Solomon Gursky Was Here

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler’s ninth novel, is very different from his earlier works; it does not focus on the contemporary scene in Montreal but ranges over the last two centuries to tell an absorbing tale of a Canadian Jewish family. The Gurskys are involved in the liquor trade, and there are many hints that this is a roman a clef; the story of the Gurskys is similar to that of the Bronfman family, who controlled Seagrams. Richler stresses not only the triumph of a Jewish family but also the costs and conflicts that come out of that struggle to succeed.

Richler begins with the founder of the family, Ephraim Gursky; Ephraim is the only survivor of an ill-fated British expedition to find the Northwest Passage led by Lord Franklin. How he survived and the details of his earlier life are revealed only gradually throughout the novel. In fact, his story (which includes some time in jail, transportation to Australia, and a period as the head of a religious sect) is told piece by piece in reverse chronological order. Ephraim is not a passive character but a trickster who succeeds in deceiving many of the people he meets. These qualities are passed down to his grandsons.

The central section of the novel deals with the three grandsons of Ephraim. The oldest, Bernard, and the middle one, Solomon, are the most important characters. Solomon has ease, grace, and the ability to win people over to his side while his older brother, Bernard, is greedy, grasping, and predatory. Ephraim singles out Solomon as most like himself when Solomon is very young and takes him on a trip to the far north, initiating him into the hardships of the world and teaching him how to cope with difficulties. He advises Solomon to deal with Bernard as he would with a wolf to leave a knife smeared with honey so the wolf will lick it and cut himself to death. The conflict between the two brothers is made clear very early in the novel, but the results of that conflict are not revealed until much later.

The main narrative begins in 1973; Bernard is now an old man and, as the head of an empire based on liquor, is immensely wealthy and powerful. It is his seventy-fifth birthday and he is surrounded by toadies and weaklings. He rages at others and takes pleasure in tormenting those who are dependent upon him, including his brother Morrie. Morrie is younger and weaker and seems incapable of doing anything right. Bernard’s naked greed and need to degrade others can be amusing and some of his observations on people can be hilarious, but he is a most unattractive character. Solomon, the true leader of the family, has supposedly died in the 1930’s, but the conflict between him and Bernard and his true fate are slowly revealed in the novel, primarily through interviews and journals.

The early life of the Gurskys in the wastes of western Canada was not very prosperous; Ephraim’s sons owned a dry goods store and struggled to buy more property. Their prosperity comes from Solomon, who steals the money in the store and wins a hotel, a boarding house, and most of the rest of the town in a poker game. Bernard concentrates on expanding the fortunes of the family by purchasing other hotels, but Solomon is never caught by the need to possess things. He gambles, enjoys an enormous number of women, and does what he thinks most interesting and important. For example, he joins the British Air Force in World War I because it is a meaningful experience; he does not expect to profit from it financially.

The family becomes involved in bootlegging as prohibition begins in the United States and their empire is expanded. The conflict between Bernard and Solomon increases as a result; Solomon is engaged in meaningful things, such as trying to persuade the Canadian government to allow more Jewish emigration as World War II nears, while Bernard grinds away at the business. A crisis occurs when Bernard wishes to marry a respectable Jewish girl, but her parents oppose the match because Bernard’s future is not secure—he does not have a partnership contract with his brothers. He writes a contract that gives him fifty-one-percent, Solomon, thirty percent, and Morrie nineteen percent, but Solomon laughs at this: He does not take Bernard’s attempt to dominate the family or become respectable in WASP terms seriously. The conflict is intensified when a customs official refuses to accept a bribe or the advice of his superiors and brings the Gursky family to court. In a meeting with the judge, Bernard agrees to allow his brother, Solomon, to be convicted to appease public opinion and to pave the way for his marriage and control over the family’s affairs. Escaping before the trial is completed, Solomon goes...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The essay on Richler in this collection calls attention to one of the most important elements of Richler’s style, humor.

McNaught, Kenneth. “Mordecai Richler Was Here.” Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 4 (Winter, 1992). A discussion of Richler’s critical view of Canada and its embodiment in his recent novels.

Richler, Mordecai. Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. An amusing collection of essays that show Richler’s critical view of Canadian culture.

Sheps, David, ed. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1971. A discussion of Richler’s early novels, themes, and style.

Todd, Richard. “Narrative Trickery and Performative Historiography: Fictional Representation of National Identity in Graham Swift, Peter Carey, and Mordecai Richler.” In Magical Realism: Theory, History, and Community, edited by Wendy B. Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995. An interesting discussion of Richler’s use of postmodern techniques.