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.