ever was.
Even when I came here in 1981, it was pretty bleak. They didn't even have outdoor patios.
Or outdoor displays of food … now it's a lot more sensual and a lot more pleasing.
Still, I like Montreal better. I'd like to be able to live in Montreal, but I don't speak enough French. There's no economy there any more.
There's really been a rapid decline, which is too bad.
You mention all the empty shops in the book. That adds to the air of melancholy, because you situate the action in a time and a place.
No. It's certainly taking place in a city that's shrinking day by day.
The whole tone is very much more downbeat than the earlier novels, isn't it?
People these days seem interested in fiction as thinly disguised autobiography or journalism. Do you think this trend is becoming more pronounced? … I think there's tendency to see fiction in this way.
There'll be that tendency with Barney's Version because it's written in the first person.
I think, perhaps, there's a cultural failure of imagination here, and people have difficulty telling the difference … because in journalism, especially in TV journalism, you have this bleeding of categories, like fiction and documentary.
Well, there was an excerpt from this novel published in Saturday Night. I don't know how many people have said, “I read your article in Saturday Night.”
They can't tell the difference. I'll give students some sort of non-fiction piece to read, and they'll say, if it's a book, it's a novel. As if they can't figure out what the difference between them is.
As you probably know, we lived in London for twenty years and when I came back in '72, I taught at Carlton one day a week. I taught one of those suspect creative writing courses. And I interviewed students who wanted to be in the course. I was only taking fifteen kids. And I asked each one of them—what's the last novel you read?—and one of them—these were all English majors—absolutely endearing—said to me: fiction or non-fiction? I thought that was a gem.
Students don't want to do any real academic work; they just want to be entertained.
I do believe the novel should be entertaining. And I do write for the serious reader. There's a lot of literary references in this novel that I guess a lot of people won't get, but I don't care. Thirty or forty years ago you could count on your readers being educated and understanding a lot of things; you can no longer take that for granted, that people are familiar with the Bible or they've read their mythology. It's a different generation. It's not that they're not bright, it's just that it's all brought down to the lowest common denominator and when they get to university they're not educated. They have to play catch-up … university's a bit too democratic. Everyone goes to university and so the standards are lowered.
And back in high school, you're not allowed to fail anybody.
I was over here in 1961 and I was at Sir George Williams College for one term, and they were all into this, there shouldn't be marks, and I said, I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll put all your names into a hat and there'll be passes and failures and As and Bs … you take what you get. And, oh, no, no, I couldn't do that. They were quite shocked, because this was a creative writing course, which was a Mickey Mouse course, and I failed a lot of them. And they were really startled. And I said, look, I don't want you to waste your time writing, because you can't write. I'm doing you a favour.
With something like Solomon Gursky, do you get irritated with people's determination to see it not as fiction but as something else?
Well, you know, I've been around the block a few times. I no longer get as agitated about these things as I used to. So depending on my mood, I can be angry, but for the most part I just let them wash over me.
I think when people are younger they care too much.
But it's good to care …
Barney's Version is another one of those Imaginary Montreal novels. What's the next one?
I never talk about that.
Is there going to be another one, or is it going to be completely different?
I hope it'll be something completely different …
Maybe we can look forward to more of them?
My theory is that we all write one novel too many, but I don't know if I've done that yet.
I think you have a way to go.
But it's a wasting business … I'll just go on, I guess.
Do you think writing is a debilitating profession?
No, I think there's far too much self-pity about writing. We're not drafted, we all volunteer. And if I found it so horrendous, I should do something else.
You've had people criticize you for not creating sympathetic or convincing female characters … and you've said somewhere that it's difficult to do it.
I think, in fairness, there have been some. The character of Hannah in St. Urbain's Horseman, and a few others, but I've always found it difficult.
I don't think this is a big surprise. Why should you be able to do it?
Someone who does it very well is Brian Moore. He's done it very well from the very first novel, which was Judith …
I've never read any Brian Moore, actually.
Well, he's really done it remarkably well, I must say. I found it difficult.
I don't think it should be something to reproach you with. In this book, especially, with it being in the first person, I don't think it's such a problem. Everything is Barney's version; it's his version of every person.
You can also say that's a cop-out.
Yes, but artistically consistent. Perhaps Miriam came across as a little bit too idealized, but he was horrible to the Second Mrs. Panofsky.
I think she's a triumph, myself.
One of the things I love about the way you write is how you transfer spoken into written text and it actually looks funnier on the page.
Those telephone conversations went on about eight more pages each because they were so much fun to write. I looked at them and thought, look, this is really going on. I cut them back. The whole novel would come to a stop, so I really cut back.
It's funny, putting a cigar on the cover … I don't know if you have any control over what they put on the cover.
Yes, yes. They certainly sent it to me and asked what I thought and I said, that's great. The British jacket is different because initially I called the novel Barney, Like the Player Piano. And this was very difficult because a lot of people didn't understand what it meant. And someone says to him, you're like a player piano, you pick up everyone else's ideas. And, of course, in England it's called a pianola, not a player piano. Then my wife came up with this title, and I thought, fair enough.
I think it's good because it makes you think. At one point I was completely taken aback and thought, wait a minute, he could be some lying bastard. How do we know?
Well, that's good. I believe in ambiguity and all.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312
SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 104-05.
[In the following review, Brzezinski offers a laudatory assessment of Barney's Version, noting Richler's “savage wit and precisely delivered irony.”]
Known in this country principally for the coming-of-age novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler is one of Canada's most prolific and best-known writers. This new novel [Barney's Version], brimming with savage wit and precisely delivered irony, can only add to his already established reputation as a master of serio-comic fiction. Barney Panofsky, now 67, his memory failing, sets out to correct what he regards as the mistakes, idiocies, and failings of friends, ex-wives, children, lovers, and everyone else he has ever encountered, by writing his own “version” of his life and its principal events. This “purging” would be merely tedious or bilious in the hands of a lesser writer, but Richler's wit, his impeccable sense of timing, and most of all Barney's essential decency and sophisticated intelligence make this an extraordinary and memorable book. Barney is in good company, joining Shakespeare's King Lear and Bellow's Moses Herzog in the panoply of unforgettably compelling men “raging against the dying of the light,” who spend their final days criticizing, ridiculing, and in general skewering the falseness and pedestrian conventionality of what passed for culture and wisdom in the times and places they lived.
Not much is sacred to Barney Panofsky beyond his children, his third wife, Miriam, and his beloved Montreal Canadiens. Everything else is fair game, though he reserves a special place in hell for literary pretension, humorless political correctness, and especially the Quebec separatist movement. Though vituperative to his very core, Barney's spirit is large and expansive; he can forgive almost anything except the lack of a sense of humor. This is a wonderful book and should bring Richler admiration from a whole new generation of readers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
SOURCE: Gorjup, Branko. Review of Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 149.
[In the following review, Gorjup contends that Barney's Version is “Richler's most remarkable accomplishment to date, the work of a great master who has come to understand the pitfalls of writing, the incompleteness of the text.”]
With the publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz almost four decades ago, Mordecai Richler created a new hero in Canadian literature. American critic Warren Tallman saw Richler's creation as a latter-day Huck Finn, possessing a consciousness begotten in the seedy jungles of North American cities on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. These cities—Montréal in Richler's case—were characterized by Tallman as demonic parodies of a peaceable kingdom, presided over by urban Calibans. It was perhaps for this reason that Duddy Kravitz, embodying the vulgarity, crudeness, and aggressiveness associated with the lonely, sharklike individualism that would not suffer any type of decorum or refinement, became for many Canadians synonymous with the American literary imagination, not the Canadian one. And yet most critics described his singularity not so much in terms of his rugged individualism but in terms of his extraordinary ability to see through the mask of pretense of other people as well as his own, to penetrate and to reveal the heart of human darkness. Everywhere Duddy Kravitz looked, he saw selfishness, self-interest, betrayal, and cruelty, a world red in tooth and claw, shaped and governed, as we are to believe, by an alienating capitalism in which the fetishism of competition and consumption are the sole twin gods left to worship.
Standing at the opposite end of a more “genteel” Canadian literary topology, Richler's Kravitz—like his other unforgettable characters, including Barney Panofsky from his latest novel, Barney's Version—forces the reader to readjust his or her view of social conventions, of a society that is fraudulent and cannot be held in check by a civilized surface. Here, in this embattled landscape, where attitudes are tough and shocking, Richler finds his voice, his unique idiom. It was he, actually, who brought to Canadian fiction a new verbal vitality and exuberance, a language at its best when it shifts from ordinary humor to grotesque parody, from subtle irony to bombast, from slapstick to pathos. His protagonists—and this is nowhere more true than in Barney's Version—are the language they speak.
Undoubtedly, Barney Panofsky is Richler's most complex and satisfactory linguistic creation. Due to his age and experience, he is, unlike his predecessors, fully aware of what language can or cannot do. In fact, the novel we are reading is a story, as he puts it, of his “wasted life,” a confession and a vindication and, above all, an attempt to get even with his real and fictional enemies. As we enter Panofsky's gritty world, we are immediately struck by the narrator's autobiographical bravura, by his enormous gift for creating a galaxy of ebullient, perverse, and obsessed characters, all of whom are portrayed as posing an imminent threat to his shady and irreverent personality. The fact that Panofsky has led the risqué existence of a not-too-law-abiding citizen—he drove one of his three wives to commit suicide and was charged with the murder of a friend—makes him more than interesting, neutralizing the possible tediousness of an old man's frequent side-stepping into the sentimental fog of reminiscence.
One of the more significant moments in the novel, which gives the work its sense of unity, is Panofsky's disclaimer that he is a reliable narrator, someone to be trusted in accurately reconstructing the truth about past events and the people he knew. Panofsky is an old man staring at the grim face of mortality, and he is now, for the first time in his life, cast in the role of a writer, a role he finds not only excruciatingly difficult but one which he promptly, in his predictable manner, proceeds to denigrate. All writing, he tells us, is fraudulent, and the writer is nothing but a “self-promoter, a braggart and a paid liar … driven by avarice and desperate for fame.” Such an attitude suggests a narrator conscious of his craft, engaged in a radical dismantling of the very text while writing it, which is, in a larger sense, a form of ruthless examination of an unstable reality, where everything depends on the point of view of the teller and the circumstances under which events take place. Isn't then Panofsky's effort, as may be those of others who use language as a form of testimony or apologia, an exercise in futility? Perhaps it is. And yet it is also more than that. How else can Panofsky recapture the flow of his life and time if not through writing? How can he reflect on the various aspects of his existence—his innermost insecurities and failures, vanities and humiliations—without the mirror of language, regardless of its distortions? And ultimately, how can we see Panofsky's truly human side if we do not also see his dehumanized side, spelled out in this self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, but also self-doubting memoir?
Barney's Version is Richler's most remarkable accomplishment to date, the work of a great master who has come to understand the pitfalls of writing, the incompleteness of the text. Through his indomitable protagonist, he has given us a key to a psychic space that is occupied by every possible monster the imagination can conjure, and yet these monsters are always recognizably and achingly human.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6319
SOURCE: Robbeson, Angela. “Screening the Jury: Textual Strategy and Moral Response in Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman.” Critique 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 205-17.
[In the following essay, Robbeson analyzes the function of various textual strategies in St. Urbain's Horseman, contending that each strategy provokes a specific moral judgment.]
The theme of moral judgment that is implicit in Mordecai Richler's early novels is explicit in St. Urbain's Horseman. Unlike Noah Adler and Duddy Kravitz, Jake Hersh faces more than metaphorical conviction on figurative moral charges. He stands before judge and jury, family and friends, media and audience charged with indecent assault, possession of cannabis, and aiding and abetting sodomy. Significantly, readers are virtually excluded from the court proceedings: only on the last day of trial are they permitted unmediated access to the Old Bailey, and only at Jake's sentencing do they learn the specific charges laid against him. In contrast, readers are the silent jury to Jake's private inquiry into his life, an inner trial that unfolds in tandem with the official proceedings. Fragments of Jake's memory, knowledge, and imagination serve as documents and depositions admitted into evidence. Sifting through the testimony, readers are confounded by this defendant, who, as Arnold Davidson remarks, possess “discordant qualities—positive and negative—that, although relatively easy to identify, are hard to add up” (140). This potential deadlock, he adds, echoes that occasioned in Richler's earlier novels:
Certainly Noah should do what every literary portrait of the artist as a young man prescribes and bravely strike out to fulfill his own anticipated destiny. Yet, by so doing, he probably kills his mother. Obviously, Duddy is a pusherke. And just as obviously, he is more. […] But difficult as Duddy's case is, Jake's is still more so. Nevertheless, as even a cursory reading of the novel demonstrates, Jake must be judged. The problem […] is to do so justly, and that, in a nutshell, is Jake's problem too.
Before handing down a ruling on Jake's life, readers must determine what constitutes an infraction of the moral code of modern society. They seemingly get little direction from Richler himself: not only does he fail to include characters of high moral or conservative values to represent the norm against which Jake may easily be measured, but he allows his narrative voice to falter indefinitely between sympathy and censure. A close examination of the novel's narrative structure, however, reveals that St. Urbain's Horseman is didactic by design. In The Implied Reader (1975), Wolfgang Iser suggests that an author incites and controls his readers' responses through the manipulation of a variety of textual strategies. For instance, in Iser's view, a text may be designed so that the
reader is constantly forced to think in terms of alternatives […] to visualize the possibilities which [the characters] have not thought of. While he is working out these alternatives the scope of his own judgment expands, and he is constantly invited to test and weigh the insights he has arrived at. […] The esthetic appeal of such a technique consists in the fact that it allows a certain latitude for the individual character of the reader, but also compels specific reactions—often unobtrusively—without expressly formulating them. By […] keeping him at a variable distance from the events, the text gives him the illusion that he can judge the proceedings in accordance with his own point of view. To do this, he has only to be placed in a position that will provoke him to pass judgments.
The various textual strategies in St. Urbain's Horseman—the juxtaposition of the early scenes, the inclusion of journal extracts, the use of repetition, the manipulation of mirrors, and the creation of a controlling structure—quietly provoke judgment in specific ways. Even as readers are compelled to appraise Jake's dubious actions, they are shown that it is often difficult to define and defend a moral code by which to live in the modern world. Nevertheless, these textual strategies ultimately urge readers to acknowledge that, no matter what the circumstances, the task of distinguishing the good from the bad, the innocent from the guilty, is essentially a simple one.
As literary jury members, readers undergo a figurative screening process that tests their capacity for exercising fair judgment. Through the juxtaposition of the early scenes of the novel, readers are made privy to Jake's unvoiced pleas for a discriminating judge, are presented with a series of scenes that portray unfair judgments, and are tested for a propensity toward hasty, misinformed rulings. Jake, fearing that his voice will be lost in the contradictory testimony, silently pleads: “Listen, your lordship. They're twisting everything” (19). Conscious of the jury's power, he wills them away: “Your lordship, listen to me … tell the jury to go home” (23). As the circumstantial evidence against him accumulates, Jake asks that it be considered within his specific context: first, in light of his personal history—“your lordship, you have a scene from my early sex life” (34); second, in relation to his social environment—“Your lordship, look at it this way. There's a sexual revolution going on outside” (41). Jake's entreaties reveal his fear of being misunderstood, and consequently, misjudged. Readers are made aware both of their authority and of the need to lend a discriminating ear to the proceedings.
Immediately following Jake's petitions, readers are presented with scenes—both past and present—that depict poor judgment based on a distorted context or on circumstantial evidence. That juxtaposition explicates Jake's silent fears and warns readers against making poor judgments. When, as a young man, Jake tries to go to New York, he is deemed undesirable by the border officials who either mistake him for Joey or do not believe, as Jake insists, that his friends had jokingly forged his name on numerous left-wing petitions (96). The night Jake meets his future wife, Nancy, he appraises her according to the reading material he finds in her apartment: “she could see him […] like a judge sifting through evidence. Two years detention for reading Vogue. Six months in solitary for Elle. The Ladies' Home Journal, off with her head. […] Enjoying herself she did not protest that she had sublet the flat” (48). When Jake's mother espies Nancy embracing Luke—Jake's best friend—she assumes that the two are having an affair. Nancy insists: “‘You are not to say a word to Jake. Do you understand?’ ‘Oh, I understand. Don't you worry.’ […] ‘Do you actually think Luke is my lover?’ ‘Who said a word?’” (70). Readers note that each misjudgment has the power to change Jake's life: the border official's mistake altered his destiny by sending him to London instead of New York; Jake's mistake could have thwarted the development of his relationship with Nancy; and the misunderstanding that causes Mrs. Hersh to brand her daughter-in-law a “whore” (55) could lead to problems between Jake and Nancy. Such scenes are designed to caution readers to consider all the evidence carefully before pronouncing judgment.
Readers immediately put this lesson into practice as their own tendency to convict Jake on the grounds of circumstantial or misleading evidence is repeatedly tested. Several early scenes in the novel function as prosecution testimony, attempting to implicate Jake in a variety of immoral acts. As the narrative unfolds, Jake's defense testimony dismisses the indictments. The temporal gap created by this arrangement of scenes tempts readers to make a premature conviction. In the opening chapter of the novel, readers encounter several pages of The Good Britons, a script the police found in Jake's bedroom. The script features Mary Poppins as a scantily clad, whip-bearing dominatrix, which, as far as the prosecutor is concerned, is proof positive of Jake's perversion. Because readers are unacquainted with Jake at this point, they may be inclined to agree. However, they later learn that Jake and Luke collaborated on The Good Britons in their early days together in London; they considered the script a parody and worked on it as a time-filler (163). Similarly, readers discover that there is nothing diabolic in the fact that Jake, “‘[n]o equestrian himself, keeps a saddle and a riding crop in a cupboard’” (14). The equipment belongs to his cousin Joey—the titular Horseman; Jake stores it, anticipating the day he will return the gear to its rightful owner (305). In fact, as Davidson remarks: “all this material evidence in the court case is ultimately explained, and what seems in the courtroom to demonstrate Jake's depravity really proves no such thing” (151).
That observation extends to inadmissible evidence. For instance, scandal seems to lurk behind Nancy's fear that an unspecified incident that occurred in the toilets at Harrod's might incriminate Jake. His assurances to Nancy only incite readers' curiosity: “‘They can't bring it up. It never made the charge sheet’” (37). And, once again, the truth proves innocuous, not appalling. Readers learn that Jake was merely a protesting bystander when his brother-in-law, Herky, overwhelmed by a professional admiration for Harrod's toilets, began to snap photographs. Jake explained his misinterpreted actions, which caused customers to deride the two as “‘[f]ilthy buggers,’” to the store's detectives (195). Finally, even evidence that seems to implicate Jake in crimes unrelated to the trial proves misleading. Mrs. Hersh raises questions in readers' minds when, after peeking into Jake's correspondence, she confronts him: “‘Does Nancy know that you send money every month to a woman in Israel?’ […] ‘Is the child yours?’” (77-78). Jake's answer—“‘Everybody wants to be cast in a Jacob Hersh production’” (78)—rings false. The truth, however, confirms his innocence of the implied charge of adultery; Chava and Zev were abandoned by Joey, and Jake sends them money in an attempt to atone for his cousin's sins (212). In these ways, the clever juxtaposition of scenes in the first section of the novel serves both to warn readers from and to tempt them toward hasty, foolish judgments grounded in incomplete or conjectural evidence and improper contexts. This design strategy unsettles readers in their role as jurors, alerting them to the potential abuses of their positions of power and trust, and warning them against convicting without a full appraisal of the evidence or a complete understanding of the context of the defendant's actions.
One design strategy urges readers to pay particular attention to the context of Jake's behavior; others reveal how difficult it is to factor in the modern context without losing sight of traditional moral values. The careful orchestration of the novel's early scenes seems to give way to a bewildering jumble of testimony and evidence. However, as the trials unfold, readers distinguish patterns amid the clutter and recapitulation. Two design strategies encompass two different, though connected, areas of Jake's life: the social and the private. The inclusion of journal extracts details Jake's absurd social context whereas the repetition of various scenes and statements evokes Jake's inner life. The narrative is littered with press clippings from some of the more than three dozen newspapers and magazines cited in the novel.1 Notably, readers, as jurors, are properly shielded from the press surrounding Jake's trial: “Nancy had ripped out the story with his photograph on the back page” (12). However, the media circus operates as witness for the defense by mimicking Jake's sense of bombardment by the ludicrous, pathetic, and often grotesque world within which he attempts to define his moral values. By classifying the various exhibits, a pattern emerges: each of the press clippings is relevant to Jake's life. Some of them taunt his insecurities. The black humor in the headlines mocks his irrational guilt for his happiness in the midst of human misery: “CHIN UP! THE POLIO GIRL CAN COOK” (12), “THE CRIPPLED BOY WHO WANTS TO BACK BRITAIN” (31), and “WHILE YOU'RE EATING YOUR DINNER TONIGHT, 417 PEOPLE WILL DIE FROM STARVATION” (311).2 Jake's fear of dying of cancer is fueled by “SURGERY: How Not to Die of Cancer” (19) and “MONTHLY TESTS FOR CANCER” (281). Headlines such as “MIXED MARRIAGES STINK” (177) and “‘HAPPY’ MARRIAGES MAY BE JUST DULL” (259) mock Jake's comfortable relationship with Nancy.
Two of the clippings have a more particular relevance, urging readers to compare Jake's actions to those of his friends, Duddy Kravitz and Harry Stein. By doing so, they observe the vast distance between Jake and his friends on the moral-ethical spectrum. The article “INSTANT REDUCING PILLS CONTAIN TAPEWORM” (139) details the scandal that makes Duddy rich. The press clipping “HITCHCOCK FILM IDEA BEHIND BID TO KILL STARLET” (304) describes Harry's vendetta against an actress who scorned him. Although Jake is not a model of virtue, his actions never equal Duddy and Harry's blatant disregard for life in the name of profit or revenge. Other extracts provide a social context for Jake's trial at the Old Bailey. Spread throughout the narrative are headlines or references to articles about sex that provide a context for Jake's position as a defendant against charges of sexual misconduct. Esquire prints an article entitled “Is Your Kid Brother a Homosexual?” (85), Saturday Night magazine features “FRENCH CANADIAN ATTITUDES TO SEX” (40), and Mayfair magazine includes “‘Quest’, a survey on the sex life of single girls in London today” (61), while yet another issue boasts: “THE NUDEST NATHALIE DELON. SUSAN STRASBERG STRIPS. SCRUMPTIOUS SALLY'S ALLEY IS A SENSUAL PLACE TO BE” (59). Jake's indecent pinch is a minor offense in comparison to the actions of Paul Crane who, standing trial for rape, boasts of his many sexual affairs in an Express piece entitled “MY LIFE AND LOVES: By Air Canada Steward on Sex Charge” (58). Those press clippings recall Jake's appeal to Justice Beal to note that a sexual revolution is taking place outside the courtroom walls. Although readers are urged to consider the context of all evidence before passing judgment, the press extracts warn readers against allowing the absurdity and immorality of the modern social context to override their moral and rational deliberations. The second category of press clippings balances the first: on one hand, readers are tempted by the headlines to qualify Jake's behavior by comparing it to the actions occurring in his society; but, on the other hand, readers must note that Jake's penchant for measuring his happiness against the scale of human misery that is spelled out in the newspapers is ludicrous. Indeed, just as it is irrational for Jake to feel guilty for his happy and comfortable lifestyle because there is misery in the world, so too is it irrational for him to expect to be exonerated for his crimes simply because there are greater offenders in society. Readers must, then, establish their own middle ground and decide to what extent the modern social context should be allowed to qualify private morality.3
Whereas the inclusion of media excerpts provides evidence of an absurd modern world, the design strategy of repetition reveals the inner workings of Jake's mind. Combining memory, imagination, and history, Jake's private ruminations center on the Holocaust and depict his growing preoccupation with his failure to act against its injustice and the consequent creation of the Horseman fantasy.4 Jake admits that he is exhilarated by the trial “because at last the issues had been joined. […] After years of waiting somebody had at last come to ask him, Jacob Hersh, husband, father, son, house owner, investor, sybarite, film fantasy spinner, for an accounting” (76-77, ).5 Jake, convinced that his happiness is undeserved, repeatedly victimizes himself with his guilt-ridden imagination: “in Jake's Jewish nightmare, they come. Into his house. The extermination officers seeking out the Jew vermin. Ben is […] heaved out of the window. […] Molly [is …] flung against the brick fireplace. Sammy is dispatched with a pistol” (65). Variations of that nightmare recur throughout the narrative. When cavorting with his family, “he would all at once be riddled with anxiety. Why am I being allowed to enjoy myself? […] Jake would scrutinize the surrounding woods for advancing Nazi troops. Search the grass for poisonous snakes. Rake the skies for falling planets” (252). During an evening out with Nancy, “he would suddenly, unexpectedly, clamor for the bill. Gas leak. […] GAS LEAK! […] Sammy and Molly. Sprawled lifeless on their beds” (255). Jake's guilt extends beyond the Nazi death camps; he awaits a host of “injustice collectors”: “concentration camp survivors. The emaciated millions of India. The starvelings of Africa. […] The thalidomide babies, the paraplegics. The insulted, the injured” (76-77, ). However, it is the repeated images conveyed by war-crimes testimony that echo tellingly throughout the narrative. Eva Taube notes that a “series of overlapping images intermittently flash through the narrative like camera shots repeated and relocated in various contexts in the novel, images of human beings reduced to impotent victims. The repetition functions emotively to heighten the shock, and intellectually, through the sheer restatement, to induce a mood of brooding and thoughtful contemplation” (183). Jake repeatedly recalls portions of actual transcripts of postwar investigations: children recording their names in their own blood on the barracks walls; women forced to drink from latrine water; and bodies beaten, gnawed by rats, or thrown into pits of seething human fat (64-55, 147, 225-26). He is particularly haunted by the ominous exchange between an officer of the court and a witness: “‘Mengele cannot have been there all the time.’ ‘In my opinion, always. Night and day’” (65, 147, 225, 226, 309). Wilfred Cude describes those dull unchanging phrases as “the devil's own measure, timing tick, tock, tick, the relentless beat of damnation, counting against Mengele on the metronome of hell” (53).
Ofelia Cohn-Sfetcu observes that, although Jake is able to pass hard judgments, he “is unable to act accordingly. And it is this very incapacity that obliges him to use Joey as his self-justifying image […] to have him perform acts he himself should perform” (33). As Jake reflects on the injustices of the world, his cousin's challenge—spoken many years ago in Montreal—echoes in his ears: “‘What are you going to do about it?’” (113, , 217, 309, ). The repetition of this rally cry taunts Jake's inability to act on his professed hatreds.6 In response, Jake fashions, from the memories of his cousin, a doppelgänger that embodies his desire to enact revenge for the horrors of the Holocaust.7 By repeatedly summoning visions of the Horseman—embellishing a little each time—Jake creates the avenger he needs to temper the guilt and fear that threatens to overwhelm him. In a sense, Jake writes, directs, films, edits, and privately screens this fantasy action-adventure movie. As he replays it in his imagination, the Horseman reaches epic proportions in Jake's life. In his mind's eye, Jake often sees Joey “cantering on a magnificent Pleven stallion. Galloping, thundering. Planning fresh campaigns, more daring maneuvers” (36, , 257). Jake is convinced that Joey is stalking Mengele. He repeatedly envisions the Horseman straining to find the “unmarked road in the jungle, between Puerto San Vincente and the border fortress of Carlos Antonio López, on the Paraná River” (11, 36). Later, he embellishes the scene: “Neighing, the stallion rears, obliging the Horseman to dig his stirrups in. Eventually he slows. Still in the highlands, emerging from the dense forest to scan the scrub below, he strains to find the unmarked road that winds into the jungle, between Puerto San Vincente and the border fortress of Carlos Antonio López” (147, ).
Yet, for every mental screening of the Horseman fantasy, Jake is forced to acknowledge another strike against his absent cousin from the growing list of prosecution witnesses who accuse the man of brutality, thievery, lying, polygamy, extortion and blackmail, drug smuggling and trafficking. Although most of the evidence against Joey—like the evidence for him—is circumstantial or hearsay, it provides grounds for a reasonable doubt that readers are likely to concede long before Jake does. In the final pages of the novel, however, Jake recognizes that, like Aaron, he worships a false god. He asks himself: “[w]hat if the Horseman was a distorting mirror and we each took the self-justifying image we required of him?” (382). Thus, the design strategy of repetition gives readers access to Jake's private fears and the means by which he deals with them; it underscores the importance of weighing all evidence equally in the attempt to reach the truth and develops a key aspect of Jake's—indeed, of modern society's—moral dilemma: how can one fashion a moral conscience in a post-Holocaust world? The fact that Jake eventually learns to evaluate and to adjust his perspective of the Horseman suggests to readers that the process of gathering and weighing evidence, factoring in social, personal, and historical contexts, arriving at a judgment on the basis of these deliberations, and acting upon it, is not as impossible a task as it may seem. In fact, another narrative device, mirroring, indicates that although the line between moral and immoral behavior can be a fine one, it is unmistakably drawn.
Harry, like Joey, is a distorting mirror—a real-life doppelgänger who is the epitome of Jake's bad qualities taken to an extreme. Zailig Pollock observes: “over and over again we see aspects of Jake reflected in Harry in an ugly, distorted manner. Things which in Jake seem neurotic, selfish, foolish, but basically likable, become completely repulsive in Harry” (100). Significantly, the incident that led to the criminal charges laid against the two was a result of Harry impersonating Jake to lure a girl to the Hampstead house. The link between the two men is made through the design strategy of mirrors, which reveals that Jake and Harry perform similar actions.8 Both Jake and Harry take petty vengeance on people whom they resent. Jake acts against a neighbor: “pretending to water the dahlia bed on his side of the fence, he directed a spray of murdering lime solution through the fence at Old Lady Dry Cunt's rhododendrons. […] He'd teach her to write snotty notes about the noise his brash American children make in the garden” (22). The unwatched flower bed is mirrored in the unattended Silver Cloud Rolls Royce Harry spots late one night: “[d]rifting past, ostensibly without purpose, Harry opened the knife in his mac pocket and ran it the length of the Rolls, walking on some distance before wheeling around to slash the body paint on the other side” (62). Similarly, both Jake and Harry intrude upon the private lives of others. Jake, when invited for dinner at the home of the Ormsby-Fletchers, snoops through their bathroom, scrutinizing the contents of the medicine chest and looking through the laundry hamper to find “Pamela's smalls. Intricately laced black panties, no more than a peekaboo web. A spidery black bra, almost a filigree. You naughty thing, he thought” (153). Harry mirrors Jake's actions, rooting through the drawers of the house while Jake and Nancy are away: “It was a giggle, coming across Nancy's love letters in Jake's bottom desk drawer. (‘I never did that before, darling, not with any other man […].’) Oh, wasn't she the grand duchess! […] Such transcendental thoughts! Such high-flown sentiments! As if she wasn't made like all the others, with the answer between her legs” (340).
Although these mirrors are designed to draw Jake and Harry into close association, still other mirrors prove that the two are worlds apart in terms of their motivation and the scope of their actions. Telephone calls form part of both Jake and Harry's repertoire of mischievous and selfish pranks. When, early in their relationship, Nancy dates another man, Jake's jealousy overwhelms him and he telephones to interrupt the sexual encounter he fears is taking place. Nancy's date answered the phone, “[l]istened, blanched. And hung up. ‘Don't let it worry you,’ Nancy said. ‘It's a local pervert. He usually gives me a tinkle at this hour’” (182). Jake's embarrassing obsession is mirrored, with great distortion, in Harry's telephone calls. He harasses an innocently condescending actress by badgering her with obscene phone calls (187). He once phoned a bomb threat into a boat show at Olympia, explaining in a Latin accent that it was “a protest against the government's Cuban policy” (300). He pulls the same trick when Jake flies to Cannes, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Paris (297). Although Jake acts to avoid losing someone he loves, Harry lashes out against what he cannot have—an actress who does not offer respect, people who can afford yachts, and Jake who will not repay Joey's “loan.” Jake's desperation endears him to Nancy; the outcome of his prank is marriage plans. Harry's phone pranks have serious, wide-reaching consequences. He brags about the reaction to his boat show prank: “‘They took it seriously, you know. Old Khrushchev waving his shoe at the U.N. Castro in New York, raising hell. They didn't take any chances. Police cars. Fire trucks. The lot” (300).
The attitudes that Jake and Harry appear to share prove to be grounded in two different philosophies. Both men feel that they have missed out on something that the people around them have enjoyed. Jake feels that his generation was “[a]lways the wrong age. Ever observers, never participants” (75). Harry expresses a similar discontent: “Yes, yes indeed, everybody else, everywhere else, was getting his. […] Harry, born too late” (59). The difference lies in the things they want. Jake wants a moment in his life when he is forced to set his allegiances, to fight for something he believes in: he laments that his generation had lived through “the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the holocaust, Hiroshima, the Israeli War of Independence, McCarthyism, Korea […] Vietnam and the drug culture, with impunity” (75). Harry, in contrast, wants a crack at “[g]irls with the longest legs imaginable, lubricant girls, rolling nylons on like condoms. Girls snuggling into bras and rising from the bath, towel ready to drop” (59). When each gets the wished for—albeit modified—opportunity, it is Jake who is able to act. He sees the trial as his moment to act, and he believes that he did not behave badly, that he remained a friend to Harry (378). In contrast, when Jake takes Harry to a party, “Harry, once thrust on the girls he longed for, could not stitch together a coherent sentence. He was either gratuitously coarse without any redeeming wit or stunned into silence. Finally, Jake rescued him” (313).
Pollock concludes that, through the design strategy of mirrors, “Richler is telling us that the seeds of everything Harry has become are already present in Jake” (100). However, as well as suggesting how similar the two characters' actions and opinions may be, these mirrors stress that the differences between Jake and Harry are instantly recognizable. Furthermore, readers recognize that Harry's upbringing and environment may help explain his behavior, but it can never excuse it. So, although they stand side by side in the prisoner's dock in Number One Courtroom at the Old Bailey, Justice Beal clearly sees the distance between their moral characters. He chastises Jake for what he terms his folly in forming an association with Harry: “‘You have been a confounded fool, Hersh’” (369). Then he berates Harry: “‘You are a humbug, Stein, and a troublemaker of the most reprehensible sort. […] you are a menace, a persistent public menace’” (370). Jake is fined; Harry is jailed. The design strategy of mirrors reassures readers by illustrating that although there is often a fine line between the essentially good and the essentially bad, it is not impossible to draw.9
As the narrative unfolds, readers are led to see that despite the fact that one must be conscious of the social, personal, and historical contexts of all actions, defining and acting on one's moral position is not, in Richler's view, an overwhelming task. The overall structure of the novel suggests that for all the chaos and absurdity of Jake's public and private contexts, his own path to self-knowledge is a deliberate and systematic journey. The complicated, often disjointed, flashbacks, which range from Jake's recollections of his recent escapades in London to his memories of youth and adolescence in Montreal, are bridled by the design strategies that control the overall structure of the novel. Jake believes that the trial neatly pulls the episodes of his life into relation: “Jake's past […] assumed nifty contours. A meaningful symmetry. The Horseman, Doktor Mengele, Harry, Ingrid, all frog-marching him to where he was to stand so incongruously, stupefied and inadequate, on trial in Courtroom Number One at the Old Bailey” (56). The controlling structure allows readers to perceive, as Jake does, the “nifty contours,” meaningful symmetry, and sense of progression toward an ultimate judgment. A sense of definite progression is achieved by the closing lines of each of the novel's four sections. Like an attorney attempting to build a case from fragments of testimony, evidence, and documents, Jake draws conclusions from his disjointed flashbacks.
The final lines of the first section confirm readers' suspicions that Jake is preoccupied not with the happenings at the Old Bailey, but with his inner tribunal. He reads from Samuel Johnson's Diary: “‘When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of the body and disturbances of the mind very near to madness, which I hope He that made me will suffer to extenuate many faults and exercise many deficiencies’” (78). That quotation signals the end of opening remarks and the beginning of the true trial. The closing lines of the following three sections underscore the significance of the Horseman to Jake's private life. By capping each set of recollections with an observation about his relationship with Joey, Jake recognizes his dependence on the Horseman. Section two ends with the observation that “[w]ithout realizing it, Jake had become Cousin Joey's advocate” (144). The third section closes with Jake's recognition that Joey “had become his moral editor. [… H]e tried above all to please the Horseman. For somewhere he was watching, judging. Once Cousin Joey's advocate, he was now his acolyte” (258). The final section of the novel suggests that Jake finds a median position between becoming the Horseman and letting him die in his mind's eye: “Once in his attic aerie, he retrieved the Horseman's journal from the cupboard, found the page where he had written ‘died July 20, 1967, in an air crash,’ crossed it out, and wrote in over it, ‘presumed dead.’ Then he returned to bed, and fell into a deep sleep, holding Nancy to him” (384). Jake overcomes his blindness and sees how his life has been dominated by the Horseman and, through the trial at the Old Bailey, relinquishes his dependence on him. He discovers that “his private destiny is not to seek revenge, but to reaffirm his commitment to moral values infinitely fragile, yet viable: justice, conscience, honour, dignity, accountability” (Taube 186).
The progression suggested by the part divisions is tempered by the circular narration. The novel begins in medias res and moves full circle, “presenting over the last four chapters the circumstances that engendered the frantic situation introduced at the first” (Cude 66). Framing devices emphasize that circularity. The narrative opens with Jake waking in the middle of the night and climbing to his attic aerie and closes with him descending from the aerie and going back to sleep. Metaphorically, the interim development takes place in the attic aerie, that symbol of Jake's troubled mind. His private deliberations keep pace with the proceedings at the Old Bailey. He climbs to the aerie on the evening of the first day of trial and descends after both Justice Beal's and his own verdicts are rendered. The circular format is significant on several levels. First, it symbolizes Jake's recapitulating state of mind and his inability to proceed in his life until he has resolved the tensions between his past and his present. Taube notes that the “spiritual quest incorporates a circular structure […] implying the cyclical rhythm of eternal search” (184). Scrutinizing his life, Jake recognizes this circular pattern. For instance, he sees a connection between himself and his son. “Circles completed, he thought” (13), upon realizing that he once mocked his parents' accent the same way his son mocks his. He also recognizes his father's actions in his own. As his father had when he was young, Jake loads up his car with treats and goes to meet his family at the summer cottage, thinking: “You know what life is, Yankel? Tell me, you're so smart. A circle. A little kikeleh” (314). Obviously, the circular pattern is evident to readers only when the novel is complete. In that respect, the novel's structure mimics a trial situation: the jury is closest to its fullest possible awareness of the truth only at the conclusion of the proceedings; and only after the defense and the prosecution summarize their cases in their closing remarks is the jury free to deliberate the verdict.
When Jake tells Nancy about the criminal charges that have been laid against him, he prefaces his account with an analogy: “‘When I was at university, we used to play something we called the Values Game. We set ourselves moral dilemmas’” (346). For example, he explains, you ask yourself and one another whether or not you would risk your life in an attempt to save a drowning stranger: “‘[t]here is nobody else on the bridge. So if you choose to walk away and pretend you haven't seen him, nobody will know but you. What do you do?’” (347). Earlier, when Nancy had protested Jake's involvement with Harry, he had defended his actions with a similar metaphor: “‘Harry's a street accident and I just happen to be a witness. What should I do, flee without handing in my name?’” (306). Jake's questions—What do you do? What should I do?—are, for him, no longer hypothetical. For the first time in his life, his moral predicament is actual and he must act on his convictions: “the trial, by giving Jake the opportunity to act, for which he has been waiting all his life, gives him the opportunity to define himself as well” (Pollock 93). As jurors, readers are playing the Values Game, attempting to decide what they would do given Jake's predicament. The other verdicts are in: Justice Beal pronounces Jake guilty of indecent assault but does not sentence him to jail; Jake finds himself guilty of inaction and agrees to direct Luke's latest script, in essence placing himself on parole.
Finally, readers must respond to Jake. The design strategies have led them to understand both the enormity of the task—not only of establishing a code of moral values but also of situating a particular character, a fictional life, within it—and the relative ease with which it can be accomplished. When faced with the defendants, it is enough for Justice Beal to call Jake a fool and Harry a menace and to penalize each accordingly. When Luke asks Jake what he believes in, it is enough for Jake to say “‘I believe in theirs and ours. Dr. Johnson, yes. Dr. Leary, no’” (251). And, in the last analysis, readers too may simply respond guilty or not guilty, yes or no to Jake Hersh, to Harry Stein, and to St. Urbain's Horseman. But the experience of the text has shown readers that this simple rendering of a verdict must be supported by the weight of conviction. And that conviction must be grounded in a personal code of moral values that is by no means easy to achieve.
Several of these periodicals have names that emphasize the theme of judgment: the Standard, the Observer, the Chronicle, the Times, Look, and the Mirror.
Jake's responses to these headlines are contradictory. He laughs at the crippled boy (31) but sweeps the Times from the table when reading about world starvation (312).
In each of his major novels, Richler invites readers to compare the main protagonists' behavior to the failures of their communities: recall the comparison between Noah and such failures as Schloime, Max, and Wolf; or between Duddy and Macpherson, Cuckoo, and Friar. Readers are asked if success within this context is success enough to satisfy their own moral codes.
Jake's obsession with the unresolved injustices of the Holocaust is revealed in his attic aerie—a symbol of his mind—which is filled both with paraphernalia depicting Nazi terrorism, and with the journals and the equestrian equipment of the Horseman who, Jake imagines, stalks the earth to wreak vengeance.
Here and throughout, page references enclosed in square brackets indicate that the quotation, though not exact, is repeated here with variation, often minute variation.
When he bumps into a middle-aged lady in Germany, he apologizes “instead of following through with his shoulder and stamping on her. Hatred was a discipline. He would have to train harder, that's all” (218).
Joey's function as a doppelgänger is emphasized by the fact that Jake is often mistaken for Joey because they share the same initials. Furthermore, Jake can never catch up to his cousin and when, finally, he no longer needs him, he learns of his death.
Jake calls Harry by his Yiddish name, Hershel, which is also a version of his own last name, thus confirming his role as doppelgänger. The similarity in names echoes that between Jake and Joey Hersh—the other doppelgänger relationship.
Recall Moey Hanover's twisted truths: years ago his grandfather assured him that if a man holds a sword out of a third floor window and flying past comes another man, and he stabs him, the swordsman is not necessarily guilty of murder. This “enabled Moey to grasp at an early age that truth was a many-splendored thing: it had nuances” (246). He uses these nuances to pardon his transgressions, technically sidestepping the precise definition of adultery. He may of course be fooling himself and his wife; however, he does not fool readers. Yes, the truth has nuances, but some lies are glaring.
Cohn-Sfetcu, Ofelia. “Of Self, Temporal Cubism, and Metaphor: Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman.” International Fiction Review 3:1 (1976): 30-34.
Cude, Wilfred. “The Golem as Metaphor for Art: The Monster Takes Meaning in St. Urbain's Horseman.” Journal of Canadian Studies 12:2 (1977): 50-69.
Davidson, Arnold. Mordecai Richler. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns in Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.
Pollock, Zailig. “The Trial of Jake Hersh.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 22 (1978): 93-106.
Richler, Mordecai. St. Urbain's Horseman. 1971. rpt. Manchester: Panther Books, 1973.
Taube, Eva. Rvw. of St. Urbain's Horseman, by Mordecai Richter. Canadian Literature 96 (Spring 1983): 182-87.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
SOURCE: Wilson-Smith, Anthony. “Richler Remembered.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 18-19.
[In the following essay, Wilson-Smith offers a brief memorial overview of Richler's life and career.]
Say this, among many nice things, about Mordecai Richler: he knew how to have things both ways. Imagine how he might have portrayed, in one of his books, a wealthy, well-connected novelist with residences in the best part of Montreal's old Square Mile, a winter getaway around London's trendy Sloane Square and a summer refuge in that great wealthy Anglo-Quebec enclave, the Eastern Townships. Such a protagonist might have been a self-centred, utterly humourless WASP who made his living preying on others, or perhaps a tortured, self-mocking Jew, a parvenu amazed and uneasy at the success that had arrived at his door.
Instead, Richler lived just such a materially blessed life—and did so without any such apparent shortcomings or traumas. By the time he died last week at age 70 of complications from cancer, he had achieved success on the two fronts that, by any measure, matter most: he was an internationally acclaimed literary figure with 10 novels, three children's books and a vast collection of essays, journalistic reports and polemics behind him—and he had a happy home life with his wife of four decades, Florence, and his three sons and two daughters.
By his final years, Richler had become one of those larger-than-life figures whom many Canadians felt they knew—even if they had never seen him in the flesh or read one of his books. That was partly because his unwavering bluntness brought him so often into the headlines, whether excoriating Quebec nationalists, mocking the quality of Ontario wine, ridiculing Edmonton or—unlike most members of Canada's literary community—publicly favouring free trade in the 1980s. Then, there was his determinedly disheveled appearance: the greased-back hair that nonetheless wandered unevenly off in all directions, the rumpled suits that looked like they were stored between wearings by squashing them in a laundry hamper, the ever-present cigarillos and his unabashed fondness for malt whisky (Macallan or Cardhu with a side of Perrier).
Of course, if you were a Montrealer, it was easy to find Richler through much of the 1980s and '90s: show up around lunchtime or happy hour at Grumpy's Bar on Bishop Street, or Ziggy's or Winnies on Crescent Street, and he'd be among the same floating circle of regulars. They included the late and legendary boulevardier Nick Auf der Maur, a couple of senators and MPs, several city councillors, sometimes an off-duty undercover cop or two, some businesspeople, local and visiting journalists seeking gossip, and any stranger interested and interesting enough to be admitted into the conversation.
Unlike many well-known people, Richler often seemed more content to listen than talk in such situations. Because of his reputation for being caustic, people meeting him for the first time often took his silence for arrogance: in fact, he was surprisingly shy. He didn't like talking about his books while they were still in progress, and he was much more comfortable talking about other writers' work—or gossiping about those writers, once he felt he was in discreet company. Perhaps his fondness for listening was born of professional considerations, because his own wish for discretion was strictly a one-way street: Mordecai's books, in particular his last one, the classic Barney's Version, are filled with composite characters, thinly veiled portraits of friends, and anecdotes all torn straight from the annals of those happy-hour exchanges. Auf der Maur, flashing his familiar beaver-toothed grin from under his trademark Borsalino hat, used to delight in recounting his latest escapade—and then would look accusingly (and rather hopefully) at Richler while declaring “you're gonna steal this one too for another book, aren't ya, Mordecai.”
In fact, Richler often said admiringly of his friend Auf der Maur—who died of cancer in 1998—that “the great thing about Nick is that he has no malice.” That wasn't a claim Richler made about himself, because he believed the ability to tick people off is essential to humour writing. “Truly good humour, charged with outlandish hooks and unexpected sharp jabs, is bound to offend, for, in the nature of things, it ridicules our prejudices and popular institutions,” Richler wrote in his introduction to the 1983 anthology The Best of Modern Humour, which he edited.
Despite claims from various groups—particularly Quebec nationalists and the Montreal Jewish community—that they were singled out for especially savage treatment, there's a strong case to be made that Richler was an equal-opportunity offender. After publication of his 1992 book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country—based on an essay he had written for The New Yorker mocking Quebec's language laws—Richler was prepared for the furore, but alternately annoyed and astonished by suggestions that he was anti-francophone. He often said Quebec was the only place in Canada where he would ever live—adding that he might stay even if it became sovereign. He frequently said of Quebecers that, in general, he found them more sophisticated and cultured than other Canadians.
Richler grew up in an era when Montreal's McGill University had quotas on the number of Jews it admitted, and when francophones and Jews alternately fought each other in the inner-city mean streets around Clark Street and St. Urbain, or sometimes made common cause against the Anglo elite that kept them stuck there. At different times in his writing, he mocked Montreal's WASPs for covert anti-Semitism, Torontonians for their preoccupation with themselves, Britons for their appalling cuisine and deceptive politeness, Canadians for our obsession with seeking approval from Americans, and virtually every politician (other than Pierre Trudeau, whom he became friends with) and anyone else who ever took themselves too seriously.
The often-incendiary reaction to Richler's political views was matched by the passion his writing evoked: he left readers amused, annoyed and aroused, but never indifferent. It's surprising to read some critics who fault him for writing about a Montreal of days gone by and a Quebec that doesn't exist anymore, because great novelists do precisely that—freeze an era in time so that it lives on for future generations. He once wrote of himself that he was “forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right.” He also wrote that “fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing: it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates.” He wanted, he said another time, to write at least one book good enough that it, and his reputation, would live on long past him. He's gone now, but he was able to leave us knowing that, if anything, he exceeded his own expectations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1216
SOURCE: Aubin, Benoit. “Mordecai Was Here.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 20-1.
[In the following essay, Aubin recounts his relationship with Richler and offers some reminiscences of Richler's life and career.]
Two different Mordecai Richlers passed away last week. CBC TV's The National opened its program on Tuesday with the death of a national icon and stayed with the story for several minutes; for Radio-Canada, the death of an important author came third in the lineup, after Slobodan Milosevic and Stockwell Day. The Montreal Gazette gave the news half of its front page, with a huge picture; La Presse mentioned the story on page 1, with just a few lines of text. The Prime Minister of Canada paid tribute to Richler; the premier of Quebec passed the buck to his culture minister.
English-Canadians had lost a hero; French-Canadians had lost a villain.
Richler's acerbic pen had gained him dedicated, and resentful, enemies the world over, of course, but, to this day, many Quebec francophones remain convinced Richler treated them viciously and unfairly.
Richler's relentless—and often hilarious—attacks on the pettiness and the narrow-mindedness of the province's hardline nationalists had two strikes against them. First, they were made in English and in influential international media such as The New Yorker, or CBS's 60 Minutes. Second, Richler levied his most ferocious attacks, depicting Quebec as a close-knit, xenophobic society, at the precise moment when the mainstream was moving in the exact opposite direction.
Mordecai Richler had become a dinosaur of sorts, a Quebec Anglo who still spoke no French, the sworn enemy of dead old Quebec nationalists, the close friend of retired prime ministers, an anachronism in pluralistic, French-speaking, modern-day Quebec.
I think he knew it. He indicated that much the last time we ate lunch together after he had won the first round of his fight against cancer. But Richler was of the old school, the one that would never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. Besides, the National Post, the Montreal Gazette and several other important publications still paid him handsome fees to lambaste Jacques Parizeau, the Tongue Troopers. Canon Lionel Groulx and Le Devoir for old time's sake. As a once-impoverished writer, Richler had learned the value of writing words for cash.
We became friends, and he invited me to his house in the Townships to smoke and drink way beyond legal limits. That was after I had done my best to savage him in public and to give him a taste of his own medicine at a roast in his honour one night a few years ago at the Ritz Carlton. The grand old hotel of Sherbrooke Street was, still is, a monument to haughty, WASPish heritage—and the place where all the deviously cynical and ambitious characters of Richler's novels dreamt of spending big bucks on champagne and lox to show they were able to keep up with the Joneses.
I was the news director of Le Devoir at the time, the small but influential paper that Richler had character assassinated in several magazine pieces and in his 1992 Exocet-missile pamphlet, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country. The newspaper was then just back from the grave, and in the midst of a promising relaunch. Publisher Lise Bissonnette failed to see the relevance, or the humour, in the relentless insistence with which Richler kept reviving some of the paper's unsavoury flirtations with proto-Fascist, anti-Semitic doctrines in the 1940s and early '50s. And many influential nationalists thought it was not proper for an executive at Le Devoir to show up at the Richler roast, and much less so to be one of the guest speakers.
So I played a Richler number on him, as best as I could, confusing past and present, facts and interpretation, using caricature and hyperbole and innuendo to suggest that Richler knew better than to believe his own words and take them seriously. He loved it, kept throwing big winks and small cigars my way, and nudging me behind the next speaker's back with a bottle of 15-year-old Macallan he kept hidden under the head table.
I was able to parody Richler because I had studied him. I, too, happen to have been born into a famous Quebec novel: in the postwar, blue-collar Lower Town neighbourhood of Quebec City immortalized in Roger Lemelin's 1948 novel The Town Below. It took me 30 years to discover Richler, to find out he was a Quebecer and that the universe he described in his novels was—except for religion and language—very much similar to the one in Lemelin's books, and in my own childhood memories.
Whether you were a Plouffe on St. Valier Street in Quebec or a Kravitz on St. Urbain in Montreal, you wanted to kick and scratch your way out of your coldwater flat, your dead-end job, your oppressive micro-society. Jewish mammas and French-Canadian mamans could have baked apple strudels together, rabbis and curés really knew how to make a pimpled teenage boy feel devious, unfit and guilty.
The characters in both Lemelin's and Richler's books were equally truculent, boisterous and angry for being born on the wrong side of a geographical obstacle acting as a cultural divide: the cliff that separated the poor from the rich living in Quebec's upper town, the mountain that made the difference between the right and the wrong side of town in Montreal. Back then, the Kravitzes were no more welcome to teach at McGill University or to trade on the floor of the Montreal Stock Exchange than the Plouffes were let in to lunch at the Garrison Club or waltz at the Château Frontenac. Ironically, both novelists won international fame, and substantial financial rewards, for their work describing life in their respective underprivileged and discrimination-plagued ghettos in postwar Quebec.
But the parallels stop there—because of the language issue. Back when Richler was a kid, his Mile-End enclave—a now-gentrified neighbourhood—was a ghetto where one could thrive and succeed speaking only Yiddish, just as the inhabitants of St. Roch and St. Sauveur in Quebec City could live, love, work and die without having to learn a word of English.
Seventy years later, Yiddish has all but vanished here, and French is the lingua franca in the province. Language was not a central element of Jewish identity. It is for Quebec francophones. For most French-speaking Quebecers, Mordecai Richler was not perceived so much as being a Jew as being an Anglo. The outrage his attacks on Quebec nationalism triggered in the mid-'90s was not racially motivated, as many liked to believe. Many francophones simply saw Richler's tirades as a rearguard skirmish by a nostalgic Quebec Anglophone out to wreak havoc in world opinion on the new society they were trying to build.
Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges once offered this musing on death and the passage of time. One day, Jesus Christ died. A number of years later, another man passed away, the last person to have seen Jesus alive. Which one do we remember? In recent months, Quebecers have mourned a great number of extraordinary citizens: Jean Drapeau, Maurice Richard, Pierre Trudeau and, now, Mordecai Richler. These emotional farewells have forced us to take stock of all the difference that exists between Montreal, then and now.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3585
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001.” New Criterion 20, no. 1 (September 2001): 123-28.
[In the following essay, Steyn characterizes Richler as a politically incorrect writer, placing him within the context of Canadian and Jewish authors.]
Mordecai Richler died on July 3, and within minutes of the announcement there was a stampede from the grand panjandrums of “CanLit” to conscript him posthumously into the ranks of “Canadian novelists.” Mordecai was a novelist who happened to be Canadian, which isn't quite the same thing, and he spent much of his life making gleeful digs about all the great writers who were, as he put it, “world famous in Canada.” Richler, by contrast, was world famous in, among other places, Italy, where his last novel, Barney's Version, is a best-seller in its seventh printing and hugely popular among a population not known as great novel-readers. The word “Richleriano” has become the accepted shorthand for “politically incorrect.”
Richler was certainly Richleriano. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, there's a scene set in the early Seventies in which one middle-aged character, forced to play host to a gay son and his lover, staggers drunk into the bathroom to check the pencil mark he's drawn on the jar of Vaseline. His wife is broken-hearted, he's filled with disgust. “It's not that I'm prejudiced against faggots, it's just that I don't like them,” he says, pouring himself another Scotch. It is a satirical moment, but the pain underpinning it is true in a way that the approved supportive bland uplift is not. Yet I wouldn't bet on any tyro novelist's chances of sneaking that scene past a North American editor, most of whom are decidedly non-Richleriano. Pat Carney, a Canadian senator and former cabinet minister, wrote a memoir last year and discovered after publication that a change had been made to the passage detailing her father's job on a merchant ship to China: the editor had reflexively amended “fireman” to “firefighter.” The senator's father was not, as the ensuing paragraph made clear, a man who drives a municipal fire truck and squirts a hose at blazing buildings, but a man who stokes the ship's furnaces with fire-making coal. Nonetheless, better to get things wrong than risk even the most hypothetical offence. A passing remark that the drab dress Canada's governor-general wore for the Speech from the Throne made her look like a washer-woman was struck down, over the author's protests, on the grounds that “it suggests all Chinese-Canadians worked in Chinese laundries.” (Her Excellency the Viceroy was born in Hong Kong.)
Against this grubby world of feeble evasions and genteel absurdities, Mordecai Richler stood firm. He was not in any coherent policy sense a conservative, but he had no time for the faintheartedness of a liberalism so defensive that, as he wrote in 1959, it couldn't bear to contemplate “a Negro whoremonger, a contented adulterer, or a Jew who cheats on his income tax, buys a Jag with his ill-gotten gains, and is all the happier for it.” The straitjackets of identity politics have only tightened in the four decades since he wrote those words, but the strange thing is how much of it he foresaw so long ago, almost half a century now, in the novel in which he found his voice, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). Two decades later, Kerry McSweeney pronounced magisterially in the journal Studies in Canadian Literature—what, you don't subscribe?—that “however memorable, Duddy Kravitz is hardly a masterpiece.” Compared to what? As the years go by, Duddy seems more and more remarkable in its anticipation of contemporary fads. Take Virgil, the novel's kindly epileptic, who wants to be proud of his condition and to that end starts a magazine for epileptics with features such as “Famous Health Handicappers Through History”: “No 2: A Biography Of Julius Caesar. Life was no breeze for the young Julius, but from the day of his birth until the day he met his untimely end he never once let his health handicap stand in his way. Julius had been born an epileptic and was not ashamed of it. He had guts-a-plenty.” This is 1959: decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, before “differently abled” and “visually impaired,” before the FDR memorial in Washington got bogged down by accusations that they weren't placing sufficient emphasis on his polio.
The Richleriano aspects of Mordecai's career fall into three phases: first, he offended Jews; then, English-Canadian nationalists; finally, Quebec separatists. In the early Jew-offending phase, he gave a lecture to a Jewish audience at which someone asked: “Why is it that everybody loved Sholem Aleichem, but we all hate you?” The answer to that hardly needs explaining. Mordecai remembered every detail of his working-class childhood in Montreal and the rare glimpses he got of the would-be gentrified Jews in the suburbs of Outremont and Westmount, and some of those details were too funny to let go. In Solomon Gursky, it all comes together at the seventy-fifth birthday gala of the Bronfmanesque Bernard Gursky, a coruscating dissection of the charity banquet circuit—“plaques, plaques, and more plaques, which they awarded one another at testimonial dinners once, sometimes twice a month. … They took turns declaring each other governors of universities in Haifa or Jerusalem or Man of the Year for State of Israel Bonds. Their worthiness certified by hiring an after-dinner speaker to flatter them for a ten-thousand-dollar fee, the speaker coming out of New York, New York—either a former secretary of state, a TV star whose series hadn't been renewed, or a Senator in need.” Bernard Gursky's birthday is the ne plus ultra of such events: the medley from Jimmy Durante; the Israeli Ambassador's presentation of a Bible encased in hammered gold, the flyleaf signed by Golda; his wife Libby's rendition of “their song,” which is inevitably “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein,” with the “Bella, bella” line changed to “Bernie, Bernie.”
An official of the Canadian Football League passed Mr. Bernard a ball, a memento of last year's Grey Cup game, that had been autographed by all the players on the winning team, and then one of the team's most celebrated players, a behemoth who peddled Crofter's Best in the off-season, wheeled a paraplegic child to the head table. Mr. Bernard, visibly moved, presented the ball to the boy as well as a cheque for five-hundred-thousand dollars. Three-hundred guests leaped to their feet and cheered. The boy, his speech rehearsed for days, began to jerk and twist, spittle flying from him. He gulped and began again, unavailingly. As he started in on a third attempt to speak, Mr. Bernard cut him off with an avuncular smile. “Who needs another speech,” he said. “It's what's in your heart that counts with me, little fellow.” And sotto voce, he told the player, “Wheel him out of here, for Christ's sake.”
Canadian Jews didn't care for such stuff, and called the Canadian Jewish Congress to see what could be done about Richler. The CJC sent him a note, but he didn't take too much in, being distracted by the letterhead: “Cable address JEWCON.”
Richler liked to say he emerged from two ghettos—one Jewish, one Canadian—or to put it another way: one highly marketable, one of little interest. I would rank him above Philip Roth, et al., if only because the Canadian qualification of his Jewishness gave him an insight into the points where identities intersect, where the perspective shifts. One of my favorite Richler characters is Mortimer Griffin, the protagonist of Cocksure. Mortimer is a middle-class Anglican from the town of Caribou, Ontario, who's made it big in swingin' London as the editor of the small but influential Oriole Press. But when the firm gets bought up by a Hollywood mogul, Mortimer suddenly finds his life freighted by Jewishness. On the one hand, for the first time in his life, he's the odd one out, because he's not Jewish, which was never a problem back in Caribou. On the other hand, everyone seems to assume he is. A man from Jewish Thought starts following him around accusing him of being a self-hating Jew who's swapped his real name for something more Anglo; his London friends corroborate the story by pointing out how anti-Semitic he is; his black secretary tells him she won't sleep with Jews and he can't prove he isn't one because he's circumcised. To make matters worse, his wife is cheating on him with a man she thinks is Jewish, but is actually a bloke called Gerald Spencer who figured it would be a good career move to change his name to Ziggy.
Richler wrote Cocksure at the close of a twenty-year sojourn in London. He moved back to Montreal to find himself in the midst of an alleged Canadian Renaissance—a cultural flowering of a young nation eager to cast off both colonial ties to the Mother Country and the cultural oppression from the south. It's very difficult typing that sentence without tittering. Be that as it may, while Richler was out of the country, Canada had acquired the Governor-General's Awards for Literature, Canada Council grants for writers, and an elaborate public subsidy racket for Canadian publishing houses that ensures to this day that no matter how bad a book is a publisher has very little incentive not to publish it.
Things were different when young Mordecai was shopping his first book:
Then, Andre Deutsch, Ltd., the British publishers, made an offer for my novel. A conditional one, however. They would publish The Acrobats if I agreed to do more work on it. I was offered an advance of 100 pounds (approximately ＄275)—50 pounds on signature of contract and another 50 once my revision had been found acceptable. I sent an immediate cable of acceptance. “I don't get you,” my Uncle Jake said. “You put two years into writing a book and now you're happy because some jerk in London has offered you a lousy two-fifty for it. You could have earned more than that cutting my lawn.”
Richler was dispatched by Andre Deutsch to Toronto, to impress the Canadian distributor, who instead pointed out the grim truth. “No serious Canadian novelist—including Morley Callaghan or Hugh MacLennan—is able to support himself strictly on the sale of his novels in Canada. The distributor was prepared to risk a first order of four-hundred copies for all of Canada. I stood to earn approximately ＄32, if they sold out.”
All the above was true, but already irrelevant. Richler, whether consciously or not, was already writing for the world, his publishers, editors, and agents in London and New York pre-dating those he eventually found in Toronto: in the Fifties and Sixties, he wrote about Canada from London, distance bringing his experience into focus, sifting and sorting. In any case, he didn't write about “Canada”—whatever that is—only the particular and isolated corner of the Jewish quarter of anglo Montreal in francophone Quebec in the Canadian section of North America; a ghetto in a ghetto in a ghetto in a ghetto. St. Urbain Street is as foreign to any Torontonian or Winnipegger as it is to a New Yorker, Dubliner, or Parisian. In the Ivy in London or the Polo Lounge in LA, Richler and his fellow scribblers (his preferred term) could talk about novels, deals, and money, but, when he showed up in Vancouver or Edmonton people just wanted to badger him about (dread phrase) Canadian identity. “Special pleading,” he sighed, “whether by Canadian sports writers, kibbutzniks in Galilee, or proliferating Canada culture boosters, never fails to move me to mockery.”
On the off-chance that you haven't read Hugh MacLennan's essay The Psychology of Canadian Nationalism—a title so flamboyantly off-putting as to raise suspicions that he was deliberately trying to reduce his royalties as some sort of tax wheeze—let me explain that the author's principal point is that a “feminine psychology” runs through Canadian literature: the Americans are the masculine in North America, Canadians the feminine. Most of us can see where he's going, and that's all we need to know, thank you very much. Nonetheless, Michael Valpy in Toronto's Globe and Mail felt obliged to expand the thesis the other day. He notes that America's most famous adolescent is Huck Finn, a boy bustin' to “light out for the territory,” beyond the constraints of the civilized world, while Canada's most famous adolescent is Anne of Green Gables, a girl so domesticated that her address is part of her name. According to Valpy, the defining emblem in American culture is the horse, in Canadian culture the house: “To be on a horse is to move. To be in a house is to be fixed.” Actually, a horse can be fixed too, but that's another story. “It is an American, Thomas Wolfe, who says you can't go home again,” Valpy continues. “It is a Canadian, Morag in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, who says you have to go home again to be in harmony with life.”
As a column intended to give you one more reason not to read Canadian novels, Valpy's is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it seems he intended precisely the opposite effect, blithely assuming that his house/horse hockey would make readers chuck their Wolfes and rush out to buy The Diviners, if only to check whether Morag expresses herself quite as chunkily as Valpy claims. If it is true that Canadian literature is feminine and housebound, then Mordecai Richler was not a terribly Canadian writer. For one thing, he was, as James Wolcott put it, a “horny” writer. For another, he got out of the house. His film credits include Room at the Top, a quintessentially northern English kitchen-sinker with Laurence Harvey from those gloomy, monochrome, petrol-rationed British Fifties, and Fun with Dick and Jane, a quintessentially garish Hollywood comedy with Jane Fonda. In his novels, Mordecai was a kind of Huck of Green Gables, secure enough in his sense of home to “light out for the territory,” the territory in this case being London, Paris, New York, Hollywood, Spain, and beyond, because for a Canadian, unlike an American or an Englishman, if you don't go to the world, the world sure as hell isn't going to come to you: that's why Canucks, not Yanks, are the great mid-Atlanticists—the high yallers, the octoroons of the world's great cities, able to pass wherever they go.
Richler's life skewers the smug delusions of the Valpy school. And if there is a Canuck Huck, it's Duddy Kravitz. And if Canadians cling to home and security, what are we to make of Solomon Gursky Was Here? Richler took the Wandering Jew myth and plunked it in the frozen north, placing one of the chosen on Sir John Franklin's lost expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845. He'd been reading a lot of “magical realism” and called Gursky “the first South American North American novel”: it's magical realism with jokes, a surprisingly effective combination and perhaps the closest to the Great Canadian Novel we'll ever get. It does everything Valpy says Canadian literature doesn't do, wandering off to London, Washington, Entebbe, the Polar Seas, as, indeed, Canadians do.
But in the twenty-four hours after Mordecai's death the grand subsidy-fatted bores of Canadian letters lined up to insist that, in fact, the guy was very much a “Canadian writer.” Even his Canadian agent, Louise Dennys, lapsed into the usual shtick:
Mordecai mentioned that Canada was to him a fragmentary place in the Seventies. I think it's because of Mordecai that Canada is no longer a fragmentary place, not only to ourselves but to other people outside of Canada. He's given it a particular and distinctive shape that we can only be truly grateful for.
Even if this were true, which it isn't, it would be the least of his achievements. On the matter of Canada's distinctive shape, he and I were once on a radio show in New York with Garrison Keillor, who opined en passant that the reason Americans found it hard to get interested in Canada was that the country was impossible to visualize: it has no recognizable shape. The southern border is just about clear, but the rest of it bleeds away into Queen Maud's Gulf and the Arctic Circle and God knows where. In his last years, Mordecai himself took on the same indeterminate, shapeless quality as his native land, with everything straggling and dangling and spreading over the map—the floppy mop of gray hair, the jowls, the jacket, the hanging belly. He, like Canada, was in much better shape thirty years ago. But he was one of the few genuine laugh-out-loud authors and, at a time when the comic novel is in poor health, Richler's reliability in this respect was good news for readers all over the world who have no interest in the non-fragmentariness or otherwise of Canada. He was rooted in Montreal but, unlike the general tenor of his obituaries, he was not parochial.
He jeered not just at the stunted nationalism of Quebec but at the moral smugness of modern Canada, which was why the state had such difficulty paying tribute to him. The prime minister's statement would have had him weeping with laughter: “Mordecai Richler was the quintessential Canadian man of words, and his loss leaves us grasping for words that can do justice to his importance in Canada's artistic landscape,” said Jean Chrétien, grasping for words, eventually deciding that the guy “made us all proud to be Canadian.” The charitable interpretation is that this is the standard tribute for Canadian “men of words” and that whoever wrote it had never read a word of Richler, but it would be more pleasing to think they'd read it all too well and decided anyway to kiss him off with the usual lame-o CanLit boosterism. As for making us all proud to be Canadian, here's how one Richler character summed the place up:
Let me put it this way. Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples. French-Canadians consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke of Cumberland; Irish, the famine; and Jews, the Black Hundreds. Then there are the peasants from Ukraine, Poland, Italy and Greece, convenient to grow wheat and dig out the ore and swing the hammers and run the restaurants, but otherwise to be kept in their place. Most of us are huddled tight to the border, looking into the candy store window, scared of the Americans on one side and the bush on the other.
The irony in all this is that, in the end, Mordecai was one of the few writers in the world who can claim to have saved his country. In the Nineties, irritated by Quebec separatism, he started writing about its oppressive triviality: arriving outside a pub in Montreal one day, he found an agent of the Office de la Langue Française photographing the menu blackboard and measuring the inscription “Today's Special: Ploughman's Lunch.” Under Quebec law, signs can only use English words if they're half the size or less of the accompanying French words. An essay for The New Yorker, later expanded into a book Oh, Canada! Oh, Quebec!, caused particular distress to the Parti Québecois, who never forgave Richler for, as they saw it, making them a laughing-stock in the outside world.
In fact, the outside world never gave Quebec a thought. No doubt in Manhattan there were those who marveled, “Can you believe it? There's a long piece in The New Yorker this week that's actually readable!” Then they promptly forgot about Quebec. Back home, though, where Anglophones had reacted to separatists either by enduring their humiliations (the so-called “lamb lobby”) or by fleeing to Toronto, Richler's essay legitimized scorn, while the PQ's outraged reaction to the puncturing of their prestige only emphasized the stunted and pitiful state of the nationalist movement. In the 1995 referendum on secession, the final result was separatists 49.5 percent, federalists 50.5 percent. It's not too fanciful to assert Richler made just enough difference to save the day. I happen to disagree with him on separatism, since on balance I find smug English Canada the more insufferable, but even so Quebec boasts the world's dumbest secessionist movement, forever trying to explain to its citizens why we need to set up our own country exactly the same as the one we'll be leaving. But there's no doubt Richler the “controversialist,” the “misanthrope,” the “curmudgeon” did more for Canada than all the sunny maple-draped multiculti CanLit boosters put together.
At his home in the Eastern Townships, he'd repair to the Owl's Nest every afternoon and enjoy a little light banter with the bar's cheerfully unreconstructed clientele—plumbers, carpenters, leathery truck-driving women. “Are they better company than Martin Amis?” I asked him. “I wouldn't say that,” he said. “They're not as witty. But they're more interesting, it's a richer world. The literary world, in the larger sense, is dull: it's a tradesmen's world.” He came home not to be a “Canadian writer,” but to be a writer. The Montreal he wrote about is fading fast. As he pointed out, he's far from the only Anglophone Jew whose kids have all fled to Toronto, London, wherever. What matters is not that he gave shape to Canada, but that he gave shape to his own fictional landscape. One day, soon, St. Urbain Street will seem as fanciful as P. G. Wodehouse's Drones Club or Blandings Castle. But, like Wodehouse, it will endure.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
SOURCE: Bethune, Brian. “Sex and Contempt.” Maclean's 115, no. 25 (24 June 2002): 26.
[In the following review, Bethune debates the quality of Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, concluding that the work is “pretty good on its own merits and full of promise for the future.”]
In 1951 Mordecai Richler, 19 years old and burning with writerly ambition, left Montreal for a two-year stay in Paris and Spain. There he completed his first novel, The Acrobats, published in 1954 and long out of print. Now reissued by McClelland & Stewart, The Acrobats takes place in Valencia in 1951, during the Spanish city's famous spring fiesta. A large cast of characters somersault past—and into—one another: Jews and Gentiles, straights and gays, fascists and communists, impoverished Europeans and rich American tourists. In the midst of this madhouse—the Valencians are every bit as incendiary as the foreigners, nightly setting ablaze huge effigies stuffed with fireworks—is painter André Bennett. The scion of a wealthy Westmount family, he has fled abroad in search of expiation and something to believe in after the death of his Jewish lover during a botched abortion.
The Acrobats is very much a young man's novel, charged with sexuality, deliberately crafted to shock elders and full of withering contempt for their hypocritical world. That's never more clear than when expat boy artist André speaks for Richler, the expat boy novelist, on Canadian culture. “Mediocrity draped in the maple leaf! Sonnets by the aging virgin granddaughters of Tory tradesmen evoking the memories of rather un-Presbyterian passions … Kultchir as celebrated by imperial favour annually consisting of 50 gold guineas for the horse that wins the King's Plate and an honorary award for either virgin poetess or pipe-smoking historian-novelist.” And then there's the looming presence of Ernest Hemingway, probably inevitable for a novel written during, and set in, the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. (More surprising are the not infrequent echoes of Raymond Chandler.)
But despite its derivative atmosphere, patches of bad writing and occasional incoherence—including an over-the-top moral condemnation of Paris that could scarcely have been bettered by a virgin poetess—The Acrobats is both pretty good on its own merits and full of promise for the future. (Richler scholars may be interested in an early use of the word gay for homosexual, and in a character called Barney. Richler hints at why he chose that name, one he resurrected in 1997 for the title character of his last—and for many critics, best—novel, Barney's Version. The action is brisk and the characters—for the most part—sympathetically well-rounded, even the fascists.
And while Hemingway's shadow may have been inescapable, Richler is well aware of it and mocks the American writer's influence, most notably when he has a character clutch his crotch and lament his war wound. “Then, his raving soul unzippered, naked, he collapsed in his chair, whimpering. Juanito shrugged. ‘I think he is drunk.’” Even the intense André, whose existential crisis has clearly exasperated Richler by the novel's end, shows flashes of the sardonic wit that would dominate the writer's later works.
The New York Times, one of the few North American publications to review The Acrobats, was a shade supercilious but quite prophetic. “With this novel out of his system,” the reviewer concluded, Richler's future books “may be entirely mature and rewarding.”
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381
Anderson, Jon. “Surveying Canada's Joys and Woes.” Chicago Tribune Books (7 June 1992): 4-5.
Anderson praises Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! and provides background on the political and cultural situation in Quebec.
Drabelle, Dennis. “Canada Now and Then.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 20 (17 May 1992): 9.
Drabelle asserts that Richler's insights in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! are “obscured by the rancor he vents.”
Hyde, Anthony. “Anatomy of Barney.” Canadian Forum 76, no. 866 (January-February 1998): 42-3.
Hyde regards the character of Barney Panofsky in Barney's Version as a gifted humorist.
Poliquin, Daniel. “St. Urbain's Prodigal Scold.” Maclean's 115, no. 25 (24 June 2002): 36-7.
Poliquin examines Richler's attitude towards Canada, particularly his hometown of Montreal.
Richler, Mordecai. “How I Became an Unknown with My First Novel.” Maclean's 114, no. 29 (16 July 2001): 22-3.
Originally published in Maclean's in 1958, Richler details the difficulties he encountered while trying to publish and sell his first novel, The Acrobats.
Ritts, Morton. “Preoccupied with the Promised Land.” Maclean's 107, no. 37 (12 September 1994): 66-7.
Ritts compliments Richler's use of irony in This Year in Jerusalem, calling the collection “his most personal work of nonfiction to date.”
Robbeson, Angela Arnold. “‘I'll Be a Human Being’: Textual Strategy and Moral Response in Mordecai Richler's Son of a Smaller Hero.” English Studies in Canada 26 (2002): 53-78.
Robbeson explores Noah's struggle for independence and self-knowledge in Son of a Smaller Hero.
Tippett, Maria. “Requiem for Canada.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4659 (17 July 1992): 32.
Tippett argues that Richler's assertions in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! come across as dated and narrow.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Hanging with His Homeboys.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 50 (14 December 1997): 3.
Yardley discusses Richler as a comic writer, contending that Richler's works often find humor within serious themes.
Additional coverage of Richler's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 17; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 31, 62, 111; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 201; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 13, 18, 46, 70; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 27, 44, 98; and Twayne's World Authors.