St. Urbain's Horseman by Mordecai Richler

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(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In St. Urbain’s Horseman, Mordecai Richler uses cinematic techniques as he weaves together a number of different plot strands and cuts from one character to another. The most important elements of this complex plot are the fate and struggle for success of the main character, Jacob “Jake” Hersh; Harry Stein’s past and his role as a contrast and antagonist to the main character; a brief and spotty life of Joseph “Joey” Hersh, the Horseman of the title; and Jake’s fascination with him. Many of the chapters juxtapose one character to another. This device is especially prominent in the contrasts between the well-to-do Jake Hersh and the poor Harry Stein. The Horseman, Joey, is used as a symbol or theme, and his presence is scattered throughout the book. The most important plot strand deals with Jake Hersh.

When the novel opens, Jake Hersh is awaiting trial in London on some unexplained sexual offense. The resolution of the trial is suspended until the end, while Jake’s earlier life and anxieties are traced. Jake is, for example, anxious about his career as a director, about the success of his friend Luke, about his wife, Nancy, and about Nazi war criminals and the Jews. He spends most of his time cutting out newspaper clippings of disasters. In flashbacks, there is a contrast between the younger, more confident Jake and the worried and idle Jake now apparent. He is worried that he will lose everything he has achieved and that the world will sink back into the barbarism of the 1940’s.

In contrast to Jake, Harry Stein is always active and in pursuit of any one of the many things denied him, such as sex, position, or money, or finding some way to take revenge on those who possess those things. He attempts to force Jake to pay the seven hundred pounds that Joey has bilked his wife, Ruthy, out of, which leads to the curious relationship between the two. Jake sees Harry as a victim, and so he is concerned about his problems, even after Harry involves him in a messy sex trial. He even gets Harry a barrister and pays the seven hundred pounds, though it is not his debt. Jake’s wife, Nancy, and his mother are afraid that Harry will drag Jake down with him, and they believe that Jake’s sympathy for the underdog or the rebel will undo him.

In contrast to Harry’s very real and complaining presence, Joey Hersh exists only in Jake’s mind and in the tales and reports he collects from others. Joey represents not the victim but the defiance of the rebel. Joey refuses to accept his lot or his place. Jake sees Joey wherever there is oppression: Spain, Germany, Israel, or Montreal. He is always asking the question, “What are you going to do about it?” Jake supports Joey against those who see him merely as a gangster or an opportunist, even if it means that he must go against some of the people in his own family.

The climax of the novel is the trial in the Old Bailey, in which Jake is given only a reprimand while Harry is sentenced to seven years in prison. Yet this narrow escape does not relieve Jake of his inertia, and soon afterward he finds out that Joey has died in Paraguay. The victim and the hero have both been taken from him, and he falls into a deeper depression. He attempts to replace Joey as “St. Urbain’s avenging Horseman,” but he realizes that that is not his role, that is not who he is. With that role clearer in his mind, he begins to recover. He is reconciled with his wife and with Luke, and the book ends with Jake symbolically erasing Joey’s death date and replacing it with “presumed dead.” Jake is, thereby, restored to a simpler and more ordinary life with his wife and children, and Joey regains his mythic stature while escaping from his real fate.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In St. Urbain’s Horseman , Jake Hersh is a successful thirty-seven-year-old film director. He lives comfortably in London in 1967 with his wife, Nancy, and their three children until Ingrid Loebner, a German au pair girl, charges him and his friend, the...

(The entire section is 1,568 words.)